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?