I love a good bad guy. Always have, always will. For me, and for many other readers, the strength of a story lives or dies on the strength of the villain. After all, why bother rooting for a hero who doesn’t have to overcome anything? Where’s the fun in watching Frodo casually pop over to Mordor, toss the ring into the fires of Mount Happy, and then back home to the Shire again in a single, uneventful weekend? That’s barely a flash fiction story—and not a very interesting one at that.
It’s clear that writing villains is as big a challenge as writing heroes is. But whereas the hero is usually introduced right in beginning of the story, the best moment to reveal the villain is a little more complicated. Should one do a full reveal in chapter one, or wait until the hero reaches the “boss level” towards the end, or somewhere in between?
The answer, like so many when it comes to storytelling, is “it depends.” There are pros and cons to introducing your main villain early on, as well as waiting until the end. If you’ve got a really strong villain, for instance, it may be worth an early reveal so that the reader gets to see as much as possible. On the other hand, revealing a villain too early can mean that the reader becomes desensitized or even bored. It’s a delicate balancing act, for sure. So while I can’t tell you exactly what will work best for your story, I can share some examples of great villains, when they were introduced, and what effect it had on the story.
Let’s start with Darth Vader, because Darth Vader. Now, forgetting all the prequels, and taking Star Wars by itself, Vader is one of the first major characters introduced on screen at just 4:42 into the film (yes, I checked), before we see Princess Leia put the Death Star plans into R2D2, and long before we meet Luke Skywalker. In fact, by the time Luke shows up, we’ve already seen Vader break a guy’s neck with his bare hands. We look at this kid Luke and think “He’s gotta go up against THAT?”
Another example of introducing a villain early is Rene Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He shows up just as Indiana Jones has made his harrowing escape from the jungle temple with the golden idol. Belloq’s first words are “Doctor Jones! Again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away.” Indy responds, “Too bad the Hovitos don’t know you like I do, Belloq.” This crucial scene, placed within the first few minutes of the story, introduces us to both the protagonist and antagonist. In fact, they introduce each other to us. We learn Indiana Jones’ name from Belloq, and visa-versa. We learn that not only do they know each other, they’ve also got a long and storied history with each other.
Some villains don’t look or act like villains when they are first introduced. When Edmund first encounters the White Witch in Narnia, she doesn’t appear threatening in any way. Instead, she makes Edmund feel cozy and safe and offers him as much Turkish Delight as he likes. Similarly, Annie Wilkes literally saves Paul Sheldon’s life in the beginning of Misery. And Long John Silver befriends young Jim Hawkins at the beginning of Treasure Island, with no hint as to his murderous intentions. It’s only later when their true motives are revealed that we see just how frightening these characters really are.
Other villains don’t try to hide their agendas at all. IT is seen early on as a clown in a sewer drain—I mean, come on: Pure. Evil. Shakespeare’s Iago hates Othello with every fiber of his being, and he doesn’t care who knows it (apart from Othello, that is). Don John, the bastard brother of Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing calls himself “a plain dealing villain,” and revels in causing chaos for no other reason than it amuses him. Richard III tells us in his opening speech: “I am determined to prove a villain . . . and hate the idle pleasures of these days,” and then goes on to prove it to the audience with gusto.
On the other hand, there may be a benefit to waiting a while before revealing your villain. In Jaws, we don’t fully see the shark until well into the third act. But there is absolutely no mistaking the shark’s presence throughout. We see the shark attack a girl in the opening scene, and every time we are shown the water thereafter, we just know the shark is out there somewhere. The tension keeps building to almost unbearable levels at times, never knowing exactly when and where the shark will next appear. The same psychological effect is also at play in the original Alien, which is basically Jaws, but in space. We only see the Alien in flashes and glimpses, but we know it could be around the very next corner, and so we pull the blankets up to our chins and wait in delicious terror.
Or consider how Moriarty is revealed in the first series of the BBC’s Sherlock. Early on, and for the entirety of the first two episodes, Moriarty is just a name, a shadow, a few lines of text on a screen. But this master criminal, who is every bit as brilliant, as calculating, and as complex as Holmes, continues to be a growing presence and increasing threat in Sherlock’s world. Moriarty’s reveal as a villain is an agonizingly slow burn, a crescendo of terrible inevitability that leads to their first confrontation near the swimming pool in the episode “The Great Game.” And it was most definitely worth the wait.
One caution: It’s okay if you decide to wait a while before revealing your main villain, but make sure your protagonist has something to overcome early on in your story. Bilbo Baggins doesn’t meet the dragon Smaug in chapter one of The Hobbit, but he does have to deal with all manner of dwarves, trolls, goblins, spiders, and other obstacles along the way to Smaug’s lair.
In Lord of the Rings, Sauron, like Jaws or the Alien, is more of a presence rather than a corporeal entity through most of the story. In fact, he’s little more than a giant flaming eyeball on top of the tower of Barad-ur. But like Jaws, Sauron’s evil is felt everywhere, and infects potentially everyone. Nearly every creature the Fellowship encounters is trying to get the ring back for Sauron, which is what makes Frodo’s journey to Mordor worth reading about.
Exactly when and where you choose to reveal your story’s villain is up to you. But wherever and whenever you do it, make sure it’s a memorable moment for your readers, because that villain’s choices are going to drive the narrative of your entire story. And you want to ensure your readers come along for the ride.
Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.
Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.
Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.