Have you ever been completely shocked while reading a story to find that the very person you least suspected was the villain all along?
Murder mysteries use this tactic all the time, and I love it because while you never see it coming, once you go back, you can see how all the clues were pointing to the true villain all along.
But how do authors do this believably, while making sure that their readers don’t catch on too soon?
With my last writing project, I decided to go with the unexpected villain as my main twist. It was tricky finding the right balance between believability and mystery, but I did discover a few tips along the way that will hopefully give you something to work with if you’re writing a masquerading villain.
1. Make sure the villain is someone the hero trusts completely.
If you want to create the maximum level of surprise, you need to make sure your villain is someone the protagonist, and therefore the reader, would never suspect.
Family members and childhood friends work really well as unexpected villains. I mean, who would ever suspect that the protagonist’s brother is the one selling him out?
Give the villain something that makes him seem sympathetic. Maybe he’s lost a loved one, or he saved the protagonist’s life once. One of my favorite twists is when the mentor turns out to be the villain. Whatever it is, make sure it’s strong enough to throw the reader off their scent.
2. Have the villain’s offer sound good.
Unexpected villains work because they have the ability to make evil sound good. In other words, they’re master manipulators. They know how to use the protagonist’s weaknesses and desires for their own purposes in a way that appeals to the protagonist. All while claiming that they’re there to help the protagonist.
So make sure to give your villain’s offer an element of truth. For example, in my Russian spy novel, my villain convinces my protagonist Karina to undertake a spy mission because it will bring justice to the man who scarred her as a child. It sounds good because it’s about justice, right? But he’s really just playing off Karina’s desire for revenge in order to use her for his agenda.
Remember: the masquerading villain knows how to manipulate human emotions and desires for his own gain, so use that to your advantage.
3. Start planting red flags.
At some point, no matter how skilled the villain is, the truth has to come out. He can only keep up the front for so long, and if you keep the reader waiting too long, you risk them getting annoyed and putting the book down.
Have your villain start to slip. Maybe he says something that makes the protagonist suspicious. Maybe the protagonist sees him sneaking out at night. Maybe the protagonist hears rumors about the villain that make him think something’s up.
You don’t have to show all your cards up front though. Even though you’re dropping warning signs, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to quite point yet to him being the main villain. Make sure to plant other equally logical explanations for the villain’s suspicious actions, such as ones the villain gives himself, so that you keep the reader guessing just a little longer.
4. Have your protagonist be an unreliable narrator.
The unexpected villain works best if you have an unreliable narrator.
The protagonist should, to a degree, be blind to what the villain is actually doing, whether willingly or out of ignorance. Make sure to exploit the protagonist’s weakness here.
Maybe he’s too trusting of people and always wants to see the good in them. Maybe he’s blinded by his own anger or prejudice or grief. So he’s choosing to ignore the red flags or explain them away because either he really doesn’t think the villain is capable of being the villain or he doesn’t want to have to face the consequences of the truth.
For example, in my story, Karina ignores the red flags about the villain because 1) he’s done so much for her family already, 2) she feels understood by him in a way she never was by her mother, and 3) she’s enjoying her chance at revenge (disguised as justice). Not only does this build tension, but it highlights Karina’s flaw, advancing her character arc even more.
5. Create a moment of confrontation.
At some point, all this tension and suspense has to come to a head where the villain and protagonist have a big confrontation. Usually this happens in the climax, but depending on the direction of your story, it could also happen in the midpoint.
In this scene, the villain should be exposed completely for who he really is and everything should come to light. This is the culmination of all those clues you carefully planted throughout the story. The protagonist’s reality shatters and as the reader connects the dots, he realizes he should have seen it coming all along.
It shouldn’t just happen because you as the writer need it to though. There should be a good reason for why the villain is found out. Maybe a fatal clue surfaces, or someone who knows the villain for who he is shows up, or (this is my personal favorite) the villain has gotten what he needed from the protagonist and so he doesn’t need to hide his true identity anymore.
There are lots of different options here, so figure out what works best for your story!
Hiding your villain in plain sight can be tricky, but with the right planning and feedback from readers, you can pull off a story that will keep your readers on the edge of their seat and be a truly memorable experience for them.
Have you ever written a masquerading villain before? What other tips have helped you?
Kristianne Hassman is a young writer who is slightly obsessed with fantasy worlds, matcha lattes, and traveling. A missionary kid her whole life, she’s lived in three African countries and currently gets to call the beautiful country of South Africa home. She has a burden to write stories that are deep and honest while brimming with hope. When she’s not writing, you can find her playing her violin, dreaming about the next country to visit, or blogging. You can connect with her at her website or on Instagram.