Friday, November 6, 2009

Antagonist Viewpoint

How far should a writer journey into an antagonist’s mind? How far should they go in presenting this on the page?

I don’t think anyone is going to dispute that fact we need to know the antagonist’s backstory and motivations in order to construct the story. But how much to present?

I personally love writers who give you the full viewpoint of the bad guy. That was one of my frustrations with writers such as Tolkien, where the ultimate bad guy remains little more than a dark cloud on the horizon over Mordor, and the menace of a floating eye glimpsed for a moment from an old stone chair. Can you imagine LoR where you get to see inside Sauron’s mind?

David Gemmell loved to get inside the villain’s head. I always enjoyed his exploration of the bad guys thinking process, where evil acts were often rationalized as the sensible choices made by any rational man -- how there was no good or evil, no ultimate morality, only power and weakness, and those with the strength to do what the weak feared. The sort of reasoning that appeals to psychopaths. Great stuff.

For me it always heightened the final conflict, to see the good guy and the bad guy coming at each other, both inside their minds, and also in the story. An inevitable pair of tangents that had to intersect spectacularly. And when the bad guy took his last gasp and uttered a few fateful words – you knew exactly where these sat in terms of his thinking.

I tend to always give my bad guys a good slice of PoV, not too much -- usually around 5% of the story – but a like to get inside their heads. I like to think this increases the sense of menace and raises the stakes for the good guy.

What are your thoughts on writing the antagonist’s viewpoint? Is the Evil Overlord better as an unknowable mystery? Or do you like to see the dark mechanics of his twisted mind?

18 comments:

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris, I much prefer an insight into how the baddies think. Especially, when they don't think they're bad.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. I am fascinated by that. It rings true as well. I think everyone has a tendancy to justify their actions and thoughts. I'm sure even Hitler and his cronies never considered themselves 'bad', but rational men doing the 'hard' things with their self-interest conveniently swept under the mental carpet.

Amanda Green said...

Chris, I prefer it when we, as readers, get an insight into how the antagonist thinks. It does make the story feel more "full". Unfortunately, it seems like more and more authors who attempt to do this simply give us the gross-out moment. Instead of giving us clues into what makes the bad guy tick, they give us detailed descriptions of whatever bad act they are currently involved in. Sure, we need to know what they are doing, but not in excruciating detail. That is action, not motivation.

My other pet peeve is where the book opens with a scene from the bad guy's POV and that is the only time we see that. If that scene has been done well, the reader might not like the bad buy, but there is a connection with him. You sort of expect more from his POV, at least I do. So, why not give a bit more -- not much, I'm not that greedy -- from his POV as well?

matapam said...

As you say, done well it really adds to the story. If it's just a few token atrocities to make sure the reader doesn't mistake the Bad Guy for a neutral party, why bother?

John Lambshead said...

All baddies need is an HQ in an old volcano and a white cat. A pool full of carnivorous fish is an optional, but useful, extra.
John

RJ_CruzeJr said...

You can never go wrong with ill-tempered sea bass ;-)

C Kelsey said...

John,

Isn't an HQ in a volcano enough motivation? I mean, who doesn't want one of those? Apparently they're evil exclusive though, so you have to switch teams in order to get one. It tends to be rough on your former associates, but hey! Your personal (semi-selfish) desires of having the cool evil base are all taken care of.

Chris McMahon said...

Hey, Amanda. I agree on both points. There is definately a 'less is more' principle operating there - particularly early on in the book.

Sometimes I start to wonder about the author when they get so much into the bad guy's nasty acts. I am much more interested in the thought processes and motivations.

I also like to hook into an PoV at the outset of a book. To get into one PoV then have that disappear really leaves me high and dry. It takes me a lot of mental effort to connect with a book sometimes.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, matapam. For me the function is to povide an interesting perspective on motivations, and to raise the tension in the plot. If if its just some guy gettnig busy with a chainsaw yelling 'Yeeha' that really does not do too much of either. (Well unless the protagonists has a pathological fear of chainsaws).

Chris McMahon said...

Hey, John. Don't forget the mini-me! Gotta love that little guy:)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, RJ. Of course - genetically modified to throat-crushing jaw strength!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Chris. I just had this image of the Evil Overlord Real Estate agent. 'Well yes, your Evil Overlordship, this Volcano comes with all the extras. . . . rocket lauching pad, not four but FIVE sublevels of labspace. . .'

Kate said...

When it's well done, the POV of the bad guy is critical. When you've got an author whose bad guys tend to devolve into frothing lunatics who are more likely to turn their own feet into something unspeakable than do any serious damage - or worse, to make them credible the protagonist(s) have to become utter morons - keeping the bad guy as the shadowy dark force is a much better tactic.

I don't go in for the token atrocity to show how bad the guy is. I much prefer to let it show, if the structure of the book allows it.

Personally I prefer villains whose motives and actions are understandable. And yes, I do read the Evil Overlord List. Regularly. If any of my characters are about to do something from that list and its related lists, I stop and check that there really isn't anything else they could do at that point (it's possible to manipulate circumstances so the choices are between 'phenomenally stupid and almost certainly fatal', and 'definitely fatal' - but it's not easy).

This ramble has been brought to you by Friday after a crazy work week.

Kate said...

Chris M,

First the Evil Overlord has to get it past the Evil Overlordship's accountant, who is very particular about these things.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. I wonder if you could write a story with an Evil Overlord actually following all the cliched elements on the list and make it work. Now that would be a challenge!

I can picture the Evil Overlord crushing the throat of a convenient minion when he did not get the tax refund he was hoping for . . . :)

matapam said...

Chris, make him delusional, with a crowd of hallucinated syncopates around him. He could strangle someone only he could see, until he runs out of imaginary toadies, and to the shock of the real ones, starts in on them.

It could be a challenge, to figure out which characters are real, and which not. Does he actually have a Mad Scientist? A secret weapon? A guy with a big ax?

Is there really a good guy trying to stop him?

Chris McMahon said...

Hey, I like that idea matapam. That could be a real series of twists for the reader. Particularly when the one character you were sure was his delusion turns out to be real. Neat. Might steal that one:)

matapam said...

Go for it. It's the sort of thing I don't think I could pull off. And if I did, it would turn out differently anyhow.