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Is it possible to write a character that remains mysterious until the very end without sacrificing character development?

I was thinking you can't do it to a main character, so I thought about an evil character that remained very mysterious until the very end while developing him as a character throughout the story. While I can't reveal everything about the character by showing his backstory, I am wondering what I can reveal and how much? Should you show very little of their backstory, should you even show some of it, and if yes, what information should you keep secret to maintain this aura of mystery? I would like some tips for achieving that.

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    Have you seen the anime Puella Magi Madoka Magica? It has a character that remains mysterious until the very end, then dedicates an episode to that character's backstory. The payoff is glorious.
    – user45623
    Mar 23, 2023 at 21:05
  • @user45623 Though (ignoring the sequel movie, since the question is about "until the very end") she doesn't get much development outside said backstory episode, that approach still seems quite on track for what OP's looking for--make the mystery and the development dovetail together, rather than fight to stay perpendicular. Mar 23, 2023 at 23:34
  • You should read Ian M. Banks’ Use of Weapons, which is entirely about explaining the life-long motivations and character development of both the protagonist and a mysterious antagonist through their backstories, with the enigmas of both resolved only at the end. Do not read any plot synopsis beforehand: part of the joy is seeing the payoff of the unique narrative structure unfold. Mar 24, 2023 at 5:17
  • I don't think you ever need backstory for character development. You can show how a character acts, behaves, speaks, feels, etc., today, without telling your reader what this character has lived through yesterday.
    – Stef
    Mar 25, 2023 at 12:05
  • What exactly do you mean by “remains mysterious”? Mysterious in what way? Identity, actions, motives, character, appearance..? An excellent example of a main character whose identity, character, appearance and back story are all quite well-developed, but whose actions and motives remain unknown until the very end of the book is Dr. James Sheppard. Mar 25, 2023 at 12:51

3 Answers 3

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Consider the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine character of Garak, a recurring character introduced early in season 1 who made his final appearance in the show's final episode. Garak is a tailor on the titular space station and a Cardassian Exile (The Cardassians are one of the main antagonistic forces of the series). More than anything, Garak is a consummate liar. We do not know the finer details of why he was exiled, as Garak tells three seemingly contradictory tales in an episode that focuses on his backstory, and when called out on it, insists that all three stories are true, "especially the lies." (For the record, at least one story is revealed to be falsified as we learn the friend who betrayed him never existed.). Possibly the only truth he tells in this episode is that he had a close relationship with the head of Cardassian Intelligence, who is all but stated to be Garak's father, though both men never openly acknowledge it in front of others. To top it off, at another point Garak says that his exile was due to his failure to pay taxes, and that the revenue service of Cardassia isn't usually in the habit of assassinations by explosives (Cardassia in Star Trek lore is basically a society that read 1984 and thought it was a good idea for a government system.).

Nevertheless, Garak's given character development over the course of seven seasons, where he evolves his view of Cardassia as a perfectly run nation, to a view of it as one that is deeply flawed and needs correcting. It's important to note that Garak never loses his Patriotism, and has at least one personal crisis when he realizes that his helping to decrypt Cardassian communications for the Federation would lead to the death of his countrymen, despite his disdain for the government's open war on the Federation only to later work closely with a dissident movement in a coup against the government in an effort to end the war and declaring that the Cardassia that he left (and early worked to get back into the graces of) is now dead.

He's one of the most developed side characters in the series, though we can say very little about him, and he actively works to make sure we never trust him when he's telling the truth... other than he loves his country and his people and that he embodies the attitude of "My country right or wrong... if right to be kept right. If wrong, to be righted."

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    My favorite Garak episode is one in which he tells Captain Sisko, essentially, "I'm going along with this plan because you're forcing me to, but if anything goes wrong, you're on your own," and Sisko replies that he thinks it's the first completely honest thing Garak ever said to him. Later, something does go wrong and Garak gets them out of it, proving Sisko wrong.
    – Kevin
    Mar 23, 2023 at 18:27
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    There was only doubt as to Garak being more than a tailor for about 3 minutes after he was introduced. I seem to recall somebody from the occupation saying something like "that's no tailor" pretty much the first time Garak was on screen. It worked because he covered up so confidently but uselessly. Pay no attention to the spy stuff behind the curtain.
    – Boba Fit
    Mar 23, 2023 at 19:16
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    @user52445 Correct. We don't need to know why Garak was exiled to know that the incident shaped him into who he was.
    – hszmv
    Mar 24, 2023 at 11:04
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    The "Retired Professional" character tropes can rely on this pretty heavily. We only need hints of a backstory to establish motivation/skills/relationships, but can keep the reader in the dark to increase tension (are they this good?) and payoff (they are that good!). Revealing too much mystery can even dull out your character's development; Once you know who they are/were, you can predict where they'll go.
    – Cpt.Whale
    Mar 24, 2023 at 21:28
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    @JDoe: Not really, most western countries at least pretend to respect human rights. When we see a Cardassian trial, the judge kicks the whole thing off by announcing that the defendant ("offender") is guilty, and that the trial will consist of the state proving it.
    – Kevin
    Mar 25, 2023 at 19:52
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On the outside, character development is nothing but a change in their behavior.

At the beginning of a story a character will behave in some way and then change their behavior and behave differently. For example, one character may behave friendly towards the protagonist at first, and then turn unfriendly and work against them.

You could describe merely this change in behavior, but to the reader this will likely feel random and unsatisfying. Therefore, usually, you would explain the motivation behind the behavior as it appears at the beginning and the cause for the eventual change. For example, does the character behave friendly at first because they love the protagonist or because they hope to gain something from it? Do they turn unfriendly because they are disappointed by the protagonist or because they realized they could more easily achieve their goal that way?

Showing the motivations and internal changes of a character are how you interest the reader in that character. If you stay on the outside, the character and their changes will not be more interesting to the reader than a car that breaks down (a behavior change) and fails the protagonist.

So if you want your character to remain mysterious, you need another way to interest the reader in them. You can find good examples in how this is done in detective fiction. There, usually, we do not know who the antagonist is and we therefore don't know why they behave as they do. And yet we are invested in understanding their behavior (including possible changes), because they pose a riddle to us. The writer achieves this by giving us a character who has a motivation to understand the antagonist. In the case of detective fiction, the motivation is usually to solve the case and to convict the perpretrator.

Another example is alien encounter science fiction. In some stories the human explorers are faced with an alien intelligence that behaves in a way that they don't understand. The motivation then is the scientific interest to understand this alien species and why they behave as they do. In both cases, detective fiction and alien encounter stories, the reader interest in the character development of the mysterious other comes through the motivations and goals of the protagonist: to understand the mystery.

If the mystery is merely an obstacle (like a broken car) that the protagonist needs to overcome, but they have no incentive to understand it (the thirsty traveler will not care why his car broke down in the desert, they will leave it behind and search for water), then that character (the car) will not interest the reader either.

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  • I also see this often in Fantasy, where the story will contain a secondary character who attaches to the main character and they adventure and grow together, but there's also hints that the secondary character has a mysterious past or secret that slowly reveals throughout the story. I rarely see it where the main character has the secret though, because then it's weird to readers why they didn't know this major secret even from that character's POV. But it happens: amazon.com/gp/product/B002OMZTY4/ref=kinw_myk_ro_title Mar 24, 2023 at 15:44
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Possibly the archetype of what you suggest is Sherlock Holmes and Prof. Moriarty. For many of the stories we see Moriarty indirectly. Through Holmes's actions and attitudes towards Moriarty. Through the actions of Moriarty's underlings. Through a very small number of letters sent to Holmes. But, by the time the character is actually on stage it's like we have known him for ages.

Another method is to have the character "on stage" the whole time, but never name him. This is a pretty delicate thing. Done well it can be super effective. Done poorly it can make your audience toss you book in the trash. Think the Lord of the Rings prequel series recently. A certain bad guy is on stage under a different name from the start. But everybody knew who he was from pretty much the first second.

It can work. The character Keyser Söze in the movie "The Usual Suspects" is an example. But it's by no means easy.

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    "But everybody knew who he was from pretty much the first second." I didn't. I was rather surprised. Also, I don't think this is a good example, because that character was given a motivation and did not appear mysterious at all. We thought we knew who he was and what his goals were. It was all a lie, but as the lie was not apparent and the deceptions was successful (in my case, at least), there was no mystery.
    – user55858
    Mar 24, 2023 at 8:18
  • @user52445 OK, not EVERYBODY. But four different reviewer web sites did and said so on the first episode.
    – Boba Fit
    Mar 24, 2023 at 13:15

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