Sometimes we can use the antagonistic force to mask the true villain of the story. Here the protagonist’s personal bias affects their perception of the people and things around them hiding the real antagonist and making others appear antagonistic. The classic would be the betrayal by a friend, the protagonist can easily imagine the acquaintance could be an antagonist but their dearest friend? No, impossible.
In these instances we can create a sleight of hand effect by giving the interpretation a believable logic. All the characters involved would need a reason that makes sense to them otherwise the plot might not work for the reader. Why does Character A perceive these two characters like this? Why would Character B betray A? Why would Character C not betray A?
It’s also important to remember that the other characters’ perception would be different to the protagonist. For example Character B might not see it as a betrayal, they might think they’re helping A or they might even have been tricked into betraying them. Character A might interpret Character C’s actions as antagonistic but Character C might be a classic guff-exterior-with-a-heart-of-gold. Alternatively, Character C might not like Character A but their morals prevent them from doing something that would betray them. For example, in a story where the real antagonist wants to take over the world there’s a difference between ‘I don’t like Character A’ and ‘I want the antagonist to take over the world’. Characters can be antagonistic towards each other but still work together, an example would be the dysfunctional team, or the two opposing forces who need to work together to stop the bigger bad.
If we don’t give the characters a reason behind their actions then when we reveal the protagonist was wrong about these characters it can appear like a plot twist designed to shock rather than an element that makes sense within the world of the story which can make a story unsatisfying for a reader. This doesn’t mean we have to blatantly signpost the twist but we can build in potential suggestions. Such as the solution the protagonist might not pick because while it will benefit them it would have a negative impact on someone else. Here it might be believable that their friend might go behind their back to bring about the solution because they love the protagonist and don’t want them at risk. Here we have a logical reason for ‘betrayal’ by the friend sacrificing themselves, or not considering the impact it would have on someone else to save the protagonist, or choosing not to acknowledge the impact. Here the character the protagonist perceives as antagonistic might have the advantage of emotional detachment, they don’t love the protagonist but they don’t necessarily wish them harm. They can see the potential for harming others and have no emotional entanglement that might cause them to. The friend betrays with good intentions for emotional reasons, the perceived antagonist doesn’t because of logical reasons.
To create this sleight of hand we don’t have to make the plot complicated. We can think through the scenarios that might lead to different solutions and lead the reader towards an obvious one such as friend helping and flip it the friend’s help becoming a form of betrayal. Simple sleight of hand can sometimes be more effective than complex sleight of hand because all the pieces were there. In sleight of hand we can nudge the reader into assembling them one way, sometimes based on their own assumptions, while assembling the same pieces in a different order behind the scenes.