Back in the 90s, I was a Pokemon kid. Like most in my age group, the Catch ’em All mentality was prevalent in my collection of cards, toys, and games. Unlike Sailor Moon before it, Pokemon served as an anime gateway drug for me. And like many kids, once Pokemon started to lose my interest, I turned to Digimon.
Now, I watched Digimon for many years, up until it started getting weird(er) and the kids no longer each had their own Digimon partner. I loved the heck out of the first series and quickly came in for the second. It was a semi-new team. Three new kids with newly designed Digimon and two from the first series, aged from children to pre-teens. I got some new, some old, and a continuation of the story, so I was excited!
This new team was faced up against the Digimon Emperor, an erratically dressed boy about their age who was enslaving Digimon and trying to take over the Digital World. I remember watching cartoons one Saturday morning and seeing a trailer for the next coming episode, where this villain’s identity would be revealed. This was an exciting deal for me, and I couldn’t wait for the episode.
Part way through the episode, the kids have a soccer game against a rival school in their world. A lot of the girls are gushing over this kid named Ken, the star player/high ranking honour student from the other school. This is the first time he is mentioned in the series and he’s made out to be a big deal.
Yeah, you know where this is going even if you’ve never seen the show.
Now, obviously this was a kid’s show, and reveals like Ken being the Digimon Emperor did surprise my younger, unobservant self. Even if I hadn’t noticed the set-up as obvious, an actor with a very distinct voice played the Emperor and, of course, Ken shared that voice. Plus, there was something suspicious about him the second he came on screen.
My point is that pulling stuff like this is not a good way to create a villain identity twist, even in a kid’s show. Kids are a lot smarter than people give them credit for. So, how is a twist like this best done?
Well, if I were to re-write the story with this reveal in mind, the best course of action would be to have Ken around from the beginning. He obviously wouldn’t be part of the main team (yet), but would have a presence as a classmate or a boy one of the team’s girls had a crush on. Make him visible enough to be recognized, but seem fairly unimportant in the whole Digital World plot. If he had popped up here and there beforehand, his reveal as the Digimon Emperor may have been a bit more shocking.
(Granted, kids may have also been able to figure out it was him based on his voice. As I said, it was a distinct one. But making him present, but forgettable enough from episode to episode would have possibly helped that as well.)
Surprise reveals need to be handled with subtlety. Most crime shows do this pretty well. A trained viewer, of course, can usually guess who the criminal is by the end. (Hint: In most crime shows, it will be the second or third person interviewed.) Scooby Doo also did this very well, to the point where there was an episode where the criminal was someone the Gang had never met—she was the assistant of the guy who’d hired them—and Velma made reference to how it didn’t make sense because there was no indication the perpetrator had existed before the reveal.
Obviously, the length of your story and the situations around it will allow you to lay as many or as few red herrings as you need, and distract the audience to the point where they might have not even realized what you were doing until later.
Today, my childhood nostalgia just happened to collide with my much improved writing skills. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an entire season of Digimon to re-enjoy.