5 Ways to Hide Your Villain In Plain Sight

Sometimes, you want to hide the bad guys in your story to fool your readers--and your characters! Click to learn 5 tricks for camouflaging your villain!

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.

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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.

Wrong.

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.

5. Likability

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!

Have you ever read a book where the villain turned out to be a surprise? Let me know in the comments!

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11 thoughts on “5 Ways to Hide Your Villain In Plain Sight

  1. This article is VERY helpful. I always find myself writing cliche, ordinary villains. With these ideas I hope to be able to create one of those plot twist villains you never see coming. I’m excited! Thanks for the great information 🙂

    1. So glad you found it helpful, Zoe! Villains really are the hardest characters to write. I hope you come up with some killer twists & ideas for your villain 😉

  2. This is great. Have you ever watched the TV show “Dollhouse”, created by Joss Whedon? It does this twice. First the agoraphobic computer wizard they hire to help them infiltrate the Dollhouse project turns out to be the mysterious psychopathic Alpha. You didn’t suspect him because he was a total wimp, scared of his own shadow. Then, at the very end, one of the main characters, Boyd, turns out to be the one secretly running the Dollhouse project. Back at the beginning of the show, he was one of the first characters to become likable. The others were self-serving or completely passive, but Boyd devoted himself to protecting the hero, Echo, even putting his own life in danger for her. Like you said, you don’t want to believe he could be the bad guy, so you never even consider the possibility. Also, making your villain seem like a hero increases the emotional impact of the conflict. The audience feels as betrayed as the heroes. If you want to be really manipulative, have the villain believe that he really was acting in the hero’s best interests all along. Boyd was trying to turn them into the family he never had, but ironically the thing that finally united them once and for all was his betrayal. They were able to put aside their differences in order to defeat their common enemy. Him.

    1. Oooh I’ve never heard of that show but I’m going to have to check it out now! Sounds so intriguing. Thanks for sharing, Tamara!

  3. This is very insightful and I will certainly keep these in mind. The more clever a story the more I love it, or love to hate it – Game of Thrones is perfect case in point. You don’t know who the villains are, let alone who the heroes are, I love that in a story!
    I’m curious to what your suggestion would be concerning a character that is both the hero and the villain of the story. It’s something I’ve been struggling with, but deeply want to convey. It’s not a simple matter of split-personality disorder, but it’s for realistic effect.
    Please, when you have time, let me know what you think.
    Great article! Definitely saving!

    1. Thanks Griffin! I agree, I love stories that make you think and keep you on your toes! Hmmm so is this character a villain, but they’re the POV character and it’s their story so they’re also the hero? Or is this just a character that acts like both a hero and villain, maybe transitioning between the two? I think either way you want to make sure your readers understand the villain. Give him motive & reason for his actions/choices, and also humanize him. Make him grey with both good and bad qualities so readers can understand and sympathize or empathize with him, and maybe even like him in some ways. George R.R. Martin does this with Jamie & Cersei Lannister–they can be viewed as both heroes and villains and you don’t know whether to like or hate them. The tv show “Dexter” also comes to mind here. Though I haven’t seen it, I’ve heard that the main character is the hero and villain and you like & hate him at the same time. This might be worth watching as a case study to see how the show’s writers pulled it off. I hope this answers your question!

  4. I’ve never thought about doing this to my villain (whom I’m gonna name Marcus Thorne) until I read your posts on villains. This is brilliant! Thank you for this post Kaitlin! 😀

  5. Yes! A lot of writers get stuck in the vicious circle of wanting to tell the reader everything as it comes along, but then where does the suspense go? OUT THE WINDOW.

    Thank you for pushing writers to think before they write.

  6. I have sworn not to give the ending away, but the supreme example of this is Agatha Christie’s ‘The Mousetrap’ in which the villain was the last person everybody suspects, even though you know it won’t be obvious.

  7. i’ve just finished reading your article and it sounds thrilling. reasoning for this is because i’m just over halfway of writing an unsolicited novella of my own and so far i think that i’ve failed at disguising the villain, you have been such a help. thank you.

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