I don’t usually nitpick the way a question’s phrased, but in
this case, “The heroine didn’t know she was the Big Bad,” is an ambiguous way
to phrase it. This could mean either that your protagonist didn’t know who the
villain was, or that she didn’t realize that she was in fact the antagonist all
along. Of the options, the latter is more of a head trip, so I’ll hit that too
on the way out.
When it comes to structuring a story, where the villain is ambiguous,
identifying them will be a persistent thread through the story up to that
point. It may be the entire focus. A very loose structure these kinds of
stories work with is that your protagonists spend their first act working to
identify their foe, the second act learning about them and formulating plans to
go after them, and the final act putting their plans into motion, and
scrambling to pull out a victory.
I say, “very loose,” because you can step back and really
mess with the structure. Such as having your characters know who they’re going
after from the beginning but working to prove it, or learning a lot about who
their foe is without actually putting a name or face to them (which is what you’re
If you want to look at this in an overly mechanical way;
your characters are going to be spending the story trying to collect
information. That’s the currency that drives their story. They need pieces of
it to put together who is responsible. Missing even a few pieces along the way
can critically undermine their ability to accurately anticipate who they’re
working against. This has a knock-on effect of further distorting their
expectations and perceptions of what’s to come. One mistaken assumption or
missed clue can lead to erroneous assumptions that form the basis for theories
that are further removed from the truth.
Most good mysteries operate off a very careful formula: The
author drops the evidence about what really happened in front of the
protagonists and the readers, mixed into a larger collection of red herrings,
and relevant information that the characters do seize upon initially.
Bad mysteries will usually withhold the information necessary
to contextualize the rest, and then pull it out in an effort to keep the
audience off balance. Often with the intent of making the protagonist seem
preternaturally intelligent. Really, all the author did was lie to the
audience, and then stick their pet in the spotlight.
In case it’s unclear: Please, do not do this. Having your
audience get ahead of your biggest reveal is not the end of the world. Sure,
some will be smug about it, but realizing the author was, in fact, playing fair
with their puzzles can make the material infinitely more interesting on a
Also, it’s basically impossible to hide anything from your
audience. If you have a character who’s secretly the villain, a savvy reader
will realize it due to Ebert’s Law of Conservation of Characters (assuming you’re
writing with that in mind). The easiest way around this is to make sure that
your secret villain is actually pulling double duty, and not just there to be
the antagonist, but we’ll come back to that in a second.
Roger Ebert’s Law on Conservation of Characters holds that
every character in a film (or any media, really) needs to serve a purpose, so
by eliminating each character who serves a necessary narrative function, you
can immediately identify the killer/traitor/secret santa/whoever you’re trying
to hide from the audience.
The thing about this is, it is really good advice. Good writing is, usually, concise, clear, and
easy to understand. You’re communicating with people, and presenting as little unnecessary
information as possible is a strength. (The red herrings in mysteries are an
exception to this, but you should still strive to deliver them as quickly and
concisely as you can.) It’s worth remembering, some of the texture for your
material is necessary for selling the
scene. But, you need to be asking yourself, “do I really need this line?”
The same is true of characters. If a character doesn’t need
to be in your story, they probably shouldn’t be there. This is more pronounced
with films, where each character indicates that they were important enough to
include in the story and pay an
actor to stand there and deliver the lines. It’s one of the reasons why you’ll
often see minor characters excised from adaptations, while their only critical
dialog is migrated to one of the more important characters. With this in mind,
Ebert would run through the cast and simply look for someone who wasn’t doing
anything useful. Thing is, this does work in writing as well.
This is what I meant about the antagonist pulling double
duty. It’s not enough to show that they’re the villain, if you really want to
hide it from the audience, they also need to be the mentor, love interest,
perky sidekick, CGI “comic relief” atrocity, or the protagonist.
Once you know what their role in the story is, and the fact
that they’re also secretly the villain, you have a lot of room to work with, and you can set up some fantastic subtext
tension for your villain, that is only obvious on a second reading.
For example: if your protagonist is being mentored by the
villain, and the villain genuinely cares about the protagonist’s growth as an
individual. They have an immediate conflict of interest. They may honestly want
the protagonist to grow, learn, and have a better ability to understand what
they’re looking at, while still advancing their own agenda that the protagonist
When you’re working with something like this, it’s important
to remember that people can want two separate things, and due to the actions of
others, those goals can come into conflict with each other. It doesn’t mean
that you immediately pick a side, but it will put some hard decisions in front
of you. Or, your characters in this case.
If you’re still wondering how to tie your characters
together, it’s the connections like this that you’re probably looking for. At a
very simple level, “how do you show a connection between two character?” You
put those characters in a room and have them interact. You let them show their
relationship with each other. Whether that’s romantic, platonic, mentor/pupil,
patron/client, or just shared history. But, you show that.
The other option is, of course, that your heroine is also
the villainess. There’s a lot of ways you can run with this idea, that range
from cheesy to profound. The cheesy end includes things like a character who
swaps between two separate persona. Without something to justify it, this
specific approach tends to undermine the whole, “I didn’t know I was the villain
all along,” thing. There are ways to pull it off, where someone ends up
investigating their own under the table operations, without realizing it,
because they’ve insulated themselves from that level of their criminal
enterprise. For instance, you could have a corrupt cop, who knows they’re a
corrupt cop, but doesn’t realize that the drug dealers they’re investigating
actually work for their proxies. A situation like that wouldn’t, usually, last
long, because one of their minions would ask them what they’re doing.
Another classic option is the doppelganger. This may simply
be a copy of the character from somewhere else, a supernatural simulacra, an
alternate version from the future, whatever. There are uses for stuff like
this, but it’s tricky to work with. I’d scratch it off the list entirely if things
like mirror universes didn’t also allow you to play around with a radically
different interpretation of your characters. In traditional folklore the doppelganger
was a sign of one’s impending death (though not at the hands of the doppelganger
itself). Make of that what you will.
Finally, you can have a protagonist who is, in fact, the
villain, as a result of their actions. Heroes and villains exist on a very fine
line. The actions of the hero are sanctioned based on the context of those
actions. When you start to strip that context, or reveal it as a lie, it
becomes very possible to present someone as the hero only to realize, at the
end, that they really were a villain all along.
There’s two ways to approach this. The first is that your
character comes to their villainy over the course of the story. By abandoning
their principles in pursuit of victory. The cliché is, “the road to hell is
paved with good intentions,” though I much prefer Buckminster Fuller’s, “Those
who play with the devil’s toys will be brought by degrees to wield his sword.” However
you want to abstract this, the arc is that your character grows from a hero
into the new villain. It’s one hell of a third act revelation, when they can
step back and in a moment of introspection, realize they’d become what they
The other approach is that your character was always the
villain. This may be that your noble freedom fighter was, in fact, a ruthless
terrorist, who distorted the facts to soothe their own conscience. They may
have viewed their actions as justified, when they actually violently
overreacted at every turn. Their casual cruelty may have been the very thing
that fed the movement they were working against, justifying the group they perceived
as the villains.
To quote Michael Douglas’ Bill Foster in Falling Down (1993), “I’m the bad guy?” “How’d