Narrating as the Villain

Should you write from the villain’s point of view?

That’s a question I asked myself when I was writing ‘Agents of the Truth’, and although I’d written from a villain’s point of view before, this time, doing so brought up a tricky question. There are no story/plot/twist spoilers in this post, and I refer to the villain as ‘he’ for ease of reading/writing. It might be a she or a they. You will only find out when you read the book.

Narrating From the Villain’s Pont Of View have a very useful article on when to narrate a villain’s point of view which brings up some very good points and considerations on this subject. For example, the author of the post first asks why?

Why put the reader in the mind of the baddy? On the plus side, it’s a way to bring in more of a threat, you can explain to the reader why the villain is doing what he/she is doing, and you can show the reader what is going on ‘off stage’ while the protagonist is going about his business.

There are, however, pitfalls to doing this, and writing as the bad guy needs to be handled carefully. The advice is not to make him over the top, don’t make him too demented or else he won’t be believable, don’t make him ‘cold’ or cliché, and don’t give too much away. Don’t make him too sympathetic.

I think back to my favourite villain of all time, Dracula. In Bram Stoker’s masterpiece, we never hear from his point of view except when he is talking as reported by someone else; we never read his diaries or journals as we do with the other main characters, and yet we know a) what he is up to, b) what he plans to do, and c) how evil he is.

Writing from a villain’s point of view (POV) can be a very useful tool for an author. It can do several things.

1          Put the reader in the baddy’s mind and explain motivation

2          Build tension and increase the threat

3          Make your reader more sympathetic to the bad guy, thereby making the character more real and believable.

4          Explain conflict backstory

But, there is also a danger that being with the villain for a while can move the story away from the hero’s journey, give too much away, distract from the plot, and slow things down. So, all villain POV scenes must be handled with care.

How I Write From the Villain’s Point of View

The first time I put myself and my reader into the mind of the anti-hero was in ‘Deviant Desire’, and even back then, I knew not to give too much away. I described someone taking opium and plotting… something, I wrote of his hatred and his motivation, and I set the scene in a dark, dismal place physically to reflect the killer’s frame of mind emotionally. I didn’t, however, give away his name or too many of his intentions. To have done so would have spoilt the story for the reader and ruined the most important twist.

Three years and 14 books later, I wrote a different villain into ‘Agents of the Truth’, and I kept to my rules. We meet the villain in a dark and unpleasant place (so we associate him with darkness in the classic good Vs evil style), we hear him talking to himself, and we learn what has driven him to his course of action. We also, perhaps, feel a little sorry for him, and I think making your villain sympathetic to a point is not a bad thing. We’ve all been driven to do bad things, some worse than others, and it’s good to challenge your reader with the thoughts, ‘What if it was me? What would drive me to do this? What happened to him/her to make them do it? That could have been me.’ It makes a connection between reader and character, and that, I hope, makes the bad guy more realistic and thus, more of a threat.

By the time we meet the evil one in ‘Agents’, we think we know who he is – even so, I didn’t mention his name, thereby leaving the reader a little room for doubt. What I did do, though, was make it clear what the villain was planning. Not in great detail, but in just enough so we knew more than the main characters. Apart from the obvious, my villain has a flaw; indecision. We think we know what he is going to do, but we don’t know to whom, and thus, the anti-hero’s indecision helps build tension.

As the story progresses, we discover the when and where of the danger, even though the hero doesn’t, and again, this helps build tension as we drive towards the climax.

Knowing More Than the Hero

There is a technical term for this, and I just went to my stock of screenplay writing books to look up the phrase, only to find I couldn’t find it. It’s one of those things you think ‘I’ll remember that’ and never do, but if you read Aronson’s ‘The 21st Century Screenplay’, or McKee’s ‘Story’, you will eventually find it. It’s a film technique where the viewer gets to see something the protagonist doesn’t, so we know something more than he does. (‘Elevating the viewer’ or something similar.)

How many times have you watched a film and wanted to say, ‘Don’t do it!’ because the obvious outcome has been set up and you know what’s coming? Well, that’s called… the something I can’t remember, but you know what I mean. It’s a kind of foreshadowing, but one that’s specific to the relationship between hero, anti-hero and viewer or reader. By using this technique, you are elevating the reader’s knowledge above that of the hero, and used well, that can be a great way to heighten tension.

What you can also do is mislead your reader by making them think the villain is going to do X, when in fact, they end up doing Y. That will give you a twist, but that twist has to be logical and foreshadowed. It’s the point in a story when you know something bad or twisty is on its way and you prepare by clutching the sofa cushions, or drawing the blanket up to your eyes in readiness, and then… Oh! I didn’t see that coming. Then you think, Actually, I did, but the clues to it were subtly hidden behind the obvious. If they weren’t, then your reaction is likely to be, What a load of rubbish, because you have been misled for the sake of it.

I don’t mislead my readers, but I might misdirect them on the path to a more fulfilling surprise, and letting them into the villain’s mind can help do this.

My point here is that it’s fine to tell you reader things the hero doesn’t know, but don’t go too far and spoil the twist.

Adding Depth to Your Storytelling Via the Villain

Let me take you back to my English A Level class, one afternoon in the late spring of 1981. Mrs Purvis is taking us through Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’, and we are examining a passage set on the polo field in Chandrapore, India in the 1920s.

Forster describes the ball being knocked about on the polo field, the British men charging about on horses, the grass on which they play, and the field running into the distance where it meets the (mainly Indian) spectators, because the British Raj folk are in the better-equipped tents. From there, the description takes us beyond the fields to the foothills and thence, to the mountains rising above, and above even them, the sky, until the view reaches its zenith with the sun.

‘Do you see how Forester was making us consider the levels of society?’ Mrs Purvis asks. ‘He is showing us the strata of the Raj, and the caste system. The lower caste being the field trampled underfoot, the class divisions above it, the mountains as the rising hierarchy of the Raj, and behind it, the sky and an even greater power, God.’

‘Miss?’ A rather bored eighteen-year-old raises his hand. ‘Ain’t he just talking about a game of polo?’

(I was more interested in the gay subtext of the novel, the closest thing you could get to MM romance in my youth after ‘Maurice.’)

What’s That Got to do With Writing Your villain?

Symbolism, dear boy! As Mrs Purvis might have proclaimed.

Symbolism is a great tool when writing any kind of fiction, and we can use it like Forster — who may well have consciously written his layered scene to symbolise the caste system in India in the 1920s, but who, I suspect, did it without thinking because he was that good.

I remember that English lesson well (there was something to do with the servant, Aziz, putting a stud into Mr Fielding’s collar that represented repressed homosexual desire, or… whatever), and it came back to me when writing ‘Agents of the Truth.’

There is a point in the novel when the reader knows more than the hero, and there’s a point a little way after that when the hero knows as much as us, and we are set up for the climax. We still don’t know the who, but we know the where and when, and so does our hero, but he is delayed. (Another useful tension-building device.) The villain, however, is not delayed and gets a head start.

At this point, I could have just written ‘He got on a train’, but I wanted to add another tension building device, albeit a more subtle one, and I wanted to be more literary. So, I wrote the following passage and, I have to tell you, I didn’t realise what I’d done until later when I reread the entire chapter.

Here’s an excerpt from ‘Agents of the Truth.’ As screenplay writers would say, it marks the entry to Act Four of the story, when everything has been set up, we know what’s coming but not how it’s going to play out. We’ve just had the ‘point of no return’ scene, the music has changed, and we’re off into the climax, sofa cushions at the ready.

‘Yeah, but, Miss, it’s just a rat and a cat, ain’t it?’

‘No, dear boy, it is symbolism reflecting the villain’s intensions.’

And, it only works because we have spent some time in the mind of our villain and narrated from the villain’s point of view.

Agents of the Truth is the third novel in The Larkspur Mysteries, and the stories are best read in order.

The Larkspur Mysteries follow on from The Clearwater Mysteries series. Both feature gay main characters, and are set at a time when homosexuality was illegal. They are a combination of MM/romance, mystery and bromance, and are inspired by historical fact.

Book Four in the series is currently in the typewriter, and you can read about its progress on my Work In Progress blog here every Wednesday.