Presence, Absence and Nuance

You sometimes see characters who despite not actually being present are moving the story at least as much as anyone who’s actually there. Sometimes they’re dead, other times it’s just a case of physical (or metaphysical) distance; they might be emulated, perpetually preempted whether they actually have an effect on the current storyline or not, ranted at in their absence because of things they manage to do… really, as long as one could say that the other characters are responding to that [character name]-shaped hole in the surrounding environment, it’s safe to say they count.

There’s one question, though: how many of these characters are actually being responded to in the same way they would if they really were there?

Most of the somehow present absent characters I’ve seen tend to project themselves pretty accurately—or if not, as precisely the opposite of what they’re meant to be. Someone feared in absentia is either truly wicked or truly good but wildly misunderstood; someone to be admired and emulated is either a great role model or a broken pedestal. We can do better, can’t we?

For one thing, the people reacting to the missing person might be wrong. And not wrong in an “everything you’ve been told was a lie” way, but just not quite in sync with what’s really happening. Sure, we can do the secretly loving parent who pretended to be heartless to her daughter so as to protect her from the parent’s enemies, but we can also do the resentful sibling who expects her sister to upstage her at everything when not present but who tag-teams with her almost immediately when the two of them show up together, or the guy who comes across as insensitive but really just doesn’t get this whole social cue thing and can’t for the life of him figure out how to fix it. Often, you get characters whose traits or abilities were blown completely out of proportion by characters with reasons to react strongly to them; I have one character who spent a long while peeking over her shoulder for the threat of an enemy whom she’d seen die and could probably match any reincarnation of in a fight, and another who spent the longest time comparing her current enemies to a pseudo-idealized (in the “worthy opponent” sense) version of an earlier one and finding them wanting whether they were actually her old adversary’s equals (or in some cases, probably betters) or not.

Do the present characters have enough information to really understand the absent character’s wishes? Sure, they’ve probably got a pretty good chance if one or more of them were close to the absentee for a long while. But ones who barely got a chance to know her before she was summarily removed from the plot, who met her when she was trying to maintain a cover for unrelated reasons, who think they have the same priorities as she does but don’t quite mesh on the thought process—what are the odds that they’ll still somehow manage to do exactly as she wishes?

And yes, sometimes they’ve just been lied to about who or what the absentee character really is, whether unknowingly or intentionally—but why must all lies paint the character as her polar opposite? If she’s portrayed as evil, why can’t she just be a somewhat flawed character who had a bit of trouble with her priorities the one time, or one with good intentions but really bad luck and the inability to delegate to someone who could get around the problem, rather than as good and didn’t actually do aany harm (or at least, none that means anything) but They don’t want you to know?

Absentee dynamics can be far more complex than just presenting the character as there in spirit in the thoughts of the others. Play a little!

Leave a Reply