During a critique session this weekend, a writer friend said she wanted to know if readers found her protagonist “too stupid to live.” This is an issue we think about often in relation to our protags, but not often enough in relation to villains.
Right now, I’m revising a book in which I have set myself a very particular challenge: it’s single POV from the protagonist’s view. I didn’t fully realize the level of challenge involved (which is a topic I should cover in another blog). At the moment, what I need to do is make it clear when and why my antagonist is reacting the way she does. I need to find ways to show what she’s up to that won’t a) immediately tip off the reader and/or the protagonist before I want them to understand and b) make her seem like an idiot.
The setting of clues that will eventually add up to a complete picture is one of the particular arts of fiction. It’s like tracing Nazca lines: from the ground (ie, as you move through the narrative) you know there is something going on and you are excited to see what. From the air (the climax of the book) suddenly it all becomes clear. That’s the ideal of suspenseful plotting (hey–another blog topic!). In this case, the protagonist should be able to add up the clues at just the right moment when the discovery will have the most impact–and just a little before the reader would be able to add them up.
But with antagonist story lines, unless you are in their POV, the clues must be even more carefully placed. There are many ways to cheat at this. The most blatant is, “So, Mr. Bond, you’re wondering why I’ve done all this–let me explain. At length. And it great detail, with numerous references to the narrative up to this point, and the occasional interruption from you or a minion to make this seem like a conversation instead of what it actually is: an infodump by an author who couldn’t come up with anything better.” We all know that scene, right?
One alternative is to have the antagonist drop hints, but there is a delicate balance here as well. Too many authors deliver the sort of arrogant, taunting villain who tosses off blatant clues because he or she thinks the protagonist will never be able to work it out in time. What usually happens next, because the author wants the protag to reach epiphany not a moment too soon, is that the reader feels bludgeoned with the secret plan and can’t imagine why the protag hasn’t figured it out yet (see above, the protag too stupid to live).
So if your antagonist believes the protag is a worthy opponent, he would never willingly reveal the plan–he would not become the villain too stupid to live. I am seeking the spot at which they can interact believably, the antagonist might be caused to reveal the sort of information that will later be shown to be significant, but at the moment is disregarded by both parties as irrelevant or unimportant. This is the sneaky bit, the fun part. Wish me luck!
In the meantime, authors, do your part to eradicate bad villainy!