The Unknown Villain

I recently finished reading Galen Beckett’s The Magicians and Mrs. Quent trilogy—which I recommend, by the way—and I started noticing a trend of mystery villains.

It goes like this: throughout a book, our hero/ine is fighting off attacks from an unknown source. Maybe this source has a henchman that we start to recognize (as in Gail Carriger’s Soulless), but he’s not our primary antagonist. We don’t find out who our true Big Bad is until part 3 or even until the final battle.

There’s a certain dramatic tension to it, because we’re wondering the whole time who it could be… but it’s not my style.

As a reader, I enjoy trying to figure out who the bad guy is, and if he’s not coming from a cast of characters I’ve met or at least heard about, I can’t do it. And when I write a mystery, I try to introduce the baddie somewhere in the earlier chapters. It’s just not as satisfying when the villain turns up out of nowhere.

Here’s the trick, though: that’s mysteries. But what’s the point of doing it in a standard fantasy or even an epic fantasy?

Is it lazy writing? I don’t know how to create tension or a twist, so I keep my villain hidden? I keep back information so there’s a big revelation in the final act?

The revelation isn’t shocking, though, if it’s a mystery, unknown villain. This is the difference (to me) between Buffy and Angel. Buffy gives us crazy, creepy, hilarious villains that we see for a whole season, while Angel never really offers a strong individual Big Bad. And I can’t fully get into the fight if I don’t know what we’re fighting against.

What do you think, readers? What is the virtue of the unknown villain?

3 thoughts on “The Unknown Villain

  1. It all depends. Some villains like to be secretive, as it gives them multiple advantages. I like to show my villains early and shift from their PoV to the heroes, to compare/contrast but I can see the strength of a secretive villain if done well.

  2. Um, not sure if the UV actually HAS a virtue… it seems like a small betrayal of the writer/reader contract to me – y’know, that bond of trust that says “Take my hand and I’ll lead you through this amazing story. I won’t lie to you. I might misdirect you or delight you with sleight-of-hand, but I promise I’ll never cheat you.”
    It just seems to me like a rather lazy way of building tension. Sure, by all means have your villain unseen for part of the story – the first part. But keeping the whole thing back till the last act… nah.

  3. Depends on the story. Obviously, if you write a mystery, you don’t just blatantly show the villain in his own scene at the beginning of the book murdering the victim unless you have something else planned (THE MURDERER IS THE HERO WHAT HOW DID THIS HAPPEN NOBODY EVER DOES THIS! -_- ).

    But then I think of “Lies of Locke Lamora” and how the villain’s motivation and who the heck he actually was (considering his identity at this point was just “The Grey King) are revealed during the final confrontation. He knew so much and accomplished a lot because he was…. Nobody. Just some guy full of hate.

    So there are certain times when you can reveal a villain at the end, and times when it just becomes confusing.

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