Sometimes the story isn’t so simple, the villain so clear. Sometimes the antagonist is hidden from sight, but their influence is seen by many. Their motives, their origin, is unknown, but the destruction they cause isn’t. The kind of villain that strikes in the dark, or uses others to do their dirty work, or influences technology to enact their devious plans.
This week, we cover the hidden antagonist and how to write them!
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Fear of the Unknown
Some popular examples of hidden antagonists are the ones you will find in thrillers and mysteries. The kind of antagonists that kill their victims discreetly and slip away into the night. Or, the type of antagonist that is tech-savvy and uses technology and clever programming to strike fear in the hearts of many and cripple any system with the capability to stop them.
Whichever it may be, the hidden antagonist has one asset greater than any other and that is their anonymity.
An antagonist who has no name, no face, no origin, is like the personification of the phrase, ’Fear of the Unknown’. The antagonist is made more terrifying by their anonymity, as the human mind concocts all sorts of terrible assumptions that fill in the blanks. Suddenly you have an antagonist that truly has your reader on the edge of their seat and the protagonist on their toes.
When writing the antagonist, one must take care to avoid giving too much away. In essence, you have to play the antagonist as you write them. It has to appear that the antagonist has the upper hand at all times while the protagonist’s are chasing a ghost. As long as you maintain a presence of a villain without having to show them, your antagonist will maintain this advantage.
If you plan to reveal your antagonist, either in personality, motive or appearance, be sure to do it realistically, don’t force it. It can be a challenge to keep them hidden, but it is worth it each page you do.
A Knife in the Dark
Like any good antagonist who avoids confrontation, the hidden antagonist makes use of any sneaky, underhanded means to deal damage.
There are many to choose from, each requiring some skill to take full advantage. For example, the hidden antagonist can make use of henchmen to do their dirty work. While preferred by the criminal underworld, organised crime can work on the smaller scale as well. The antagonist can use fear, blackmail or money to persuade any lesser villain to do their bidding.
Of course, that is only one example. The hidden antagonist could be more personal, doing the deeds on their own. To avoid confrontation, they will make use of any elusive method to ensure they remain hidden. The antagonist could dabble with poisons, or strike at night, or simply flee in the chaos they create, hidden amongst the innocent.
Finally, when the old tools aren’t effective or the antagonist lacks the guile to convince others to do their work, the hidden antagonist can use technology. Today, there is a new form of criminal, one which lurks in digital code. While it certainly isn’t as common or fantastic as the previously mentioned hidden antagonist, a computer literate villain who can control computers, drones and other electronics with a signal, can be just as devastating as any other antagonist.
Not only is twisting technology for a terrifying result an effective skill for the antagonist, but they remain anonymous and far away from the act, giving them ample time to flee should they be traced.
When writing your hidden antagonist, you need to give them a tool or skill, preferably one that serves to retain their anonymity as well as effectively complete their dubious deeds.
A Monster Beneath the Bed
Of course, there is more to a hidden antagonist than staying in the dark and striking when nobody's looking.
Often in literature, the hidden antagonist is closer than you think. The protagonists realize this and soon paranoia sets in. It could be that the antagonist knows who they are, where they live and when they sleep. In which case, it would be difficult for them to catch forty-winks.
Sometimes, the antagonist is among the protagonists. A trusted partner, a plucky side character or a love interest, anyone could be the antagonist. In which case, a new mental obstacle presents itself. Distrust and paranoia often work hand-in-hand, as the protagonists turn on each other.
Victims of their mental anxiety or turned against each other thanks to the antagonist’s clever planning.
It may seem cliché, but there is a reason people use the trope so often. It works. The reader tends to feel the same emotions as the main character, reading between lines even when there’s nothing there. The reader, anxious about who the antagonist is, will soon judge the other protagonists, to decide whether they are there to help, or if they are the monster under the bed.
As Simple as they are Sinister
While these ideas form in the character’s minds as well as the readers, the reality is often simpler. That’s the beauty of keeping information hidden. Often, one's imagination will paint a far more terrifying picture than reality.
Even though it seems silly to mention it, it's much like a Scooby-Doo plot. While everyone panics thinking that there is a monster, or ghost or some other terrifying entity, it is often an illusion created by the antagonist. The reality is always the same, the antagonist is no more than a simple person.
An evil person in many cases, yes, but still just a person.
Instead of being a disappointment for the reader, it's more a relief. The reader finds it all makes sense in the end, but for some scenes, they were truly thinking of something much worse. That does your novel a service, as it uses the reader’s imagination against them.
An Eye for Evil vs a Mind for Menace
The common trope when it comes to using a hidden antagonist is to also use a protagonist who can make sense of things and follow clues. The type of protagonist that has a mind that can match the antagonists.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to write a detective-like character, but certainly, one that has a role to play in your novel. It could be the protagonist avoids danger out of sheer luck, but most likely it will be thanks to their keen eye and sharp mind that keeps their head on their shoulders. Once more, there is a reason this combination of protagonist and antagonist is used so often.
Having the protagonist designed to combat the antagonist is one way to make an interesting conflict, thus an interesting story. Of course, there are many other ways one can create a conflict between the characters. It could be business, it could be personal, or it could be that one or both of them were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
That brings us to the end of this piece on writing the hidden antagonist. A character type that I have seen be successfully used in mysteries, science-fiction and horror books alike. These character’s unseen, but there, that keeps you guessing.
While most hidden antagonists will simply be a person with some evil plan, my particular favourite is a strange, monstrous creature that can transform into another person. Of course, I am talking about the Thing. A great movie and an excellent representation of the classic doppelganger trope.
An antagonist that can be small, and move unseen in the dark, or hides just out of sight, or become someone you trust and strike when you are at your most vulnerable. A perfect physical representation of paranoia!
That is a feeling that can only be attained by a hidden antagonist, and surely a goal for many writers who choose to write such a character.
Thank you for reading and as always,
Good day, goodnight and happy writing!