Wednesday, December 30, 2020

I'm Not Evil: Writing from the Antagonist's Point of View

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Should you write scenes in your antagonist's point of view? Maybe.

The first novel I ever wrote “for real” (with the intent to submit it to agents) used points of view from both the protagonists and the antagonists. It was one of those epic fantasy monstrosities with about twelve point of view characters and a backstory history I thought could become its own series (I shudder at the thought now).

This novel will never see the light of day, but it still has the best villains I ever wrote.

They were layered. They were compelling. They were interesting. But mostly? They were fun to both write and read about.

I had no idea what I was doing back then, so I think the reason they turned out so well was because I wrote from their perspectives. I had to know them to do that, so they became real people with real problems they were just trying to sort out, same as my protagonists.

When you walk a mile in your antagonist’s shoes, you have a much better understanding of who they are, what they want, and what they’re willing to do to get it.

Writing as the antagonist is a tricky point of view to do, because much of a novel's tension comes from readers wondering what's going to happen next. If they’re inside the mind of the antagonist, it can reveal too much too soon. This is exacerbated if the antagonist isn’t fleshed out enough, and their scenes read more like infodumps about what’s happening when the protagonist isn’t around than actual story.

How to Be Evil Without Turning Off Your Readers

I've talked about fleshing out your bad guys and plotting from their perspective before, but now, let's talk about writing from their perspective.

Here are things to keep in mind when writing from the antagonist’s point of view:

Don’t give away the whole evil plan.

Unless it raises the tension. A great “antagonist-as-a-character” point of view keeps the outcome uncertain, but at the same time, shows why them winning is a very bad thing for the protagonist. It helps establish the stakes and what the protagonist needs to avoid. Some readers will even root for them a little.

If your antagonist is more “hints of dark things to come” than an actual character in the story, you might just show the bad things from their perspective. For example, a mystery might show the killer stalking and murdering their victims, or a thriller might show the terrorists preparing and transporting the bomb the heroes are trying to stop. In this case, less is more, and the scenes work as large clues or extended foreshadowing.

If your antagonist falls in between these two, you might show what’s driving the character to act, but stay a bit vague on exactly what they’re doing. Perhaps it focuses more on teasing what might happen, which creates worry or anticipation. Or, you might hint at things building in the background that readers haven't picked up on yet, laying the critical groundwork for events that will shock them later.

Keep the mystery in the story even though readers know both sides of it.

(Here's more on An Unpredictable (and Fun) Trick to Keep Your Plots Unpredictable) 

Remember, the antagonist is a person, too.

If the antagonist is important enough to get their own point of view, they ought to have goals and motives driving them, same as any other character. They’ll have reasons for acting that have nothing to do with the protagonist; the protagonist just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. You might show why they’re against the protagonist or why they’re trying to achieve that goal.

One trick to writing a solid bad guy is to make them the hero of their own story. Few people actually consider themselves evil or bad, so even if there's a bit of conscience bugging them, they'll rationalize it same as your hero would. To them, the protagonist is the one getting in the way and messing things up. The protagonist is their villain.

If the antagonist becomes a real person with real problems, readers are much more likely to find them fascinating. And a bonus—since both sides (protagonist and antagonist) are fully developed characters driven by real motives, you’ll craft a stronger plot.

Develop a point-of-view-antagonist the same as you would the protagonist.

(Here's more on A First-Class Bad Guy: How X-Men Can Help You Craft a Better Antagonist) 

Show what makes the antagonist tick.

One of the most masterful antagonist-point-of-view characters I’ve ever read is in Juliette Wade’s Mazes of Power. Nekantor is brilliantly written, but what Wade does best is show readers why Nek being Nek will lead to horrible, terrible things. He’s not a bad guy, but his perspective is, um, skewed. He’s a product of a not-so-great world, and it shows. You understand him, your heart breaks for him, and you dread him ever getting his way. 

Let the antagonist's narrative and internalization reflect who they are. 

It's easy to let your views about the antagonist color their scenes, because they’re the bad guy. Bad guys are bad, so you just focus on them "being evil" and turn them into a cardboard villain with no layers. That’s fine for a “monster” type antagonist, but the more you want readers to relate to or understand your antagonist, the more of a person you need to make them.

(Here’s more on 10 Traits of a Strong Antagonist)

If a character is important enough to warrant a point of view in the novel, they’re important enough to be a well-developed person with goals and motives.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five or ten minutes and consider how using the antagonist’s point of view might affect your novel. Even if you know you don’t want to use it, think about their motives, their plan, and their actions over the course of the novel. Can you use any of that to deepen or enhance the plot? The story?

Have you ever written from the bad guy's perspective? What did you like the most about it? What did you like least?

*Originally published January 2010. Last updated December 2020.

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you: 
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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. That's something I'm trying to do with my antagonist. I wasn't going to write in his POV, but since none of my protagonists will have any interaction with him until the end, I was struggling to get across the threat he posed. Since he isn't to be the mystery villain anyway, I decided to write his viewpoint to increase the sense of threat, show him setting things in motion that may not have any direct or immediate relevance to the protags until later.

    I'm finding it easier to understand him and figure out what he would do now that I'm trying to get inside his head. I'm not quite sure I'm there yet, but I'm making progress in solidifying the vague ideas I'd created him with. I've also "discovered" a whole slew of information about him which clarifies his motivations. He's more real in my head now.

  2. I like this post! Writing from the antagonist's perspective can be a really valuable tool for developing the story even when the antagonist's point of view won't be appearing in the main narrative, i.e. even when it's just an exercise. Knowing how the bad guy thinks can totally change how you write his/her behavior.

    A narrative that uses both hero/ine and antagonist viewpoints can create tension by utilizing a sense of confidentiality between the writer and reader. It doesn't necessarily give things away.

  3. *small voice* I did this with my NaNoWriMo project this past year.


    Most characters were brats, aristocrats, lunatics, pragmatists, sociopaths, or some combination of them. The hero/villain was a pragmatic sociopath who in and of himself freaked me out to work with. I sometimes felt like curling up and hiding from him in my closet. A friend later told me later that it had given her the creeps just to hear about him.

    So just a warning... if you're going to dive into the head of someone who's seriously psycho, make sure to do it in fragments for the sake of your own comfort and sanity.

    And this coming from someone who considers Evanescence and Within Tempation good music for when she's happy.

  4. This is such great advice. Writing from my antagonist's pov, I've found that I *empathize* with him. Although I don't agree with his methods, making his goals rational ones have made him a deeper, more interesting character. That, in turn, gives depth to the story. Right on, Janice!

  5. This is such great advice. Even if you don't write any of your story from your antagonist's pov, you have to understand him/her like your other characters. And like you say, he/she has to want what they want for some reason that makes them think they are right. Otherwise they are just evil for the sake of being evil and are not very interesting characters and your story lacks depth.

  6. I've always loved villains. A good bad guy is a thing of beauty. I'll have to do a villain book one day, though no clue what that might be!

  7. Great post. I heartily agree.

    I've recently added my antagonist's POV and I'm finding it so elucidating. The things that go on inside his head and the skewed way he rationalizes it all! He's more sympathetic when you can see the evil is prompted by madness.

  8. Heather, sounds like my kind of antagonist! The bad guys can be so much fun.

  9. I'm currently writing a script for my comic book series and there are a number of villains that pop up in it throughout the series. One of the early ones is a vampire (it's a horror/supernatural themed comic). Real ugly looking fellow and ruthless when it comes to the blood drinking process, but when it comes to turning others into vampires he can be really picky. He seeks strong people, warriors, leaders. He sees his condition not as a curse, but a gift. He sees vampirism as a sort of "natural progression", a new stage in evolution, so to speak. One of the primary protagonists is suffering from his own kind of curse and has done evil things while under his own alter ego's influence, and this vampire preys on this and yet sympathizes with him.

    Long story short, the vampire makes one hell of a convincing argument, using the protagonist's own faults and past misdeeds against him. Naturally he does not see himself as a bad guy and even uses the line about glass houses and those that throw stones while in them.

  10. This is great advice! I don't have any scenes my series antagonist's POV yet, but I used an idea that I either read here or over at Kristen Lamb's blog, about plotting from the antagonist's perspective, and it really solidified the arc for the series.

    What my antagonist is trying to do, what the protagonists *think* she's trying to do, how it changes and escalates...

    What I'm hoping to do, when she does get scenes in her POV in book 2, is show that she's doing all these terrible things not because she's evil, but because she loves her people and wants to protect them from what she is convinced is a threat, not greed, or personal gain.

    Fingers crossed that it works...

  11. Thanks for reposting. I followed the link to the "10 ways to make a great antagonist" and was going to put it on my class wiki (teaching writing again. Yeah!) and found it was already there. :) Great minds think alike--or something like that!

  12. Love this post! Especially if you're writing about one of those villains who falls from heroism, getting into the antagonist's head this way seems like it would be really useful.

    I like stories that feature some of the antagonist's perspective early on in the book. I often wonder if maybe the reason villains stereotypically monologue once they have the hero captured (apart from giving them time to escape) is because the author didn't have time to give them any characterization beforehand. Visible bad guys are more fun. :)

    1. I like that theory! Makes a lot of sense.

    2. It always seems a bit odd when the villain expounds his reasons at the end.

    3. Very. It's such a cliché now Pixar gave it a name, lol.