An unseen character is a fictional character that is never directly observed by the audience but is only described by other characters. They are characters that are "heard of, but never heard from". Unseen characters are a common device in drama and have been called "triumphs of theatrical invention". They are continuing characters—characters who frequently interact with the other characters and who influence current story events. Films, television shows, and stage plays make use of characters who are not seen or heard, but who have an effect on the events portrayed.
Radio shows also feature "unheard" characters who never speak. A notable example is the long-running British radio soap The Archers which has featured several such silent characters. Sometimes the script plays with audience knowledge that the characters never speak. The silence of the character Pru Forrest became a long-running joke "with scriptwriters competing to invent more outlandish excuses for her failure to speak". She was eventually given a dramatic eruption of speech when Terry Wogan appeared on the soap.
In plays, the two protagonists of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett are waiting for the never seen Godot to arrive. Doubt: A Parable is about the question of whether a Catholic priest at a church school is sexually abusing Donald Muller, who is never seen on stage. Rosaline in Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare is never seen, but is crucial to how the title characters meet. In Clare Boothe Luce's The Women, husbands and lovers are referred to but don't appear at all, even in the form of photographs, and the cast (from stars to extras) is all female. Such characters are frequent in the plays of William Shakespeare, such as John Dighton, Miles Forrest, Elizabeth of York, and Jane Shore in Richard III; Valentine, brother of Mercutio, in Romeo and Juliet, and Yorick in Hamlet. Escalus and Antonio in All's Well That Ends Well may not qualify, since characters claim to see them. Such characters often do appear in production, especially film versions.
In novels, the title character in Don Quixote is in love with Dulcinea, a simple peasant who Quixote imagines to be the most beautiful of all women. He has seen her only fleetingly and has never spoken with her; while she is frequently referred to and often motivates his actions, she never appears. Emma by Jane Austen has a few characters who are mentioned frequently and never seen, most notably Mrs. Churchill, the presumed-hypochondriac aunt and adoptive mother of Frank Churchill. An unseen character is even honoured in the title of Daphne du Maurier's novel Rebecca.
On television, in the British series Minder, Arthur Daley's wife referred to as Er Indoors, is never seen or heard, but often quoted. In the American detective series Columbo, Mrs. Columbo is never seen, and has been the subject of much speculation.
On UK radio, in the comedy series The Clitheroe Kid, Jimmy Clitheroe often talked about his unseen friend "Ozzie".
Some characters that are originated as unseen characters are eventually made to appear (or be heard). This is the case for many of the characters in the UK radio soap opera The Archers, for Norm's wife Vera on the television series Cheers (who eventually appeared in one episode with her face partially covered) and the Little Red Headed Girl in the comic strip Peanuts, who appeared only once (and in silhouette), though the character appeared in television adaptations based on the comic.
- Wellington, Marie A. The Art of Voltaire's Theater: An Exploration of Possibility (Peter Lang Pub Inc, 1987), p. 176.
- See for example, Byrd, Robert E. Jr. Unseen Characters in Selected Plays of Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee (Dissertations, Academic, 1998).
- See also Ade, George. "Introducing "Nettie"; Who Is the Leading But Unseen Character in a New Princess Playlet", The New York Times (December 6, 1914): Drama Music Real Estate Business Financial, p. xx2.
- Bruckner, D.J.R. "Theater Review; The Unseen Characters Emerge by Invention", New York Times, 16 September 1994, p. 26.
- Snatch Foster.
- Adultery and the Archers: An everyday story of radio hype, The Independent, November 7, 2006
- Theodore Besterman and J.L. Schorr, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, University of Michigan, 1956, p. 195.