Present Absence

"The presence of that absence is everywhere."
unknown, attributed to Edna St Vincent Millay

A character who does not appear for much of, if not all the plot, but whose presence is nevertheless felt. More accurately, the absence of the character is most significant. These works show what effect their absence has on the world and the characters. The character, in his absence, pulls strings or drives action, becoming a sort of MacGuffin or shadowy influence.

In short, the character drives the plot despite his or her absence either directly or through the minds and hearts of the characters. This is usually done in a few ways:
  • The character is absent for the main part of the film, but subtly guides the characters' actions, and then reappears later.
  • The character appears in the first part in the movie, and then dies or disappears, leaving the characters to carry on their memory.
  • The character's actions or ideals, or the circumstances surrounding their death or disappearance, have repercussions and effects that last long after their death.

Compare The Unseen. A Posthumous Character is influential despite being dead and the Cynicism Catalyst because of it. The opposite of this is Chuck Cunningham Syndrome and Forgotten Fallen Friend.


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     Anime and Manga 
  • Nagi Springfield in Mahou Sensei Negima!. He's only seen in flashbacksnote , but is Negi's primary motivation for doing just about everything.
  • Kamina in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. Gets killed off only eight episodes in, but everything else accomplished in the rest of the series is largely accomplished thanks to the fighting spirit he inspired in the rest of the main characters. He (or at least the character's memory of him) even pops up during the final battle to bring everyone to their senses after getting trapped in a Lotus-Eater Machine.
  • Siegfried Kircheis in Legend of Galactic Heroes. After his death, his absence has as much of an influence on the characters, particularly Reinhard, as his presence did. In fact, the phrase "If only Kircheis was here/still alive." is uttered by several characters, repeatedly, over the course of the story, and has even become a meme to fans.
  • Dio Brando from JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. He was only a villain in Parts 1 and 3, but every plot device that that drove every other story up to Part 6 was always directly or indirectly related to him, as the heroes kept chasing after all the loose ends he left behind.
  • The second Rei Ayanami in the third Rebuild of Evangelion movie. She is not physically present except for perhaps in a single ghostly apparition, but the protagonist's ill-fated attempt to save her played a major part in the events that turned the setting into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and she gets mentioned in every other scene, mostly by the aforementioned protagonist who is trying to reunite with her, much to the confusion of her unfortunate Clone.
    • In the original series Yui Ikari was this, with her absence having huge ramifications on the actions and motivations of her son Shinji and husband Gendo.
  • Maes Hughes in Fullmetal Alchemist. The plot he uncovered before his death definitely didn't go in vain.
  • Julia from Cowboy Bebop only appears in person in two episodes not counting flashbacks, but her presence is felt throughout the series in relation to Spike and Vicious' story.
  • Dragon Ball
    • Krillin is murdered at the very end of the 22nd World Martial Arts Tournament, kicking off the King Piccolo Saga. From there, Krillin's death drives Goku on his quest for revenge. Krillin then falls into this again during the Frieza Saga. After Frieza is nearly killed by the Spirit Bomb, he picks off Goku's friends until he kills Krillin. The murder of his best friend causes Goku to become a Super Saiyan.
    • Piccolo dying in the Saiyan Saga causes the others to go into space searching for Planet Namek, leading to the events of the Namek/Frieza Saga.
    • From the Dragon Ball Z TV Special History of Trunks, Goku's absence is greatly felt. He dies within the first minute of the special leaving a gaping wound as the other heroes are mercilessly killed off by the androids. Gohan wears a replica of his father's gi in his memory and Bulma often talks about him, saying how he could have changed things if he had lived. A big part of the special is Bulma making the time machine to give Goku the medicine that will save his life. Piccolo's death is also a big plot point. With his final death, the Dragon Ball are forever render inert, making all deaths permanent.
    • Goku's second death has long-term consequences for some of the cast. Gohan gives up fighting to study, Chi-Chi mellows out and trains Goten, and Bulma and Vegeta get married.

     Comic Books 

  • Ellie in Up, in a very major way. While she doesn't appear in person after the first five minutes, her presence is felt in every scene.
  • "Where's Doug?" The Hangover.
  • Kana in Noroi: The Curse.
  • One of the most famous examples in cinema: Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man.
  • The film Laura begins with the title character's death.
  • Pepper Potts in Captain America: Civil War is absent from Tony's life, since he explains that the two of them are "taking a break" from their relationship following the end of Iron Man 3 since Tony was unable to stop being Iron Man. It helps explain why Tony's mental state throughout the film is even more fragile than usual.

  • In A Brother's Price, the absent Princess Halley. Her sisters desperately want her to return, as they don't feel able to do all the ruling without her, and they also need her consent in order to marry Jerin. She eventually deigns to send a letter, which solves that problem. When she does return, it is under her alias, Cira, and she comes just in time to rescue Jerin.
  • Dr. Murry in the novel A Wrinkle in Time.
  • Sirius Black in Harry Potter does this a few ways:
    • In Prisoner of Azkaban, he plays the "shadowy but unseen figure that drives the adventure", and between Azkaban and Order of the Phoenix, he serves as a symbol of a happy future and the family Harry could have.
    • Since Order of the Phoenix, his death weighs down Harry terribly, especially in Half-Blood Prince.
      • Dumbledore plays this a lot more straight in Deathly Hallows, where not only does he have a posthumous plan that weaves all the characters through it, but throughout the novel, his death symbolizes the hopelessness of Voldemort's rise to power: no one is safe, evil is everywhere, and there's no beacon of hope to turn to. While others turn to Harry, Harry himself, being used to turning to Dumbledore, is lost, and then becomes incensed when his perfect image of Dumbledore is challenged.
    • Also, Harry's parents for the whole series, even though they died before the first chapter of the first book.
  • Rand al'Thor (the Dragon Reborn) was almost entirely missing from The Dragon Reborn. He still had enough effect on the plot to name the book after him.
  • Sauron in The Lord of the Rings. The eponymous Evil Overlord does not appear in person once in the entire work, and his only lines are delivered after the fact by the character to whom they were spoken (Pippin, describing what he saw in the palantír).
  • The title character of Daphne Du Maurier's novel Rebecca. She's dead, yet influences everything and everyone around her.
  • The novel Echoes of Honor features the titular character being captured as a POW very early in the book. A good first third of the novel is the people back home dealing with her absence and its effects. Especially after the peeps execute her. Turns out they lied about that bit though.
  • In a A Song of Ice and Fire Catelyn Stark believes there are two ghosts who haunt her otherwise happy marriage with Ned: his late older brother Brandon, whom she was initially set to marry, and Jon Snow's mother, whom she fears Ned loved more than her.

     Live Action Television 
  • The live-action Birds of Prey show has this. The absence of Batman and Catwoman deeply affected the Huntress (their daughter and central character) and the absence of The Joker motivated Harley Quinn [the Big Bad].
  • John Winchester in Supernatural
    • Later on God becomes this as the brothers are trying to figure where He went and why He is not acting to stop the coming Armageddon. The demons and the top angels decide that they have free rein to 'finish things' while Castiel is struggling to figure out what God wants him to do.
  • In the first season of Heroes, Sylar gets relatively little screen time, but his presence is felt everywhere. This is especially true for Matt Parkman's storyline, in which he is hunting Sylar.
  • Blake in Blake's 7.
  • Sophie's temporary leave in Leverage season 2 due to the actress' pregnancy. Being the grifter and Team Mom, her departure left Nate falls Off the Wagon and becomes emotionally unstable, no-one trusts the new stand-in grifter and Hardison gets kidnapped by Russians. She is often there to provide advice through phone calls, though the team would never admit they'd called her.
  • Queen Ygraine in Merlin, whose death prior to the series was a Plot-Triggering Death. After a spell is cast to ensure Prince's Arthur conception, she dies in childbirth in order to balance out the magical birth. This leads to her husband King Uther waging war on all of those who possess magic, in turn leading to the lead character having to hide his magic when arriving in Camelot, and the show's Tag Line: "keep the magic secret." Her absence also lends heavily to Uther's Freudian Excuse and Arthur's Oedipus Complex.
  • Captain America in Agent Carter.
  • In Buffy the Vampire Slayer Buffy's mother, Joyce, dies partway through the fifth season, which death receives an entire episode devoted to it as well as driving a great deal of character growth in subsequent seasons.

  • The deadbeat dad from The Glass Menagerie, a Tennessee Williams play. He never shows up in person, and is mostly mentioned in the introduction, but his absence is pretty significant.
  • Godot (the one for whom they're waiting)
  • General Gabler in Hedda Gabler.

     Video Game 

  • Darth Revan in Knights of the Old Republic, slightly twisted in that technically he/she is there the entire game — as the amnesiac Player Character, and The Reveal of this is the game's biggest Wham Episode. Played straighter in the sequel.
  • The real Alex Mercer in [PROTOTYPE]. He pretty much single-handedly kick-starts the entire conflict of the game.
  • Laguna Loire from Final Fantasy VIII. For most of the game, he appears and is playable only in flashback sequences, only showing up in the present close to the storyline's end. Despite that, he's responsible for and/or involved in many of the game's crucial plot points. Also, it is very heavily hinted that he is Squall's father, and that his absence is the reason why Squall is even in Garden in the first place.
  • High summoner Braska and Jecht in Final Fantasy X. They are the parents of the female and male lead, respectively, and both of them struggle to follow or resist the paths of their fathers, while Auron is atoning for his failure to save them. You also feel a heavy presence of Yu Yevon, the great summoner 1000 years dead with the main church of the land being spring up around his teachings. From a certain point of view, though, only Braska is completely dead.
  • The Boss in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, who only appears in that entry of the series but indirectly causes the plot of almost every Metal Gear game.
    • Her student/successor Big Boss qualifies too. His death comes in Metal Gear 2, and Metal Gear Solids 1, 2 and 4 all revolve around one of his sons trying to live up to/destroy their father's legacy. then the man himself reappears in the epilogue of 4 and ties it all together.
  • The Chantry failed to locate both the Warden and Hawke by the time of Dragon Age: Inquisition, which is why an almost-nobody has to be put in charge of the newly-founded title organization. Hawke shows up later in the game, and the Warden is contacted via Leliana, however, but neither of them is ready to take up the reigns of the Inquisition, so it's still all up to you.
  • BlazBlue: Saya's disappearance in the backstory makes a significant part of the plot, such as how Ragna, her brother, is looking for her and seeking revenge on Terumi (the reason for her disappearance) or how some of the playable characters are cloned from her. Later, however, she does make an in-person, present day appearance and she still drives the plot further through being the vessel for Goddess of Death, Hades Izanami.

     Web Comic 

  • Girl Genius has the Heterodyne Brothers, particularly Uncle Barry, as well as The Other.
  • Lord English from Homestuck. Despite the only view of the Lord himself for quite a large chunk of the story being his absurdly long coat, his presence pervades the narrative and gives it an intensely desolate feel. "His riddle is Absence itself..."
  • In Drowtales, the withdrawal of Empress Diva'ratrika from public life after the Nidraa'chal War in the story's prologue has huge consequences for the plot, with Diva's daughters and the various clans of Chel'el'sussolth vying to fill the power gap. This is very apparent at the clan meeting where her empty throne is focused on repeatedly. Especially since it's revealed early on that Diva is actually dead and has been since the tail end of the war at her own daughter's hands, and when she starts having a direct effect on the plot again it's via Grand Theft Me of her servant in a last-ditch attempt to escape the confinement her daughters put her in.

     Web Original 
  • In Alice Isn't Dead, the titular Alice disappeared and sent her wife, the unnamed Narrator, into a spiral of grief believing she had died. After she discovers that Alice, well, isn't dead after seeing her in the background of a news report she sets off to try and find her by getting a job with the shipping company Alice had mysterious ties to, and frequently addresses her over the CB radio that acts as the Framing Device for the show.

     Western Animation 
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic has King Sombra, a One-Man Army from 1,000 years ago. Now, though, he's mainly kept offscreen by a Deflector Shield, and his main threats are his Black Magic environmental effects and his Booby Traps guarding his Kryptonite Factor.
  • Star Wars Rebels: In "Twin Suns", the sum total of Luke Skywalker's actual presence in the episode is a distant cameo in the last scene as Obi-Wan watches. He's never even mentioned by name. Nevertheless, he's the reason Obi-Wan is on Tatooine at all, and a major factor in his decision to confront Maul. The final exchange between Obi-Wan and Maul emphasizes Luke's importance, as Maul believes he will avenge those who have died at the hands of the Sith.
  • Rose Quartz, Steven's Missing Mom in Steven Universe, gave up her physical form to give birth to him, but her presence is still very much felt and the show spends quite a bit of time showing how the other characters react to her absence. Additionally, since Steven is Rose in a sense she could be said to be there despite this.
    • In season 4 Pink Diamond is similar, but has been gone for over 5,000 years by the start of the story having been shattered by Rose Quartz but her presence resounds throughout the story through other character's reactions to her death, in particular her "sisters" Yellow and Blue Diamond and their methods of coping with her loss.