"Why the hell do my plans always work when the camera isn't rolling?"It's natural for works to follow the Point of View of The Hero, considering that the story revolves around them. Of course, that means that anything that the hero doesn't see isn't portrayed directly. This includes the villain's actions that don't occur in front of the hero. The Chessmaster may be moving pieces that the viewpoint character(s) don't even know about (yet), or the Evil Plan could have been in motion long before the hero shows up to fight against it. Either way, a lot of the villainous actions that play a role in the plot aren't visibly apparent, although their long term consequences might be. Usually The Reveal of it is handled through Expo Speak, which raises the question of whether or not it's actually believable that these villainous acts happened. This is not necessarily a bad thing. If handled well, it makes the Big Bad more credible, showing off the depth of the villain's effort and planning. A good villain is that much more appreciable as a threat, and the audience picks up on it. Relying only on Offstage Villainy, however, while not showing the villain do all that much evil onscreen, will turn their "bad guy" status into an Informed Attribute. This goes hand in hand with Villains Act, Heroes React quite often. May result in a Spanner in the Works for either side, depending on the outcome. Compare and contrast Gory Discretion Shot, which may overlap with this, and Designated Villain, where the "villain" doesn't actually do anything truly bad, either on-screen or off.
— Bowser Koopa, Super Mario Bros The Parody Series
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Anime & Manga
- Mahou Sensei Negima! has this in spades in-story, concerning Evangeline. She has a 600 year long history of evil and bloodshed resulting a 6 million dollar bounty and essentially acting as the boogeyman of the magic world (eat your peas, or Evangeline will come and eat you). Despite all of this, she only does a few villainous things on-screen: sucking blood from students and attacking Negi. Other than that, she regularly helps out the heroes, going so far as to train them and let them use her magical resort for vacation. It's even hinted that her evil reputation is an exaggeration, and that she acted the part so that people would leave her alone. She still constantly tries to claim she's evil, but everyone who actually knows her claims that she's not that bad.
- The way she tells her backstory suggests that her reputation as a deadly murderer is because people kept hunting her and getting killed in self-defense. Being a vampire in medieval Europe wasn't exactly the best situation for living a peaceful life. Eva, for her part, thinks that these excuses are flimsy and anyone who thinks she's not evil due to this is an idiot.
- In One Piece, Trafalgar Law, aka The Surgeon of Death, gets hit with this trope. Thus far we have seen him act very calm, insightful, reserved, and healing Luffy. None of that screams villainy. It might be played with; between how he acts and the reason for the bounties on Luffy and Zoro, he might be similarly wanted for actions that are, at the very least, justifiable. In which case, the offscreen behavior that is villainous is only towards the corrupt World Government (or a misunderstanding). And now that he's a Warlord of the Sea, his darker side is being hinted at once again. How did he become one? By removing the hearts of 100 pirates and sending them to the World Government.
- Gold Roger also applies, in a sense. Every flashback featuring him always seems to present him positively. By contrast, pretty much every villainous act he's done is always presented via word of mouth of his victims.
- In general, if a pirate is not meant to be a villain (like the Supernovas, or the similarly notorious Super Rookies introduced in the Dressrosa arc), his more unpleasant traits will be kept offscreen.
- Any of the villains in Pokémon are a lot more effective when not sharing screen-time with the heroes.
- Calvin and Hobbes: The Series: Holographic Retro orchestrated some of the events of Season 4. Also counts as Arc Welding.
- Another Realm: Xerol Shaaryak built his enterprise on Illium through nefarious means, evident by his employing of asari commandos, and the no small measure of respect he gets from the underground. These acts are heavily implied to have been violent, particularly in batarian circles.
Films — Animation
Films — Live-Action
- Douglas Milroy explored this (and the designated hero) in his review of The Beast:
"In one fell swoop the movie has its would-be hero mocking and yelling at an essentially innocent villain. If a large number of truly despicable actions by Graves had been shown, perhaps we could accept our hero calling him names, or mocking his education. As it is, how many actual representations of villainy by Graves do we see or hear about: one. Raines and Marcus are discussing the position of harbor master, when Rains says "Schuyler Graves has expanded its scope. It's got a lot of people angry around here". And that, oh my Brothers, is it. Based upon that, we are to take him as a villain."
- Repo! The Genetic Opera has Luigi and Pavi, brothers stated to be a murderer and a rapist, respectively. While we see Luigi stab several people to death, all the girls we see with Pavi are quite willing. This could be because while violence is always fun, it's really hard to joke about rape.
- Frank Miller for most of High Noon. The hero Kane threw him in prison for unspecified charges before the start of the film, but Miller gets pardoned and decides to take revenge on Kane. Kane runs around town insisting that Miller is a menace to them all, but people refuse to stand with him. Some even sympathize with Miller and insist that Kane is trying to drag them into a personal feud. When Miller finally arrives, he sports some evil scars to prove his villainy, but he still doesn't do anything except go after Kane.
- An interesting example is Richard B. Riddick, the Noble Demon protagonist of The Chronicles of Riddick who, despite being the protagonist, is considered by all to be evil incarnate. While in Pitch Black he certainly starts off as a sinister character, in all of his screen time across the number of games and movies he appears in, he never really does anything explicitly evil. Most of it can easily be recognised as a man with a strong survival instinct who just wants people to leave him the fuck alone.
- Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs, at least for the first half or so. We hear that he's a psycho, sure, we hear that he shot a bunch of civilians, but whenever we actually see him, he's calm and cool and affable. The only evidence we have for his villainy is the word of Mr.'s Pink and White. Then the ear scene happens.
- In Serenity, The Operative doesn't know where Serenity went to hide, so he has every place they've hidden in the past bombed to bits. The crew only finds this out when they try to contact all of them.
- The library scene in Star Trek: Insurrection really goes out of its way to make the Son'a unlikeable, with records of conquering and enslaving worlds, drug dealing, and possessing illegal weapons. It makes the Federation look really stupid to have ever turned to them.
- In Con Air, Garland Greene is presented as one of the most horrific and prolific serial killers who ever lived, and is certainly feared by the other criminals, but all his crimes occurred before his introduction. He boasts of killing a little girl and wearing her face as a Genuine Human Hide, yet he thankfully refrains from killing a girl he runs into. The end rather implies that he's gone good, but with his past crimes this still makes him an extreme Karma Houdini.
- In Dracula Untold, the Elder Vampire makes Vlad admit that he butchered not hundreds, but thousands of innocents, but since it would be hard to root for him, we see him actually doing none of it.
- Lord of War: When Andre Jr. is introduced, Yuri notes internally that this son of an African dictator is a psychopathic murderer, rapist, and cannibal. Though he does end up shooting at civilians, none of Jr.'s most heinous crimes are shown.
- The Chronicles of Riddick: The Lord Marshal's extermination of the Furyans to try to cheat the prophecy that Aereon gave him, which is only alluded to in the theatrical cut. Averted in the extended cut, which actually shows him committing these massacres.
- In A Brother's Price, this is necessary as the heroes have no idea who the villain is, or, more precisely, who is paying the petty criminals they're fighting. Therefore, the most horrible crime (the rape and murder of a man) occurs offscreen, and the heroes only find the body.
- In Dragon Bones, most things the villains do are only hinted at. Justified, as no one really likes to read detailed descriptions of torture or rape, and the descriptions of the wounds are enough to show how evil the villains are. The murders are on-stage, most other things aren't, or if they are, we get to see them from the point of view of the (at that point) delirious victims.
- In Sherlock Holmes, in Professor Moriarty's first appearance, we never actually read about anything he did; he just "has his hands" in villainy. This was remedied in the later The Valley of Fear. Granted, his villainy is still technically offscreen, but it's one hell of a punch in the gut all the same.
- One of the most common complaints about the Inheritance Cycle is that for the longest time the reader was never actually shown Evil Overlord Galbatorix doing anything particularly evil to the people of Alagaesia other than raising taxes and fighting the Varden rebels, neither of which are inherently particularly heinous. Indeed, it's acknowledged by Eragon at one point that most of the people of the Empire get along perfectly well under his rule. Just the fact that he successfully overthrew the Dragon Riders seems to be enough justification for the war waged by the Varden, the elves, and the dwarves in the series. This is despite the fact that the Dragon Riders were stated to have been corrupt and fighting each other anyway, meaning that Galby's crime was... winning. Rather belatedly he was given some unquestionably villainous actions, such as in Brisingr (the third book) where it's stated that he enslaved the souls of the dragons he killed, and magically enslaves many of his soldiers. Though by this time a sizeable chunk of the reader base had started Rooting for the Empire.
- In A Song of Ice and Fire,
- Whilst Gregor "The Mountain that Rides" Clegane is one of the cruelest villains in the series, the reader only hears about the great majority of his deeds from other characters, rather than witnessing them directly (though there are often enough details included and enough reason to believe the various narrators to be reliable that it still gets the effect across, showing that this trope is not inherently flawed).
- The same with Lord Roose Bolton and Ramsay Bolton, who like to flay the skin off their captives' fingers until the captives beg for the fingers to be chopped off due to the pain. Poor Theon Greyjoy, while not the nicest person, gets this treatment. For obvious reasons, this isn't directly shown to the reader.
- Very much in effect in the novel From Outer Space. The villain only actually appears in the last ten or so pages and, although he is indeed both a colossal jerkass and a Dirty Coward, he doesn't come off as being anywhere near as evil as the Hunter claims him to be.
- A common trait of villains in Septimus Heap is that most of their evil deeds are never shown, just discussed or narrated.
- Sisterhood Series by Fern Michaels: The author mishandles this trope a number of times. This results in stories where the villains are just not as terrible as they're claimed to be, causing their punishments to come off as Disproportionate Retribution, and causing the protagonists inflicting said punishments to look like the actual villains of the series instead!
- Most of the terrible things Dorian Gray does are never gone into- probably because it was better to let the reader's imagination fill in the gaps than to try to fill them with what sins could be actually printed in 1890. There's much talk about the spectacular things Dorian collects over the best part of twenty years, then Basil turns up and comes out with a list of people whose lives have been ruined by Dorian's behaviour (and there are clearly a lot that Basil doesn't know about.)
- In Kill Decision, Odin is reluctant to get the help of Mordecai because he's supposedly horrid scum even by Odin's loose standards. But apart from a not-entirely-unjustified attempt at calling the authorities on them and a throwaway mention of his porn being of the cephalopodic variety, we don't actually see him being the kind of absolute monster that deserves Odin's scorn.
- The titular villain of Stephen King's It may antagonize the characters a lot but manages still to fit this trope quite well. It has been around since the beginning of time and as Mike Hanlon finds out, Pennywise has been present for every disaster and mass-killing in Derry's history. Not to mention It murders numerous characters off-screen during the story proper.
- Villains by Necessity: Not one of the villain protagonists does anything really evil in the story, thus allowing us to sympathize with them. Anything like that is only mentioned as part of their past (for instance Sam's apparently assassinated dozens of people).
- This was a problem faced by the writers of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine with the villain Gul Dukat in the first few seasons. He was, in essence, a space nazi who directly oversaw the slave labour camps of the Bajoran people for years, and was by all accounts not a good employer. By the time the series begins however the Bajorans are free, and Gul Dukat comes across as a witty, intelligent (but admittedly egotistical), three dimensional Anti-Villain, despite the characters (more or less correctly) insisting that he's Satan's bastard offspring.
- A completely offstage example is Maris from Frasier, Niles Crane's abrasive, manipulative, controlling, hysterical, nigh-sociopathic Jerk Ass wife. None of the outlandishly horrible things she does are ever actually seen onscreen, as she was The Ghost, but they had a major impact on the series all the same. The writers averted vilifying Maris via Unreliable Narrator by making Niles genuinely in love with her and often oblivious to her faults, as well as making sure that when the characters described her actions, they described them factually and in detail rather than complaining about what a lousy person she was. In fact, the act of describing her actions out loud to the other characters was often what made Niles realize just how nasty some of the things she did really were. As the series went on, Maris became less of an offstage villain and more of an offstage abomination; not only was she increasingly portrayed as a narcissistic sociopath, some of the physical descriptions of her make you wonder if she was even human. The characters don't always seem to be joking when they talk about her this way.
- On Heroes, Noah "HRG" Bennet spent 17 years personally participating in the kidnapping, experimentation and mind-wiping of people with special abilities. He also lied to his family the entire time (for their own protection, but still putting them in danger without their knowledge or consent). However, this mostly took place before the pilot episode. This, plus the fact that Bennet was frequently shown onscreen being a Papa Wolf to Claire, caused many fans to be unsympathetic when his family (especially Claire) reacted with revulsion and horror to the revelations about his not-so-distant past.
- Wonder Woman (2011 pilot):
- In the failed pilot, the titular heroine is introduced brutally arresting a drug dealer, and later tortures him for information. Trouble is, we're only given her word that he's a drug dealer, and this Wonder Woman seems like exactly the kind of person who would go off half-cocked on the flimsiest evidence.
- There is also the Big Bad who is supposedly guilty of human trafficking and using her victims for drug testing. There's a memorable scene where Wonder Woman calls a press conference and levies several accusations of criminal conduct and being evil, even pointing out that she has no evidence to back these claims up. Evidently she either has no idea what slander is, or nobody can/will prosecute her. This is only one of her many acts of blatant criminal conduct on-screen. The heroine is essentially performing onstage villainy. Any surprise this show never got off?
- The Outer Limits (1995): In "Abaddon", it's used for ambiguity factor when a genocidal warlord is unfrozen from a hypersleep pod. He claims to be innocent of the crimes he's accused of all while acting Obviously Evil. Since his purported human sacrifices and mass murder is all in his backstory, the crew of the ship that found him wonder if the Mega Corp. they work for (and seized the land that belonged to the warlord's followers) actually did frame him, which is left unanswered.
- Jables's Adventure pushes this to the point of parody. The final boss of the game is King Squid, who readily identifies himself as a villain and boasts that Jables is too late to stop his evil scheme. However, until the pre-boss-fight cutscene, there is literally no mention or foreshadowing of King Squid or his evil plan—until the boss fight, Jables doesn't even know the game has a villain.
- The Authority in iD's Rage where throughout the game we're told just how evil they are, how they're out to get you and will kill you on sight...but we see precious little of them before the second disk. The first time we do see them is when we're attempting to break out a terrorist from a prison so their hostility to the player-controlled character is understandable.
Zero Punctuation: Yeah, any governing body that calls itself "The Authority" probably aren't distributing free t-shirts to war widows, but I wish the game would establish that rather than just ask me to assume it.
- Whatever it was that Big Bad Hector from Grim Fandango did in life, it was apparently so atrocious that he runs a massive scam to steal No. 9 tickets (only given to the most saintly of people,) sell fake copies of them to less morally-sound people, and hoard the real ones for himself in an attempt to balance it out for when he moves on to the Ninth Underworld.
- The police, military and Mega Corp. from the Rockstar game State of Emergency are said to be oppressing the populace, but never shown doing anything particularly heinous to ordinary folks. The only aggression we see from them is their efforts to stop you from murdering panicked citizens or blowing up restaurants and storefronts which, thanks to the very slapdash backstory, are suggested to be, like, really evil restaurants and storefronts, or something.
- Likewise, it's never revealed in Planescape: Torment what the first incarnation of The Nameless One did that's so horrible that not even an entire lifetime's worth of atonement could make up for it, hence his search for immortality.
- The United Earth Directorate in StarCraft. Canonically, they are a ruthless dictatorship who abolished cultural ethnicity and religion on Earth, banished 400 millions human in space for being considered "undesirable" and came to the Koprulu Sector with the intention of enslaving or eradicating the Zerg and Protoss. Unfortunately, very little of this is actually shown in-game, and all we get to see in their Brood War campaign is them trying to enslave the Zerg (who at this point were Always Chaotic Evil) and beating the crap out of Arcturus Mengsk, one of the most reviled characters in the franchise. This has caused plenty of fans to root for them, and not understand why the heroic characters chose to form an Enemy Mine with the much more Obviously Evil Sarah Kerrigan to fight them.
- Dr. Merlot, Big Bad of ''RWBY: Grimm Eclipse, who creates mutated Grimm and sends them after the main characters, but is never seen in person.
- Other than the fact that he created a game company despite already owning a game reviewing magazine, participating in a Scooby-Doo ripoff, and being unable to see Skull (which apparently only happens to the "extremely self-centered"), we are forever kept in the dark why the PvP crew, especially Cole, hates Max Powers. Especially considering practically EVERYONE in the magazine has done far worse things. Laid out quite nicely on Websnark. Finally explained in a storyline where Cole reveals he hates Max out of pure jealousy of the fact that Max is a much better person than him. And later on, Max can see Skull, though it's not clear why he couldn't before.
- Evil Diva is freaked out by using a human as a seat. The Big Guy tells her she wouldn't think so if she knew what he did to get there.
- Shaenon K. Garrity loves this trope:
- From Narbonic, Helen Narbon regularly calls herself evil, but tends to come off as a Noble Demon. Only the supplemental materials make it clear that she's killed innocents For Science!.
- Mel from the same comic starts as a case of this, then turns out to be genuinely dangerous when not under tight control. Then she's forced to work for Helen again, and it's like that entire incident never happened.
- Unity of Skin Horse takes this trope about as far as it can reasonably go. She Eats Babies, steals body parts to replace her own, and got onto the team because there was a position available after she killed two previous members. In-panel, we have never seen her kill or seriously injure someone who wasn't already attacking the group.
- A lot of what Damien did in El Goonish Shive was off-panel, save his fight with Grace herself and his abuse of Hedge. The only time we witness Damien actually kill is Grace's flashback of Damien's killing of everyone except her and her brothers at the facility where she was created and of that only Grace's uryuom father is actually seen to be killed by Damien.
- The nature (and fail-field) of the Buildingverse makes it so that both villainy and heroism is forced off panel which can become quite the surprise when someone does some background research (no, Shilo isn't exaggerating when she talks about her dad vivisecting people for a living in Girls Next Door) or when we get some flashbacks to canon (Like Roommates's Father's Day special made it abundantly clear that despite how Affably Evil Lord King acts, he is a fae and Would Hurt a Child).
- Few of the Neopets villains are actually seen doing anything bad. Deliberately invoked for Jhudora, who is free to do as she pleases because she's never been caught at anything.
- For the first two years of The Questport Chronicles, the villains never appear until the final showdown, and the heroes learn of their misdeeds second-hand.
- Subverted in Eliezer Yudkowsky's The Sword of Good, in which the in-universe Designated Villain, the Lord of Darkness, turns out to be trying to gain Unlimited Power so that he can fix the broken world and save the countless innocents who are suffering and dieing under the existing "balance" between "good and evil". Said Lord of Darkness actually asks The Hero to touch him with the titular Sword of Good, which kills anyone with bad intentions, in the final moments before he ascends.
- In Noob, Gaea eventually gets her reputation points so low that she gets kicked out of her faction due to the cumulative consequences of her Manipulative Bastard actions on both player and non-player characters. While she has been seen scamming or blackmailing two of her own guildmates and The Ace, the tricks she pulled on anyone else are shown only in two or three comic-only scenes.
- In The Nostalgia Critic, while Hyper stalking him, breaking into his house and kidnapping him is bad enough, she had him for two weeks that we don't see and only get references to. This is more out of necessity than anything else, as (for example) they can't exactly show her lopping off one of his toes like he said she did.
- Magneto, in the 1990s X-Men animated series, is consistently presented as the heroes' Arch-Enemy, especially in the intro. However, it's only in his first few appearances (and the last episode) that he is actually doing evil and acting at odds with the X-Men. In every other appearance, he is just trying to find a peaceful place for mutants to live, and ends up working with the X-Men against a greater evil.
- Tuma, his Skrall legion, and the Bone Hunters in BIONICLE: The Legend Reborn. Everyone makes them out to be deadly threats, but when they are on-screen, they are revealed to be a bunch of goofy Mooks and a dumb Dragon, and are easily defeated. The only bad thing they do is plundering a village and beating up a good guy, however we never see them do it, and only two villagers react with shock to the destruction of their home (even the Village Leader doesn't seem to care). Keep in mind this only applies to Legend Reborn. In other media, the Bone Hunters raided trade caravans and attacked the city of Vulcanus; while Tuma was a full Evil Overlord, manipulating the Bone Hunters and protagonist tribes and having the Skrall subvert the impending Tournament Arc by razing the stadium instead.
- The Venture Bros.: In the Cold Opening of "I Know Why The Caged Bird Kills", The Monarch performs his best villainous entrance ever, slaughtering dozens and leaving pure mayhem in his wake... only to immediately find out that they're at the wrong address and he's raiding his accountant's office instead of the Venture compound.
- Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles has the Bugs successfully destroying the White House, the Eiffel Tower and several other targets in an All Your Base Are Belong to Us moment. We don't actually see this, however, as that would probably have been a bit traumatic for a kids' show. Rather shockingly averted with the first appearance of a Brain Bug, though. The psychic "replay" we get shows quite clearly what it does to prisoners. The only thing we don't see is the man's skull actually being pierced; we see the proboscis rise and fall and watch the soldier's body twitching with his head just offscreen.
- Jackie Chan Adventures:
- When Uncle and Daolon Wong first meet, Wong reveals himself as the one who killed (though he uses the verb defeat) Uncle's teacher Chi Master Fong. This crime is never shown onscreen.
- The Dark Hand are said to have connections to nearly every known form of criminal activity, and when Valmont, Finn and Ratso allow themselves to be arrested, they get a fifty year sentence in a maximum security prison. However, most criminal acts that don't relate to magic artifacts or are otherwise relevant to the plot aren't shown, the Enforcers are mostly portrayed as Affably Evil and incompetent, and while Valmont does start off as a credible threat, he soon undergoes a major Villain Decay.
- Ma Vreedle in Ben 10 is constantly shilled as a fearsome, skilled villain whose actions made her wanted in 12 systems, banned in 27 others, and somehow caused Vilgax (who is considered the most dangerous being in the Galaxy) to be terrified by her. The things she is actually seen doing onscreen, however, are cartoonish schemes in the same vein than the show's more comedic villains, making you wonder why everyone is so afraid of her.
- In My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic Discord's original rule is only mentioned in passing as "an eternal state of unrest and unhappiness," his stained glass window shows him dangling ponies over flames and he himself refers to an afternoon of reducing the world to complete chaos as only "his first changes." One must wonder exactly how horrific his original rule must have been, compared to bad bad but mostly humorous and silliness he's shown inflicting onscreen.