Off-stage Characters

Off-stage characters that never come on stage are dangerous to the health of your play. They are dangerous because your characters on stage have to talk about them to establish these non-appearing characters' existence. This sets up the possibility of boring exposition. The only way this really works is if the unseen character affects the characters on stage.

In 'Waiting for Godot' by Samuel Beckett, Godot makes his presence felt, because as the title suggests, the characters on stage are waiting for him, but he never shows up. In this waiting, the very nature of existence is explored. Godot's non-appearance affects the characters on stage. They know he exists but they don't see him.

In Tennessee Williams' 'The Glass Menagerie' the dead-beat dad casts a long shadow over the play. The family is crumbling and young Tom is about to follow his father's exodus from the family, leaving his mother and sister in desperate circumstances.


In the hands of highly-skilled playwrights, an absent character can further the plot, and the hole he or she creates can affect the play dramatically, but, and this is a big but, most plays are dragged down by referrals to off stage characters and the endless exposition their absence requires.

A play is a self-contained world. The only characters that need to be acknowledged are the ones on stage. Of course, if you need an offstage character to further the plot, then great, by all means, but too often, an imaginary crowd clutters up the story, off-stage.

The old show biz axiom of show me, don't tell me, stands as a good guide post here. Don't talk about the dramatic conflict-show it. Don't talk about love-show it. Don't talk about the boyfriend, in laws, parents, co-workers, friends etc, but show them. Dialogue furthers the action onstage. It is the flaws and strengths of each character set up against each other that reveals the story. Don't hide your characters in the wings.


The thing about theatre is that you as the playwright creates an insulated and imaginary world. Theatre is an extremely artificial medium like all art. A conversation between two people can become the whole world for that time on stage. The audience can be sucked into that world and believe only those two people exist, such is the power of playwright and actor.

In a one-person show, that is far more difficult. But again, the one character on stage is reacting to off-stage characters. Of course in many one person shows, the actor plays different characters and so those characters come to life onstage. The other characters are not really absent.

An audience has come to the theatre to watch something happen. If you decide to use off-stage characters, make sure they affect the course of the play and affect those characters lucky enough to be on stage.

Don't bore your audience with meaningless and endless exposition and references to absent characters. Have faith that the world you create onstage can be summed up by your writing and the characters you have created.




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