“Orders are nobody can see the Great Oz! Not nobody, not nohow!”
One of the writing tenets I absolutely believe in is that every scene needs an antagonist. Follow this simple principle, and you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to write.
However, sometimes I meet resistance, puzzlement, and reluctance when I try to share this with others.
“But I don’t want my villain revealed just yet!” is usually one of the biggest laments.
Last week, I read several Agatha Christie mysteries. Her plots are marvels; her twists are legendary. She’s deceptively simple on the surface level while offering complex human emotions and motivations beneath. If you’re writing a mystery you don’t want to reveal the villain at the start. The character will be present in the cast, but concealed within a deceptive guise.
Or the villain will come and go in the story, as in the case of the Harry Potter novels. Voldemort is mentioned in Chapter One, and the dread of him hangs like a cloud over the entire series. Yet he actually appears only occasionally, usually at the climax of each book. The rest of the time, Harry and his friends are coping with a succession of intermediary villains. Rowling keeps her young readers guessing by having troublesome teachers prove to be allies and friendly teachers prove to be cohorts of Voldemort’s.
I think that inexperienced writers often stumble here when concealing the real villain’s identity. They hide the character too well, and the individual simply isn’t in the story until the climax. Then a villain pops up out of the blue, and it all looks very contrived.
What a writer must remember to do is establish the villain’s role. Establish the existence of the villain. Acknowledge it either through character comments, the protagonist’s thoughts, or switching viewpoint to the villain for the reader’s information.
To return to mysteries: the identity of the murderer isn’t going to be revealed until the end, but as soon as a victim is discovered, readers and the sleuth alike know there’s a bad guy out there somewhere, a criminal who must be caught and punished.
In thrillers, the villain’s actions are pivotal to the plot. Readers often meet the villain before the protagonist. But the story’s emphasis doesn’t lie with discovering identity; it’s about stopping whatever the villain’s up to. So if you pick up a Ken Follett thriller, say a classic like THE MAN FROM ST. PETERSBURG, you know who the assassin is, you watch the man dodging police and mixing nitroglycerin bombs in his rented room, and you wonder if anyone in the story is going to save the Tsar’s cousin from assassination. To keep his good guys from looking stupid, Follett lets the British authorities know there’s an assassination attempt brewing, but they can’t track down the villain in time. The girl who befriends the villain has no clue who he really is or what he’s trying to do. She thinks he’s rather nice while he makes a patsy of her.
What if you’re writing a fantasy yarn and your characters are on a quest to take back the Scroll of Magick and restore it to where it rightfully belongs? Your band of sojourners aren’t going to meet the villain until near the end, but they have a concept of a villain’s involvement with the story events. They may or may not know the evil sorceress’s name or where her dark castle stands. They may have to search a long time before they confront her. But they are seeking her, and–like Harry Potter–they’ll encounter plenty of trouble along the way. Evil sorceress isn’t going to sit tamely in her castle and wait for them to show up. She’ll throw all sorts of traps and pitfalls in their path.
To satisfy the principle of always having conflict, a writer of the hidden-villain story needs two kinds of opponents: intermediary antagonists and a master villain that’s active behind the scenes.
The intermediary antagonists are often a successive string of foes. They hinder the protagonist as much as possible. Even so, it’s important to salt the plot with a few encounters between the protagonist and the master villain as well.
Be clever. In fantasy and science fiction, you can have confrontations in dreams and via mental communication, teleportation, and spells, etc. In other genres, you can utilize phone calls and text messages. You can have the villain leave cryptic origami birds on the protagonist’s desk at work or inside her apartment as creepy little reminders that no place is safe and nothing is secure.
In my YA fantasy series, The Faelin Chronicles (under pen name C. Aubrey Hall), the protagonist is a boy who has visions. He’s still learning magic, so he misinterprets the information at times. In The Call of Eirian (April 2012), he “sees” a pair of eyes staring at him from the sky just before he and his friends are attacked. He mistakenly identifies the attacker and doesn’t learn the truth until much later in the story. The error keeps the boy’s characterization plausible, sets up for a plot twist, and continues to hide the identify of the real villain for a few more chapters.