Guessing that there is no such example, but if there is, I'm very interested in knowing about it.

Just as a short example, just to make it clear it's possible; the example is not intended to be a work of art, but a proof of concept: "The sun set in the sky, but just beneath the ocean's surface, a volcano was slowly working it's way to the light of the next day. In the morning, waves crashed against the rising lava flows."


Thanks to all who have commented, to clarify the intent of the question, it's an attempt to understand the nature of characters by removing them. My hope is that in doing so, my understanding of characters and their function will grow in some way.

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    Curious as to what you mean by "character". I suppose you could argue that the sun, the ocean, and the volcano were all characters in a sense. Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 19:06
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    Could you clarify: when you say "without any characters", do you mean no people at all? Or do you just mean no dialogue or specific characters, but there are people in the story? Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 19:26
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    I tend to vote to close this as being to localised. Is there a deeper secret behind this question? Do you want to write such a story? Pure curiosity? Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 19:41
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    @John Smithers: The point of me asking the question is not localized. Meaning it's to understand the nature of characters by attempting to remove them. (Thanks for commenting on the vote to close; in part because of my low rep, I would have no way to see a vote to close; which means I wouldn't be able to respond to it until after the question had been closed; a flawed implementation from my point of view.)
    – blunders
    Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 19:43
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    @blunders: Trying to understand the nature of characters is indeed an interesting endeavour. Add that to the body of your question and I will upvote it. Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 19:50

12 Answers 12


It is possible to have a story without character - that is living beings that have thought processes and some amount of intelligence. This would include people, animals, aliens, robots, etc. There are two types of characters - flat and round. Flat characters are generally those that are background characters that don't evolve or change throughout the piece. Round characters will evolve and develop at the story goes on.

It is not, however, possible to have a story without a subject. There are no characters in your example, but there are subjects - the sun, the volcano, the waves. A story's subject can be a character, but it doesn't have to be. The subject can be an inanimate object such as a house or a planet.

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    Took me a second to figure out the whole flat and round characters types; to me static and dynamic might be more clear, though those terms appear to be existing character lingo.
    – blunders
    Commented Jun 4, 2011 at 5:55
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    And believe you're the closest to an answer so far terms of addressing the conceptual issue. That being, I guess at heart I was really attempting to remove the subject, though confused that with removing all characters. In fact, believe this is a better answer than the one I thought I needed. Since I can image a story without characters, but I'm unable to imagine a story without a subject; poem maybe, but not a story. Thanks for taking the time to express your thoughts on the matter!
    – blunders
    Commented Jun 4, 2011 at 6:06

Unfortunately, I can't think of any stories that follow your strict requirement on excluding anything that "is able to reproduce".

The closest I could come is Ray Bradbury's short story, "There Will Come Soft Rains" (note: link goes to a PDF file). Unfortunately, there are some animals in it, and humans are referred to. Also, as Lynn noted regarding the sun, you could argue that the house is a character.

The question does arise, however: with absolutely no characters, or reference to living things, what story is there to tell? There would be no room for character development, and I can't imagine much conflict arising from such a story, either.

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    +1 @Craig Sefton: Great, thanks for posting an answer -- I'll take a look at Bradbury's story. As for the story's development, I'm sure it's possible, and in fact attempted to account for that in my example; since I thought it might be possible to discount the concept as impossible. As I noted in my comments to Lynn, I agree with her, though I'm willing to except that there might be "characters" in a characterless world.
    – blunders
    Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 20:05

There's certainly a fair number of science-fiction and fantasy stories that describe a world, a society, or some other concept, without relying on individual characters. Talking about a people, but not about anyone in particular.

Similarly, a lot of Jorge Luis Borges stories are about describing a fantastical concept - "The Library of Babel" and "The Babylon Lottery" spring to mind immediately. I think "Library" might possibly have a narrator, but it might as well not have.

I'd say this type of story has no characters, because it has no actors, nobody individual we're focusing on. But there is a nebulous "they" - "the people," "it was decided," etc., - that moves the story forward; you can't point to any particular character, but there are people somewhere in the picture.

  • +1 @Standback: Yes, as Ralph Gallagher's answer points to, the nebulous characters you're referring to never develop, and are remain in the background. In a way, I now see more degrees to which characters exist now. Your description of characters being beyond the focus of the story makes sense.
    – blunders
    Commented Jun 4, 2011 at 20:19

If I am understandig well, you want some story without any conscious character. I am afraid there is no other stories of that kind excepting various descriptions of natural or artificial processes with "soulless" actors only (Big Bang, fusion bomb ignition, fertilisation, economic cycle).

  • +1 @Indoril Nerevar: Yes, conscious would indeed be a good way to describe the set of characters I'm attempting to exclude; though in an extreme an example, I would say I'm also attempting to exclude characters which were previously conscious, but never are during the story; meaning they're sleeping, dead, etc. Also, I would likely not include descriptive stories that are an attempt to render an effect that's believed to have taken place, since to me, that'd be more of a non-fictional story.
    – blunders
    Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 20:24
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    @blunders: What about this: nanomachines are following (previously set) instructions inside a human body, whilst the body tenant can do anything (write a stackexcange post, eat, fight or be dying). If nanomachines' setup is unacceptable, replace them with viruses.
    – Nerevar
    Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 21:02
  • +1 @Indoril Nerevar: Viruses would fall into the exclusion of things which reproduce. I'd thought about what it means to include anything like nanomachines, though not agent like, more along the lines of any artifact would would infer the past presence of a character; which was a result of reading the Bradbury story Craig Sefton linked to in his answer. Upon reflection, I'd have to say no characters also means no possible reference to characters, since a reference would lead to their existence within the story indirectly. Just wondering, what lead you to develop that scenario?
    – blunders
    Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 21:47

Your writing sample actually looks a lot like what you might find in creative non-fiction - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative_nonfiction

Creative non-fiction is an interesting genre because authors try to stick to the truth and reality, yet being unable to define either.

Most of what I read focuses on nature, natural events, and the author's relationship with them. I enjoy how the authors I read avoided a lot of metaphors. Unfortunately I can't remember any of their names or the titles of the books (just stopped in and saw your question) - perhaps someone else can offer some more suggestions.

Edit: Here's one - The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

  • +1 @Erik Westermann: Sort of funny, I got excited until I thought there might be some issues with your answer; which is not to say there are issues. My understanding of creative nonfiction is that it's based on factually accurate narratives. In this case, the only requirement in general is that there are no characters; for example, "The rock floated up into the sky", while factually unlikely, would not be excluded as being out of the scope of the question. Nothing the less, thank you! (If there's something I'm missing, please let me know; since I really am interested in finding an example.)
    – blunders
    Commented Jun 4, 2011 at 3:28
  • Also, "The Writing Life" by Annie Dillard appears to contain a great number of people, and a narration in the first person; might be wrong about this, this is only based on looking at random pages visible from Google Books and Amazon's preview features. Is this correct, or no? Again, thank you!!
    – blunders
    Commented Jun 4, 2011 at 3:28
  • @blunders The author beautifully renders passages about her surroundings and relationship to them but you're right, The Writing Life is written in first person. The CNF I have read is story-like without characters as such. I remember on where the writer discussed different types of mugs, and another by someone else who discussed yawns - but in the context of their relationship to them or observations about them. So there aren't characters as such - just the author providing a stylized narrative of the truth as they see and relate it. Does that make sense? Commented Jun 4, 2011 at 19:20
  • Yes, it does make sense, though it points to something I hadn't seen before, that being regardless if the story has characters, or not, there is always at least one person in the story; meaning while third-person narration excludes the existence of the narrator from existing as a character in the story, it does not mean they don't exist; or that least that's my take.
    – blunders
    Commented Jun 4, 2011 at 20:10

Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" kinda doesn't have characters. Sorta. It does have people, though mostly abstractly.

  • +1 @Dale Emery: Thanks for adding to the examples. I'm unable to find a copy of the story online, but the story ends with "The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas." -- which to me very directly includes characters, regardless of how distant they maybe to the reader. SOURCE: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ones_Who_Walk_Away_from_Omelas
    – blunders
    Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 21:54
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    Yeah, that's why I double caveated with "kinda sorta." Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 22:07

This one is so easy to answer: The World Without Us -- see at Amazon.com

It's all about the world after we are all gone. And it is definitely speculative fiction.

How did everyone miss this easy answer?


This question really comes down to the definition of story (and, to a certain extent, of fiction). If we take story in the broad sense of a sequential narrative and fiction in the broad sense of any statement that is not true, then clearly there can be stories without characters.

If we take story and fiction in the narrower sense of a drama, then there can be no drama without characters, since it is the desire of a character that drives drama.

But human beings are interested in other types of stories besides dramas, so there are is certainly scope for stories without characters. But since you posit that the intent of the question is to understand character by removing them from story, then I would suggest that what character is, in terms of a drama, is desire. Characters, dramatically speaking, are expressions of desire and the willingness to act in pursuit of desire.


Reading through your story makes me think that, in a way, the narrator has to be a character himself. The story doesn't even have to revolve around the narrator for him to count as a character.

I'm using the rough and loose definition of a character as anything that shares the person-like quality of having a personality and of thinking. So, the rabbits in the Watership Down are characters because they all behave and think person-like. A story about a rock that wants to see whats on the other side on the hill it's resting on, has the human-like quality of thinking.

Any story you would want to tell would need to have a narrator, basically some voice through which to communicate the story with. The fact that you now have someone to observe/speak of the event, means you necessarily would need to have a character, someone or something with the ability to perceive and think and tell the story in a way that is funny, engaging, meaningful, or even boring.

Essentially, you can't have a story without a character because, without anyone to see the story unfold, there can't be a story to be told in the first place. It's like that age old adage about the tree that falls in the woods... if there is no one there to hear it (or in our case, see it), does it really fall? Do we really have a story to tell if no one is there to either see or tell of it?

  • Well, the narrator can be impersonal, and often is.
    – FFN
    Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 17:47

I don't have examples of what you ask for, but in the revision: You could say that the role of "characters" is that they have choices and intents. The sun does not choose to rise, the volcano does not choose to erupt, and the waves do not choose to crash.

A character, be it a fish or dog on the beach or human, can choose to run or stay, and there are consequences to either choice. The author can engineer the circumstances to make those consequences large: Life or death. Abandoning your children or risking death to stay and protect them.

The effect of characters, and their ability to make choices, is an uncertainty in the consequences and outcome of the decision that readers find interesting.

I think it would be very difficult to create interest in a fictional recount of biology, geology, astronomy, and so forth that basically led from state to another state, with no real consequences for anybody or anything.

In human psychology, stories are expected to have emotional consequences, not just consequences for dead rocks and water or dead suns and asteroids. What the author writes is supposed to make a difference, however subtle, in those eventual emotional consequences: It changes the characters feelings, minds, choices, actions. The settings influence them (or are allusions to their feelings; hence the clichés of equating 'rain' with 'tears' or 'fireworks' with 'love' or 'orgasms').

The role of characters is to make the story matter to the reader.


All you need, in place of your characters, is a strong dose of anthropomorphize-ing. By implying human characteristics and emotions within inanimate and insensate objects, you bypass the need for actual intelligent actors.

I have a stand-alone chapter in one of my unpublished works, which describes the battle between an old wooden dock and the relentless ocean waves. When I wrote it, I was attempting a deliberate hommage to the Ray Bradbury piece which is mentioned in another answer. That characterless chapter turned out to be one of the prettiest, most poetic things, I've ever written.

Your submerged volcano story has the same potential. Imagine a world of endless sea, with primitive life hidden beneath the waves, ready to crawl out on dry land, but trapped by the totally aquatic nature of their planet. Enter the hero, a mound of growing lava, bubbling up from a fissure in the ocean floor. Follow its adventures as it reaches up hopelessly for the distant surface. Share in its sorrows as structural flaws and air pockets collapse, causing a loss of precious height. Celebrate its triumph when unfiltered sunshine finally falls upon its finally dry shore. It is the Rocky story!... told with real rocks!


there is no story without characters, because there is nobody then to experience the passing of time. In this case, no changes, events, etc. can happen and therefore it is not a "story".

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    See the other answers. Having a story without characters may not make for the best story, but it is possible. Commented Sep 23, 2014 at 18:36

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