How can I make a side character's tangibility open to interpretations so the audience is unsure if she's even real?

My short story is about identity. My main character is being pressured by a friend to do something. I don't want to reveal anything to the audience, but I want to have like clues that could suggest that the friend isn't even real, just a figment of my character's imagination, so she can cope with whatever struggles she has experienced. What clues can i use to suggest they are actually the same person or that the friend isn't real? How can I make the audience question if the character is even real?

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    (spoiler alert) try reading Fight Club for a great example Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 10:43
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    Do you want the audience to have questions along the way, or smack their heads when the twist is revealed?
    – Alexander
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 16:32
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    Welcome to Writing.SE AyanaLuna, glad you found us. Please check out our tour and help center.
    – Cyn
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 16:44
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    Have you seen A Beautiful Mind? I recommend it. The anime School Live! is also great, feel free to bounce after the first episode if it isn't your thing, but watch the entire first episode. Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 17:31
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    It might help to clarify if "open to interpretation" means "for some duration, before it's revealed that she's not real" or "permanently, even once the story is over". In the latter case, the tools at your disposal are more restricted since you can't do things that would prove her nonexistence, even if they're hard-to-spot and subtle. Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 20:35

5 Answers 5


I did this once in a novel-length story. After the first two appearences my wife said that she has a strange feeling with the side character, but couldn't tell why. In the end she was like 'I knew it!'.

What did I do?

I made the side character appear 'just in time', when noone else was around or 'hide' from others for whatever reason. She did always know what was the right thing to say, what the protagonist needed the most in that exact moment, being 'the one she adores'.

So you can make the audience question the existence if nobody else ever talks about this character despite she is somehow always there. You can make her a bit too insightful, give her a bit too much influence on the protagonist, in short: make her feel slightly off without breaking the suspension of disbelief. Just make her totally normal for the protagonist.

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    Dude, thank you so much! It makes sense, and i'll give it a go.
    – AyanaLuna
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 8:41
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    So you wrote Snuffleupagus? ;) Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 15:06
  • If I wrote for a childrends program like Sesame Street it might come out as disturbing as the "Struwwelpeter" xD Commented Sep 7, 2019 at 7:21

Something about the character's physical appearance doesn't seem quite right.

If I recall correctly, the hallucinations in A Beautiful Mind never aged - that's how the MC was eventually able to tell that they weren't real people. You could do something similar, to show that the character is out of touch with reality.

You could have your MC and her imaginary friend get caught out in some bad weather, and the imaginary friend doesn't seem bothered at all by the wind and rain. Maybe the imaginary friend always wears the exact same outfit, regardless of the weather. And maybe, after a while, the reader will notice that the imaginary friend never needs to eat, sleep, or take bathroom breaks (or have any other needs of her own that might make her unavailable when the MC needs her).

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    Thank you! I've been meaning to watch Beautiful Mind for ages, now i've got an excuse!
    – AyanaLuna
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 13:41
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    Ahhh you beat me to the ABM example.
    – Cyn
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 16:47
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    A lot of normal people in fiction never need to eat, sleep, or take bathroom breaks, at least any time the narrative is paying attention. Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 23:29

I would subtly manipulate the dialog so that your main character can have scenes where the imaginary character and a real character are both talking and it seems like they are having the same conversation, but not really. For example, the imaginary character asks a question, with the next snip of the real character's dialog responding with what seems like a correct response, but not specifically an answer to a question. If Sarah is your hero, Alice is your imagined character, and Dave is a real character:

Alice: I bet Dave's favorite animal is weird. Probably a Platypus.

Dave: I like polar bears.

Sarah: Really?

Dave: Yeah. They're cool.

Alice: Ooh. That pun hurt.

Sarah: Platypi have nothing on Polar Bears?

Dave: I'm not sure they're even real. I think someone is making them up.

Alice: Now that's a twist.

Note how Alice is responding to Dave, but Dave is not responding to Alice. His initial statement is an unprompted announcement of his favorite animal (maybe they're both at a zoo or trying to make small talk and get to know each other), but his first statement doesn't mention the platypus at all, he doesn't respond to Alice's comment on the pun, and the first time he states his opinion on the platypus is after Sarah brings it up. While the first two lines certainly look like a conversation between Alice and Dave, it could be that Sarah and Dave have the same idea of a good icebreaker conversation in this situation and Dave makes the statement while Sarah/Alice are still thinking it over ("I was just thinking the same thing!").

The final line contains both an obvious and subtle joke. Alice reacts to Dave's faux conspiracy theory with a standard meme. This both alludes to M. Night Shamalyan and his famous fictional example I was going to suggest and lightly based the scene on Sixth Sense which has a slightly different twist (one of two good films of his). But it becomes funnier on a "second read" where the audience is aware of the twist of your story. Alice isn't just making casual snark, but foreshadowing the true nature of her character in a way that doesn't spoil it if you didn't know.

Incidentally, the Sixth Sense makes a lot of use of scenes where characters will talk at each other, not with each other. It looks like they are having conversations, but if you actually pick apart these dialogs, they aren't having the conversation or have the same understanding about the discussions. All act perfectly natural given the context of what they think is happening, and all their assumptions about what is happening are valid.

  • Ahaha that's clever 😂
    – AyanaLuna
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 6:14
  • Would the MC ever interact with the imaginary character in front of others? how would that work?
    – AyanaLuna
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 6:16
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    @AyanaLuna: That's up to you. Obviously, Sarah talking to Alice would prompt Dave to go "Who are you talking to?" which spoils the twist, but it could be done with scenes where Sarah and Alice are alone or where Sarah would feel comfortable talking to herself. It's also important to know if this is a form of Multiple-Personality Disorder (which doesn't always manifest with seeing the second person) or something else. Again, the key to this working isn't that she cannot talk to Alice in front of Dave, but that the first time she does, you need to do the reveal.
    – hszmv
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 14:29
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    @AyanaLuna: It could also be that every time Alice says something that requires a response from Sarah, Sarah's response is also appropriate to Dave's response, or can some how fit. The trick is in these three way conversations, use dialog that has dual meanings and be aware of who is specifically being discussed and who isn't. Also, you can do scenes where Sarah is describing Alice to Dave so that Dave thinks Alice is a real unmet person (better yet, Sarah thinks they've met, but Dave is saving face cause he doesn't recall the situation and doesn't recall the people with Sarah when they met
    – hszmv
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 14:34
  • @hszmv Loving the last part of your second comment.
    – storbror
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 10:22

Another alternative is to have other characters question the existence of the friend, accuse the MC of making up stuff, and the imaginary character is never there when the MC could prove their existence.

I have seen this cut in both directions; if the never-there character always has a very plausible excuse for not showing up or for disappearing, they can turn out to be a real person. Or perhaps they just don't want to be seen, because one of her friends might identify them.

A place where an imaginary character played a major role and stayed hidden like this is in Mr. Robot, the TV series, in which the MC Elliot is mentally ill, a split personality that has conversations and physical fights with his dead father, becomes him at times, cannot remember his sister IS his sister and at one point kisses her (which she struggles against), and is often losing his grip on reality. But he's a great hacker.

In the beginning of the first season, to the audience you can't tell that his dead father is not a real person. But then he also thinks he is imagining people that are in fact real.

  • so I would have interactions between the real and unreal? Wait that gives me an idea!!! thank you!
    – AyanaLuna
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 6:27
  • @AyanaLuna If by "interactions" you mean the physical fights Elliot has with his imaginary father, yes. The scene is shown to us as if his father, say, throws him down the stairs, or slams his hand in a door, or shoves him into a door jamb and he gets a bloody nose and split lip. All things, we realize later, Elliot could have done to himself. I think at some point his father puts a gun to his head and threatens to kill him, starts pulling the trigger, then he wakes up in bed with a real gun. So when he fears his father will kill him if he disobeys, we know it could happen in a schizoid split.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 10:51
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    There was an episode of Frasier where the lead character was dating a woman who was never around when his family was available, and was about to leave for a job in another country. Frasier's family thought was lying about this woman, or hallucinating. Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 22:39
  • Bill Watterson used a variation of the first paragraph's trope in his Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. Calvin was the only character who saw Hobbes as a moving anthropomorphized tiger bigger than Calvin. Other characters just saw an unanimated stuffed-fabric doll that Calvin could grasp in his hand.
    – Jasper
    Commented Sep 7, 2019 at 2:44

You've already begun answering your own question by starting to establish the first critical point for how to deal with hinting at a character who is not what they first appear:

Establishing what they are.

After all, if we don't have a clear view of what they are then it is somewhat difficult to try and drop subtle hints as to what they are...

So what characteristics can we use that an imaginary being has that a real physical one wouldn't? By clearly defining all the characteristics of the nature of your character before writing your story you can use those to decide what hints to lay for your reader. And once we have settled on characteristics we can begin to think about how they can interact [or not] with other characters and the environment.

They're not real, therefore they don't have to respect physics: Maybe allow them to 'shift positions' as described in the scene without moving, or to 'interact' with objects without impacting them.

  • The character can be sitting in a window booth next to the Main Character offering them hugs, but then are described as leaning over the table to look MC in the face after MC turns to lean against the window.
  • Imaginary character can be on one side of the room talking about something, and then described as being on the other side of a room to point at an object being discussed.
  • IC can 'hand' something to MC early in a scene, and then have MC still have to reach for it later.

They're not real, but they're based on the Main Character's own mind, which means their mind and their knowledge of the world is both limited and based on the MC's own thoughts.

  • They can know something the MC knows when the Imaginary Character wasn't there to learn for themselves. [MC 'goes out', learns something IC shouldn't known, IC then proceeds to discuss things relating to it when MC returns.]

You may also want to carefully consider and research real world mental health issues if you want your story to be highly grounded in reality. Doing so may help you better define the traits of your character and improve how they fit within your story.

  • In some cases hallucinations of people can be strictly vocal, and not typically present with a visual component. [MC may talk with IC and always describe them as "in another room", or "stretched out on the couch just out of view", but never actually see them or be able to find them.]
  • A few cases may have hallucinations manifest as memories of interactions from the recent past, rather than being interactions in the here and now.

Reading clinical material on the subject matter may offer avenues to explore that help break away from some of the typical tropes used in past stories as well.

  • Dang! I don't know why I didn't think of that! You're advice is really helpful thanks!
    – AyanaLuna
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 6:18
  • Also, my teacher said to avoid mental illness in my short story. Is there anyway I can have my character be imaginary without labeling my MC with an illness?
    – AyanaLuna
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 6:19
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    @AyanaLuna you could just play her out as 'inner voice' or 'voice in her head'. That's at least something I have sometimes and I don't have a mental illness - at least I hope so ^^° Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 7:12
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    Be careful about discontinuities - it could just look like the author isn't paying attention.
    – Tim B
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 15:23
  • @TimB very true, and a very good point! Like any creative writing care and attention to how something is used is important in order to have it done well. But at the same time we can kind of 'get away' with things a bit more in a short story due to having less lag-time between the hint and the reveal. - But careful test reading on things will always be an author's friend. Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 15:29

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