Storytelling: Villain’s agents

Today, I’ll look at another storytelling element: a villain’s minions whose goals and working methods are subtle rather than blatantly obvious, agents who may stay hidden in the shadows forever, but their contribution is still significant.

Sabotage, espionage, intelligence gathering, creating diversions, pitting prominent enemies against each other… tasks that won’t contribute to a villain’s iron grip visibly, but are important nonetheless. Tasks requiring a sharp mind, cunning, and dedication. And, if done well, no one may ever notice.

There are bad guys who go in, all guns blazing, and take over by force. By doing so, they strike fear into anyone opposing them and send a clear message: don’t mess with us. And there are those who prefer mapping their ground beforehand to assure that a takeover is fast and smooth. While it lacks the impact a violent coup has, it may be easier to control the fallout. Even many of those who were at the height of power, oblivious of what is coming, will ask: what has gone wrong?

Sooner or later, the truth will come out: a small group – or maybe just one person – among them was a set-up follower of their enemy. Gaining their trust while, at the same time, finding weak spots and preparing them to be used. Diverting their attention elsewhere. Turning insignificant issues into something that takes a lot of time and effort to solve while they prepare the ground.

A different point of view

Such a character, with their unique role, may offer a different point of view. Writing such a character is a chance to explore different sides of the story, the connections between various factions and locations as the agent(s) do their work – learning about characters and factions to find weaknesses to exploit will need a fair amount of interactions. Sabotage and diversion in any form will use that knowledge, as well as careful timing, showcasing the character’s skills, especially when it comes to planning. They may also need to keep up several appearances – the need to report to their master without being spotted while also being trustworthy to the faction they’re undermining. If done well, their true role may not be discovered at all…

All of this will take a lot of focus and mastery for the writer to do well – in which case, it may be thrilling and satisfying for the reader.

Agent’s tools

Another aspect is what tools the agent has at their disposal. This varies a lot by genre and, because such a role requires any advantage, can be something that shows how far can the possibilities stretch. The agent may be a loner, or may have a developed supply network to carry out tasks, especially if they’re far away from their assigned place of action (typically at the side of some major character, often one to be overthrown).

In any setting, the key will be some form of communication tool, often at the peak of technology to make it as small and as hard to detect or intercept as possible. If the sabotage is a group effort, communication between various cells becomes very important to stay ahead and give their enemies little chance to think, forcing them to act, often while lacking information (something the agent(s) typically play a role in).

When it comes to tech, the most option gives Sci-Fi and possibly contemporary or near-future setting. All sorts of hi-tech gadgets and gizmos may be used to get things done. But even fantasy can let authors get quite creative, exploring the edges of their magical systems.

Double-agents, traitors, turncoats

Spending a lot of time with the enemy, however, bears a major risk: the agent may end up rejecting their cause or not being sure which is the best one. This plot option is mostly used for characters with several positive traits while ruthless characters probably won’t consider this.

Motivations and true loyalty may be difficult to figure out – for the writer, reader, and the character itself. Double-agent may be a stage where the person tries to find out which side of the cause is better aligned with their goals, with various result: they may return to their original loyalty, play both sides (typically with their own goals), switch sides (easier to do if they were close to the people they were originally to subvert but it may be hard to accomplish if they remained in the shadows most of the time as finding a new channel of information may be difficult without direct contact), or just “retire” and vanish altogether, trying to find themselves (and possibly take a different role later). The last option is probably easiest for characters who worked alone with minimal contact and would be harder to track down. Agents who were part of a wider network may take drastic ways out, such as feigning their own death in an accident.

Their (former) master may also decide to punish the traitor – though this may end up taking more resources than it’s worth and serve to undermine the villain in the end.

I’ll close this here. As usual, I’ll welcome your experiences and opinions on this storytelling element, as well as tips for book in Sci-Fi and fantasy genre.

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