Main Question

My protagonist, Dannie, was taken from her home for 7 years. The story starts when she escapes and follows her journey home. Dannie discusses her home with her traveling companion, and talks about her mentor/mother-like figure, Alex.

By the time they arrive home, Alex has disappeared from the story. She's been killed, but the readers don't know it yet.

The readers never meet her. She is one of the most significant people in Dannie's life, and I want her to be more than a bit player in Dannie's backstory. The readers need to attach and connect to Alex. They should feel sad when they learn she's dead. How do I do this?

Added Points

I know that regardless of how I do it, the readers aren't going to feel the same level of grief as they would for a more developed character.

Alex IS NOT Dannie's motivation or main drive for getting home. Or at last not the main motivation/drive. She is the sub-plot.

2 Answers 2


I agree with Ben's answer that flashbacks and callbacks to past events are the most direct, and likely the most effective way to achieve this. However, strictly speaking, that makes Alex a character who appears. She appears in flashback, and through the memories of Dannie, but she still appears.

If you really want to create attachment to a character that never appears, or appears sparingly, that's more challenging, and you'll probably have to use a combination of tricks to pull it off.

It is, however, an interesting intellectual exercise, and it could create an interesting effect, giving Alex a slightly more mythic, Godot-like quality. Here are some thoughts:

Make the revelation of her death as unexpected as possible.

Using all the tricks you can think of, set up the expectation that Alex is still alive, and that Alex and Dannie will be reunited. Then pull the rug. The shock by itself won't create any emotional attachment, but it'll boost the amount of grief felt by the reader. Think of it as a catalyst for the attachment you create by other means.

Focus on the hole she filled.

If we're not allowed to flash back to Alex, we can still flash back to the time before Alex. The misery of being an orphan. The number of disappointing authority figures in Dannie's life. Everything she thought didn't exist until she met Alex. With a bit of luck, the reader will fill in the blanks. What's more, they will create their own Alex, who is likely to be sympathetic to them in ways that can be different from one reader to the next.

This is a kind of characterization by contrast. We're not allowed to tell people who Alex is in any detail, but we can tell the reader who is she's not.

Have Dannie mimic Alex.

Alex clearly played a formative part in Dannie's childhood. You can set Dannie up with a younger traveling companion of her own. As she struggles with this new mentorship role, she finds herself thinking back to the ways Alex behaved to her. Not in detail, of course, that would be a flashback, but we don't need to see what Alex did, since we see what Dannie does after thinking back to Alex.

You can also play this more as a reflection after the fact. Like a middle-aged man musing that he's turning into his father after admonishing his children, but gaining sympathy for his fathers actions too.

Studiously avoiding any appearance of Alex, whether in flashback or otherwise, is interesting, but it'll definitely lend a certain mythical air to the character. It's up to you whether that works for your story.


You can only achieve an attachment from your readers to one of your characters if the readers experience the person's personality and get to know the person's dreams and fears so that they can come to identify with the motivations and goals of that person, and for that you need to narrate a significant part of that persons's life during which the reader can spend time with that person.

If the person does not appear in the present of the story, you can achieve all of this through the memories (in thought) or stories (in dialogue) of one of the characters that are in the story and know that person and care about her or him.

In your case you will have to have Dannie reminisce about Alex extensively enough to make Alex a significant part of your story. Or in other words, a large part of your narrative will have to be background, retelling the past that came before the present moment. And you have to make clear how Alex is relevant to Dannie's story and how Alex' (not only Dannie's) goals are still affecting what happens and what people do.

That is, your story has to be, at least in part, Alex' story.

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