Aug 04 2010

Foreshadowing a Villain Without Giving It Away

What if the villain isn’t supposed to obviously be the villain the first time he shows up?

1. Give the villain an innocuous explanation for the villainous/unseemly behavior we see, especially early on. If I offered you $50 for something valuable, it might not be that I’m trying to rip you off: Maybe I don’t know what it’s actually worth or am too desperate to offer you the going rate.  Or let’s say that criminals are threatening to brutally murder a captured character.  A hero that calls for an immediate attack might be genuinely convinced that’s the best way to rescue the hostage.  Or maybe he’s actually hoping the hostage will get killed in the crossfire. (Maybe the hostage knows too much or otherwise poses some sort of problem–that might explain why he was captured in the first place).

2. The circumstances surrounding the objectionable behaviors are ambiguous and/or encourage us to sympathize or relate with him. For example, let’s say that the readers know (or have some reason to suspect) that your Ozymandias just killed the Comedian.  You could present it as a public service and/or retribution for something unseemly the victim was involved in (such as murdering a pregnant woman).  We don’t need to know right away that the villain actually killed the victim to cover his tracks or for any other nefarious reason.  If you’re trying to keep it a secret that the character is a villain (and not just an unsavory side-character) but the readers can predict it anyway, you probably haven’t given him enough extenuating circumstances.

3. The eventual villain’s nonheroic traits might actually make him seem more valuable as a protagonist. For example, if you have a group of heroes that actually includes the eventual villain, the heroes might respect the eventual villain as a Batman (a mostly sensible but occasionally brutal problem-solver).  Maybe his rough style makes him more competent. Maybe the protagonists are generally gullible and naïve, but he is suspicious and cunning.

4.  The heroes are also morally gray. If all of the other heroes are 100% protagonistic, the one that isn’t will stand out in a bad way.  If your goal is to keep the villain’s identity something of a secret, that’s probably counterproductive.

5. You have a more obvious antagonist as a red herring. If readers think they know who the main villain is, they won’t think as hard about undercover villains.  For example, in the Watchmen, the Soviet Union probably served as a red herring because it had a plausible reason to kill the Comedian (something of a CIA operative) and it played a prominent role as part of the nuclear standoff.

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Foreshadowing a Villain Without Giving It Away”

  1. Loysquaredon 06 Aug 2010 at 12:51 am

    This ambiguous/dubious villainy plots are VERY tricky to pull off, mainly because two things, either the author: blows it and becomes predictable, or wings it with inconsistencies and turns disappointing. The best case scenario would be that the author dodges both bullets, but if I were to choose between the lesser evil, it would be the first one. No one likes to be made a fool of themselves (did I say it right?), lol.

    Case in point: “Angels and Demons”.

  2. B. Macon 06 Aug 2010 at 9:53 am

    I agree. It’s very tricky.

    I’d like to try it out, so I’m planning my comic very carefully. If all goes well, I think it’ll make for a kickass fight scene where a mutant alligator, a Navy SEAL and a helicopter get manhandled by a scientist that has been saving the best superserum for himself.

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