Point of View: Antagonist

point of view
Recently, a reader sent me a question about how to tell a story through the antagonist's perspective.  This person allowed me to post a generic version of our exchange here in hope that others might find it useful.

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I want to see if I can write a killer through his point of view. I can't figure out a believable motive. Can't figure out how to make that work and everything else he does.


You're not talking about an anti hero -- Robin Hood and Cap'n Jack Sparrow are anti heroes -- you're talking about telling the antagonist's story from his point of view.  In short, that won't work.  Well, it won't work easily, without a lot of reader manipulation carefully added so that it doesn't feel like manipulation. 

You see, anti heroes are difficult to write because reader involvement requires sympathy for the main character.  Without it, readers don't care about the character and they get bored with the story.  Antagonists by definition are unsympathetic, because their role is to attack the people we root for.  These actions are why we see them as the bad guys.  Imagine The Silence of the Lambs told through Hannibal Lecter's eyes.  His character would have to change significantly for the reader to follow, because while his intelligence is admirable, Lecter is inhuman.  How can the average person sympathize -- or even understand -- a character whose goal is to cannibalize another human being in the most humiliating way imaginable?

This is why, in my opinion, Thomas Harris chose Clarice Starling as the viewpoint.  It's easy for the reader to sympathize with someone who is young, green, innocent, and even has a cute birdie name.  We might never have pondered the best wine to serve with human liver, but we've all felt intimidated and overwhelmed by an assignment.  Furthermore, Starling's primary traits are absent from Lector's character.  These individuals balance each other out, thus belong together.

Your character could stay as-is in a longer, novelette-to-novel range story.  Something that could support multiple viewpoints.  That way you could switch from one to the other to give the reader not only someone to root for but also a relief from the intensity of the killer's uncomfortable perspective.

The killer could be mentally ill in a way that he doesn't understand his own actions.  The reader might sympathize, especially if the killer feels grief.  This changes the motive and in fact the foundation of the personality so that he will feel less like a killer and more like someone who is suffering.

Otherwise, you're going to have to find a way to make killing his victim justified.  The victim must be a heinous person who has done something unquestionably wicked. Even then, you've got a lot of work ahead of you to convince the reader that killing the person is better than simply turning him or her over to the police.   

Another route might be that the killer is saving his intended victim from a fate worse than death.  This will put the reader in agony.  They will hate you for it, but they won't be able to put the story down, and they will hope you do it to them again in the next story.

Keep in mind, however, that these last two possibilities shift the killer from antagonist to a heroic character.  That might not be what you want.

Your idea is a good starting point, because it forces you to make it plausible.  If you can find a way to make an inhuman character someone the reader is willing to follow, you will indeed have a good story on your hands.  Playing these what-if games are what evoke the most interesting and original ideas.

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  1. I've got a killer-type character who is rather awful to read. I have sympathetic heroes for the reader to bond with, so I think I can get away with the vile killer concept. I'm not sure whether I should trim back on his point-of-view (subject the reader to less from him) or to tone down his horrific aspects some. Just because I created him to be so awful doesn't mean the reader needs to be dragged through the blood with him. How do I determine where to draw the line -- what to show, what to tell and what to allude to?


    1. Depends on the market. You'll probably get away with more in Cemetery Dance than in, say, Reader's Digest. I would not gut a story (pun only slightly intended) in an attempt to fit a certain venue. When an editor requests a rewrite, that's one thing, but it's entirely something else to cripple a story so as not to offend someone. Good fiction makes us uncomfortable and encourages us to reexamine habitual thinking. If Anthology A isn't a good fit, move to the next target on the list.
      That said, gratuitous gore, violence, or sadism is just as bad (and eventually as boring) as sanitized storytelling.

      But, your question is where to draw the line. This is largely a matter of your personal tastes and what you feel is artistic. My metric is "Can I remove the horrific elements and still retain the story?" If the answer is "Yes," I would cut the scene as I would a deadweight adjective. The story will be tighter and more interesting as a result. On the other hand, if the story begins to unravel, keep the scene. It belongs just as it is.

      If you are concerned whether you might have wandered off into excessive melodrama, remember that characters must be larger than life if their traits and actions are to translate well to the reader's imagination through the written word. Jack Bickham said that reading is like looking at someone through a frosted window. The makeup, colors, gestures all have to be exaggerated to come through. Write hot; edit cold.

  2. With regard to painting a story from the antagonist's point of view, the anti-hero, the key is flipping perspective 180 degrees. Shifting your viewpoint from the hero's skull into the villains skull. But the thing is, once you do that, you have to shed the rules that make what their doing wrong. You don't have to make them likeable or acceptable, you just have to make that villain accessible. And even then, you don't have to make them completely open because that is what becomes boring, all you have to do is add a tiny element of accessibility... introduce a fraction of doubt in the reader that speaks to "I would never... well maybe I might"... and everything else will grow from there when you can put yourself in that mindset.

    When it comes to drawing the line, I like to follow one rule: does it serve the story? Some times more graphic is better. Often times less is more. Let the reader play with the negative space and use their own imaginations to flesh out what touches nerves. However, sometimes more is more. This is when having a good editor or letting something sit for a few days and coming back to reread it is a very good thin. In the moment a scene can sound pitch perfect. Wait a while, come back to it, reread it and ask yourself "what part of the story is this helping push forward?" If that question has no answer then you've got dead weight on your hands and it's time to restructure or cut altogether.

    Just my thoughts ;)

  3. I have a character whose father was killed when he was 5. He saw him die. He grew up and became a serial killer during World War 1. He is a despicable character all in all. I don't really know how to make sure that readers will not hate the book for his cruelty. What can I do about that? I can't change his character or anything, but I don't want the book to be despised.

    1. Well, for the most part, how readers perceive your book is going to be out of your control. The same is true for every author.

      However, is the real question whether the readers will hate the book or hate the character? I don't see anything wrong with them hating the character's cruelty and still enjoying to read about him. Think of Hannibal Lecter and Dexter. Both are the central characters of their stories, and their acts are reprehensible. Yet audiences loved the stories and held a morbid fascination for the characters.

      Will readers sympathize with a heinous protagonist? That depends on how you justify his actions. Maybe he is damaged goods and can't help his acts. If that is made clear, he will seem tragic, especially if he shows remorse. Maybe, like Dexter, he is aiming at the greater good (a true good, not just something he has labeled as such) but from a warped angle.