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 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 stage productions, perhaps the most famous unseen character is the title character in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, for whom two characters spend the entire length of the play waiting. Rosaline in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is never seen, but is crucial to how the title characters meet.
In Clare Boothe Luce's The Women play and the 1939 film based on the play, male characters (husbands, lovers, etc) are referred to but don't appear, even in photographs, and the entire cast (from stars to extras) is all female (althougn the film's director George Cukor was male.). 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; Yorick in Hamlet, and Escalus and Antonio in All's Well That Ends Well (although some characters claim to see them, but the audience does not).
When plays are transferred to film, sometimes formerly unseen characters are made to appear, such as Mavis in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, who is only referred to in the stage drama, but plays a pivotal role in the film adaptation. 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. In Doubt: A Parable, the student, Donald Muller, who may or may not be the victim of an abusive priest, is an offstage character, never seen or heard. However, in the film version, Muller is an onscreen character.
On television, in the British series Minder, Arthur Daley's wife (referred to as "Er Indoors"), is never seen or heard, but often quoted. On UK radio, in the comedy series The Clitheroe Kid, Jimmy Clitheroe often talked about his unseen friend "Ozzie".
On television in the United States, such eccentric characters as Lars Lindstrom (The Mary Tyler Moore Show), "Crazy" Rhoda Zimmerman (The Odd Couple), Bob Sacamano and "Cousin Jeffrey" (both Seinfeld), and Pierre Nussbaum (Allen's Alley), are often mentioned but never seen.
- 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.