Friday, March 09, 2012

Being Evil: Plotting From the Antagonist's Perspective

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

When working on a scene, we're almost always thinking what the protagonist will do and how they'll get out of it. This is just good plotting, but sometimes it can lead directly to the outcome you have planned and miss opportunities for wonderful situations.

I was working on a scene for Blue Fire and found myself in this exact situation. The general gist of the scene was, Nya has to get out of something and fights a bunch of bad guys to do it. She'll get away, but it'll be a tough fight. Since I know she'll get away, I had her acting to achieve that goal. Oddly though, it felt wrong, too easy, rather flat, and something was off. Then it hit me...

This wasn't about her trying to get out, it was about the bad guys trying to stop her from getting out.

Once I flipped sides and looked at the scene through the bad guy's perspective, it all fell into place. They have this girl trying to get out of X. What would they do to stop her? What elements do they already have in place to handle such things? It was easy after that to create the obstacles Nya had to face and overcome to get out of this predicament. And it worked so much better. (Just to be clear, I didn't actually write the scene from their perspective, just thought about what they'd do to stop her and then had her encounter those things.)

Let's see how Bob and the zombies would handle this.

Bob, Jane, and Sally are trapped in a Denny's, with zombies all around them. They need to get out before they're the ones on the lunch menu.

Traditionally, I'd examine the scene and look for potential obstacles and write them in.

Zombies are covering all the exits. They're bashing themselves against the doors and windows and the glass is going to break any time now. Sally and Jane are arguing, making it hard to focus or get everyone to work together.

I might even think about bad things that can happen.

They're low on ammo. The kitchen is on fire. Jane is injured.

Let's make it even worse (because that's where the fun is). What if these particular zombies are not the kind Bob has been encountering all along? Several of them came across a secret government safe house where test subjects for a new brain enhancing serum were being closely monitored. The zombies ate them, and now they're smart zombies.

These zombies aren't going to just whack their heads on the door until it breaks. They'll have a plan. This will certainly change how Bob acts, but even so, it'll still be along the lines of what Bob has to do to get out, and when I plot this, I'll most likely think about things that Bob can do to achieve that ultimate goal of getting away.

I have all these problems and the scene will no doubt play out like this: Zombies try to get in, Bob deals with each problem as it occurs. He runs out of ammo, searches for other lethal items, maybe even uses the fire to kill enough zombies to escape. He might be surprised at the new and inventive ways the smart zombies are trying to get him, but he'll deal with them same as always, because that's what he does. Since I know Bob is going to get out, it's more a matter of "How is Bob going to use these pieces to get out of there?" Because of that, there's no real tension that he isn't going to get out of there. The scene is going to unfold as expected.

Now flip it.

Think about it from the zombie's perspective. What will these smart zombies do to get and eat Bob and the others? Shove dumpsters against the windows so they can't get out? Create a situation where the only possible exit is into a trap they've set? Sacrifice the regular zombies to send the fire deeper into the restaurant and force Bob out?

Suddenly it's not just about Bob getting away. It's about Bob having to overcome obstacles that aren't so easy to guess the outcome. Failing here is a real possibility, so the tension is jacked high. Readers don't know what will happen next because anything could.

It's the same situation, but you're not plotting for the win, you're plotting for the loss, and then letting Bob win anyway, because he earned it by figuring out how. And by thinking like the bad guy for a bit, you're not picking the easy way out. You're creating tough situations that will require some fancy footwork to overcome.

So don't go easy on your protagonist. Really get inside the heads of those bad guys and think about what they'd do to get what they want. You might find yourself saying, "there's no way my protagonist can get out of that," but do it anyway and make them work for it. Because the harder you have to think, the harder your protagonist has to think, the more unpredictable the scene will be.

And that'll keep the reader thinking, "wow, this is a great book."

Have you ever looked at a scene from the bad guy's perspective? Plotted from the antagonist's view? How much thought do you put into what the antagonist is doing? 

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Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. What a great idea! I'll have to try that. And I loved the zombie example. Perfect for Halloween. :)

  2. Excellent advice!

    So often our secondary characters seem uninteresting and unengaging because we only see them from the perspective of the protagonist. We miss the opportunity to give them a life of their own. This is a great technique for bringing those characters to life and making our stories even better in the process.


  3. Hi Janice! I came here through a recommendation from Donna Gambale. This was such a helpful post. I often make up a protagonist and then get stuck in his or her head, never considering the POVs of the other characters. Looking at the story from the bad guys' POV would definitely give the situation more depth and realism. I'll have to try it out! Looking forward to reading more :)

  4. Consider things from the POV of the bad guys? Damn, I didn't think of that. Awesome advice. Oh, I'm going to have so much fun with this :D

  5. Ronald J. McIsaac10/31/2009 11:40 AM

    Eoin Colfer does this particularly well in the Artemis Fowl series. In The Lost Colonies, Leon Abbot's POV opens up the book. Colfer doesn't follow the Orson Scott Card rules in regard to POV, though. He often jumps from one head to another in mid-scene.

  6. Wow, superb advice. Really. I do, do this (I'm one of those crazy writers who has a cast of characters yelling in their head) but having it laid out like that was eye-opening. Despite the fact that I do this already. There was just something about the way you said it...

  7. Thanks all! (and welcome to the blog, Julie) Ronald, although you can certainly write the scene from the antag's POV, I was talking more about thinking about your scene from their POV, then writing it as you normally world. That we often get scope locked on what the protag has to do that we sometimes forget to see what the protag's actions would make the antag's do. But that does give me an idea for another post about writing from the antag's POV! So thanks!

  8. Neat way of looking at it! Something I've recently started doing when a scene doesn't "feel" right is making a list of everyone who's in the scene and what they'll (want to) do, as well as one of everyone who could enter a scene. I've already caught some major logistics holes, that way. (MMC was just throttling villain's boss; said boss won't politely wait while MMC has to stop FMC from hurting herself in a panic attack.)

    If a scene's really problematic, I'll even list who has to stay in a scene and who could get ripped out. But then, my instinct when things start falling flat is to toss someone else in the room, so my coping mechanism doubtless developed to counteract that.

    I want to take my novel draft and write down motivations/intentions for every character in every scene, now. That might actually be a good idea... I've not been able to read The Shifter, yet, but I'm searching for it!

  9. Hey, Janice. I was having some problems with my WIP, so I went through all your articles tagged "conflict". Later, a scene was giving me trouble. I immediately thought of this post and now I'm back on track. Thank you so much!

  10. I'm so glad you fixed your problem and that I could help :) Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

  11. I so very much need to do this. Thanks for posting.

    You must have a full Bob zombie book by now. He's such a trooper ...

  12. Great idea I hadn't thought of. I do think of the antagonist's backstory.

  13. Great post! This advice will help a lot with my current WIP.

  14. Yes, I particularly like the "how could this get worse" scenario. Great to flip to your antagonist's viewpoint. In the book I'm writing now, my MC is rather bad herself, so I'm trying to get into her head...finding it tricky.

  15. You make an excellent point. When considering the things the antagonist can do to ante up the stakes, it forces the protagonist to work just hard to get out of the many obstacles the antagonist presents.

  16. Thanks! I have been working on a scene where my MC is trapped. It was feeling flat to me as you described. Your right, what would my antagonist do to win? That changes things considerably!

  17. That's a great idea! Thanks for the tip, Janice. I'll try to keep it in mind when I get to that point.

  18. This is brilliant!! I will have to try this. Thanks!!

  19. I've done this. I need to do it more though! Thanks for sharing!

    Stori Tori's Blog

  20. *Light Bulb flashes, goes nova and shatters* Well that made a whole bunch of ideas start, I wrote them all down and am going to give them a try. *shakes and pumps hand* Thank you, so very much! ooh I know mawhahaha:

    Soul Tear chapter 32:

    It took her throat burning to make her realize she'd held her breath without thinking. He'd never directed that look at me before. Always at everyone else, always at the enemy. It's odd being on the other side with someone you've known for years, or thought you knew. I don't care, taking my friends I won't allow this! She cupped one hand with the other and squeezed. Not yet, not now. All of this was off he'd never been captured. This is too easy.

    He twisted the claw off his staff, sparks lept out from beneath it, a mix of thin and heavy vein like wires throbbed dangling off the claw. Glowing beneath its inside a pulsating energy source is some type, he yanked the wires disconnecting it and tossed the claw onto the muddy ground.

    Out of the globe spayed a turrent of water, soaking the mud under her feet, the claw dove in twisting and jerking as it dug underground. Whirrs and clicks followed by the ground trembling as it spun into a sloppy, whirlpool.

    She backed off to the side, yet the squelchy whirlpool followed, it enlarged into a twirling, murky oversized puddle, her feet sank into it and the putrid muck gushed over into her boots, she placed a foot in front of the other and held firm, already the calf muscles started to burn.

    So too Opial, yanked a shoe out of it, but caught off balance she spun around with a foot in the air.

    Merryn caught her elbow pulling her close, a foot loosened and the whirlpool too caught her and she spun with Opial. I'm going to be sick! "Stop this!"

    It's not perfect as it's a draft but this did move things along nicely. I need \better dialogue, emotion and such but way better then what I had before. Go Max, go!

  21. Janice Hardy11/09/2023 8:38 AM

    Whoohoo for light bulb moments! So happy I could help you :) You're on your way, and you'll get there. First drafts get you started, and you can always improve after that :)

  22. Janice Hardy11/09/2023 8:39 AM

    Whoohoo for light bulb moments! Glad I could help get your started, and it looks like you're on your way :)