I’ve been re-reading MOBY DICK, by Herman Melville, and I got to thinking about books, movies and plays in which the main character never appears or only shows up fairly far into the action. I’m about half-way through MD, and there have been reports of previous sightings, but he has yet to appear in the current-time narrative. (There really was a great white whale, by the way, by the name of Mocha Dick.)

First, there’s the great grand-daddy of craziness, Laurence Sterne’s TRISTRAM SHANDY, a book that totally cracked me up. If you’ve only seen that stupid movie, please don’t judge the book by that. The book is wildly funny, and is told in first-person by a narrator who isn’t born until Volume III of the book.

Then there’s TITUS GROAN, the first book in Mervyn Peake’s fabulous GORMENGHAST trilogy. Let’s set aside the fact that Steerpike is the true hero (or anti-hero) of Titus Groan–Titus is the name of the heir of the house of Groan, and he’s only a tiny child at the end of the book named for him.

I’m not entirely sure HARVEY fits in here, since Harvey is present throughout the whole play/movie, you just can’t see him.

In LAURA by Vera Caspary and THE THIRD MAN by Graham Greene, the main characters are dead, to begin with.

Samuel Beckett’s WAITING FOR GODOT. ‘Nuff said.

People who teach writing often tell you that you have to introduce the main characters right away, preferably on the first page, but certainly within the first third of the book. It ain’t necessarily so, is it?

How many books/plays/movies can you think of in which the main character–the hero, the villain, or some other pivotal character, isn’t introduced until far into the action?


writing prompt: Write a story line for a novel in which the main character doesn’t appear until late in the story–or not at all. How would you make that character pivotal to the action? How did the writers cited above do it?