Q&A

Can I Make My Protagonist a Mastermind?

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Hello Mythcreants,

I’ve been trying to toy with a scheming protagonist with a master plan rather than a villain with a master plan. However, I want to keep his plan largely secret, but I don’t know how to do this without irritating readers by making them distant from the POV character.

Is there a way around this? If not, what do you recommend I change about this general idea?

Thanks!
-Evan

Hey Even, thanks for writing in!

The mastermind archetype is one of the more, if not the most, difficult characters to write in prose. Not only do they know everything in advance, which would spoil the tension if readers were in on it, but they also require boatloads of candy, which can make a protagonist difficult to like.

Heist films get away with this for two reasons. One, as a visual medium, there’s no expectation that the audience will know what the character is thinking. Two, they can use hyper-charismatic actors to keep the character likable even when they get way too much candy. Prose stories don’t have either of those advantages.

Even so, authors still try, and their attempts usually fall into one of two categories – but be warned, they both have serious downsides.

Option 1: Use third-person omniscient. With an omniscient narrator, there’s a lot less expectation to know what the protagonist is thinking, so it’s easier to keep the mastermind’s plans hidden. The Discworld books do this on several occasions, particularly at the end of Going Postal, when the protagonist’s plan is a surprise to the reader. The downside is that third-person omniscient is a lot of work. You need to give your narration a distinct, entertaining voice separate from the protagonist; otherwise, it will just be boring.

Option 2: Add more characters. Some authors try to hide their protagonists’ plans by inserting other POV characters so we can hop into their perspective when the protag is thinking about their master plan. This does conceal the information, but it also requires adding additional characters, which is a difficulty all its own. The protagonist is also still at risk for being over candied, especially compared to the less important secondary characters. The novel Six of Crows uses this method, and it suffers from both issues.

A variation on option two is the Watsonian POV, named for our good pal Dr. Watson. In this approach, the main character doesn’t get a POV at all, and we view them entirely from the outside. Again, this does effectively hide the information, but it also makes us less likely to care about the protagonist. We may even grow to dislike them, since it might not feel like they actually worked for their victories.

With all the downsides involved, I can’t recommend either of the options above. Instead, my recommendation would be to make your protagonist a clever schemer, but don’t take them to the same level as a Hollywood mastermind. They can still succeed or fail by their wits, but they should have to deal with unforeseen difficulties the same as any other character.

They can still have a master plan, but instead of everything going smoothly, the villains should cause trouble. Unexpected problems come up, and your schemer has to solve them. You’ll still need a turning point where the hero goes from losing to winning, and that’s when the plan will probably need to really come apart, but that doesn’t stop your hero from having a plan in the first place.

A few relevant posts:

Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your story!

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Comments

  1. Ace of Hearts

    To add to the discussion, where does Kelsier fall on this? Sanderson took inspiration from the mastermind archetype in heist films, but only part of Kelsier’s plan is hidden from the reader. Most of it is laid out at the start.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      It’s been a while since I’ve read Mistborn, but IIRC, Sanderson handles this in two was.

      1: Even though Kelsier has the master plan, the story is still about Vin. We’re following Vin’s adventure, and we primarily care about her problems. This is distinct from a Watsonian POV because Watson is primarily there as a window to how great Sherlock his.

      2: Kelsier’s plan doesn’t work out perfectly. Again, I’m a little hazy on the details, but I’m pretty sure that everything goes wrong in the final act, forcing Vin to solve things herself. Otherwise, Kelsier would have been a puppeteer, and those are the worst.

  2. Cay Reet

    I do have a mastermind character in a story I’m currently plotting and have decided that they need a Watsonian companion. My mastermind knows too much about the situation and would give away too much at the beginning. I do prefer another POV character instead of a different narration in this case, because I want to keep it close to the action. My POV character can see what the mastermind is doing and hear what they’re telling others (orders etc.), but they can’t know what the mastermind is thinking. They can also always be split up for a scene or two, if necessary…

  3. SunlessNick

    Flashbacks are hard, especially in tense situations, but instead of just showing how a character anticipated this development, could you use one to show the effort to put into discovering the potential for it, and the precautions they had to take to prevent their investigation being discovered? Essentially the plan in execution as a framing device for sequences where you see them put the work in?

    Since Watson has come up, Conan Doyle wrote two stories from the perspective of Holmes: The Blanched Soldier and The Lion’s Mane. They might be worth reading to see what he did differently from writing Watson, and whether you think it was successful.

    • Cay Reet

      If the mastermind is your POV character, a lot of internal dialogue or thought process might be necessary at times, while they consider all possible outcomes of a plan they wish to put into action and all the ways they can force their favoured outcome. That could get boring after a while, which is a danger. That’s why the Watsonian perspective works well there – it keeps the focus on action and keeps people from knowing too much too early.

      I’ve read The Lion’s Mane (no real lion involved, though) several times and I think it’s a little weaker than the regular stories, because the big reveal at the end seems a little forced, given Holmes has suspected and known before what killed the victim. With Watson around, the resolution seems natural, because he can’t know what his friend is thinking, but with Holmes narrating it, it’s a little weird.

  4. Erynus

    You can use third limited to show him putting the pieces on place but not telling why. If the whole book is about him preparing the heist, then the climax can be the plan developing (with an occasional hicup or unexpected event that the protagonist can solve or not).
    Another possibility is to pit him against another mastermind, but it can devolve into a gambit pileup too close to a power creep of a shonen anime.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      In general, I would not advice using a limited POV to show the protagonist setting things up but not revealing why. This is likely to feel contrived, as you would expect a person who’s setting up a plan to think about why they’re doing it.

  5. Passerby

    Interestingly, for all of POV jumping in Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo still falls into the pitfall of the narrator hiding information from the reader. For instance in the second book there’s an interrogation scene in which Inej topples with her chair. It reads like a genuinely embarrassing occurrence, but as soon as the baddies leave, Inej reveals she’s done it on purpose – even though her narration didn’t even hint at it. Similar issues can be found in “The Empire of Gold’s” finale, and all of that despite the fact that hiding those information was completely needless in both instances. Since the characters weren’t sure if they’d succeed, the scenes would carry tension regardless.

  6. Alex McGIlvery

    Personally I dislike mastermind characters and plots. The reason is they unreasonably assume that everything will work just so. If it does, it’s boring, if it doesn’t I’m left wondering why the supposed genius didn’t see it coming.

    It is a bit like building a Rube Goldberg machine, which a lot of mastermind villains have a fondness for.

    What I like are every shifting plots. The character has a plan, but they have a plan b to plan z too. This means they can take advantage of random events, or decide to ignore it and take their lumps.

    As the response suggests, schemer over mastermind.

  7. Adam Reynolds

    Another problem with mastermind hero characters is that they often reduce tension in stories, because if everything is part of the plan, you know that things will always end well regardless of how it appears. Leverage often had this trait, and while it was often successful at giving a sense of fun as a substitute, it made it harder for the show to embrace the drama the times they wanted to. Whenever things went badly, you always knew there was another trick hidden away that we just didn’t see.

    This is another reason why it is better if heroes have general plans in which they have to improvise the details. It’s also why masterminds work so well as antagonists, as it feels extremely hard to pull off the win when said antagonist is always a step ahead, while the fact that you get spoilers about their plans only increases the tension for the heroes.

  8. Gk

    I believe that the more pragmatic choice is having a schemer and basically make them more of mastermind by the end of the story.
    I really like how Joe Abercrombie handles it (mythcreants have an article about the failures in his writing but it was his very first book from over 10 year ago and has improved a lot imo, but to be fair im not a native English speaker). I’ll try not to spoill much. Long story short he makes a schemer grow and they become a mastermind after the climax by beating another (secret) mastermind who was smart enough to be undetected by everyone else.

    More detailed: In most cases he has around 6 six povs in his stories, although in his YA books “the shattered sea trilogy” he has 1 pov in book one , 2 in the book two and 3 in book three.

    He often has characters who start scheming in order to survive, making them sympathetic. After hardships and loses and character development, in the climax he gives them a victory (without tricking the audience) but he also includes clues or information, new for both the character and the audience, usually relating to a secret mastermind-y antagonist that we thought was just a supporting character.
    In their last scene we see the pov character outsmarting the aforementioned mastermind using clues that the audience got but likely didn’t connect or something relative to their character development that surprises both the mastermind, who couldn’t predict them any more, and the audience. (Although i have to add that his books are pretty cynical so outsmarting the secret mastermind isn’t always really defeating them, as much as it is wounding their pride).
    If the story has to continue, after that point the character usually loses their status as a pov character or they have some pov chapters but they’re around 5 when the others have 10+.

    Apologies for the long comment. Hope it’s helpful.

  9. Cathy Burkholder

    Miles Vorkosigan from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga series is a great scheming protagonist. (Sci Fi/Space Opera) One technique she uses is making him so smart that you see what he’s thinking in that moment, but he doesn’t stop and methodically explain the big picture. So you have clues, but he’s clever enough to keep you guessing. The epitome of this is in the novella Borders of Infinity.

    Other scheming protagonists include:
    * Belisarius: Derek Künsken’s Quantum Magician (Sci Fi/Heist)
    * Audrey Callahan & Kaldar Mars: Ilona Andrews’ Fate’s Edge (Urban Fantasy/Romance)

  10. Ennis

    Tagging on to what Oren wrote about having a schemer rather than “mastermind”. Even in a visual medium, unless it written _really_ well, those “everything according to plan” plots just don’t tend to stand up to scrutiny. I think it’s just that most people don’t think about it too hard, and the ones that do even most of them aren’t thinking about it until after the movie.

    But in a written work the reader is both more engaged (a book doesn’t get read the way a movie still plays if you aren’t actively following it) and is free to stop at any time to think about or question what’s on the page. That’s why pulling off a convincingly-written “mastermind” is basically impossible, at least for a main/POV character. Either you go into detail of their plan, which will either have obvious holes or will be so excruciatingly detailed almost no one will want to read it, and the ones that do read it will find holes because that’s why they bothered to slog through. Or you try to say as little as possible/handwave it, which isn’t satisfying and just feels like a cheap cop-out.

    It’s like every time writers have a “genius” character where they just list off a ridiculously long list of accomplishments and qualifications—bonus bad points if the character is underage or just way too young to have fit the necessary study for all of them into their life short of a Hermione with the Time Turner kind of situation.

    Uncharitable summation: they’re both more what not-smart people think very smart people are like than what actual smart people are… like.

    I mean, I’m not a genius (obviously, judging by how badly that last sentence was phrased) but one of the most obnoxious kinds of character to watch is where you’re told everything went according to plan because of how clever they are. Even though it’s patently obvious there were a million ways it could (and probably should) have gone wrong. In a meta sense the author has told us the character can always get a bullseye, but we’re watching them draw the target around where the dart stuck.

    Having a mastermind instead of schemer also ruins your tension, in my opinion. Even if there’s some larger goal at the end a la the mastermind, it’s way easier to set up your schemer character like:

    This is Bob. Bob was wronged by the King, so he plans to get revenge. Unfortunately Bob is just a lowly stablehand, but he’s heard about a recruitment drive for squires, and sometimes knights stay with their companions in a building on the castle grounds.

    Bob doesn’t actually need any plan beyond “become a knight’s squire” at that point in the story, so you’re not withholding information from the reader. They’re along for the ride (ha) with him.

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