Ask an Editor: Villain POVs

Stacy Whitman photo

Stacy Whitman is Editorial Director and Publisher of Tu Books, an imprint of LEE & LOW BOOKS that publishes diverse science fiction and fantasy for middle grade and young adult readers. This blog post was originally posted at her blog, Stacy Whitman’s Grimoire

I have to admit, I really hate reading 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 famous adult fantasy series Wheel of Time, though I love 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!

Vodnik sketch
Vodnik, the villain from Bryce Moore’s novel Vodnik

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. Then 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. Often the villain is the hero in their own story, which is far more interesting than a “pure evil” villain—in Lord of the Rings, Sauron is much less interesting than Saruman. Sauron is the source of pure evil, but Saruman made a choice—he thinks, well, evil will win anyway, I might as well be on top in the new world order. There are complications to his motivations.

Tu Books author Bryce Moore (Vodnikreviewed the first 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.

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—or young adult books is the pure evil villain who’s just out to get the main character because the villain is black-hearted, mean, vile, what-have-you. 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.)

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?

4 thoughts on “Ask an Editor: Villain POVs”

  1. All too often, showing the bad guy’s point-of-view just gives away too much. I’ve seen it done well, mind you, but most stories gain tension from not knowing what the bad guy’s ultimate motives or end game will be. Sure you can try to keep the scene really short to avoid revealing too much, but in the end, the writer has to maintain too great a distance between the reader and the villain’s thoughts that it’s near impossible to get any emotional investment. Using a subordinate to the villain for the scene’s point-of-view can sometimes work to maintain the villain’s mystique while revealing critical plot points which will add to the tension, since they likely won’t know what their superior’s true plans really are.

    All that said, I would politely disagree with Moore about how evil works. I’m sorry, but I firmly believe some people are evil. It has nothing to do with good intentions gone wrong. Do they see themselves as evil? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean they were ever working with good intent. Some people simply enjoy the suffering of others or are incapable of considering the welfare of other people. That doesn’t excuse the writer from providing depth to their villains, and most of the people who are truly “crazy evil” lack enough discipline to be some kind of mastermind. They’re just raging bulls, which make for poor villains in most stories.

  2. I agree with you, Bill, that it gives away too much, and perhaps a lot of my boredom with these POVs is that they distance the reader from the POV for obvious reasons.

    However, re: evil, I would contend that most writers (TV, book, and movie) don’t understand how mental illness works, so we have a cultural narrative that crazy=evil and evil=crazy. Which creates a stigma against mental illness, and a misunderstanding of how evil begins (like Hitler-level evil, to break Godwin’s Law, but I think it’s relevant to this discussion). Most evil in the world, I would agree, is because some people enjoy the suffering of others (or are too selfish to care or notice that they’re causing it). However, I would posit that most of those people got to where they are in their evil-ness by making choices over time, not being born that way or being just plain crazy/mentally ill.

    In storytelling, it’s my opinion that we need to get away from the one-dimensional villain–the villain who is evil because he is crazy/demented.

  3. I think you’re right that it depends on the villain. If the villain is interesting and motivated and “the hero of her own story” then reading the villain is going to be every bit as fascinating as reading the hero. I love the idea of the Maleficent movie, for example — of understanding the circumstances that would lead to her cursing a baby.

    I wrote villain POV for the first time in my latest book, and I loved it. It made me love her much more and what made her tick. She was a smart, hard working woman, and she believed she was righting a wrong, even though it hurt a lot of people.

    And I loved it so much that the last two stories I wrote were from the villain’s POV. One was a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, in fact and one was from the POV of the one of the villains in my killer unicorn series.

    I also love “redemption of a villain” stories, which of course have quite a long history. The Bible, for example, is full of them!

  4. Yes, redemption of a villain is an interesting exception to this rule, as well–the idea that no one is truly past redemption (or almost no one).

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