Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Sometimes, the most effective villain is the one you didn’t see coming. It’s the helpful friend who turns out to be the villain’s stooge, the kindly inn-keeper hiding cannibalistic intent, or the sage master whose long-game is to tempt you to the dark side. Of course, for these villains to work, you have to trust them first.
As an author, this can be incredibly difficult. It’s not enough to just make a character seem trustworthy within the story – you also have to consider genre-savvy readers who can identify a villain just by when they arrive in the story.
No, it won’t be easy, but in this article, I’ll cover the tips and tricks you can use to make your villain seem as trustworthy as possible, as well as one all-purpose tip that no author should be without. So, without further ado, let’s get started.
Make the reader like them
The first step to winning your reader’s trust is winning their approval. If they’re glad a character is around, and enjoy the scenes in which they appear, they’re far less likely to indulge any suspicions they may have, and work counter to whatever villainous clues you drop into the story.
It’s important to note, here, that you’re trying to win the reader’s approval, not your characters’. Sometimes it makes sense for characters to love a hidden villain – it may be the key to making the reveal as shocking as possible – but the reader has to come first.
Often, the way to the reader’s heart is to have a character do something transgressive; something no other character would dare to do (and which may even shock them) but which the reader wanted to see done. This might be a rude comment or a daring act, but by showing the other characters being shocked by the hidden villain, the reader and the villain are formed into a sort of club.
This is the case in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, in which Alastor ‘Mad-Eye’ Moody assaults one of the protagonists’ bullying classmates, Malfoy, by turning him into a ferret and bouncing him around.
“What— what are you doing?” said Professor McGonagall, her eyes following the bouncing ferret’s progress through the air.
“Teaching,” said Moody.
“Teach— Moody, is that a student?” shrieked Professor McGonagall, the books spilling out of her arms.
“Yep,” said Moody.
“No!” cried Professor McGonagall, running down the stairs and pulling out her wand; a moment later, with a loud snapping noise, Draco Malfoy had reappeared, lying in a heap on the floor with his sleek blond hair all over his now brilliantly pink face. He got to his feet, wincing.
“Moody, we never use Transfiguration as a punishment!” said Professor McGonagall weakly.
– J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Moody is actually a villain in disguise, but Rowling has him act against a character who the reader already dislikes in an audacious, satisfying way. Once Moody is revealed, this transgressive act takes on a new context (that of an adult man torturing a child), but on first reading, it endears him to the reader.
Of course, this isn’t the only way to make the reader like a character, but it’s dependable and it works to set up the final reveal. By setting your hidden villain up as someone who crosses lines, it won’t be as surprising when they cross the biggest line of all. More than that; the reader has already been cued up to trust their actions, even when the rest of the characters don’t approve. Get them thinking along these lines, and they’ll overlook a lot of shady behavior without realizing its true import.
Of course, it’s not just transgressive acts that can help you build trust in a villain.
Have the villain act against their own interests
One of the easiest ways to make the reader trust a hidden villain is to have them act in a way which seems to counter their own machinations. The most common way of doing this is found in murder mysteries, and involves the villain being the one who hires the detective. Logic dictates that they’re above suspicion, since there’s no sensible explanation for why they’d try to uncover their own crime (except you’re the author, so you can make one up).
Of course, this narrative device has become something of a cliché. It had a good run, though; even Sherlock Holmes had to contend with it in his day.
“You certainly seem to have met every difficulty,” said the inspector. “Of course, he was bound to call us in, but why he should have gone to you I can’t understand.”
“Pure swank!” Holmes answered. “He felt so clever and so sure of himself that he imagined no one could touch him. He could say to any suspicious neighbor, ‘Look at the steps I have taken. I have consulted not only the police but even Sherlock Holmes’.”
– Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Retired Colourman
Authors can still get the most out of this device by plotting out the villain’s plan beforehand. Maybe the villain didn’t realize how much they were helping the hero, maybe there was a secondary effect that was their true goal, or maybe they just needed the hero to reach a certain point.
This latter example is the case with Rowling’s Mad-Eye Moody, who helps Harry throughout the book. This initially seems to be done out of kindness, but in fact Moody is just manipulating Harry over the minor obstacles and into a larger trap.
Of course sometimes you don’t want the reader to like a villain, or even really ‘trust’ them, you just want them to be dismissed from general suspicion.
Utilize minor flaws
Sometimes, the best way to throw a reader off the villain’s scent is to give them a minor or unrelated flaw. It’s difficult to write a character who’s hiding something as if they’re not, and a fake ‘discovery’ makes the reader feel like they’ve gotten to the bottom of things.
In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the reader is told that the eventual villain, Bill Haydon, once had an affair with the wife of protagonist George Smiley. While this would seem to set Haydon up as a suspicious character, it actually lessens the reader’s expectation that he’s the mole Smiley is hunting for.
In the reader’s mind, it’s already apparent what Haydon did ‘wrong’. He has been discovered, and so further investigation makes no sense. In this way, it’s easy to hide a major reveal under a far less important flaw.
This doesn’t have to be genuine misbehavior – you can equip your antagonist with a secret or mistake, just to give the reader something to discover. This will usually distract the reader, but it’s most effective in crime fiction or stories where the reader knows there’s a hidden villain. Imagine they have a list of characters and they suspect each of hiding something. Help them tick your villain off their list so they can concentrate elsewhere. In fact, you can also help them along with that second part.
Offer an alternative
The most effective tool for building trust in your villain is to invite distrust of someone else. In the very first Harry Potter book, this is done incredibly well – the reader is introduced to the cruel and decidedly gothic Professor Snape, completely drawing their attention away from the real antagonist, the mousy Professor Quirrell.The best way to build trust in your villain is to invite distrust of someone else. Click To Tweet
When Harry’s broom goes haywire, Professor Snape is seen muttering an incantation, and is ‘thwarted’ in a way that also inconveniences the actual culprit. It’s a children’s book, so the misdirect is more obvious, but this is the ideal device for drawing suspicion away from a villain without really needing that villain to do anything in return.
Here, in fact, we find that tip that no author should be without, and the best advice for making the reader trust your villain: The reader is never stupider than when they think they’re being smart. Why is this the case? Because, as stated above, they stop paying attention. No-one is blinder to new clues than someone who already thinks they have the answer.
In Terry Pratchett’s Feet of Clay, for example, a character is being poisoned with arsenic. Multiple characters note his horrible, green wallpaper, and some readers might even remember the theory that Napoleon was poisoned by arsenic fumes from his wallpaper, or that many murder mysteries have used this concept as a plot point.
In the end, the arsenic is actually in the victim’s candles – a resolution which has its own clues dotted throughout the narrative. Imagine, though, the proud surety with which smart readers considered the case closed. Inspire this feeling in your reader and they’ll trust the villain to the ends of the earth, sure that they’ve already discovered the true culprit elsewhere.
It’s a balancing act, of course: the more you ‘hide’ a fake reveal, the more confident your readers will be in it, but the less likely they’ll be to find it.
That’s not to say that you always need a patsy: sometimes the reader can be distracted in another way.
Distract with disaster
Sometimes, there’s a detail that you need to include but which you don’t want the reader to notice. Maybe the villain is somewhere they shouldn’t be, or knows something they have no legitimate way of finding out. In situations like this, the best solution is to distract the reader with disaster and/or spectacle.
Have them crash on the way home, or drop a revelation right after the info they shouldn’t have. Show the reader something big and you can trick them narratively and structurally. The reader, being genre-savvy, knows that there has to be a ‘point’ to a scene. If the real reason you included that scene is to refer to it later (once the villain is revealed), that’s fine, but they’re going to sense something’s off when the scene doesn’t go anywhere. Instead, create a new ‘point’ and direct them towards it.
If the big event affects the plot, even better; deep down, the reader knows that the only real reason a character is anywhere, or knows anything, is that it’s necessary for the plot. Play into this assumption; introduce something that structurally requires the character to be in a certain place and the reader will be less likely to consider the narrative reason they might have been there. Other authors have taught your reader to suspend their disbelief about certain things, and it’s down to you to take full advantage.
There are many outside factors that you can use to have the reader trust your villain, but even certain aspects of the villain can get them dismissed as a threat.
Make the villain seem weak
The suspicion that a character may be the villain hangs on the idea that they may be a threat. As foolish as it may be in the modern age, we’re still hardwired to equate the idea of danger with a physical threat. Make your character seem weak, and your reader will be more likely to overlook them, even if the threat they pose doesn’t have anything to do with their physicality. (Of course, make their injury too pronounced, as in a Bond villain, and the reader will see through you.)
This is the case with Rowling’s Quirrell; in a world of wizards, there’s no reason his unassuming nature should make him seem less threatening, and yet the device is effective.
When Harry first meets Quirrell, he has adopted a turban for everyday wear. His nerves, expressed most obviously in his stammer, are so pronounced that it is rumored the turban is stuffed full of garlic, to ward off vampires.
I saw Quirrell as a gifted but delicate boy, who would probably have been teased for his timidity and nerves during his school life.
– J.K. Rowling, ‘Professor Quirrell’ from Pottermore
A similar device is used in The Lake of Tears, in which the protagonists are waylaid by a kind, elderly couple. The pair are actually monsters disguised by magic, and the threat they pose dawns slowly rather than being immediately obvious.
One form of weakness is to injure the character – the movie The Usual Suspects famously uses a fake limp to make a character seem less dangerous than they actually are – but it may actually be more effective to hurt the villain right in front of the reader.
Hurt the villain in front of the reader
In the movie Reservoir Dogs, a police mole is put through extensive physical and emotional trauma, most of it right in front of the viewer. As a consequence, the viewer builds up an enormous amount of sympathy towards him.We react to injury with sympathy – an easy way to camouflage your villain.Click To Tweet
A similar device is used in Bridget Jones’s Diary, though less prominently. Here, Mark Darcy denigrates Bridget’s current partner, Daniel, without giving a concrete reason why. Since Darcy has been standoffish, and Daniel is an engaging character, it’s enough to make the insults feel like persecution, moving the reader (and Bridget) more firmly onto Daniel’s side.
‘I suppose you think it’s alright to slag people’s boyfriends off to their parents’ friends behind their back when they’re not even there for no reason just because you’re jealous,’ I flailed.
He stared at me, as if distracted by something else.
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I was just trying to figure out what you mean. Have I…? Are you suggesting that I am jealous of Daniel Clear? Over you?’
‘No, not over me,’ I said, furious because I realized it did sound like that. ‘I was just assuming you must have some reason to be so horrible about my boyfriend other than pure malevolence.’
– Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary
Later, of course, it turns out that the mole in Reservoir Dogs set up the ambush that got him shot (though his suffering is real), and that Darcy has excellent reason to hate Daniel. Nevertheless, they earned the reader’s sympathy and so, with help from other devices, won their trust.
It’s an innate response to care for someone who’s suffering, and that’s not the only way you can use reader’s assumptions to have them invest in a character.
Play with genre
I said earlier that in order to build sympathy in a villain, you’ll have to influence both the reader’s perception of the narrative and their appreciation of the general structure of a story. Happily, the reader’s structural knowledge isn’t just a hurdle – it can also be used to your advantage.
In Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, a zombie infestation has overturned society. Kirkman focuses on the societal effects and the politics of a small group of survivors, ignoring the usual focus on cause and eventual solution that is often found in other zombie fiction.
That’s not to say that Kirkman doesn’t understand these themes, and he actually invokes them in such a way that the reader grows to trust a dishonest character. In Here We Remain, Kirkman introduces Eugene Porter, who claims to be a scientist who knows the true origin of the zombie ‘plague’ and may be able to revert it, and has even recruited other survivors to protect him on that basis.
In reality, Eugene is actually a science teacher who knows just enough to fool the other characters, and he is eventually found out. While Eugene is knowledgeable, the real reasons the reader grows to trust him is that his character and purpose are familiar within zombie fiction. The scientist offering one last hope is a tried and true character, and so when that archetype turns up in Kirkman’s world, the reader is far more willing to accept what’s actually a very unlikely story (though they may fear Kirkman is steering into cliché). The survivors Eugene has recruited are a partial cipher for the reader, believing his story because it fits into how they want to see their situation rather than because it’s particularly convincing.Hide your villain behind your reader’s assumptions and expectations.Click To Tweet
By appreciating the traditions, tropes and clichés of your genre, you can influence the reader’s thinking with the lightest of touches. Give them what they already half-expect, or hide a surprise behind an assumption, and they’ll trust your villain without even considering their guilt.
The techniques above are subtle ways to get your reader to trust a villain, but there are more effective tools you can apply. Fair warning, though; the more directly you direct attention away from your villain, the more cheated the reader may feel when their true nature is revealed.
Have your villain lie to the reader
Lying to the reader is risky business, since it can break the ‘rules’ of a hidden reveal. If the reader feels like it was impossible to guess that your villain was up to no good, they may become irritated and see your writing as dishonest rather than clever.
Despite this, there are ways to get away with lying to the reader. The first is to have an unreliable narrator. This is the case in books like Filth and Fight Club. Both stories are told by an unreliable narrator with a faltering grip on reality. Since these characters don’t see the world as it is, they’re able to feed the reader subtle untruths that stop them identifying the true nature of the antagonist. How much this qualifies as ‘trust’ is debatable, but the reader at least trusts some key concepts about which they should be far more skeptical.
Gone Girl uses a slightly subtler device by presenting the reader with a fake diary designed to mislead the police. Here, the reader gets the antagonist’s dishonest account under a false assumption of privacy and honesty. The lie is told, but it’s an intentional lie that has a purpose within the narrative. This type of false privacy is a great way to make your reader trust a villain – all you have to do is create a scene in which the reader thinks they’re alone but the character has cause to suspect they’re being observed.
Do this wrong, however, and it’ll outrage the reader. Complex fan theories have sprung up over a scene in the Disney movie Frozen in which a hidden villain smiles sweetly at the protagonist despite having no reason to hide his animosity in the moment. Was he secretly mind-controlled by trolls? It seems the only logical explanation.
Having your villain lie in the story can backfire, but it’s not the riskiest device I can recommend. No, that award goes to the idea of just removing your villain from the story.
Hide your villain
One key concept to be aware of is that there’s a specific section of your story during which your reader is actively searching for the villain. This section is the point between when you ask them to consider who the villain might be and the moment the villain is unmasked.
It might sound like this covers the whole story, but it doesn’t. In Reservoir Dogs, there are a number of scenes before the presence of a mole is suggested, in which the viewer meets and grows to like the hidden antagonist. He is then injured and rendered unconscious for the majority of the time the other characters are searching for the mole. A combination of likability, being hurt in front of the viewer, and not being fully present when the viewer is looking for the mole exempts him from suspicion.You can literally remove your villain from suspicion, but it’s risky.Click To Tweet
A similar device is used in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Here, the hidden villain falsifies their own death, removing them from consideration as the reader tries to figure out the killer’s true identity.
Again, this device plays off the reader’s assumptions, reassuring them that a potential answer doesn’t need to be considered. Do this right, and the reader will kick themselves for never considering a character they met and grew to know. Do it wrong, and the reader will feel cheated.
Making the reader trust your villain
In the end, making the reader trust your villain is about combining several of the above devices in a way that suits your writing. The key, however, is to redirect the reader’s attention. They know they’re reading a book, they know the usual structure of a story, and they can read and think about a passage as many times as they want: the only dependable way to slip something past them is to persuade them to stop looking. Tricking the reader doesn’t, and never has, depended on them being stupid; it depends on them being too clever for their own good.
Which villains did you never see coming, and which authors failed to hide their antagonists from your mighty brain? Let me know in the comments. Or, if you want more advice on manipulating how your reader sees a character, check out Save That Cat! The Easy Secret To Introducing A Hero. Finally, if you’re wondering exactly what kind of red herring you could use to hide your true villain, try How To Make Multiple Antagonists Shine In Your Story.