Non-Linear Character

"Allow me to tell you a story. It took place 360,000 years... no; 14,000 years ago. But what is time anyways? For me, it seems like yesterday. For you, it might be tomorrow."

Most people live within a time stream, where time flows in one direction and effects follow causes. However, there are some characters in fiction that are slightly removed from the time stream and are able to see the past, present, and future all at the same time. These characters tend to exude a mysterious, all-knowing air about them, as they generally know who you are, why you are talking to them, and what will happen if you do what you are planning. They aren't necessarily The Omniscient as you might be able to create your own destiny, but they may often act much like him.

Such characters will inevitably Mind Screw any character who thinks they can alter their destiny, since they have already seen the end of the story. If there is no possible future other than the one the author has intended, this character may be curiously passive despite their omniscience, since they already know what's going to happen regardless. May be lampshaded if they stop to contemplate what they're about to do next.

If played for comedy, the character may forget what period in time he currently is, sometimes uttering, "When is this again?" For extreme versions of this, go to Unstuck in Time. (You are about to, if you haven't already.)

For characters whose lives are reversed from the normal timeline but otherwise linear, see Merlin Sickness.

A simple way of showing this is Non Linear Storytelling, although that has more general applications; particularly in a Thriller, Mystery or Lit Fic where the author doesn't want the audience to put the pieces together before the end.

Examples:

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     Anime And Manga  

  • In Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Madoka becomes this (among other things) in the ending, and spends most of her "time" in a separate non-temporal dimension. She has memories of everything—or at least everything pertaining to Magical Girls—including the future and all alternate timelines and universes.

     Comics  

  • Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan experiences his own past, present, and future simultaneously, though tachyon streams can interfere with this.
  • Goblin demons in The Grievous Journey Of Ichabod Azrael perceive time like this, in contrast to human souls. This is how one of them knows the plane isn't supposed to be there, and there's something unusual about Ichabod as well.
  • Blindfold in X-Men sees all of reality at once, it makes her a bit hard to talk to.
  • Empowered has the Caged Demonwolf (currently imprisoned in some power-draining alien bondage gear and kept on the heroine's coffee table,) who has long been known to have some sort of extra-temporal sight. He doesn't really elaborate on this until Volume Seven, when he tells Ninjette, (who is so drunk he knows she won't remember the conversation,) that he can see all parts of his own immortal existence simultaneously, and so even though he can see her inevitable death, he will also eternally be able to see her alive. The speech he gives perfectly sums up the bittersweet poignancy of this trope.
    "Long after you are dead, and this city is ashes, and your species is extinct, and this planet is a graveyard, and every star in its sky has gone dark, and all the universe beyond is lifeless and still, I will carry your memory with me, perfect in every detail, into the next universe. And I will see you then exactly as I see you now. Warm and passionate and violent and alluring and misguided and aroused and damaged and alive. From my point of view, you will never truly die."

     Fanfiction  

  • In the novel-length Ice Age fanfic Lost In Time Series, the first story of the saga, Origins portrays the life of a supporting character, Hudson the dire wolf to be one as events unfold and Hudson shows the reality of who he really is - a character Hyperion traveling backwards in time and one who has been to a good future that the herd created, although the way to paving forward that future was through many Heroic Sacrifices on the part of the first timeline's herd, on when they go back in time to ensure the safety of another herd, the second herd becomes Non-Linear Characters themselves, resembling Amy and Rory and River in that their memories belong to another timeline and not the one they found themselves in now.
  • In the Pony POV Series, this is the case with the Alicorns and Draconequi while in their native realm outside of time, able to move up and down the timeline. However, they can't predict the future, merely view the possible futures that await the timeline. The choices in the present are what alter the future. Rota Fortuna, the Goddess of Fate, is probably a straighter example as she created the roads of fate, even though ponies decide which ones they follow. However, some choices and futures surprise even her.
  • Saya in The Obsidian Dawn is a Bronze Dragon but has some trouble remembering when she is at the moment. Besides forgetting that someone is older/younger than she expects them to be, others have to realize how old she is by her speech. Leonardo Withering hears her cursing and guesses that she's an adult or teenager at the moment instead of the five year old she appears to be.

     Literature  

  • Discworld
    • The clairvoyant Mrs. Cake is a recurring character who tends to leave her precognition on by accident, resulting in awkward conversations where she answers questions before they're asked. If the questions aren't actually asked, she gets a headache.
    • In Soul Music, Death is also shown to have a non-linear memory. His granddaughter Susan shares that trait, but she mostly finds it a nuisance. Other source material has remarked that when Death shows up in the world in the stories, there's no knowing whether he's coming from a "different" time; there's no proper time in his realm anyway.
    • Old Mother Dismass, a minor character in the Witches novels has "a detached retina in her second sight". She appears to be a Talkative Loon, but the other witches assume that whatever she says makes sense in some conversation they've had or are going to have.
    • And then there's Azrael, who owns a clock that tells time what it is instead of the other way around, and whose last line in Reaper Man is "I remember when all this will be again."
  • In another Terry Pratchett work, The Carpet People, the wights are like this—they effectively know the 'script' for their entire life from the start. A very few wights, the thunorgs, are instead non-deterministic and can see alternate possibilities: normal wights are traumatised when the 'script' changes and they can no longer 'remember what's going to happen'.
  • Kurt Vonnegut:
    • Space explorer Winston Niles Rumfoord of The Sirens of Titan. Traveling from Earth to Mars, he enters a "chrono-synclastic infundibulum" phenomenon which transforms him and his dog into wave forms that materialize on planets at different points in the time continuum. As a result, Rumfoord becomes aware of the past, present and future.
  • Tortall's Chamber of the Ordeal is this, as it informs Kel in Protector of the Small. It describes looking into the human timestream as looking at the inside of a fishbowl.
  • The Martian "Old Ones" in Robert A. Heinlein's Red Planet are so old they have trouble knowing "when" they are. At one point, a regular Martian guide shows an Old One a globe of current Mars to help the Old One locate himself temporally.
  • U-Janus Nevstruev in Strugatsky Brothers' novel Monday Begins on Saturday is a borderline case between this trope and Merlin Sickness. This one's time flow isn't linear but is relatively predictable; he lives a day normally, then hops 48 hours in the past. His favourite question is "What did I do/say yesterday?", since for him the past is the future.
  • During its start-up calibration, the Hitchhiker's Guide Mk. II from Mostly Harmless checks the "direction of causality" among other things, meaning that it can probably jump across time streams as it pleases.
  • Devera of the Dragaera series hasn't been born yet, but makes appearances and basically exists outside of regular time and space. It probably has a lot to do with her being the product of a coupling between the daughter of a goddess and her distant male ancestor. After making appearances in almost twenty books, her parents finally got around to conceiving her. In a nonlinear interlude in a particularly disjointed novel in the series, so we still have no idea when she'll actually be born.
  • The dragon in Grendel. He remembers Beowulf killing him in the future, but does nothing to prevent his death because as far as he's concerned, the future is as unchangeable as the past.
  • Psychics in Good Omens work this way. They can remember events that haven't happened yet, including ones they aren't going to be present at. Many of them have trouble telling the difference between psychic visions and things they've just imagined; Agnes Nutter is the only one who can distinguish well enough to give consistently and entirely accurate prophecies.

     Live Action TV  

  • The Prophets, aka wormhole aliens, in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Sisko had to teach them about linear time in the pilot. Except they've already had that conversation with him, as they experience all times simultaneously. They just needed him to actually give the explanation so that they could remember it earlier...
    • Another instance is a Bajoran poet believing himself to be the true Emissary, on account of having technically met the Prophets several centuries earlier then being sent ahead in time to after Sisko took the role. When Sisko finally takes him to the Prophets to settle the matter, they reveal they just yanked the poet out of history to teach Sisko a lesson. Sisko convinced them to put him back.
  • Q (and all of the other Q as well) in Star Trek: The Next Generation, as they can travel to anywhere in time and/or space on a whim. It's explored much more thoroughly in the novels, one of which involves Q taking Picard back through certain times in Q's "youth". One scene involves no less than four Qs and two Picards simultaneously witnessing the same event, something which gives Picard a headache.
  • Doctor Who: From the Doctor's point of view, River Song is very much this. Unfortunately for them both, River and the Doctor continue meeting each other in the wrong order, throughout the entire series.
    • The TARDIS (and presumably her sisters) have this trait as well, experiencing the whole fourth dimension simultaneously. Usually this doesn't matter much, because she can only communicate psychically through emotions but the one time she was turned human it made things a bit confusing.
  • The fourth season episode of Fringe, "... And Those We've Left Behind," has Peter Bishop popping back and forth through time, caused by a local engineer who's designed a time bubble around his house.
    • The Observer more than qualifies. The 12 Observers see all periods of time simultaneously. This causes things like the wounded Observer showing up in the first episodes of the fourth season, but said wound only being inflicted near the end of the season.
  • Subverted in Lexx - the oracle sees all of time simultaneously, but only because the universe is on constant repeat and we've all been through this before...
  • Bar Karma: Since Bar Karma exists outside of space and time, James, Dayna, Doug, and anyone else who's with them for long enough move through time more or less at random. Someone who enters the bar in 2058 might get there before someone who enters in 1962 from the perspective of those inside the bar.

     MMORP Gs  

  • City of Heroes: Anyone related to Ouroboros, but especially Mender Lazarus, who seems to have lost track of his own timeline.
    "Alright, then that means that I'm talking to a you that is not yet you, well 'my' you..."
    • In City of Villains, there is a Circle of Thorns contact, Diviner Maros, who does this. Conversations with him can be headache-inducing. Notable instances include him sending the Player Character to secure some information that he just told you (which he knows because you're about to tell him), skipping the boring bits of beating up some Mooks for information regarding where to go, or getting part-way through the (word for word) briefing of the first mission of his arc before realizing you've done that before. A considerable part of the playerbase names him amongst their favorite contacts.
  • World of Warcraft: Any and all of the Bronze Dragonflight count. In particular, Chromie will great players like an old friend then wonder if she's met them yet, declaring that she's in so many times and places that she has trouble keeping track.

     Religion  

  • God, in Abrahamic religions, is traditionally believed to be omnipresent and omniscient throughout all time, while simultaneously existing outside of time (i.e. not being bound by it).

     Video Games  

  • The Venar from The Longest Journey. They perceive all of their life simultaneously. They are aware of everything that has happened to them and will happen to them, from their birth to their death, as if it happened now. Save for a period of time, soon to come, where their perception will be clouded and hidden, which upsets them quite a deal. (And given that they're never upset or surprised by anything ever usually, this means something.)
  • Moebius the Timestreamer from Legacy of Kain. As Guardian of time, he is virtually omniscient, enabling him to manipulate time travellers.
  • Loki of Creeper World 3: Arc Eternal. In this case, refered as being an "Infinite Existence" as opposed to a "Finite" one, the primary reveal of the series being that Skarsgard Abraxis is really the "Imperator" another Non-Linear Character, even older than the Loki who limited himself to a Finite Existance as part of a plan. In the end, Imperator goes back in time to the start of the series, and sets the plot in motion for himself to have his Heel–Face Turn, while an alternate version continues to be the Eldritch Abomination Imperator, and inspires the Big Bad loki into awakening him in the first place.
  • The Time Patrollers, including the player character, in Dragon Ball Xenoverse. The omniscience works as a form of breaking the fourth wall and the game only shows a changed version of events instead of showing how they originally played out in the show. Story mode also the order of a pair of fights swapped so that the canonically weaker secondary villains of the arc are fought after the main villain of the arc, and an arc where a character from further in the past fights a character from the future in a setting about halfway through the storyline. On top of that, the nature of the side quests means a player is jumping all over the place in alternate timelines.
  • In Virtue's Last Reward, in the game's true ending the time time Sigma meets Akane timeline wise is the last meeting they have in the game. From Akane's viewpoint it's their first proper meeting, but from Sigma's viewpoint, they've meet before in his future, which is actually that Sigma's past. Plus with Phi, Sigma first met her at the Mars Mission Test sight in 2028, but when they both wake in in the Nonary Game in 2074 it's the first time they both actually met, from both of their perspectives. This applies solely to Sigma himself to, since during most of the game he's both a 22 year old and a 67 year old at once, and has therefore technically got an out of line perspective of his own version of events. It Makes Sense in Context.
  • By the end of the final timeline of Zero Time Dilemma, Sigma is 22 year old biological father, and Diana is a 20-something year old biological mother, to a 20 year old Phi, despite her not being born at any point in that timeline. To make matters more confusing, Phi's twin brother and arch-villain, Delta, is 124 years old.

     Webcomics  

  • Bugbears within the universe of Skin Deep are incapable of being surprised without the help of a special Bugbear talisman. The exact mechanics of this sense have been described as an "internal radar," and whilst Bugbears are not technichally disconnected from time, it is a noteworthy semi-subversion.
  • The Multiverse of Homestuck features at least five universes, each with an independent time stream; and the Furthest Ring, where time and space simply don't function in any knowable way. That leads to a lot of this trope.
    • The trolls live in a different universe than the main characters, allowing them to witness their entire timeline at once, bug them at whatever point they wish, and give them advice or deride them for the choices they have already made. One troll speaks to a human backwards through the human's timeline after embarrassing himself in an early conversation, while another pesters a human at random points through time.
    • uranianUmbra purposely avoids doing this, despite existing outside the human universe's timeline. undyingUmbrage, on the other hand, doesn't care about telling people what they will do in the future.
    • The dreamselves are also said to exist in a place less affected by time - this was how Rose's dreamself from the doomed timeline was able to merge with her alpha timeline dreamself, bringing knowledge and memories with her.
    • The Cute Ghost Girl Aranea has spent a very long time in the non-linear, multi-universal dream-bubbles of the Furthest Ring, to the point that she considers time utterly meaningless.
  • Time in the Heaven and Hell of Jack is said not to exist, which effectively means that those who can travel between planes can pop into any era on Earth. As such the story arcs aren't arranged in chronological order. In fact, the title character reaped himself. At the end of another arc a character is reincarnated and her second life is shown as an old lady at the same time her first was a teenager.

    Web Original 
  • Mister Deity: Mr. Deity, Lucy, Larry, and Jesse can move through the time stream at will. How exactly this works depends on the Rule of Funny.

     Western Animation  


http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/NonLinearCharacter