Being a Better Writer: The Mysterious Character

Emergency update: Got my right arm smashed at work Saturday night. Seven stitches. All is recovering well, but can’t type well and am restricted from hand use until at least Wednesday. Further updates will come when I can give them.


Welcome back readers! Today’s post was written in advance since I’ve got a shift at my part-time this morning (when I would normally be writing the post). So I’m sacrificing my Saturday—or chunks of it anyway—to bring you this post!

With that said, there’s not much news out there to bring up save the slow climb of the reviews and ratings left on my books. The end-goal by year’s end is 400 ratings and reviews between Amazon and Goodreads, and as of writing this everything is sitting at 193! Only seven more to go to the halfway mark, and it’s only February!

That is literally the only news I have for you all this Monday. Or at least it was at the time of writing. Only future-me knows for sure. But since I lack the capacity for time-travel on that scale, let’s dive right into today’s topic: the mysterious character.

This topic is actually one that’s been on my list for a while, so long, in fact, that I can’t even recall what post brought it up in the first place. I just know that it’s been there for quite some time, and I just hadn’t gotten to it yet. But there’s a time for everything, and this week? It’s time to talk about the mysterious character.

So … what is the mysterious character? Well, whenever I think of the term, I always, and I kid you not, always think of my old teacher Brandon (Sanderson, in case you were curious) and his hammy explanation to my class. I still have this explanation written in my old notes. As Brandon put it, the point of a mysterious character is to waltz into the scene like a mustache-twirling shrouded figure of old (and I swear he pantomimed this) look right at the audience, and say “My purpose is to be mysterious!” before waltzing back off the set.

As you might imagine, such an act will imediately grab the audience’s attention. “Who’s this?” they might say, ‘And why are they so mysterious?”

Which is entirely both the point, and the weakness, of mysterious characters. But before we get into either of those, let’s back up for a moment and come at this rationally.

Brandon was being intentionally hammy. Very rarely will the mysterious character actually say the words “My purpose is to be mysterious!” But their actions? Their presentation? And yes, even the words they say will all be designed to grab the audience’s imagination and seize it with questions.

A great example? The introduction of Strider in The Fellowship of the Ring film. Remember that scene?

If you don’t, here it is (because really, do any of us need much of an excuse to watch something from The Lord of the Rings?):

Note how this scene sets up Strider. It’s a perfect example of a character who’s purpose is “to be mysterious” and grab the audience’s attention. We’ve already got our protagonists feeling out-of-place and alone, and then one of them remarks that this character in the corner is just … staring at them. And then we get this shot of someone sitting all alone, face hooded in shadow, watching them. Our protagonists ask the bartender, who gives him only a few scraps of into and seems hesitant to discuss the man at all, while meanwhile Strider just sits there, eyes hooded, smoking his pipe.

Awesome mysterious character intro. It absolutely grabs the audience’s attention and holds it like a red-hot iron.

And this is the beauty of a mysterious character. See, we as readers like the unknown. We like a good mystery dangling in front of our nose. And when we see/read something like Strider, full of shadows, unanswered questions, and rumor, we gravitate toward it. It seizes on our minds with a zeal. “Who is this?” we ask, before theorizing heavily. Our minds start to race, working off of what little details we have to try and catch some clue.

In other words, a mysterious character seizes at the attention of the audience with a fervent energy that’s almost on par with a demand. Hence Brandon’s “My purpose is to be mysterious!” Even though a character may not say such with their direct words, other words they may say, or even their very presence, is delivered in such a way to tell the audience to pay attention.

Going back to Strider, for example. In his first appearance, the audience doesn’t know whether he’s good or bad. The audience knows that the protagonists are being hunted. Does that mean Strider is one hunting them? The protagonists don’t know, nor does the audience, but Strider grabs so much attention with his initial mysterious revealing that the audience finds themselves wondering much the same.

This can be a powerful tool in your writer’s toolbox. A mysterious character introduction can be used for all sorts of effects. In the example of Strider, for example, it’s used in part to build him up in the audience’s mind before the big reveal that he is one of the trilogy’s protagonists. To get them thinking and wondering “friend or foe” before the reveal that he’s a friend, and a very skilled one.

The mysterious nature is also used to up the tension of the scene, however. As Strider is mysterious and his allegiance isn’t know to the audience so far, it could be that he is a new threat, which may make the main character’s refuge less than safe.

But may is the question. The characters don’t know, and the audience doesn’t know. And so the “refuge” that the protags were expecting instead becomes a place of tension.

Mysterious characters can be used in other ways too. For example, they can be used as a distraction for a bit of misdirection to a small but important detail. Because a mysterious character seizes on the audience’s focus, you can use that to conceal something vital from the audience even though it was right in front of them. In Brandon’s class, for example, my notes mention that he brought up a fantasy book he’d read as a kid that had the token mysterious character show up at a planning meeting of some sort to pull attention away from a key detail of the protagonist’s plans, to keep the audience from thinking too deeply on them until they went into effect (thereby giving the audience an “aha!” moment they really should have already known about).

Mysterious characters can be used to add tension to an overarching plot as well, rather than just a scene. Used well, a mysterious character who seems to alternatively help and hinder both sides of a story can lead the reader’s mind buzzing on what their true objective really is.

Which … leads us right at one of the biggest weaknesses of a mysterious character as well. In fact, it’s their very strength: The ability to command attention. It can go wrong in a number of ways.

For example, the book that Brandon brought up with the misdirection? Well, he shared with a us a further note: He later met the author and brought up that mysterious character and to his surprise, the author confided that the character had effectively ‘run away with things.’

See, the weakness of a mysterious character is also that it commands the attention of the audience, and can do so to such a degree that the audience loses their interest in the protagonists and their story. In the example Brandon gave our class, the mysterious character was so hammy and charming that the author kept bringing him back, and said character eventually derailed the entire plot away from the protagonists, both because they had so much going on, and because the audience was now more interested in this recurring character who kept showing up and teasing everyone.

Oops. Yeah … we don’t want that to happen in our stories. And crud, if we’re not careful, it can even happen in a single scene, stealing away a focus we wanted to have elsewhere as the mysterious newcomer just takes over.

Another problem that can occur is when we don’t deliver. Let’s hop back to Strider for a moment. Would that scene be as iconic if the hooded ranger had turned out to be a red herring (ie, of no real significance)? No. In fact, it would have damaged many opinions about the scene and story to be presented with someone so “cool” and mysterious that grabbed the audience’s attention turned out to be nothing in the end.

Same can happen in our own stories. In fact, I’ve seen it happen in books before. Mysterious character comes along, is hyped up, but at the ultimate reveal … turns out to be kind of bland and not at all living up to the “hype” built around them.

And yes, there are clever uses of this very reveal (mysteriousness coming from accidental inferences and the like), but usually? Usually it’s a massive disappointment to the audience when a mysterious character they’ve built up again and again doesn’t lead to a payoff.

Do either of these potential issues mean that we shouldn’t use a mysterious character? Well, no, of course not! These characters are useful … when used properly. You can use them to heighten tension, introduce mystery, misdirect … and just about any other use you can think of that benefits your story when shadowy figure darts through it.

Okay then, that said, how do we go about creating a mysterious character? If we want to make someone that’s mysterious and all, how do we do it? What should we focus on?

Me, I’d say two things above all: capability and presentation.

Let’s start with that first one: Your mysterious characters must be capable. This means that if they’re exposing secret info, they must have some means that makes sense in universe of acquiring said info. If they’re feared warriors, then they have to have some reason everyone believes them to be so, be if through clever trickery or just brute force.

In other words, your mysterious character shouldn’t be empty. There has to be something to them when the reveal inevitably one-day comes. Something that allows them to be who they were.

Oh, and a reason too. Why were they so mysterious? Why all the secrecy? For kicks and giggles? For safety? Think about why they would hide themselves. What’s their motivation for it?

Secondly, you need to think about presentation. Yes, that line from Megamind about what makes a villain a super one applies here. Look back at the intro of Strider again, how he’s framed in shadow, sitting in the corner … all elements that make him mysterious by presentation alone.

How will your mysterious character grasp the audience’s attention? What will they say or do? How will they act? Will the skulk about the shadows, delivering small notes and secrets? Or appear in the midst of a crowded room, make a grand pronouncement, and then gleefully lead the guards on a merry chase, taunting them the whole time?

Ultimately that’s up to you, but you need to think on how they will present themselves, how they will grab the audience’s attention. How they present themselves will influence directly how your reader sees this “mysterious” character.

Okay, so let’s sum up and wind down. First, mysterious characters can be great fun and great tools. They seize at the minds of the audience and pull their attention. Which can be used in a variety of ways, from misdirection to tension and mystery. However, this can also take over your story if you’re not careful, of if the mystery does not deliver. You need to be careful, but at the end of the day, a well used mysterious character is a great tool to have in your toolbox.

So try it out! Now good luck, and get writing. And if you enjoy these posts, please consider buying a book or supporting me on Patreon!

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