Created By: Discar on January 8, 2012 Last Edited By: Discar on November 18, 2012
Troped

Mysterious Stranger

A character with unclear alliances and goals.

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Page Type:
Trope
Do We Have This One?, Seen It a Million Times, Needs a Better Description

Some characters first appear with most or all of their identifying traits withheld from the other characters and the audience. They likely won't be greeted by other characters as friend/lover/family/colleague/boss. Their faces and forms are often hidden in shadow or actual disguise. Their very presence may go unnoticed by some or all of the other characters. Yet they keep appearing: the author repeatedly mentions them in the text; the camera focuses on them and follows their actions. The audience (and perhaps one or more of the characters) is wondering, "Who are you?" That's the point.

Withholding information in this fashion piques the audience's curiosity. Without it, the audience can't form solid expectations about the character. Part of the plot development may also be in doubt, or else solving the mystery of this character becomes the plot. Or one of several. The audience and the other characters may be let in on the secret in tandem, or the audience may learn the truth first and the characters only find out later. Then again, some secrets are never revealed.

Mysterious Strangers can be a source of surprise for both other characters and the audience, often by displaying an unexpected talent or triggering a plot twist. They may be a source of information via an anonymous phone call or a written note. They may even secretly provide the heroes with material resources. They may come forward at a key moment, throwing the villain off guard or giving the hero a much-needed respite.

The precise nature of their secret(s) will determine their role in the story. Subtropes to this include:

  • Anonymous Benefactor - A person who provides a gift (often much needed and/or much-desired) to someone else while concealing their identity.
  • The Drifter - A wandering stranger who enters a story by coming to a particular town in his travels.
  • Enigmatic Minion - A non-Big Bad antagonist whose agenda and motivations are ambiguous, even to the point of assisting the heroes.
  • Mysterious Backer - A powerful benefactor of the heroes who helps out for their own reasons, usually by providing information or material assistance.
  • Mysterious Employer - A character who hides in the background and employs or somehow directs the heroes, villains or both.
  • Mysterious Parent - A parent who abandons their kid(s) and whose absence is important to other events of the story.
  • Mysterious Protector - A secretive figure who appears in a moment of need, aids the hero(ine), and then vanishes again; the aid is often overt, such as repelling a physical attack or directly offering a word of advice or encouragement.
  • Mysterious Waif - A child who has suffered hardship or loss or is otherwise rendered helpless. Often orphaned or otherwise cut off from family or some other caretaker.
  • Mysterious Watcher - An unknown person seen watching the protagonists, usually from the background.
  • Mysterious Woman - A woman, usually sexy or otherwise attractive, who knows more than she reveals.
  • The Omniscient Council of Vagueness - A group of people with hidden goals, generally depicted as powerful and all-knowing.

Examples:

Anime

  • Van of GUN×SWORD, to the point that by the end of the series we still have no idea where he came from. He generally just walks into a town, solves their problem with his giant robot, and walks out.
  • Vash the Stampede of Trigun is a bit darker version of this. No one knows who he is or where he comes from, and they are terrified of him--which is unfortunate, because he's really not a bad person.
  • In Sailor Moon Tuxedo Mask appears, and leaves Usagi wondering about his identity, and whether he is friend or foe. He's a friend, and they fall in love.
  • In Ayashi no Ceres Aya is rescued by a mysterious young man. He helps her out several more times as she is running from the Yagami family, and then, they fall in love.
  • Xellos from Slayers Next onwards kind of falls into this. We know he's a monster/demon, but he seems to be an ally to Lina rather than acting against them. He has a happy-go-lucky attitude with Eyes Always Shut. But if he ever opens his eyes...

Literature
  • Mr. A. H from The Night Circus. We learn nothing about him other than 1) He wears grey suits and, 2) He's eerily good at avoiding death and making it look coincidental.
  • The aptly-named character Anonemuss in The Avatar Chronicles. All we know for sure about him is that he was exiled for having committed some unknown act of violence (which on New Earth can be as minor as slapping someone), and that he has an "ends justify the means" mentality. His real identity isn't known, and even his game avatar, which is all we see of him, is mysterious (in Epic, it's a dark elf, which is a strange choice since his character wouldn't be allowed in the game's cities). By the end of the trilogy, the other characters, and the reader, trust him, but we still have no idea who he is or what his motivations are.
  • Strider first appears in The Fellowship of the Ring as a grungy, creepy, weatherbeaten stranger, cloaked with his face hidden, watching the hobbits from a shadowy corner. It's ambiguous whose side he's on or what he wants, the innkeeper doesn't trust him at all, and it rapidly becomes alarming how much he knows about Frodo's secret business. Frodo can only trust him on a leap of faith. He becomes a main character of the Fellowship, an invaluable ally.
  • Mr. Rabbit in Rainbows End. He's hired by the international team attempting to track down the "You Gotta Believe Me" virus, but it's clear from the beginning that he has an agenda of his own. After he makes contact with Robert Gu, Robert actually begins referring to him as Mysterious Stranger.

Live Action TV

  • Midway through the first season of Once Upon a Time, a stranger rides into town on a motorcycle. For several episodes we know next to nothing about him, not even his name. He eventually identifies himself as August Booth, and for some reason he knows about the Fairy Tale world. Turns out he's actually from it. He's really Pinocchio.
  • Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for the first series or so at least, mysteriously follows her and advises her, though Buffy is aware from the start that he is a vampire. Later on, he occasionally fights against her, too.

Video Games

  • The perk "Mysterious Stranger" in the Fallout series causes a gun-toting Badass to appear at random and lend you aid.
  • The Master of Whispers in Guild Wars. Is first introduced talking to some other conspirators only, with lots of information kept secret. After a few missions, you find out much more about him.
  • In StarCraft: Brood War Samir Duran at first presents himself as a Terran rebelling against the Terran Domion and allies himself with UED. Later on he is shown to working with Kerrigan and the Protoss. The character has fueled many rumors.
  • The man in black from the "I Know You" questline in Red Dead Redemption. He knows about things he couldn't possibly have been there to see, some of his dialogue implies that he may be God, Satan, or possibly The Grim Reaper, and your last meeting with him takes place on the hill where John and Abigail are later buried.
  • Referenced in Knights of the Old Republic when Ajuur the Hutt makes this your professional name in the duel arena on Taris. The announcer describes you as having no past and no name. Foreshadowing much?
Community Feedback Replies: 59
  • January 8, 2012
    CharacterInWhite
    • Mr. A. H-- from The Night Circus - we learn nothing about him other than 1) He wears grey suits and, 2) He's eerily good at avoiding death and making it look coincidental.
  • January 8, 2012
    Psychobabble6
    Wait, you mean The Mysterious Stranger isn't the Trope Namer?

    Weird.

    Anyway, if memory serves it's a pretty good example of the trope regardless. Someone correct me if I'm wrong, though, it's been a long time since I read it.

    Literature
  • January 11, 2012
    Noaqiyeum
  • January 11, 2012
    NoirGrimoir
    Very common in westerns.
  • January 11, 2012
    Discar
    ^^ Closely related, but this trope also covers stuff like "Mysterious bystander who jumps in to save the day and turns out to be The Hero." This is going to end up being a high level supertrope.
  • April 24, 2012
    Discar
    Bump.
  • April 24, 2012
    animeg3282
    It's also common in shoujo manga. A mysterious older man shows up, saves the heroine, and they fall in love after she spends some time wondering if he's friend or foe.

    Examples-

    • In Sailor Moon Tuxedo Mask appears, and leaves Usagi wondering about his identity, and whether he is friend or foe. He's a friend, and they fall in love.
    • In Ayashi No Ceres - Aya is rescued by a mysterious young man. He helps her out several more times as she is running from the Yagami family, and then, they fall in love.

  • April 24, 2012
    nman
    So what's the difference between this and Mysterious Protector? I found that Fallout3 example under that name.
  • April 24, 2012
    Discar
    This is supposed to be a high-level supertrope of things like that.
  • April 24, 2012
    Sligh333
    Varys from A Song OF Ice And Fire fame.
  • April 24, 2012
    reub2000
    • In StarCraft: Brood War Samir Duran at first presents himself as a Terran rebelling against the Terran Domion and allies himself with UED. Later on he is shown to working with Kerrigan and the Protos. The character has fueled many rumors.
  • April 24, 2012
    Bisected8
    Mysterious Backer's probably another subtrope.
  • June 20, 2012
    TitoMosquito
  • July 18, 2012
    69BookWorM69
    I worked up this description. What say you?


    Most of the time, when new characters are presented to an audience, information about them is given in short order. Name, physical appearance, gender, age, social status, job--all this and more will be revealed, if not directly they are introduced, then shortly thereafter. Thus, the audience can learn who's the protagonist, who's related to whom (and how), who's going to start conflict, and who's likely to help resolve it. In this way, the audience can begin to make sense of the story and (hopefully) come to care about the heroes and what happens to them.

    That is not this trope.

    Some characters first appear with most or all of their identifying traits withheld from the other characters and the audience. They likely won't be greeted by other characters as friend/lover/family/colleague/boss. Their faces and forms are often hidden in shadow or actual disguise. Their very presence may go unnoticed by some or all of the other characters. Yet they keep appearing: the author repeatedly mentions them in the text; the camera focuses on them and follows their actions. The audience (and perhaps one or more of the characters) is wondering, "Who are you?" That's the point.

    Withholding information in this fashion piques the audience's curiosity. Without it, the audience can't form solid expectations about the character. Part of the plot development may also be in doubt, or else solving the mystery of this character becomes the plot. Or one of several. The audience and the other characters may be let in on the secret in tandem, or the audience may learn the truth first and the characters only find out later. Then again, some secrets are never revealed.

    Mysterious Strangers can be a source of surprise for both other characters and the audience, often by displaying an unexpected talent or triggering a plot twist. They may be a source of information via an anonymous phone call or a written note. They may even secretly provide the heroes with material resources. They may come forward at a key moment, throwing the villain off guard or giving the hero a much-needed respite.

    The precise nature of their secret(s) will determine their role in the story. Subtropes to this include:


    You may want to tie some other tropes to this (compare, contrast, compare and contrast):

    Other YKTTWs that might also start as this:
  • July 18, 2012
    SquirrelGuy
    The book and movie: Shane
  • July 20, 2012
    Discar
    ^^ Wonderful! I was going to paste it in myself, but you already did it.

    ^ That's a Zero Context Example. More detail, please.
  • July 20, 2012
    MorganWick
    Not liking the description. The name, laconic, and description are giving me different ideas of what this is, and from what I've heard about it, Shane fits only the name and may-y-ybe the description.
  • July 20, 2012
    JonnyB
    A lot of Clint Eastwood's characters are this.
  • July 20, 2012
    69BookWorM69
    ^^Huh? Why different ideas? This a general supertrope for characters who are strangers to the other characters and the audience, such that their relationships to the other characters (and their place in the plot, specifically, friend or foe) are unclear, particularly when first introduced. The name comes from Mark Twain's short story, as indicated above.

    ^ Very true. As noted earlier in the comments, this one does happen a lot in westerns, especially since the frontier is apt to have people coming from elsewhere. There's often a lot of people remaking themselves (change your name, move to town, tell your new neighbours as much or as little of your personal history as you like). Detective works frequently have it too, especially if the sleuth is being followed by someone (who may be a minion of another character and/or have his own interest in the sleuth's activities).

    @ Discar Glad you like it. It is tagged Up For Grabs, so I took some initiative. Do let me know what you think of the other related tropes I listed. There may even be more, but some of them seem to be other subtropes (Powers That Be and TOCOV would be groups of such characters, rather than single characters). The Faceless, The Ghost, Sinister Silhouettes and Emerging From The Shadows are among the ways such characters might be depicted to retain their mystery.
  • July 21, 2012
    TBeholder
    Add Enigmatic Minion, too.
  • July 21, 2012
    Pickly
    • The Master of Whispers in Guild Wars. Is first introduced talking to some other conspirators only, with lots of information kept secret. After a few missions, you find out much more about him.
  • July 21, 2012
    SquirrelGuy
    Regarding Shane, the story is a Western in which Shane is a visitor to town. People can't put their finger on it, but there's something unsettling about him. "There's something about him," Mother said. "Something... dangerous..." "He's like one of these here slow burning fuses," the mule skinner said...
  • July 21, 2012
    TTurtle
    See also The Drifter.
  • July 22, 2012
    MorganWick
    "This a general supertrope for characters who are strangers to the other characters and the audience, such that their relationships to the other characters (and their place in the plot, specifically, friend or foe) are unclear, particularly when first introduced."

    The name makes me think first and foremost of someone who is unknown to the characters, and doesn't seem to include characters who are known to other characters but not the audience, though it can certainly be read that way if you squint. The Mark Twain story in question is of the former type, and so it's useless to say "well this is the trope namer" as a defense. Mystery Character might work better.

    The laconic might be more problematic. It makes me think of a side, possibly represented by a Magnificent Bastard or The Chessmaster, who's neutral to all sides of a conflict and instead manipulates those sides from the shadows to further unknown ends. I think we have that, though I'm too lazy to look it up, but I'm not even sure it's on the list or whether it even belongs there.

    At least the laconic won't be relevant after the trope is launched, though. The description is so wordy it obfuscates the trope; the second time I read it I wondered if something like Luke's father would count. It tries too hard to break it down mechanistically and actually comes close to over-emphasizing the audience angle, if such is even possible. I think a good chunk can be excised to an analysis page.
  • July 25, 2012
    69BookWorM69
    Well, primarily it is first and foremost someone unknown to most if not all the other characters. As events unfold, such a character may be shown to be known to some other characters (say the Big Bad or other members of TOCOV), but likely not to the protagonist(s), and it is often from the POV of the protagonist that the audience gets their information. Personally, I prefer the OP's choice of "stranger" because it emphasizes that this character is a stranger to other characters, which is what the subtropes all have in common.

    I can understand why you read the laconic as you do, although I didn't when I first read it. That is one reason I wrote the description as I did.

    I was also trying to avoid having a stub, so I tried to pattern this after other supertrope pages on the wiki. Many tropes I've read on this site have some of the whys wherefores on the main page rather than shunting it into an analysis page. It is entirely possible that I've drawn the line in the wrong place, but the OP doesn't seem to think so.

    Perhaps it could use more emphasis on the puzzles that such characters present to the protagonist(s); that is the more usual function of such characters. OTOH sometimes it's simply a gag, like the neighbour in that Tim Allen sitcom, whose face is never shown, even when he has dialogue with other characters.

    I'd say Luke's father would count, though I cannot recall offhand what the trope name for unknown-parents-that-nobody-talks-about actually is. In fact, that trope would be a subtrope of this, assuming we have it.

  • July 25, 2012
    KTera
    • The man in black from the "I Know You" questline in Red Dead Redemption. He knows about things he couldn't possibly have been there to see, some of his dialogue implies that he may be God, Satan, or possibly The Grim Reaper, and your last meeting with him takes place on the hill where John and Abigail are later buried.
  • July 30, 2012
    Dawnwing
    Literature:
    • The aptly-named character Anonemuss in The Avatar Chronicles. All we know for sure about him is that he was exiled for having committed some unknown act of violence (which on New Earth can be as minor as slapping someone), and that he has an "ends justify the means" mentality. His real identity isn't known, and even his game avatar, which is all we see of him, is mysterious (in Epic, it's a dark elf, which is a strange choice since his character wouldn't be allowed in the game's cities). By the end of the trilogy, the other characters, and the reader, trust him, but we still have no idea who he is or what his motivations are.
  • July 30, 2012
    TTurtle
    @ 69BookWorM69 -- Based on your description, some of the examples are off. Van and Vash in the anime examples are the respective protagonists of their works, so it doesn't make sense to say that they are mysterious to the protagonists of the work: they ARE the protagonists. They may be mysterious to the audience, at least at first, or to secondary leads.
  • July 30, 2012
    robinjohnson
    • The salesman in the "monorail" episode of The Simpsons is deliberately played this way.
  • July 30, 2012
    69BookWorM69
    @TTurtle I don't think I specified protagonists in the description, did I? I thought I had gone with the general phrase "other characters" as well as limiting hedges like "most or all", "likely" and "often". I was trying to write a general enough supertrope description to cover such examples; this is likely why I didn't emphasize such characters as puzzles to the protags. As in The Drifter and similar tropes, the MS might well be the protag/hero/antihero, though it does seem to me that the MS is most often an antagonist, a Mook, or some other supporting character.
  • August 5, 2012
    69BookWorM69
    @ Discar Should examples go on the relevant subtropes' pages? I think by the time we put in all the relevant subtropes, the page will be quite long.
  • August 5, 2012
    Discar
    If they fit on subtropes, they should always go there. That's pretty much the point of subtropes. The point of supertropes (like this) is to catch examples that we don't have specific subtropes for.
  • August 6, 2012
    69BookWorM69
    Should we add one-line summaries of the subtropes? I've seen that done elsewhere on supertrope entries.
  • August 12, 2012
    69BookWorM69
    Hats, anyone?
  • August 25, 2012
    Tallens
    There're a lot of examples in the replies that haven't bee put on the draft yet. Is anyone going to do that?

    • Midway through the first season of Once Upon A Time, a stranger rides into town on a motorcycle. For several episodes we know next to nothing about him, not even his name. He eventually identifies himself as August Booth, and for some reason he knows about the Fairy Tale world. Turns out he's actually from it. He's really Pinocchio.
  • August 25, 2012
    rodneyAnonymous
    The first paragraph is a description of what this is not. Instead can it be what this is?
  • August 26, 2012
    Discar
    Just removing that paragraph (and the "well, that is not this trope line") would work pretty well, I think. Anyone else?
  • August 26, 2012
    SinisterShenanigans
    ^ I agree. It would be better to just cut out the first paragraph and the "That is not this trope" line and go straight in to the description of the trope. Everything else in the description seems to be in order.
  • August 26, 2012
    Discar
    Cut.
  • September 3, 2012
    Higurashiblood98
    Jack Vessalius from Pandora Hearts first appears to be this type. He assists the hero and helps him out of tough situations, even though the hero doesn't know who he is. He's not just there to help, sadly.
  • September 3, 2012
    randomsurfer
    In the first few episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer she's helped by a mysterious hunky guy who, we learn, goes by the name of Angel. In the 7th episode we find out he's a vampire - but one with a soul.
  • September 4, 2012
    69BookWorM69
    @ rodneyAnonymous et.al. I initially wrote it that way to pattern it after other trope descriptions with that kind of "turn" in their structure, but whatever. Sometimes, I think the contrast is useful, but perhaps it's not strictly necessary.

    As for examples, shouldn't they go under the specific applicable subtrope? I ask because many supertropes are done that way, sometimes with a specific instruction to that effect in the close of the trope description.
  • September 4, 2012
    Valxam56
    Doesn't this relate to Mysterious Benefactor in a way?
  • September 4, 2012
    69BookWorM69
    ^Yes, it's a supertrope to that one as well.
  • September 6, 2012
    Rognik
    Xellos from Slayers Next onwards kind of falls into this. We know he's a monster/demon, but he seems to be an ally to Lina rather than acting against them. He has a happy-go-lucky attitude with Eyes Always Shut. But if he ever opens his eyes...

    Also, isn't there some song called "Mysterious Stranger"? It sounds like there could be. Just be prepared to say, "not related to..."
  • September 8, 2012
    Discar
    ^ Is Slayers Next related to the Slayers anime, or is it something else?
  • September 15, 2012
    Rognik
    ^Yeah, it's the 2nd season. Xellos shows up in the third season, too (Slayers Try).
  • September 20, 2012
    69BookWorM69
    @ Rognik I think Billy Joel had a song called "The Stranger", the title cut from an album if memory serves. If I can find it, perhaps I'll give it a listen. The lyrics might actually be related to this supertrope.
  • September 20, 2012
    DaibhidC
    • The King Arthur legends have a recurrent trope of the Knight Who Cannot Give His Name (and either has a blank shield, one with an unknown device, or occasionally one bearing the arms of a knight he bested).
  • September 20, 2012
    Higurashiblood98
    . The anime [[Pandora Hearts] has one in the form of Jack Vessalius, who appears at random times to help out [TheHeroGenkiGuy Oz. However....it turns out he has his own agenda.
  • September 21, 2012
    Arivne

  • October 4, 2012
    norsicnumber2nd
    Angel of Buffy.
  • October 5, 2012
    Discar
    ^ Zero Context Example. More detail, please.
  • October 7, 2012
    norsicnumber2nd
    Angel in Buffy, for the first series or so at least, mysteriously follows her and advises her, though Buffy is aware from the start that he is a vampire. Later on, he occasionally fights against her, too.
  • October 24, 2012
    WeAreAllKosh
    Lorien in Babylon 5 was played as this, for most of the people (including Sheridan's inner circle) on the station. He did tell Sheridan himself that he was the first one (first intelligent being in the galaxy) and demonstrated a significant ability to him (basically brought him back to life), and gave him some significant insight into the other First Ones. But when Sheridan came back to the station accompanied by Lorien, Sheridan didn't explain who he was at all. Garibaldi lampshaded this in one of his arguments questioning whether Sheridan himself should be trusted, by pointing out that none of them knew a thing about this Lorien who suddenly was accompanying him everywhere, and was apparently influential to him.
  • October 25, 2012
    StarSword
    Video Games:

    • Referenced in Knights Of The Old Republic when Ajuur the Hutt makes this your professional name in the duel arena on Taris. The announcer describes you as having no past and no name. Foreshadowing much?
  • October 30, 2012
    AgProv
    Aragorn's first appearance in LOTR: it is ambiguous as to which side he is on and Frodo has to take a leap of faith.
  • November 17, 2012
    Xtifr
    Literature:

    • Mr. Rabbit in Rainbows End. He's hired by the international team attempting to track down the "You Gotta Believe Me" virus, but it's clear from the beginning that he has an agenda of his own. After he makes contact with Robert Gu, Robert actually begins referring to him as Mysterious Stranger.
  • November 18, 2012
    SunnyV
    I believe the Mysterious Man from Into The Woods would qualify.
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/discussion.php?id=hrq7u0o64gp5uww5e0vh6g9r&trope=MysteriousStranger