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This could be essentially the opposite of the question here, about introducing evil characters before they’ve done anything evil. I’m showing the “questionable” activities of a character before revealing they are evil. Generally most plots simply make the story a whodunnit with misdirection. But what to do when we know whodunnit? Yes, sometimes those turn into a whydunnit because the story focussed on this exact inconsistency. OK, that’s also killing the story.

Why 1P?

The reason I qualified the question for first person is because 3rd person has a simple technique: change the entry point. The narration can drop you right into the conflict and blow by the whole crisis development. When a first person is talking about “this great philanthropist” however and lays out their not-so-great deeds… it’s got to look good somehow. The 3P can simply gloss over the bad stuff for dramatic effect in a later reveal. The 1P has to either “hide” their deeds from the narrator or… ? Some… MANY stories have protagonist/antagonist in close relationships where hiding isn’t believable. There’s the position I’m in.

I have a storyline all mapped out for three books, the plot is all in place; cloak and dagger, steampunk, everyone has an agenda and the audience watches a race against time before a rumored raid. And in all of this, I struggle with a single inconsistent plot point for Act I: Why is my beloved Governor acting so odd? And worse, why isn’t anyone calling him on it? My guy is just bad, prominent, and somehow we take the bait, the setup is made, and you’re off to tackle your crisis. What’s the recipe to pulling the wool over your audience’s eyes?

Simple low-tech scenario: A smuggled John Doe body arrives on a ship, Customs takes it and starts investigating. But the Governor… “Hold it! Don’t tell anyone!” And the agent agrees. This raise any unwanted flags? Yup.

I need to keep the Governor as a good guy until Act II when the investigation implicates him, then all the fugitive action begins.

If this were done legit the police would be involved and the public would be engaged. There would be no fugitive story which drives the whole main crisis. Sort of like a Borne movie: hero hunted by the people he’s trying to save because of one bad apple.

Example plot with hidden agenda

I’m choosing not to use an existing work simply because I can’t find this exact scenario; it’s typically a whodunnit/whydunnit as stated.

Put it in a simple time with no cell phones, cameras, or Internet (because I hate movies that no one ever takes picture evidence). In the past - no computers.

Setup: A ship arrives late to (fictional) Bigtown and Customs discovers an undocumented casket aboard. Crew goes all superstitious and denies it left port with them, basically get uncooperative. With a call to (fictional) Naples their story pans out; no casket was loaded, no missing persons either. Customs has to inspect it: OK, a body with a codebook and odd tech chilling the casket. Oddly, Governor X of NY calls the Agent M while the report was still being typed out. Hmmm. “Did you find Septimus? Is it him?” Septimus, we learn is a name heard from every pirated merchant over the past 4 months, with florid tales of villainy appending it. He’s a most wanted pirate. Agent finishes the report with a finding that the ship likely took a detour enroute (and somehow didn’t consume all their supplies); Codebook is tedious to unravel but; the initial pages do indeed claim to be written by a “Septimus”. Governor calls back late at night telling Agent M to get it decoded immediately; tell no one at all. Money is no object. “I need to know the rascal Septimus is dead!” (The governor’s urgency is what I need explaining; proper investigations take time and though he has money, he isn’t afforded that).

Agendas:

  • Governor X is hiding his gambling habit with the pirates. Before knowing Septimus’ infamy Governor X had witnessed a masked pirate get shot at a masquerade party, later learning he was named Septimus.
  • Agent M doubts the young teen body is “Septimus” or any villain at all (and has no bullet wound), but believes the ship detoured to the pirate hideaway for supplies, and logically picked up this casket. Doing his duty, Agent M contacts renowned genius Inventor D.
  • Inventor D has a machine that can sort a couple pages per day; Agent M had involved Inventor D before getting the hush order, and (reluctantly, dishonestly) keeps the arrangement from Governor, claiming to decode it himself.
  • Mrs. S is Agent M’s stenographer and does the copy work between M & D; code pages to D; decoded results to M.

Q: What are the components of a narrative that hides the dirty deeds in plain sight before unmasking the bad guy?

Keep your bad guy “clean” until the climax, but without provoking the reader; without making the characters look bad; & without tipping off your big unmasking?

One thing I’ve already done to help focus my reader is put the whole thing in first person point of view. I can hide a lot of things in the periphery. I thought that would bail me out, but here I am with full immersion view of an investigator. (could be a spouse just the same).

I know Bond never tries to mask the villain, we know in the opening scene. We are surprised pretty well when John Connor becomes the villain in Terminator Genisys. But hey, a time travel story can do anything it wants.

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I think you've done the important part already. You've avoided using your villain as a POV character. You're off to a good start. I can imagine two approaches to keep your villainous character's true nature hidden without it feeling too much like a cheat to the reader.

One idea is used in the League of Extraordinary Gentleman, where Moriarty and the villain are the same person. The villain disguises their true identity while Moriarty pretends to be doing his utmost to coordinate the actions of the League in order to defeat him. It works in that story, but may not be suitable for all stories.

The other idea that occurs to me is to make that character seem very incompetent and/or motivated by extenuating factors like politics or patronage or a commitment to a social movement or social club. And, every character, major and minor, know this. The villain-hiding-in-plain-sight constantly mentions the need to tread carefully. The toes of the wealthy or the crown are unforgiving. The idea is that characters' biases infect the reader, inclining them to see this villain as ineffective and harmless. They are a complication that protagonists needs to work around rather than the enemy to be defeated.

Both methods need some clues left behind so that when the villainous nature of the villain is revealed, it still works. I think the clues and hints part is important to block the cheating vibe these solutions could generate.

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