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Hiding Your Villain in Plain Sight


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At the start of any mystery or whodunit, often authors find themselves grappling with a conundrum: how, exactly, do I hide my villain or “bad guy” in plain sight? This individual is often a key player in the story, meaning we need to introduce the reader to our villain early (ultimately, this makes for a more satisfying ending: no one wants to learn that the villain is a minor side character who shows up in act III.)

We also need the reader to engage regularly with the hidden villain throughout the story. When keeping our villain’s identity under wraps, we want the reader to not only understand this key character’s motives, but even root for them. And of course, we want the reader to trust the hidden villain.

Below are eight characterization and plot strategies to keep your villain’s identity disguised until that perfect moment when you, the author, decide to unveil the truth.

Use first-person point of view

First-person POV is the easiest way to establish a meaningful connection between your villain and your reader. It allows the reader to effortlessly step into the villain’s emotional state, which is important as we work to establish sympathy for the “bad guy” we’re hoping to hide among our cast of characters.

Personally, I’m a fan of epistolary narrative structures, and this is easily paired with first-person POV. For example, I can think of nothing more compelling than the tell-all diary of a meek and likable villain, documenting (firsthand!) the events leading up to the central crime in a story—a crime they commit.

Provide a sympathetic background

Every character enters a story with his or her own flaws and emotional wounds. Consider making these as relatable, and heart-breaking, as possible. A few ideas: poverty or financial struggles; flawed physical appearance or physical afflictions; or a deep personal loss.

Once you’ve established the emotional or physical characteristics that will make your reader pity your hidden villain, let us into the villain’s thoughts about these characteristics. Show us his or her embarrassment, shame, or grief. Remember, we want the reader to desire healing, and happiness, for the hidden villain.

Establish motivations and goals

Like other key characters in your story, your hidden villain must have his or her own story goals that are both (1) stated out loud, and (2) warranted. We want the reader rooting for the hidden villain throughout the story, and the only way to do this is to establish what, exactly, your bad guy wants—and why.

Once you’ve done this, then…

Throw a wrench in your hidden villain’s plans

Once you’ve established a reader’s sympathy for this all-important character, and once you’ve established that character’s goals, make something bad happen to them. Ideally, this negative event is related to the flaws and emotional wounds you’ve established above. We want the reader to quite literally feel bad for the villain. We want them to say, “aww” or, “oh no…” We want the reader to be convinced that your hidden villain’s goals are out of reach.

This strategy is most effective in acts I and II of your story (because in act III, you’ll be focused on revealing the villain and, hopefully, showing the reader how very wrong they were about this character all along.)

Demonstrate virtue and show emotion

As your villain responds to the events unfolding in the plot, strategically insert scenes in which this character shows virtuous traits. Consider empathy, pity, honesty, generosity, selflessness, self-restraint, cooperation, or forgiveness.

Show your villain’s emotions, too. No one is 100% evil, and even bad guys feel heartbreak, resignation, loneliness, and unease. You can weave these emotions into your narrative via backstory (for instance, your hidden villain might still be mourning the loss of an old friend) but better yet, incorporate active scenes in which we see these feelings displayed in real-time, in response to plot events.

Show positive interaction with other characters

Another way to build trust and virtue around your bad guy? Show other characters liking and/or respecting your hidden villain. Perhaps he’s charismatic and draws friends easily to him; or perhaps your villain is an attentive mother and the well-liked president of the PTO.

Readers will consider the way other characters feel about your villain when making their own decisions about whether to trust him or her.

Watch voice and tone closely

As the author, you know the villain from page one. Inevitably, you will inadvertently reveal clues to the villain’s identity as you write. This might be in tone, word choice, dialogue, etc. As you make your revision passes, look closely for this and soften dialogue and narrative exposition where possible. If your villain seems particularly edgy or gruff or snarky, ask yourself, might this give away too much too soon?

A critique reader can help greatly with this part of this process. Ask them, at what point did they begin to suspect the villain? It’s possible that your word choice or tone throughout the narrative offered clues earlier than you intended.

What other suggestions do you have for hiding a villain in plain sight? What else makes a villain likable or trustworthy? What whodunit books have you read with a shocking “bad guy” reveal?

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About Sarah Penner

Sarah Penner is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of The Lost Apothecary (Park Row Books/HarperCollins) which will be translated into more than thirty languages worldwide. A graduate of the University of Kansas, Sarah spent thirteen years in corporate finance and now writes full-time. She and her husband live in St. Petersburg, Florida with their miniature dachshund, Zoe. To learn more, visit SarahPenner.com.

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