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I have in mind a character who is the protagonist's trusted ally throughout the story, but it is revealed at the end that he was the primary antagonist for most of it. This kind of thing has, of course, been done many times in the past, most recently in:

Spider-Man: Far From Home with the character Quentin Beck, a.k.a. Mysterio.

I want this to be foreshadowed but still surprising, the "How did I not see this coming?" sort of twist. But once it's clear that someone else is pulling strings in the story, this character is probably an obvious first suspect to readers, given the prevalence of this trope. What are some strategies to lead readers off the trail and make the twist compelling?

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    Okay the title asks how to make a particular kind of character compelling and the question asks how to make the reveal compelling, which is it? – Ash Jul 17 at 16:28
  • The reveal. I've edited the title accordingly. – PlutoThePlanet Jul 17 at 16:51
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    Ok, here is an obligatory TV Tropes link: Evil All Along – Alexander Jul 17 at 18:41
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    I did look at that page before posing the question, and while it's certainly helpful in the sense that it gives lots of examples of what I have in mind, it doesn't distinguish between when this is done well and when it's done poorly. – PlutoThePlanet Jul 17 at 20:21
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There is a distinction between what the audience can logically deduce and what the audience is emotionally rooting for. The latter can make them blind to the former.

A recent example is (Game of Thrones, TV final season -- SPOILER!):

Daenerys Targaryen. She has committed many brutal murders and is becoming more and more unhinged, fixated on the iron throne, and self-important when judging those who stand in her way. If we were to pause and think analytically, we might very well predict the sacking of King's Landing. However, we are rooting for her to be a hero, and when she commits one of the foulest deeds of the story (even by GoT standards), it is a shock. Surprising yet inevitable.

So, you can start giving weak logical hints that your character is the villain, while you give what appears to be stronger actual evidence that (s)he is a hero. But you are not hiding these two possibilities from your audience, rather, you try to make them care. If you are able to develop the character to the point where the audience is emotionally invested and rooting for the character to be a hero, now they will be willing to ignore much stronger evidence to the contrary. (And so, when the reveal comes, it is surprising yet inevitable.)

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I'll make a small frame challenge.

Reveal endings don't make compelling characters, it undermines them.

The goal is to trick the reader, so you must spend your whole story undermining this character's true motives and ignoring their real feelings. The character doesn't have an arc, rather the character represents one thing, then suddenly – deus ex machina – represents the opposite. You should be concerned about 4th Act whiplash where readers give up on the story having a meaningful (earned) conclusion.

If the story ends shortly after, the sidekick/villain gains no new depth, the protag doesn't wrestle with the betrayal. There aren't really any consequences because the story's over.

Consider writing a compelling sidekick we can sympathize with. If we can see him turn, more-so if we see him turn but the protagonist doesn't, the sidekick is adding tension to the story. He becomes a timebomb. A weak link in the hero's chainmail. Sidekick can struggle with doubts, suppress criticism, only to start to resent the hero and create layers of tension in their relationship. The hero can double-down, or not have ready answers. The sidekick is in an unusual position to see a protagonist's flaw, and be able to say it to the protag's face. They can be a foil that forces the hero to see something they don't want to face.

Relationships are interesting when we see a schism develop over time, in stages, through consequences in the story. Let the hero make bad decisions. Let the villain make sacrifices. Let the reader see it, but keep the protagonist in the dark – or, maybe the protag can see it but can't do anything about it.

A surprise reveal is over and done, and it shoves everything we've accepted up that point off the table. Tricking the reader might not have the desired effect. End the story quickly if it can't survive fridge logic. Villains who had to think 50 moves ahead of the hero, and engineer a conspiracy-level false-flag ruse, are usually world-breaking. Why did they not come up with an easier plan?

But a slow build-up to an inevitable disaster is the stuff that keeps pages turning. You decide how much to show the reader, but you're not misleading them.

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    I'm not sure I agree with your thesis here-- a reveal that's been sufficiently foreshadowed isn't really a deus ex machina-type twist, and I don't think reveal endings undermine the characters (look at The Prestige, in which the twist is literally the last frame of the movie but has been foreshadowed throughout). Having said that, you make an important observation here that I hadn't considered-- the secret antagonist would need a strong reason to not only oppose the protagonist, but spend time and resources keeping that opposition a secret. – PlutoThePlanet Jul 17 at 18:30
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    @PlutoThePlanet Ehh, I'd say the same Greek plays that used deus ex machina also used prophesies as foreshadowing…. Just announcing something will happen doesn't necessarily make it less ex machina…. I'm suggesting you have more opportunity with some middle grey area where the reader isn't sure how it will turn out, rather than starting firmly in a white square then flipping him to a black square. He may feel more negative sidekick than ultramind supervillain, but which one is going to cause your hero more pain? Considering they start and end in (more or less) the same place... – wetcircuit Jul 17 at 18:50
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Have you decided whether the sidekick has the villain mentality from the outset, or do they have a negative change arc? Even if they become the villain early on there's room to develop that arc.

You could explore the events and ideas that drive them to become the villain and ultimately forsake their friendship with the hero. Note that this might justify treating them rather like a protagonist, as others have discussed. Give the readers the opportunity to sympathize and identify with the sidekick, to understand why they're making bad decisions, and to root for them to turn it around and be good. Give them plenty of opportunities to be good-- both minor incidents that show them as kind, loyal, or idealistic (which they can take) and also opportunities to abandon the path of villainy (which they mostly don't take). If you're in the sidekick's head in any way, let them be an unreliable narrator justifying their actions. The audience will buy into this as long as you can make any connection between the sidekick and the evil events seem circumstantial.

Then you've got plenty of foreshadowing, consistent behavior on the part of the sidekick that isn't necessarily sociopathic, and good character development that helps the audience to care about the sidekick and the relationship between the hero and villain before the reveal.

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One such strategy is to have your villain, on more than one occasion, actual act against his own best interest and defeat his own plot, kill his own men, etc, in order to convince the hero (and the audience) that he is truly on the side of the hero.

He can do this when he perceives the hero is going to prevail anyway, but (for example) instead of letting his men escape a compound, takes action to blow the whole thing up and kill them all.

A trait of many villains is sociopathy, a complete disregard for human life or suffering. It doesn't give them pause for a moment to kill people, including their own loyal minions, if this serves to advance their agenda.

If you like, you can also let such a killing be a cover-up, a way for the villain to ensure there are no survivors that might tell anything important to the hero.

But the important thing is, he deceives the audience by doing things, taking risks, helping the hero in ways that seem loyal, so we just wouldn't expect the villain to be doing them. The tricky part is giving him an ulterior motive to do this, but that can be because it isn't possible to achieve his primary goals yet, and his secondary goal is to be trusted by the hero, no matter what the cost.

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You have to make the character into a real person who the audience believe certain things about. In particular that the sidekick is loyal to the protagonist not the or some set of ideals but the person they're fighting alongside and yet determine to eventually betray, creating a strong bond between those characters will give the audience pause if/when they suspect the outcome of the situation. They won't/won't want to believe that "Sid the psychic sidekick" is going to betray his friend and fearless leader this lets you hide their intentions as long as possible, the less your audience suspects the better the reveal becomes.

The trick is that in order to avoid whiplashing your audience you need to point out what your villain is without the audience realising that's what you've done. One of the better ways of doing this is an apparent redemption narrative wherein your villain starts out disagreeable and seems to "turns their life around" while with the protagonist they still have shadey dealings with people from their "previous life" as they "wrap up loose ends" and "pay off understanding obligations" etc... All the time they're actually setting up the big fall of the protagonist.

One thing to note is that no matter how you dress it or hide it there are always going to be readers who make an early intuitive jump, like my father watching The Village for the first time and realising what was going on during the first town council meeting and spending the rest of the film being disappointed. Sometimes the ones who make that jump are your beta-readers so it pays to get several opinions on these kinds of stories to see if you're actually to transparent or just have a savvy first reader on your hands.

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The actual answer depends largely on the genre. In some genres a villain is simply an active impediment between the hero and his goals, e.g. conservative father vs. daydreaming son. In other genres the rivalry assumes larger proportions, with the villain commanding armies of minions, and the hero having the face them, e.g. a large number of superhero plots.

In any event,

Make your villain more heroic than the hero.

If you want the reader to believe that the villain is on the side of the hero, give them a moral stature that is far superior to the hero himself. Throughout the story the villain could:

  • stop the hero and impose a stricter moral code to their actions;
  • scold the hero for not following a higher moral standard;
  • be regarded as an inspiration by the hero for their higher moral stature.

This is strongest when the villain truly has such moral qualities, instead of just pretending. To show it, you may need either minor villains with lower moral standards, or very long dialogues between the hero and the sidekick villain.

An Example

You mentioned Spiderman. Take Batman, who abides by the moral code of not killing: his villain sidekick will abide by a stricter moral code of not even physically harming anyone. For instance, he could defeat the minor villains with psychological means, or by checkmating them in a long strategic game, or simply reverting/nullifying the negative part of their deeds.

True or Fake? The decision is yours

It is up to you whether the sidekick villain truly has a higher moral code compared to the hero, while their ultimate goals are not in line with what we consider good (paperclip villain). On the other hand, it could all be just a ruse of the sidekick villain to toy with the mind of the hero, make them believe that there truly is a higher moral code, and render them impotent when faced with a real threat (Truman Show villain).

A word against evil-doing sidekick villains

Finally, I'd argue against making your sidekick villain look like a rough-but-good sidekick. First, it is difficult not to alert the reader with every odd action by the sidekick. Second, it has a negative impact on the hero during the reveal: a good and intelligent hero would unlikely accept such a company and would not once suspect that the misbehaving companion could be a villain all along. Third, it has a negative impact on the re-reading value of the story, when all the evil actions of the sidekick lose the benefit of the doubt, and just become vulgar criminal acts, which simply go unpunished for a good part of the story, with good grief for the fans of your now shortsighted hero.

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