In my story, the main character gets help from / saved by two complete strangers. They don't tell the mc who they are or what they are doing, they just helped the mc out of kindness and disappear just as fast as they appeared.

Later, at the very end of the story in the final chapter, I have these two characters come back into play and reveal a twist about them. Just as an example, let's just say that they are the kids of the legendary hero or something (which is NOT the mc, btw.). The villain is actually defeated at this point, the two simply come back to finish off the villain for good, so he may never return.

Could this be a bad idea for these characters? Sure, a bit of mystery is intriguing, but I feel like I don't show enough of these characters, since they only appear in the first and last chapter, so they might appear like asspulls to some. I get the feeling people won't care about these characters, given how little they know about them, even if I spend most of the last chapter focusing on them and what they did behind the scenes that affects the main storyline.

What I did to kind of solve this issue is reveal things over the course of the story that indirectly gives more info about these two characters, without ever mentioning them. For example, someone might mention how the race, which the legendary hero belongs to, have red eyes, and the two mystery characters have orange eyes, "diluted" from interbreeding. Still unusual looking for a normal human being, but not as noticeably strange and it's not unique to the hero's children, but it does give a little hint towards their identity.

In fact, when I show those characters in the first chapter, I drop a lot of hints like this without the reader even realizing, as they are hints for things the reader couldn't have knowledge of at the time when they start, but the reader does gain that knowledge over the course of the story. The reader (and the mc) doesn't know about the red eyes yet when they first see the two characters, but finds out about it later. Not to mention, since the two characters are gone so fast, the reader might forget about them and not even realize they're getting hints to those characters.

Should I show these two characters more often instead?

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    This is a Your Mileage May Vary question; there's no way to know without reading your particular story. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn't, but we can't tell without reading it. Mar 5, 2018 at 14:19
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    If you want a plot twist, I think you need more than just them appearing and showing they are BETTER STRONGER FASTER than the hero… A plot twist might be to make them the same race as the villain, so the hero is left wondering if "the enemy of his enemy is his friend," etc. It also puts a twist on why they help at the beginning. Maybe they are officially allies of the villain so their help needs to be a secret, or maybe there is another agenda involved they would not share with Protagonist. It is more scary because they are already shown to be better/stronger/know more than the hero.
    – wetcircuit
    Mar 5, 2018 at 15:20
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    Magwitch in Great Expectations is a good example of this done well.
    – J.G.
    Mar 5, 2018 at 17:22
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    As I'm typing this I realize there are a great many episodes of childrens' shows, animes, etc that follow this line where the heros play the role of some sort of mentor or idol for the MC, and the MC gets in over their head, and whether successful or not, gets a stern talking to at the end about how stupid/dangerous what they did was.
    – Mr.Mindor
    Mar 5, 2018 at 22:18
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    May I suggest putting it in an epilogue? This will separate it from the main story, while allowing the situation to be resolved.
    – Phil
    Mar 6, 2018 at 10:40

8 Answers 8


The issue is not how often we see them, the issue is that they are not actually characters – they are a deus ex machina. They are like a winning lottery ticket the protagonist buys at the beginning and forgets in a pocket until the convenient moment. They only exist in the story to get the protagonist out of a jam.

This can work in a comedy. If you have entertained the reader with funny dialog and many outrageous plot contrivances, this "twist" ending adds one more ridiculous moment to send it over the top. But if you have tried to make a serious story, or need to build up your hero as someone who actually faces danger, or your story is set in a world with real consequences, this can undo everything you have worked towards.

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It's called deus ex machina because 2500 years ago a famous Greek playwright named Euripides ended many of his serious plays with a big special effect and a sudden visit from a "god" who is lowered onto the stage by crane (or similar mechanical trick) to wrap up the story and presumably to wow the audience with a big spectacle. It's important to remember this plot device was also being made fun of 2500 years ago – another playwright named Aristophanes wrote a spoof where a crane lowers a character named Euripides to the stage.

————— The question did not ask about time travel, but somehow I imagined the mysterious people were from the future…. The specifics of their omnipotence isn't really important (they are gods, they are from a special race of warriors, they are from the future), they appear from nowhere to help the protagonist with knowledge of the narrative and an agenda that is not explained. The problem is still that they are not "characters", they are deus ex machina. We do not understand their motives as individuals (if they have any).

But time travel is worse than deus ex machina because there are very few examples that are not "world breaking" (Harry Potter is often cited as an example that does time travel right because it is very strict in its rules). At the end of your story, you may have readers asking why the Future Twins would anonymously help an Ancient Hero but not simply solve the crisis themselves (effectively they are solving the crisis themselves by elaborately misleading the Ancient Hero). It also tarnishes the protagonist as worthy because if he did not get help from the future he would never have become the hero.

This is a paradox, and it is usually seen as bad writing, not as a clever plot twist. Once readers see this flaw in the story, they may ask why the time travelers didn't go back further in time and eliminate the problem before Ancient Hero was even born. Why would two omnipotent all-powerful beings from the future waste time doing these tiny things for another character, but not simply solve the problem themselves? Lingering issues like this can undermine how your deus ex machina ending is perceived. If lives are lost during the story, or the protagonist makes some mistakes as he's bound to do, readers will wonder why the all-powerful beings intervene at certain moments and not others.

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    Waitwaitwait, hold your horses! Time travel? What... where did I mention anything about time travel? Funnily enough, I admit, time travel is actually involved in the story (as are actual paradoxes, but those are explained), but I don't remember mentioning anything about that in my question. What gave you that impression? Maybe you thought those two characters are the mc's child? Because they are not: the mc and the "legendary hero" are two different unrelated characters. If that was the source for the confusion, I should've explained it better, sorry.
    – user23083
    Mar 5, 2018 at 14:44
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    LOL, I have no idea where I came up with time travel, I thought you said that but re-reading the question I realize you never said anything about it. Hahaha Maybe I read your book in the future and have returned to help you with it???
    – wetcircuit
    Mar 5, 2018 at 14:46
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    Snape got a lot of reveals at the end, but he was a major character (quasi-antagonist) throughout. I'd class Snape's turn around as a "Redeemed Villain", not deus ex machina.
    – wetcircuit
    Mar 5, 2018 at 17:01
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    It is not the sudden "reveal" that is problematic. It is that the moral "justice" comes from nowhere and is not part of the plot…. A murderer gets off at trial but is later hit by a bus as if the finger of god has intervened. It is not organic to the conflict or plot. It feels tagged on to give the reader a sense of closure, as if "fate" has stepped in to make things right. The problem is that there's no connection to the rest of the story, and it erases any "dark" ending you might have had where the murderer escapes justice. It takes a serious story and makes it suddenly sunny.
    – wetcircuit
    Mar 5, 2018 at 17:18
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    I think this is good content in general, but not a good match to this question, at least as currently posed. Mar 5, 2018 at 18:03

As strange a structure as this may seem, I can immediately think of two successful stories that have the same basic setup, The Wizard of Oz (Glinda the Good Witch) and The Mouse and His Child (the Tramp). Although both characters are arguably stand-ins for God, they avoid the deux ex machina trap by not making things easier for the main characters (or at least, in the case of Glinda, not until AFTER the main character has already put in the work to earn her ending).

Given that you also seem to have avoided the same trap, I think this could work out for you. As far as whether you want to integrate the characters more into the main narrative, it perhaps depends on what portrait of God you are painting. With Glinda, it's probably best to see her only at the beginning and the end, because otherwise you wonder why she isn't intervening and whether she's truly "good." Her presence would also tend to invalidate the meaning of Dorothy's adventures. Conversely, the Tramp appears at at least one other point in the middle of the Mouse and His Child (other than beginning or end), but he's a mysterious, unknowable character who (other than literally setting the characters in motion at the beginning, and blessing them at the end) chooses to not intervene.

In other words, your big challenge is to explain why these characters are not intervening, and why their power doesn't invalidate the main character's journey. If you don't have good answers for those questions, it's probably better to see them less, rather than more. Furthermore, given that they function, structurally, as stand-ins for God, you probably want to leave them mysterious, rather than over-literalizing their characteristics and origins. For the same reason, you probably don't need to worry too much about the reader forgetting them.


They might represent the villain's fate, but in that case they shouldn't come from nowhere they should be almost ever-present like vultures waiting for him to show weakness. This might be why they help your protagonist in the first place.

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In Peter Pan, the villain is Captain Hook who is pursued by an alligator that swallowed his hand and wants to eat the rest of him. The alligator is mostly low-key and happy to wait for Hook to get into another compromising situation where he will be easy prey. There is no depth, it has only this "lizard mind" ambition. It's a spoof of Captain Ahab and Moby Dick, but also a nod to Captain Cook who was killed by Hawaiian natives. There is a sense of "justice" that the pirate's wicked lifestyle has caught up to him, or his evil has been corrected by a natural force (exotic natives being another feature of "wild nature" like a whale or alligator). Yes, it is very close to deus ex machina, but the method of death is symbolical payback for the villain's defiance of law and order.

Through the alligator we know that Hook is living on borrowed time. His fate was sealed that day he lost his hand, and eventually his destiny will catch up to him. To emphasize the metaphor the alligator has also swallowed a clock that Hook hears ticking when it gets close (a clock that continues to tick years later). The alligator could eat Wendy or a mermaid, but it is only interested in Hook. It is his fate, and his alone.

As an aside, it would be a different story if Hook had abused the alligator and that led directly to his death – then the alligator would become almost another character with a revenge arc and a decision-making process and a call to action – that's all a bit much for an alligator. In 18th Century thinking, a pirate represent a man who defies the natural world order, and so it is "justice" that the natural world becomes their undoing. This is more heady and symbolic, but it might keep your mystery people in an "other" realm.


I agree with wetcircuit, this is a deus ex machina.

I don't think it will help to show them more often, in the end they save the day and they are your heroes, not your MC.

The hero is the one that needs to take the actions and make the decisions (and any sacrifices needed) that lead to and through the climax. S/He can't be a defenseless waif rescued by somebody else.

(In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker chooses to fall, for all he knows to his death, after Darth Vader announces he is Luke's Father, then he is rescued. But this is after that climax, he risked his life to escape Vader).

I worry this will be an unsatisfying ending. The only way I know to save it is if the MC learns something from these strangers that in the end s/he remembers and uses to save the day, in their stead. If you need them for some other reason, have them reappear, to reinforce or clarify this lesson somehow, shortly before the climax and final chapter. Any relationship can be clarified then, a loose end tied up. But the hero has to fight their own battle, the bad thing cannot be defeated by somebody else.

Edit: From your comment: The two simply finish off the villain to prevent him from ever returning again.

If this needs to be resolved, I think the villain is not actually defeated, and this is a job for the MC or hero.

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    I don't want to go into detail, but basically, when the main conflict is resolved, the villain will be harmless for at least the next 500 years. The two characters are merely the cleanup service doing a future generation a favour. MC is out of the picture by the time they do the cleanup and can't do it himself for various reasons.
    – user23083
    Mar 5, 2018 at 16:27
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    I am being confrontational only in the academic sense: What is the point? Why does the reader care? Why does it matter? Why give these characters such important positions (first and last chapter)? To me this is symptomatic of a story problem, which is what I think you intuit; a last chapter with no MC is too weird. What would be wrong if these strangers don't show up and reveal the relationship? Maybe the D.E.M. is in the first chapter and you try to justify it late; but it is too late. After victory, any final chapter is with the MC to show "ever after," or "until next episode."
    – Amadeus
    Mar 5, 2018 at 17:11
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    This is why I don't like asking these questions. XD (apologies if "sound" angry, I'm really not) Without going into detail, there's no way I can explain it properly, and if I go too much into the specifics, this question will be useless to others. Lets just say there are multiple paths in the story (I'm actually working on a video game, not a book) and only one of them is the true ending. Paradoxes are also involved. The simple fact that those two characters even exist is basically there to confirm that yes, indeed, you finally got the true ending, while also tying up some loose ends.
    – user23083
    Mar 5, 2018 at 17:20
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    @noClue a video game with multiple endings? That makes a big difference - you probably should have mentioned that in your question.
    – Rob Watts
    Mar 5, 2018 at 17:40
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    I was warning you that I was not angry; I am not accusing you of it. Even if it IS a game, the "true ending" should be the same as a true story ending, involving the MC and "what comes next" for the MC. But you seem intent on having the answer be "everything will be okay" when I don't believe that at all, it sounds like D.E.M. somewhere in this story that is being poorly justified, so I will break off and leave my advice as it stands. It is your story, you don't need permission from us to do as you seem determined to do.
    – Amadeus
    Mar 5, 2018 at 18:08

I think that it really depends on how you write the story. If they save the mc right at the start, it wouldn't be reasonable for him/her to never try to find out who they are from sources that might know. (That doesn't mean that s/he has to ever find out anything; s/he just has to try.) That will suffice to keep them 'in the loop', so to speak, no matter what the reader finds out about them, if anything at all. Over the course of the story, you can have them orchestrate events from the background as obviously or as subtly as you choose. The end result must satisfy the reader, of course. The most likely reason that they couldn't do away with the villain is either they aren't able to or the villain in on guard against them, and so they are serving as a distraction to allow the mc to 'flank' him. At the end of the story, you really have two good options: you can either have them explain themselves, or, if you are intending to write more stories, have them reveal that this was just part of a much larger story that they and the mc are serving their parts in. The reader needs to feel satisfied, but that can simply mean accepting 'but wait! There's more!'

To reply to Amadeus, heroes just have to be the right person in the right place who is willing (or sometimes not) to do the right action. Bilbo & Frodo Baggins come immediately to mind; they are simply the main focus of the story; everyone else around them are the experienced, well-seasoned heroes. It's the same in the 'Wheel of Time', "The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant", and many others, where the 'everyman' finds him/herself thrust into a role of 'hero' that s/he is clearly NOT qualified for, and needs endless help just to survive to accomplish The Task. (Heck, if you told Rincewind that he was a story's hero, he would run off shrieking "Stercus, Stercus, Stercus, Morituri Sum!" and you'd never see him again. :grin: ) Now, don't get me wrong; they can be a 'deux ex machina', but that isn't necessarily a bad thing, if explained properly. For example, while the mc can see a particular even as one, the reader could suddenly realize that all of the mysterious little things going on were actually them working in the background to ensure that the mc could do The Task, in a completely logical manner. It really depends on the writer's ability to satisfy the reader that the situation and story make sense, no matter what the environment is. In other words, people need to behave like people really do, for real reasons, not just as stereotypes and tropes. The villain sees himself as the hero, for example. (It's true; we all see ourselves as the hero of our own story. Everyone who sets themselves against us is, by very definition, a Villain, and we are therefore completely justified in whatever action we choose to take against them. As well, those who are actively pursuing a course of action that is similar to ours can be a hero to us, no matter what that course of action might be. (That's a frightening thought, isn't it? Hitler and Osama Bin Laden were heroes to themselves and others, and those that fought to stop them were the Villains.) That isn't healthy thinking, of course, and highly relative; we are, in reality both Hero and Villain in turn, and stories should reflect that. It makes things 'messier' in the reader's minds, because we like things to be nice and clearcut; 'heroes should be purely good and villains should be purely evil', no matter what the reality is.)


From your comments to Amadeus' answer

The simple fact that those two characters even exist is basically there to confirm that yes, indeed, you finally got the true ending.

In that case, these are clearly QuestGivers - even if they don't specifically set the mc on a quest, they save him at the beginning so he can triumph and at the end they show up to confirm his success.

You originally posted

I get the feeling people won't care about these characters

but why do you think they should? Are these characters you want people to invest in, or should they just be invested in your main character? Maybe the mc's reaction to these two appearing again is much more important than who they are and you just need to be sure the last chapter is still focused on mc.


This can work to nice effect, or it can be terrible. It is one of those stunts that are certainly not easy to pull off.

The reader might very well feel like the already mentioned deus ex machina is being presented. You can avoid this by, for example, weaving these two characters deeper into your story but without revealing them. The cases I can remember where things like this worked usually provided puzzle pieces throughout the story and then at the end suddenly everything fits together. This way, you have a secondary dramatic curve with its own climax. Basically, by turning the deus ex machina into a reveal, you can satisfy the reader instead of frustrating him.


I can see this... MC is in a situation mundane or critical and some 'outsiders' come by and help (e.g.: MC has a broken axle on his cart and the outsiders help lift the cart/replace the axle, etc.). Later MC has fought heroically to remove the Big Bad from current events but legend holds that the Big Bad will return in 500 years. But the outsiders, just casually passing through note that the Big Bad will arise in 500 years and 'accidentally/on-purpose' pull the plug on his cryo-unit. In both cases the outsider provide 'trivial' (or trivial to them) assistance, kind of just passing-by. In the meantime the story ends with the protagonists and the rest of the world preparing for the return of the Big Bad... In which case the outsiders don't really need to be developed, they're kind of accent points/bookends/Brick Jokes [TVTropes warning].

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