Sometimes, you don’t want your readers (or your characters!) to know who the bad guys are in your story. And if you think about it, it makes sense for villains to camouflage themselves.
Villains are deceitful, cunning, and manipulative. They don’t always go around announcing they’re the bad guy! Sometimes, they need to go incognito to get what they want. And sometimes, the scariest villain is the one you didn’t see.
So how can you hide the baddies in your story for a deliciously wicked twist? You need to subvert your reader’s expectations. As in, take what your readers expect and assume about villains, and then turn that upside down. Here are 5 tricks to try!
*Note: This post contains spoilers of the following to illustrate examples: Frozen, City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, The Flash season 1, Teen Wolf season 1, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling. You have been warned 😉
1. Handsome and Charming
Readers often expect villains to be ugly or scary looking. Think back to all those Disney films you watched as a kid–Cruella de Vil, Jafar, Ursula, Captain Hook, Maleficent. You knew right away if the character was the bad guy because he/she was ugly or creepy. But real life isn’t always so black and white. Dark things often come in pretty packages.
In Frozen, Disney subverts the expectations they’ve been setting for their audience for years. They introduce the character of Hans, a charming and handsome prince who seems like a pretty nice guy. Him and Princess Ana seem to really hit it off. Heck, even his horse seems nice. But then we discover that while Hans might have a pretty face, inside he’s rotten to the core.
2. Helping the Hero
Readers will never suspect that a character who’s helping the hero could ever be a villain. Because why would the bad guy help the enemy, right? But he might have ulterior motives that don’t become clear until later. This type of character could be a mentor, someone the hero admires/sees as an idol, or just someone who seems to be willing to lend a helping hand. What hidden agenda might your villain be hiding?
In City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, Hodge is the tutor of the main characters. But what they don’t learn until later is that he’s actually an ex-follower of the villain and was banished to the Institute, where he is trapped by a curse. He helps the characters secure an item Valentine is after–but only so he can hand it over to Valentine in exchange for his freedom.
In the t.v. series The Flash, Dr. Wells is Barry’s idol and helps him learn how to use his powers. But in reality, Wells is actually from the future and became trapped in the past when trying to kill Barry before he became the Flash. He needs Barry to become fast enough to open a portal that will allow Wells to return to his world.
3. Completely Harmless
The character in the wheel chair or coma can’t be the villain, right? I mean, it’s just not possible. Look at him, he could never hurt anyone.
In The Flash, Dr. Wells pretends to be confined to a wheel chair which makes the heroes less suspicious of him. And in the first season of MTV’s Teen Wolf, Peter Hale appeared to be in a coma, so no one suspected he could be the alpha werewolf terrorizing the town.
We expect the villain to be strong–both physically and mentally. Making him seem defenseless or harmless is a great way to camouflage him.
4. Incompetent Fool
Villains by nature are cunning, powerful, and vicious, so when we come across a character who seems to be a bumbling fool, we’re not going to suspect he’s actually a bad guy. J.K. Rowling does this brilliantly with Professor Quirrel in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. No one suspects the stuttering, timid, cowardly professor is actually working for Lord Voldemort.
Villains aren’t supposed to be likable. They’re dark, cruel, wicked, selfish, and unjust. So if you create a character who seems to be cheerful, kind, friendly, and even shows heroic traits, the reader won’t think they’re the villain. The more the reader likes the character, the less they’ll suspect him because they won’t want him to be a bad guy. He might even be their favorite character! That is, until he shows his true colors.
Let’s go back to Hans from Frozen. He seems sweet, charming, and a little silly/awkward, and when Ana goes looking for Elsa he helps look after the kingdom. Then when Ana’s horse returns riderless, Hans goes off in search of his love. Seems pretty heroic and honorable, right? Until we learn he just wants to marry Ana to kill Elsa and gain control of the kingdom. Talk about cold!