Anonymous Ringer

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The 39 Steps is an organization of spies collecting information on behalf of the foreign office of...

Mr. Memory, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935)

Sometimes, an Invisible President or a Banana Republic just doesn't work in the context of a story an author is trying to tell. Note that we're not just talking about government officials, it may be necessary to refer to some famous person or group. The world the story unfolds in is meant to be the real world, and the people in it should be real people.

Enter the Anonymous Ringer - a character or place transparently meant to be a recognizable real-world figure, but never explicitly mentioned by name. This device allows an author to write about England being invaded by "a country to the north", the US being driven to war by "the president", or a riot at a concert of "a popular rock-and-roll band", without having to worry about Scots, Donald Trump, or the Rolling Stones firing off a cease-and-desist letter.

Compare Roman à Clef, Historical Domain Character, Lawyer-Friendly Cameo (which is not so vital to the plot).

Examples of Anonymous Ringer include:

Comic Books

  • In the Justice League Elite mini the resident spymaster has a phone conversation in which he suggests to an unseen clueless world leader to have his daddy and his uncle Dick explain things to him.
    • Of course, back when Reagan was President, he appeared in the comics a lot. Both Batman and the Martian Manhunter impersonated him on separate occasions. The Phanton Stranger punched out Reagan's evil double. Comics!
    • There was a Captain America comic where Reagan was transformed into a lizard-man that attacked Cap. He got changed back by sweating out the poison during the fight. Comics!
  • Marvel Comics, which has always liked to root itself in the real world more firmly than DC, does have appearances by President Bush and other real politicians (especially Ultimate Marvel, wherein Air Force One gets attacked by supervillains). Their portrayal is usually as unbiased as possible; see Marvel writer John Jackson Miller's comments on this Peter David blog post. The big exception is Secretary of Defense, a position which has been held by two major Marvel characters in the last few years: the Red Skull and Iron Man.
    • Marvel also had Gordon Brown appear as British Prime Minister in Excalibur, save for the fact that he was blond rather than dark-haired. This was seized upon with much amusement by the British press, as their respectful treatment of him contrasted with how he was being universally lambasted at the time. Combine this with the Comic Book Age Ghetto for a certain kind of person to find "SuperGordon" incredibly funny.
    • This has been going on for a while. Canadian then-PM Trudeau appeared in Alpha Flight #1, for example.
    • LBJ reunited Sgt. Fury's Howling Commandos for a Vietnam mission.
    • This has the unfortunate effect of making Comic Book Time more jarring, though.
  • The long-running comic book series The Authority played with this trope. One issue had Jack, the leader, tell off a hologram of Bill Clinton, telling him to watch himself. Later, a generic President is thrown through a portal into Iraq, after claiming that he, the President, was only a figurehead. Then Jack takes a turn as President, which falls apart after Washington D.C. is nuked flat (the radiation is magically removed). The Authority makes sure good elections happen and we are back to generic presidents. Later, characters accuse The Authority of making an ex-President vanish.
  • Comics, particularly DC ones, from 1939-41 (when World War II was going on but the US was still neutral) often had foreign villains from anonymous Germany and Japan (or sometimes named fictional analogues).
  • The Blake and Mortimer story "SOS Meteors" is about a plot by a hostile superpower in Eastern Europe to destabilize the West and invade it. Said superpower's agents have Slavic-sounding names and boast about the superiority of their ideology. But at no point in the story is the Soviet Union mentioned by name.


  • In Battle Royale 2, many references are made to "that country" and "that country"'s willingness to bomb the hell out of any problems it faces.
  • Transformers: While the President's face was never shown, nor his name ever given, during the scenes on Air Force One in the first film, his accent is clearly meant to be that of George W. Bush. The trope is averted in the sequel, in which President Obama is mentioned by name and his staff is villainized.


  • Jack Ryan:
    • In Clancy's early novels, ostensibly set during the Reagan years, the president is referred to only as "The President". His background (a lawyer) is different to that of Reagan though. Later novels introduce a string of fictional presidents, including one who appears to be a strawman liberal interpretation of Bill Clinton. Saddam Hussein and Indira Gandhi are likewise referred to only as "The president of Iraq" and "The prime minister of India".
    • Taken to its extreme in Patriot Games, wherein Prince Charles appears as a major character and even assists Jack Ryan in a gunfight against the IRA; throughout the novel, he is referred to only as "the Prince of Wales".
  • Very similar approach in Patrick Robinson's technothrillers, set Twenty Minutes Into the Future, in which again "the president of Iraq" is obviously Saddam.
  • A sort of anonymous ringer appears in Harry Turtledove's In the Presence of My Enemies, an Alternate History set in 2009 Nazi Germany - the Fuhrer, "Kurt Haldweim", is a blatant stand-in for real-world Austrian president, and UN Secretary General, Kurt Waldheim, who in real life would die in 2007.
    • The Timeline-191 books are pretty bad when it comes to this trope thanks to Turtledove's de-emphasis on geopolitics. Except for a few mentions of Churchill, leaders of countries other than the USA and CSA are only referred to by title ("the Kaiser", "the Czar", etc.).
      • Actually, most of these character's names are spoken at least a few times. "The Kaiser" is used in a ton of speeches, but when only one man on the planet has that particular title, it's just easier to refer to him in that way. US and CS leaders both have the title of President, so if you wanted to refer to Jake Featherston (Confederate Hitler) instead of Al Smith (US Neville Chamberlain) you had to use both name and title.
  • Exception: Robert Ludlum used real life terrorist mastermind Ilyich Ramirez Sanchez, a.k.a. "Carlos the Jackal", as the Big Bad in his Jason Bourne novels, and even killed him off at the end of The Bourne Ultimatum. (In real life, Carlos faded into obscurity and was eventually captured in 1994.)
  • Another aversion: Stephen Coonts's 1990 thriller Under Siege (not to be confused with the Steven Seagal movies) featured an assassination attempt on George Bush, with V.P. Dan Quayle forced to assume the acting presidency. Notable for incorporating real political figures while they were in office — and for making the book extremely dated as a result.
  • The Prime Minister's Brain by Gillian Cross is one of many British stories from the 1980s that referred to "the Prime Minister" but notably avoided mentioning said character's sex.
  • Mephisto by German author Klaus Mann did this to the extreme. The protagonist and theatre intendant Hendrik H?n is a copy of the real-world Gustav Gr?ens among others. Also the important figures of the Nazi regime are only referred to as "the dictator", "the pilot-general", the propaganda-minister" and so forth. This strategy however didn't stop West-German court from prohibiting publication of the book until much later.
  • In the 1980s science-fiction novel Voyagers, some real-life SETI astronomers are mentioned, but they never show up, even though they would have reason to appear, because the book is all about a signal from space.
  • One of the vignettes in World War Z describes a group of celebrities holing up in a Long Island mansion to wait out the Zombie Apocalypse. The narrator declines to name names for fear of legal action from the survivors or their estates, but Paris Hilton, Bill Maher, Ann Coulter, Ruben Studdard, and Larry the Cable Guy are all identifiable from their descriptions. Several politicians get the treatment as well - the wartime president and veep are clearly Colin Powell and Howard Dean, the pre-war president's chief of staff is Karl Rove, and Vladimir Putin apparently declares himself Czar.
  • In both the book and film versions of Roger L. Simon's The Big Fix, the hero meets Sixties-revolutionary-on-the-run Howard Eppis, author of Rip It Off—an obvious Anonymous Ringer for Sixties-revolutionary-then-on-the-run Abbie Hoffman, author of Steal This Book.
  • Played straight in Frederick Forysth's 'The Devil's Alternative' where the female Prime Minister in power in 1979 is 'Joan Carpenter'. Averted in his next novel, The Fourth Protocol where Margaret Thatcher was referred to by name. The novel also used Ken Livingstone as a key player in a soviet plot.
  • Used blatantly in Area 7: the President is a main character, but he's only addressed as "Mr. President" and referred to as "the President" during the narration.

Live-Action TV

  • In season 2 of 24, "three Middle Eastern countries" are accused of complicity in an attempted nuclear attack on the US. Silent Hunter guesses that one of them is Saudi Arabia. Given that the "smoking gun" for their complicity is a recording from a meeting in Cyprus, Turkey is probably one of the three as well.
    • Again in Season 5, where "Central Asia" becomes a euphemism for Chechnya.
    • In Season 6, Fayed's home country. (Obviously Lebanon, based on maps shown on-screen.). It is painfully referred to dozens of times as "his country", "the country" etc
    • In 24: Redemption, the fictional African nation of Sangala is apparently a stand-in for Sudan.
    • And the IRK is an obvious stand-in for the Islamic Republic of Iran, right down to the controversial nuclear program.
  • In Doctor Who "The Christmas Invasion", Harriet Jones, Prime Minister (Yes, we know who you are) refers to "the President" and then makes an Iraq War comment:

"Use these exact words - 'He is not my boss and he is certainly not turning this into a war'."

    • Which becomes somewhat ironic when her course of action in the end is to wait until the aliens have surrendered to the Doctor and then kill them all as they leave. Well, a war it wasn't, anyway.
    • She also mentions jokingly that she is "not one of the 'babes'", referring to the so-called "Blair's Babes", a term used to refer to the high-profile women that Tony Blair gave favour to at the beginning of his administration.
    • Later in the series, a US "President-Elect" (which Russell Davies thought was just the longer official title of the president) would actually be shown on screen. While the president in this case is a fictional character, he has some similarities to George W. Bush. And is killed by The Master (he even stays dead when the Reset Button gets pushed at the end of the series, his death being the last event before it takes effect).
  • In "Dead and Buried", an episode of The Bill (a show that usually names countries), the plot involves a diplomat from an unnamed Eastern European country. It also has a character mislocate Prague as Western Europe ("Central Europe" is the more accurate term).
  • Japanese Live-action: The president of the US (only seen from the back, with Asian skin tone, a blond dye job, and Engrish) is comically a fan of maid cafes in Maid in Akihabara.
  • Stargate SG-1 had two sitting Presidents over its ten year run. The first was never shown or mentioned by name, but a Brainwashed and Crazy Martouf/Lantash tries to kill a decoy that looked like then-President Bill Clinton. The second was the entirely fictional Henry Hayes, with equally fictional antagonist Robert Kinsey as Vice President. Kinsey is forced to resign at the end of the seventh season, but his replacement is never mentioned or shown. Mitchell does make a quip about a "Vice Presidential duck hunt" in the tenth season, suggesting Kinsey was replaced by then-Vice President Dick Cheney.
  • The House episode "The Tyrant" guest-starred James Earl Jones as the dictator of a fictional African country. He's clearly a stand-in for Idi Amin.

Video Games

  • In Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the Middle-Eastern country where Khaled Al-Asad stages a violent coup is never named, but since the game has explicit map views, it's obviously Saudi Arabia.
    • The geography tends to be "all over the place" with pinpointed areas including land in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and Kuwait.
    • Al-Asad refers to a "monarchy" that was replaced by Al-Fulani during in a revolution. Saudi Arabia is the only monarchy in the region, neither Iraq nor Iran nor Yemen having monarchies. Kuwait could qualify, being an Emirate but unlikely.
  • Resident Evil 4 takes place "in a rural part of Europe", though a character mentions he used to be a cop in Madrid. In yet another case of RE's infamous voice-acting quality, the characters speak in Mexican dialects instead of Spanish ones.
  • Averted and played straight in different versions of Bad Dudes. The home console versions all have you rescuing "The President", who is never mentioned by name (though at the end he resembles George H.W. Bush). The original arcade game, however, specifically asks if you're a "bad enough dude to rescue President Ronnie", and the image at the end is clearly Reagan.

Web Original

  • Largely averted in the webfiction Whateley Universe. There are two created countries run by supervillains (Wallachia in Eastern Europe and Karedonia in the Caribbean), but other than that, real countries are named and real people are used.
    • Wallachia is actually real, but it hasn't been a country since the mid-19th century: it's the main province of Romania, and was the bit that Vlad the Impaler ruled back in the day.
    • Furthermore, both countries are small, and very explicitly have no real-world analogues.
  • For the most part, this is averted in the Global Guardians PBEM Universe, as real world people and places were used when needed. Certain other public figures (like the current US Secretary of Defense, Dr. Andrea Coudriet, and the current in-universe Pope, Alexander IX) are purely fictional substitutes for real people.

Truth in Television

  • Interestingly, two separate techno-thrillers (Firefox and Clancy's Red Rabbit) feature the real-life (at the time) KGB head Yuri Andropov. Like Vladimir Putin, Andropov would later lead his country.