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What do you call an object or a person which is frequently referenced but never actually appears? For example, Godot from ‘Waiting for Godot’?

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Sounds kinda like a MacGuffin. –  tchrist Jan 13 '13 at 15:17
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@tchrist a MacGuffin can be seen regularly while the significance of an off-stage character can be discussed and examined unlike a MacGuffin where the audience is meant to just take it as read that it is important or desirable. –  Jon Hanna Jan 13 '13 at 15:35
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@Robusto some MacGuffins would match the description in the question too, but some (like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction) are repeatedly seen, so don't match the question at all. –  Jon Hanna Jan 13 '13 at 15:39
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@JonHanna: And the ones that match the description are the ones the OP asked about. –  Robusto Jan 13 '13 at 15:41
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Ask at Writers.SE? –  Mitch Jan 13 '13 at 16:23
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I know that this doesn't qualify as a very good answer because it isn't a canonical device and it doesn't apply to simple objects of reference which have no particular power in the narrative, but when I think of characters like Rebecca or even Clym Yeobright (in the first half of the text) I think of the phrase "invisible hand". Yes, Smith meant something else, but it is an evocative term for a force or influence mentioned but never present.

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I wouldn't see this as referring to the character or object itself, but I'm +1ing this anyway because it'd be a great turn of phrase for the effect of the absent character on the plot. –  Jon Hanna Jan 13 '13 at 19:53
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They are often referred to as "off-stage characters" (or off-stage objects, places, etc.). This is even the case in media such as novels or radio plays that don't have a stage (using the mechanics of theatre as a source of metaphors for those other media).

Godot is a slightly more complicated case, because it's not clear whether he even exists, depending on how you interpret it, though it would still apply.

Sometimes even objects that aren't people are referred to as "off-stage characters" because they have such a strong impact upon the narrative. There's a clear degree of metaphor being used here, but it's not uncommon to find people talking about "the sea as an off-stage character" and so on.

Some people have suggested MacGuffin. A MacGuffin is something that drives the plot in some way, and hence clearly has some significance to the characters, but has no significance beyond that. A MacGuffin could be off-scene for all of a story, could be obtained at the end, or could be with the protagonist for the entire story (Goody McGooderson must travel across war-torn Ruritania with the MacGuffin, keeping it from Evil McEvilson and his network of spies). If you could change the MacGuffin for someone else (swap out "enemy codes" with "enemy weapon plans" or "diamonds" for "drugs") and have the same story, it's a MacGuffin. Otherwise you can't.

Godot is a MacGuffin in some interpretations of the play, and not in some others, as whether the question of who or what Godot is is even important differs with those interpretations. If you consider the question as unimportant, then you believe Godot is a MacGuffin.

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Paraphrasing your comment above: Some off-stage characters match the description in the question, but many are not talked about, and so don't match the question at all. –  Robusto Jan 13 '13 at 15:51
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@Robusto if they're not talked about, and they're off-stage, then they're not in the story. –  Jon Hanna Jan 13 '13 at 16:20
    
If there is some thing that features prominently in a story -- especially if it's not present but is rather the object of a search in the plot -- it's often known as the McGuffin (in various spellings) among writers and actors, at least. –  John Lawler Jan 13 '13 at 17:27
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@JohnLawler it could be a MacGuffin, though that has nothing to do with whether it's off-stage or not, but I've edited to consider MacGuffins too. –  Jon Hanna Jan 13 '13 at 17:49
    
Missed it in the comments, sorry. –  John Lawler Jan 13 '13 at 17:58
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