Should You Give Your Antagonist a POV?

This week’s video talks about the problems of antagonist POVs and how to decide if your antagonist deserves one.

Video Transcript:

We write our stories because we’re enthralled by our characters and the conundrums they get themselves into. Our hero’s fight to overcome inner and outer conflict offers a boundless source of chewy material for us to explore. Likewise, our antagonists—whether they’re psychotic megalomaniacs or just grumpy older sisters—often intrigue us just as much as do our heroes. But this can become a problem if it leads us to self-indulgence in the belief that our readers are going to find them just as fascinating as we do.

The truth is this: most bad guys simply aren’t that interesting. With the exception of Hannibal Lector and Darth Vader, most readers only find antagonists interesting insofar as the protagonist is able to react to them. This means the antagonist’s best scenes are almost always going to be those in which the protagonist is also present. And, of course, by extension, that means all those lengthy scenes in which the antagonist broods to himself or monologues to a slavish henchman about his evil plans and twisted backstory aren’t likely to rivet readers’ attention. Simply put, evil—particularly after a certain amount of desensitization to its horrors—is boring. Unlike good, evil doesn’t really offer much variation or the depth necessary for the one thing that makes characters most interesting: their ability to change, which is what creates their character arc.

When I’m in the depths of a gripping story, only to turn the page and realize I’m about to enter the antagonist’s point of view, I almost always cringe. I hardly ever care about the bad guy’s POV. Unless we’re talking about anti-heroes or a villain who is at least going to offer the potential for sympathy and change, his POV is going to be boring. So before you add your villain’s POV to your story, consider whether it’s really adding anything. Is this character as fascinating as you think he is? Is he a real, interesting, three-dimensional person—or is he going to have readers flipping ahead to get back to your hero?

Tell me your opinion: Do you feel your antagonists POV is vital to your story?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. What if the antagonist is not evil, but just has an agenda opposite to the hero? Would you want to understand their POV?

    In my WIP I used the antagonist’s POV twice. I also have three other POVs, but combined they add to about 10% of the novel. When I wrote the scenes the first time, they were from the perspective of the main character. But I thought I was either missing part of the story or giving too much away too early.

  2. Nice summation. We actually discussed this on my podcast when talking about POV issues, and I agree: I rarely like reading from the antagonist’s point of view. I generally find it destroys the tension rather than builds it, since I suddenly know what they’ve got in store. I almost always skip antagonist sections in books.

  3. @Patchi: Ultimately, the choice should depend on two factors. 1) Is this character interesting? 2) Will the reader want to invest in this character?

    One of the largest contributing factors to the latter is the amount of time you give the character’s POV on the page. If he’s only popping into the narrative for a few scenes of his own every dozen chapters, readers are less likely to be interesting in his POV. On the other hand, if this character is integral to the plot and his POV shows up at regular intervals, readers are more likely to want to hang with him.

    A WIP I recently finished features three POVs, balanced throughout the book. All of the POV characters are protagonists, but because they’re all at odds with each other, they’re also antagonists. Each of the POVs is inherent to the story, so their very necessity makes them more attractive to readers.

    @Lauren: Yuppers. When in doubt, let readers discover things along with the protagonist.

  4. I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I go in for revision on my WIP “Reprisal”. In some ways, many for the reasons you mentioned, I’ve thought about cutting my antagonist’s POV. However, he and my protagonists don’t actually come face to face until nearly the end of the story (and the way the story unfolds, I don’t see a way around that right now). So, to show what he’s up to, I have brief–and I mean BRIEF–shifts of POV to him, mostly to show how he’s reacting to what my protags are doing, and how he’s trying to muck up the works. Most of these scenes last no more than 2 pages, some only mere paragraphs. And I don’t think they happen but about every 8 – 10 chapters, so I may only have 8 scenes from that POV. I’m still thinking about cutting it, but I’m having a hard time finding a good reason to do it.

  5. As a reader, I can forgive brief antagonistic insertions (if they’re necessary). But I would encourage you to take a second look and determine if the reader’s knowing what the bad guy is up to is *really* necessary. Could be it is, but then again maybe not.

  6. Interesting! I toyed with having my antagonist’s POV in my second novel, and even wrote a few chapters that way. Ultimately, though, I saw that all I did was destroy the tension, so I took it out. Good to read this post!

  7. Like I said, I’m thinking about it hard.

  8. @Adriana: One thing that’s always a tip-off for me is that I find the antagonist’s POV boring to write. If I don’t like writing it, what would make me think readers would enjoy reading it?

    @Liberty: And maybe you’ll decide you need to keep it after all. Some books do.

  9. Great question!! I guess it depends on the story. My current WIP is about teens who rescue people from demon control in their dreams, however, I felt it necessary to show the POV of the demons when they are hovering around the teens antagonizing them. I also wanted to reveal (in third person present) how they think and their heirarchy.

    So far, it’s working! But this is the first time I have added the POV of the antagonist. Interesting to say the least!

    Best,
    Ruth

  10. If done right, antagonist POVs can definitely bring an new element of depth. But, of course, it only works if the antagonist is a nuanced, shades-of-gray character who can pique reader interest and emotion.

  11. I’ve been thinking hard for an interesting bad character, other than those you mentioned. I will need to think harder :-\

  12. I’m not nuts about antagonist POVs. Koontz takes this technique, but rarely does it interest me.

  13. @Lena: Another that came to mind while I was writing the post was Brandon Sanderon’s conflicted clergyman (or whatever he was called in the book) in Elantris. He was wonderfully developed (one of the best characters in the book) and ended up being redeemed in the end.

    @Lorna: You see it quite often in thrillers and suspense, which, quite honestly, is one of the reasons the genre doesn’t always appeal to me.

  14. I was going to mention Hrathen, the Derethi gyorn from Elantris, but I see you’ve beaten me to it, so I’ll second the reference.

    For those who haven’t yet read Brandon Sanderson’s ‘Elantris,’ first, what are you waiting for, and second, Hrathen is the primary antagonist, a rich, intricate, pivotal character. The author Sanderson spends roughly a third of the book from his perspective, and it’s fascinating and creepy and completely understandable why he does the apparently despicable things he does.

  15. Katie, I know what you mean here, I tend to skip reading weak villain POV scenes, but if the villain is very strong and resourceful – I like reading such things to see what she comes up with.

    my WIP’s antagonist is just vane, he’s doing evil things, but he’s not really evil, he just wants to leave a mark in his own way. Yet, he creates a lot of trouble by being pro-active 🙂
    I have only a couple of his POV scenes, in other scenes he’s in – the POV is 3rd person’s 🙂

  16. @Phy: Hrathen was easily my favorite part of that book, especially by the time the end rolled around.

    @Grigory: Ultimately, whether or not including the villain’s POV is a good idea comes down to the strength and purpose of the character himself. As was mentioned in one of the above comments, some antagonists actually end up being more interesting than the protagonists themselves.

  17. In my first MS, there’s a group of bad guys plotting against the hero, but coming to him as wolves in sheeps’ clothing. There are some brief scenes with some or all of them, showing what they were plotting, interspersed with what was going on with the leads. It was like watching two trains that couldn’t see one another headed for each other around a bend, but being unable to stop them from colliding.

    I thought my critique partners might ding me on those scenes, but not one of them did. In fact, they seemed to like the pace and the tension through that part. It also gave the reader a chance to get to know the bad guys (4 + 4 body guards) before the big show down near the end. I guess for my story, it worked.

  18. Beta readers know best! Writers can discuss technique ’till the cows come home, but at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is whether or not it works for the readers.

  19. Well, I was thinking about it, and there are several scenes I could shift the POV to that of the anti-hero (figured I actually do have one), and the rest, loosen it up to be more omnipresent/distant.

  20. Fun! Changing scene POV is never my favorite chore, but I love how new perspectives can totally change scenes for the better.

  21. I’m really considering rewriting one of my dual POV novels where one POV is the “protagonist” and the other the “antagonist.” I might switch to a third character who knows them both, but the antagonist has a lot of the plot-significant scenes, and neither of the other two is there for those events..

  22. Stories like this can work very well – so long as the lines between good and bad aren’t drawn too definitively. Readers must have a reason to care about the antagonist (and even root for him to some extent) if they’re going to spend that much time in his POV.

  23. I’ve got no intention of actually putting any antagonist POV in my current project, but now you’ve got me thinking of writing a few scenes from his perspective just for myself, to develop the character and get him set in my mind before I write on and he becomes a larger figure in the story.

  24. Although I don’t often do it myself, I’ve always liked the idea of writing a few throwaway scenes (or even short stories) to explore minor characters or general backstory. Never know what goodies might turn up!

  25. If your protagonist is a person up to no good but reacting to his perception that he has been treated unfairly by society, does that make him an antagonist?

  26. Interesting post! Great points to think about, as I’m doing something like Liberty mentioned– every few chapters I plan to have a short chapter to check in with what the bad guy is doing, so the reader will know what’s going on even when the protag doesn’t. The protag does interact with him throughout the story, but doesn’t know till the end that he’s the bad guy, so now and then I want to show what he’s doing when he’s not in front of other people. Then at the end there’s a “holy crap this guy isn’t who he says he is” revelation.

    Will make sure to check those chapters to see if they’re compelling enough to keep a reader interested.

  27. @David: The protagonist can be an evil, no-good, dirty scumbag, but if he’s the main character, the antagonist will be whoever is opposing him – even if it’s the Lone Ranger.

    @Lynne: One technique I do like for keep tabs on the antag is to stick in a brief, ambiguous paragraph at the beginning of every chapter. The paragraph shares info about the bad guy’s plans, without even giving away the bad guy’s identity. Brandon Sanderson used this to great effect in his Mistborn trilogy.

  28. Wow – you hit me in the heart! lol I did JUST THAT in my current manuscript. I’ve wondered if readers would be as fascinated by my sociopathic antagonist as I am! Eek! I have even MORE re-editing to do now! lol Thank you. Love your blog as well 🙂

  29. If you’ve only got one scene from your antagonist’s POV, you’re way ahead of the ball game. When in doubt, let an objective reader look at it and give you his opinion.

  30. My main character doesn’t have many scenes with the “bad guy” or antagonist. They play off each other throughout the novel, just missing each other in scenes. This, I believe, heightens the suspense.

    I have written there are many scenes with the protagonist and the “real bad guy” or “bad gal” in this case. This bad gal is the woman behind the scenes pulling the strings, kind of a Lady MacBeth, but not quite as insane, but she befriends the main character and even helps her out on occasion, playing both sides of the table. I felt it made the story a bit more interesting this way. When the “bad guy” is talking in a scene, the “bad gal” is in the background controlling more of the conversation than my protagonist, the other characters, and hopefully the reader realizes.

  31. Layers upon layers! That’s always a good thing. Not only does it give readers more things to discover and figure out, it also presents more realistic characters.

  32. In my gut, I disagree with the strength of this advice, if not the advice itself. It’s worth being careful with antagonist POV scenes, but I wouldn’t avoid them like the plague by any means. In modern writing it’s rare to come across the cartoon villain acting as antagonist, and with the rise of the anti-hero in popular culture, I really think a nuanced villain is somebody readers seem interested in. There’s a reason Vader and Lecter made a bigger impression on the audience than Luke and Clarice. As a culture we’re long past writing pantomimes now, and for many writers their work reflects the media they consume and are surrounded by as much as the world they live in. I really think antagonist POVs can work, and work well.

    On the other hand, I did experience that sinking feeling every time I saw a Voldemort POV scene in Harry Potter. I get it, he’s evil and wants to rule the world and is going to be a jerk to somebody to hammer the point home. I can definitely sympathise with K.M.’s dislike of villain-centric scenes when that villain is pure evil, but I’m not sure a ‘good’ character is all that interesting either. There’s only so many times Superman can do the right thing before we need something a bit more to sink our teeth into, and I think an antagonist that drives the plot at least as much as the protagonist is important in that. It’s about balance, in essence, and while I get what K.M. is trying to say I just get the feeling that the advice as written is a bit unbalanced in favour of a personal preference.

  33. Ultimately, to-POV-the-antagonist or not-to-POV-the-antagonist should come down to, on the one hand, the necessity of the antagonist’s scene (if it doesn’t offer vital information or advance the story in some crucial way by building into the next scene, then it doesn’t belong) or, on the other hand, a character who is interesting and engaging in his own right.

    To some extent, this is definitely personal preference, and I will note that the bad-guy POVs I dislike are almost always characters who aren’t nuanced enough and/or end up rehashing info that would have been more interesting from the protagonist’s point of view. There are more super-evil villains out there than I’d personally like to see. I wouldn’t go to the point of necessarily calling them cartoonish, but neither are their minds’ inner workings tremendously gripping.

  34. Raelyn Hackett says

    I’ve run into a bit of a problem while outlining my novel, or rather a trilogy. One of my protagonists from the first book becomes the antagonist in the second book. Any scenes written from her perspective would likely result in brooding and scheming, which is about as interesting and unique as a dead worm. I’m not sure if it would be too jarring to cut her POV in the second book after having her be the main character from the first book. I played around with ending the story with the first book, but I quickly figured out it wouldn’t work. Any advice?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      A good rule of thumb is always to gauge *your* interest in any given POV. If it bores you, it will probably bore readers.

  35. Literary examples of a well-written antagonist POV? (I’m quite interested in getting some fellow readers’ and writers’ opinions!)

  36. How would you handle a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” revelation? In a racing WIP, the main character is preparing for the last race, but one of his “allies” is secretly planning to sabotage him due to an earlier disagreement, and he is supposed to go to one of the rivals as part of his plan, but after reading this article, should I show the scene? On the one hand, it does provide information — the supposed good friend is pulling a Judas and is planning to betray the hero – but on the other hand, would it better to hint at it instead, and then reveal it through the hero’s POV?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There’s no right or wrong to a question like that. But my chief considerations would be, first, has this character appeared in a POV previously? If not, I would definitely nix it, since it will break the narration’s continuity and present a POV character with whom readers have no established sympathy. And, building on that, I would question whether the readers will have any stake, empathy, or personal interest in the antagonist character? If he’s not every bit as interesting and compelling (even if he compels hatred instead of fondness) as the main narrator, then I wouldn’t risk dropping readers into his POV, even briefly.

  37. Similarly to JohnMWhite above, I’m afraid I disagree with the initial assumptions about the nature of the villain. Surely the kinds of ‘brooding’ scenes you describe only appear when your antagonist is two-dimensional – give them genuine reason for the way they are, make them the hero of their own story, and they become much more interesting (although that doesn’t necessarily mean they need a POV).

    I feel that if your antagonist is flat enough that their scenes would be dull in the way you describe, they’re probably not a strong enough character for your book anyway, regardless of POV. And you say it yourself, ‘the bad-guy POVs I dislike are almost always characters who aren’t nuanced enough’ – so these characters are not human enough in the first place, right?

    Maybe I’m just biased against two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Granted. The post probably would have been better titled “Should You Give Your Villain a POV?” The bottom line in any great POV is simply that it must be interesting–and “villains” are usually much less interesting than protagonists. But create a dimensional opponent – or two equally dimensional main characters who can oppose each other and this “rule” changes altogether.

  38. I wrote my prologue and epilogue in the antagonist’s POV and am very pleased with the result.

  39. Hannah Killian says

    The protagonist can be an antagonist, right?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      In the sense that he’s not such a good guy? Yes. In the sense that he’s providing obstacles to other characters’ goals? Yes. But if he is the one the story is *about*–the one who is driving the central conflict–he will always be the protagonist.

  40. robintvale (Jessica) says

    I think on this for a bit. There was only one chapter with the antagonist POV. I meant to add more in later, but never did. I kept putting it off, i didn’t want to. Now that I’ve looked at it again it really doesn’t do much sure he shares hi thoughts and it builds his character a little but the rest is boring as hell. I think I was just getting to know him better. xD

    So saved that chapter in a word pad, 2k more words gone! – Now another characters pov is coming up, this one is new, and is introduced just before the middle. He’s’ a weird (fun as hell) choice a bugbear that the main pov ended up saving as a pup. But um…. his motivation I don’t think it’s strong enough. He wants to find her because she helped him? and the only thing it has to do with the plot is, nothing. It just takes the characters and story further away from the plot.

    I’m mostly talking to my self here asking these questions, but without this article it might have take a long time before I did. Thanks again!

    I’m going to save “the so ugly he’s cute” character for book two, maybe he’ll fit better in there. Or get his own book? Lol.

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