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?
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:
- Six Types of Turning Points for Climaxes
- Four Questions to Ask When a Character is Clever
- Five Perspective Mistakes to Avoid
Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your story!