Pathogens of the genus Plasmodium are unicellular parasites that infect a variety of animals, including reptiles, birds and mammals. All Plasmodium species target host erythrocytes and replicate asexually within this niche. In humans, proliferation within erythrocytes causes disease symptoms ranging from asymtomatic infection to severe disease, including mild to severe febrile and respiratory symptoms, profound anaemia and obstruction of blood flow. The most serious form of human malaria is caused by Plasmodium falciparum, a pathogen that is responsible for several million deaths annually throughout the developing world. Malaria parasites succeed in evading the host immune response to establish long-term, persistent infections, thus increasing the efficiency by which they are transmitted to the mosquito vector. The ability to evade the host immune system, in particular the avoidance of antibody-mediated immunity against parasite-encoded surface proteins, is the result of amplification of extensive repertoires of multicopy, hypervariable gene families that encode infected erythrocyte or merozoite surface proteins. Via switching between antigenically diverse genes within these large families, populations of parasites have the capacity for rapid variation in antigenicity and virulence over the course of an infection. Here we review the amplification and generation of antigenic diversity within the Plasmodium variant gene families, as well as discuss the mechanisms underlying their tightly controlled gene expression and antigenic switching.