Villain POVs

I have to admit, I really hate villain POVs. There are so few villains that have any redeemable qualities, and especially starting a book out with the villain’s point of view when they’re murdering and/or plundering just makes me go, “Why do I want to read this book, again?”

This is actually one of the things I hated most about the Wheel of Time series, though I loved the series in general: I hated the amount of time spent on this Forsaken’s love of naked mindless servants, and that Forsaken’s love of skinning people, or whatever. Yeah, yeah, I get it, they’re irredeemably evil. Get back to someone I’m actually ROOTING FOR, which is why I’m reading the book!

Sometimes it’s important to briefly show the villain’s point of view to convey to the reader some information that our hero doesn’t have, but I find more and more that my tolerance for even these kinds of scenes is thinning fast. Too often it’s a substitute for more subtle forms of suspense, laying clues that the reader could pick up if they were astute, the kind of clues that the main character should be putting together one by one to the point where when he or she finally figures it out, the reader slaps their own forehead and says, “I should have seen that coming!”

It’s a completely different matter, of course, when the whole point is for the “villain” to simply be someone on another side of an ideological or political divide where there are no true “bad guys.” Usually this happens in a book in which your narrators are unreliable, which can be very interesting.

But there’s a line for me, generally the pillaging/raping/murdering/all manner of human rights abuses line, at which I’m sorry, I just don’t care about this guy’s point of view. The equivalent of this in middle grade books—where pillages/murders/rapes are (hopefully) fewer—is the pure evil villain who’s just out to get the main character because the villain is black-hearted, mean, vile, whathaveyou. Evil through and through, with no threads of humanity. (Though honestly if he’s killing people “for their own good” to protect a certain more nuanced human viewpoint, I generally still don’t want to see that from his POV.)

So, what’s the line for you? Do you like villain points of view? Do you feel they add depth to a story? At what point do you think a villain POV goes from adding nuance or advancing the plot to annoying?

ETA: Coincidentally, my author Bryce Moore recently reviewed the Captain America movie and had this to say about how a character becomes evil, which I think is apropos to this discussion:

Honestly, if writers spent as much time developing the origin and conflicted ethos of the villains of these movies, I think they’d all be doing us a favor. As it is, it’s like they have a bunch of slips of paper with different elements on them, then they draw them at random from a hat and run with it. Ambitious scientist. Misunderstood childhood. Picked on in school.

That’s not how evil works, folks. You don’t become evil because you get hit in the head and go crazy. You become evil by making decisions that seemed good at the time. Justified. Just like you become a hero by doing the same thing. A hero or a villain aren’t born. They’re made. That’s one of the things I really liked about Captain America. He’s heroic, no matter how buff or weak he is.

This is, perhaps, the best description of why villain POVs bug me so much: because they’re oversimplified, villainized. And for some stories, I think villainization works, but I don’t want to see that point of view, because it’s oversimplified and uninteresting. When it’s actually complicated and interesting, then it becomes less “the villain” and more nuanced—sometimes resulting in real evil (after all, I doubt Hitler was an evil baby; he made choices to become the monster he became) and sometimes resulting in a Democrat instead of a Republican or vice versa—ideological, political differences between (usually) relatively good people (though our current political discourse would probably make little distinction between *insert the opposite of your own party here* and Hitler, I do believe there is truly a difference).

12 thoughts on “Villain POVs

  1. Great blog post.

    I think the only book where I really enjoyed getting in a “villain’s” viewpoint was A Storm of Swords by GRRM, where you finally get in Jamie’s viewpoint. It’s like as you said about just being on another ideological viewpoint: we hate Jamie because we don’t understand him, but once we are in his head he’s actually one of the most sympathetic characters in the series.

    The “pure evil” villain always bothered me because I’ve always felt the oft-repeated adage is true: Everybody is a hero in their own story. A villain’s viewpoint is only really interesting to me when it helps me understand him and actually become somewhat sympathetic or at least understanding of his motives. Granted, this doesn’t seem to happen very often in middle-grade/YA fiction.

    So yeah. I think a villain POV can totally work, but it can change a tone of a book, which may or may not be what an author actually wants to accomplish.

  2. It’s tricky to create an interesting villain who isn’t all bad and who has some redeeming qualities. I think I wouldn’t mind a seeing a little bit of the villain’s POV in that case so I can understand their motives better, but what you said about showing it through more subtle clues makes sense even if it takes more effort to do that.

  3. Stacy, I can see where you’re coming from, but sometimes I love seeing the villain’s point of view. I really like reading and writing about people who are neither thoroughly admirable or thoroughly despicable. Like Nathan Major, I love the Song of Ice and Fire series for this reason.

    So in my own writing, I try to show characters who have enough good in them that people can root for them, but enough bad in them to give my story some drama– and tragedy. But this often means that the protagonists and antagonists in my stories are not that far apart, which can lead to problems.

    Are there examples of villainous points of view that you have enjoyed, or that you felt added to the book?

    1. No, there really are no examples that I can think of, hence the whole point of my post. I’m not talking about antiheroes or moral-grey-area antagonists, though. I’m talking about villains.

  4. I did read your post. I wasn’t sure that I understood you correctly, so I asked. Perhaps my own questions should have been more clear, and more precise. My apologies for communicating poorly. And thanks again for the post.

    1. Villains and antagonists are not always the same thing. And a complicated protagonist is not a bad thing. I’m talking about stories in which you clearly have someone the author wants you to root for (whether perfect or not), and then suddenly we’re in the POV of someone the author really doesn’t want you to root for–they’re just showing you how evil this character is. I don’t find it interesting at all.

      When an antagonist is merely a human being with a different perspective–the hero of their OWN story (see Bryce Moore’s link above)–then they cease to be a villain even while they serve the role of antagonist, usually (unless being the hero of their own story turns into them being pretty evil).

      Sauron is always a good example for this kind of thing. I’m just honestly not interested in his point of view. But Saruman thinks he’s the hero of his own tale. Interesting? Perhaps in bits and pieces, but an entire book, or even half a book, from his point of view would probably be boring to me, if I even bothered to read it at all. Saruman is still a villain.

      But Boromir, now he’s interesting. He’s got reasons for wanting the Ring, he’s got good reasons. His motivations are mostly good, but not all good. He’s a complicated character, as is Faramir. They make good choices and bad choices (though Faramir in the books is a lot more virtuous, not giving in to temptation, which was completely ruined in the movies). They’re not villains, but they are at some points antagonists.

      1. Thanks, Stacy. I think I understand your point better now. And now that I do, I find you’re persuading me.

        I thought I sometimes liked villain viewpoints, but after considering your definitions more carefully, I am not sure any of the examples I was thinking of are really villains. They’re definitely antagonists, but I think all of them have at least something about them I can root for. I read a book from Grendel’s point of view once, and although I enjoyed it at first, in the end it just turned me off.

        That said… It might be really interesting to be in Saruman’s head for a little while. His fall from grace is fascinating, and I would love to hear more about it, from his perspective. Of course that means that I would be most interested in reading about him in the years before the events of the Lord of the Rings– in other words, when he was just slipping down the slope toward villainy, but perhaps not quite there yet.

        But what about Wormtongue? Of all the human beings in Lord of the Rings, he’s maybe the most despicable. He’s a villain, for sure. But there’s something pitiful about him, too, that makes me feel a bit sorry for him, especially in his final appearance.

        Or if we’re considering pathetic wretches who are prisoners of their own evil choices, what about Gollum? We all root for him, especially in his Smeagol phase. And maybe that means you wouldn’t count him a villain. But even at the end, when the ring has completely consumed him, I find him mesmerizing. I would read a book from Gollum’s point of view.

        1. Wormtongue? For me, no, I wouldn’t want to read it. And Gollum’s POV would just be a bunch of crazy in post-Smeagol era, which I get enough of in real life. I’m trying to think of how it could work and what writers could make it work, and I can’t think of even one of the best writers I know who could make it work well enough for me to want to read it.

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