Why you should hide your villain
“Nobody is a villain in their own story. We’re all the heroes of our own stories.”George R. R. Martin
Why should you hide your villain? In the days of the melodramas and silent movies, the villain was often easy to pick out. He often dressed in dark clothes, sneered a lot, and his intentions toward the hero and the people important to the hero were obvious. There was rarely even the question of his succeeding.
The classic whodunit has mastered the technique of hiding the villain in plain sight. They commit a crime and then, typically, try to blend into the background. In these stories, we discover that all the main characters and some of the minor characters are not only capable of committing the crime but actually have reason to do so. Except for the detective and his cohorts, everyone might be the villain.
Why hide your villain?
The villains of our stories oppose the hero and provide dramatic tension. Hiding the villain can ratchet that tension and make the story stronger.
Of course, not all villains can or should be hidden. It’s hard to hide Lord Voldemort, Sauron, Darth Vader or the villains from most superhero movies. Their villainy is central to the story and needs to be obvious up front. Even in these cases, we can hide the full extent of their villainy and their intentions early in the story.
“Everyone loves a good villain who gives the hero a run for their money. A dastardly, evil person who wreaks havoc on the world for the sake of their worldview and mission. Generally speaking, villains reveal themselves and their plans to the hero early in the story. One way to increase the impact of your villain on the story is by hiding their nefarious intentions for as long as possible, usually until the midpoint or the end of the second act.” – Creative Screen Writing, April 22, 20211https://www.creativescreenwriting.com/hiding-your-villains-intent-makes-them-more-interesting/
4 ways to hide a villain
In my post, “What makes for a good villain?”, I talk about some things that we should do when creating and writing our villains.
Here are a few more ideas.
Make them likeable
What makes Felonious Gru, the villain of the Despicable Me series, fascinating is that he is actually likeable. His villainy is clear from the start of the movie. He adopts three orphan girls to assist him in stealing a shrink ray, so that he can shrink and steal the moon. As the film progresses, we see his care for the girls soften him.
Make your villain kind, likeable, generous. Let’s see them doing good, unselfish things for people. Make sure that there are plenty of positive character traits. And, while you’re at it, give your protagonist some very undesirable traits and habits.
We should not see these things as the villain trying to cover up all his negative characteristics. They should be true to who he is.
Make them appear weak
We expect a good villain to be a match for the hero. Throughout much of the story, the villain seems to have the upper hand. We can initially hide them by making them weak. This can be something simple, such as a limp, poor eyesight or hearing, diminutive size, frequent ailments. Or it can be more debilitating.
The infirmity or weakness may only be a ruse, but care must be taken. The 90 pound weakling who gets sand kicked in his face early on cannot become the muscle bound brute who takes beats up the protagonist later on with little effort.
Even better would be to have the villain deal with and, possibly overcome, his own limitations to accomplish his goals.
Make them vulnerable
Being vulnerable is not the same as being weak, although weakness may lead to vulnerability.
What we want to see here is the villain doubting himself or being placed in situations where he feels awkward and not in control. We want to see him fail at something that is not central to the plot, especially when they are around the protagonist. This can build empathy between the villain and the hero.
Vulnerabilities also cause us to doubt if the villain will achieve his goal. Make sure that at least one vulnerabiltiy is severe enough to thwart him.
As with weakness, these vulnerabilities can be real or a pretense. Just make sure they help to characterize him. A villain with too many weaknesses and vulnerabilities, especially when most of them are false, is unbelievable.
These failures can push the villain to act more resolutely to accomplish their primary goals.
Have them work with the protagonist
“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”Unknown
Having your villain work with your protagonist is an effective way to hide him. We don’t suspect those with whom we have a good relationship. Your villain should offer good advice to your protagonist frequently enough to be seen as trustworthy. Then, when he acts villainously, the hero will be less likely to suspect him and may even go along with the scheme for a time.
Plant red flags early on
No one likes the surprise ending where the villain is revealed and the reader says, “What? Wait. No way. You tricked me.” At the end of the story, our readers should be able to look back and find the clues we planted.
We build most detective stories around the fact that all the suspects act suspiciously.
Let the villain slip up and make minor mistakes. Let him say or do something that casts suspicion on him, but then also provide alternative and plausible reasons for his actions.
Show her acting inconsistent with the things she is saying. She says she was working late when she was actually out with friends. Her actions don’t even have to relate to the main plot. They just need to show she is unreliable.
Show that the villain has motives which could lead to him doing wrong and opposing the protagonist.
Make sure that the other characters don’t pick up on or act on these red flags too early in the story.
Why should you hide your villain?
Every villain is the hero of his own story. When we take the time to give him the depth of characterization that we give to the protagonist, we are creating villains who will be worthy opponents. Worthy opponents make for richer, more interesting stories. Hiding the villain and delaying the full expression of his intentions will increase the dramatic tension of the story and keep readers turning pages.