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un-hiding the hidden villain

How many ways can a villain build a presence in a book, when he's trying to hold back and observe the MCs to learn their magic's secrets?

My goal is to write the first half of the book with the MCs ignorant of how dangerous the villain is-- and keep the reader in the same boat, using only the MC's viewpoint. In fact, I tried to write those chapters with the villain completely hidden, showing only the people he'd sent against the MCs to test them, until I realized I didn't have enough interest in those thugs to carry those chapters alone.

The options I'm looking at now are:

He might put more pressure on the MCs in ways that start to hint there's someone behind the scenes, such as giving more hints to the enemy he's sent against them or making sure the MCs' friends are caught in the middle.

At the same time he might save the MCs if it looks like they'll die before they figure out the magic, and/or give them hints that he can help them, maybe even asking them to prove themselves with the magic first-- that would be clearer that he's out there and focus more on how trustworthy he might be.

And of course, the MCs might get a glimpse of him, or the other people who've dealt with their magic might suspect there's someone after the secret.



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First, why do you need to hide the villain at all? I'm not saying you shouldn't or couldn't, but if the only reason is a big reveal, then I have reservations about it. From my experience, hiding things is tricky. Hide too much and the story becomes as snooze fest because all the interesting good stuff his being kept from the reader, so tread softly.

Now, if this is the way you want to go, then I think you're going to have to find ways to replace the tension in the first half of the story that the presence of a really deadly villain would normally imbue into the story. One way to do that is to make a really interesting sub-villain that has a Master.

Another attack angle you might take is you can hide the villain from the protagonist but you can reveal them to the reader to produce tension. It can produce that "Don't go into that room. He's got a gun!" effect and toy with the reader.


You could always use clues here and there to build up suspense, perhaps things seemingly innocent to the MC, or things he may not recognize as clues. Like when he's rifling through the recent corpse's pocket, he finds a piece of string, a polished stone or whatever (obviously it would have to be connected in some way to the villain). Maybe a town crier says something in the background about the villain's crimes, but the MC just doesn't connect the dots yet. Maybe one of the villain's underlings gets caught for a crime and makes a proclaimation on the scaffolding while waiting to be hanged, but the MC doesn't realize it's meant for them.

There are lots of ways to build up tension in a story without actually showing the villain at all, but I personally think half the novel may be excessive before introducing the villain; 1/3, sure but you'll have to keep things interesting until the big reveal.


I've struggle with this idea in one of the storylines I've been roughing out. Revealing secret identities is a big deal of course; Secrets carry that kind of weight. I would propose that if your henchmen don't have a hook or a strong enough link to the main villain then you could focus on building that interest and having them become stronger characters who shed some light on who the villain is.

In my own story I go back and forth between both ends of the spectrum, sometimes I think I should reveal the baddy immediately, and other times I think I could cross him off the character list all together. Its an interesting problem, thanks for the thread!


If the villain's motivation is to learn about the MC's ability, then why is he hiding himself in the first place? The best way to learn something is by experiencing it first-hand, immersing yourself in it.

If you want to go this route and want a big reveal, I think the best bet would be to put the villain front-and-center - either openly antagonistic from the get-go or, through subterfuge and ruses, placing him within the MC's inner circle. I feel like that's what a smart villain does.
My favoured approach is to set up a decoy villain, only to later reveal the real villain was someone entirely different. The key to a good deception is convincing people they know what is going on when in fact they do not, so if you want to surprise the readers, you'll have to distract them and make them think they know who the villain is.


I think the best place for a villain like that to hide would be in plain sight. That friend you thought you had or that person you thought was helping you along is actually the one pulling the strings. Or possibly one of the lesser-baddies is actually the main antagonist in disguise.

A trick some writers use, and I try and employ, is being aware that when you are hiding a character or only trying to vaguely reference one, the reader only knows what you tell them. So you can get away with tricking the reader with misdirection as to the villains identity.