Writing

When to Narrate a Villain’s Point of View

Through a doorway, Barty Crouch Jr kneels by Voldemort's char

In the opening of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rowling introduces a muggle viewpoint instead of telling the scene from Voldemort's perspective.

Most writers know that their important protagonists should have the lion’s share of viewpoint scenes. However, some stories need another point of view to communicate information the protagonists don’t know. Often, that point of view comes from the primary antagonist.

Unfortunately, using a villain’s point of view can do more harm than good. Consider these tips before you use one.

Why Villain Point of View Scenes Are Used

Before we can decide whether or not a villain viewpoint is a good idea, we have to examine why writers choose to include them.

To Establish Threat

The most common reason to include a scene from an antagonist’s point of view is to raise tension in the story. This is mostly likely to happen in the beginning, while the story’s plot is heating up. Often, a scene from a villain’s viewpoint will establish the threat before the protagonist becomes aware of it. After the protagonists accomplish smaller victories, showing the villain’s evil plans can restore tension during a natural stopping point.

Explain Motivation

Villain’s are critical drivers of the plot, but why they do what they do isn’t always clear during the story. However, readers expect to know the villain’s master plan by the time the story ends. If writers wait until the end to explain what the villain is about, it may come out in an awkward monologue. Establishing the villain’s motivation earlier can relieve the burden on the ending and make their actions feel more believable in the meantime.

Show What’s Happening

As with any separate point of view, scenes with the villain can be used to tell the reader what is happening in another part of the world without the protagonist traveling there. If the protagonist has to deal with an unusual amount of smoke and ash in the air, you might need another viewpoint to explain that the smoke and ash came from an upwind city that the villain set on fire.

How They Can Go Wrong

Unfortunately, villain viewpoints are not easy to narrate. If they aren’t implemented well, your story could be burdened with some big problems.

Unbelievable Characterization

Because of villains’ immoral behavior and their absence during most scenes, writers have trouble getting to know their villains. Add in all the villain stereotypes floating around, and many stories end up with villain depictions that don’t make any sense.

  • The villain might kill devoted minions left and right, even though this only weakens their own forces.
  • The villain must justify plot-convenient actions with weird excuses. For instance, they might insist they can’t kill the hero because they have to break their spirit first.
  • The villain might act so out of control that readers wonder how they ever rose to the high rank they currently have.

Loss of Threat

Even though the most common reason for using a villain point of view is to raise the tension in the story, these viewpoints often do the opposite.

  • The elements in the scene that are designed to raise tension often fall flat. Vague plans and evil laughter often don’t feel real enough to make readers care. If the villain simply threatens the hero’s life, readers will know the attempt is doomed to failure or the story couldn’t continue.
  • Once readers not only meet the villain, but also get inside their head, the villain won’t be scary. Instead, they’re more likely to be sympathetic. Some villains are sympathetic and still threatening enough to carry the story, but the villain has to be designed and depicted just right.
  • If the villain is doing anything that doesn’t make sense, it will make them feel incompetent. Then most of the tension that villain could have created will be lost.

Sloppy Narration

When you write from a character’s point of view, readers will expect you to convey whatever that character knows. When the point-of-view character is a villain, that becomes an issue. If the readers find out everything the villain is planning, there won’t be enough surprises left in the story.

While it is possible to convey partial information, this is Terry Pratchett-level sleight of hand. Many writers aren’t up to narrating something that challenging. The result is villain viewpoint scenes that are jarring, confusing, or contrived.

Overall, the more a character fits the villain role, the harder it will be to narrate their point of view effectively. If your story uses gray morality with a bunch of sympathetic antagonists all in conflict with each other, including their viewpoints could be a great addition. However, if your story has one scary big bad, using their viewpoint could do a lot of damage to your story.

Protagonist Viewpoints Should Come First

Because of everything that can go wrong, villains’ viewpoints shouldn’t be the first thing that writers reach for. Before you consider whether you need to include a villain’s point of view, take a critical look at your plot and your protagonist.

Should the Protagonist Be More Involved?

If your protagonist isn’t involved in the big conflicts of the story, it can be tempting to use another point of view to foreshadow the threat and show off the action. But in most of these cases, a better solution is to change your plot so the protagonist is more central to the action. If you do the hard work of changing your plot, you’ll be rewarded with results that are more engaging and less confusing.

Should the Protagonist Find More Information?

Ask yourself why critical information about your villain’s plans and motivation couldn’t be discovered by a protagonist. In most cases, it works for the protagonist to investigate the villain’s dark backstory or theorize about their evil plans. This will give your hero more to do and allow you to convey that information more easily.

Then Consider Minions or Lesser Villains

In most cases, everything a villain point of view could achieve would be better implemented by using the viewpoint of one of their minions. If you have a big bad and a second villain that is less powerful, using the second villain might also be a good option.

The Point of View Character Can Be Sympathetic

Whereas a big bad usually needs to be super threatening, a minion or side villain is free to be sympathetic instead. You can use character thoughts to build a little rapport between the minion and your readers. Just keep in mind that if you use the same character repeatedly or focus on their personal journey heavily, readers will expect the character to be important later. However, that’s as much an opportunity as it is a restriction. Give the minion a redemption arc that allows them to contribute to Team Good during the climax.

You Can Choose What to Reveal

No more vague dialogue lines about dark plans. You can delve into more detail about what a minion thinks, because a minion will only know what the villain wants them to know. They might be ordered to sink a ship the hero will be on, but that doesn’t mean they know why the villain wants to sink it.

However, they are also in a great position to come up with theories about the villain. If you want to describe the villain’s motivation, a minion might know or guess. The minion could overhear important details about the villain.

The Villain Can Be More Threatening

Since a minion or side villain is less powerful than the big bad, their experiences can be used to demonstrate how threatening the villain is. At the very least, a minion thinking of the villain as a competent boss or leader will boost the villain’s threat level. If the villain gets minions through force rather than charm, you can retell how the minion fell under the villain’s power.

If you’re using a lesser villain for your scenes, you might show how they are careful to avoid a conflict with the big bad. They know they can’t win those conflicts.

Avoiding Problems With Villain Points of View

If you do decide to include a scene from your villain’s point of view, consider these pointers.

Understand Your Villain

Spend some extra time in your villain’s head. If you were writing your villain’s story, how would it go? What would it take to drive them to villainy? What is the easiest way for them to achieve their goals? Mythcreants has some blog posts that will help you here.

Make the Threat Feel Real

When establishing threat, ominous statements aren’t enough. Nor is the killing of random people nearby. The trait your villain needs most isn’t viciousness; it’s competence. Show how good the villain is at what they do.

During your scene, the villain should be doing something specific and tangible that has immediate relevance for the protagonist. For instance, if the protagonist is traveling to meet with an ambassador, the villain might kill the ambassador and replace them with a minion in disguise. Do that, and your readers will feel a lot more tension during those diplomatic scenes.

For more, read How to Make Your Villain Threatening.

Keep Their Mind on the Task at Hand

To convey some of their plans but not the rest, the villain should focus on the small aspects of their plan they are working on during the scene. If they are replacing an ambassador with an impostor, their thoughts should stick to the business of killing the ambassador, sneaking their minion in, and making sure that minion is a convincing replacement. To reduce confusion, readers should understand the villain’s immediate goals, but hear nothing about longer term goals you aren’t ready to reveal. If you try to make their thoughts mysterious, it will probably come across as contrived.


If you take a trip away from your main character’s viewpoint, aim for some level of consistency. Your readers should know what to expect from the scenes in your story. If you trickle in other viewpoints evenly, they’ll look out for the next one.

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    Reminded me a little of the Evil Overlord List at TV Tropes (and, possibly, in other places – but I think this one with its addendums is the most complete). http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/EvilOverlordList

    I started a new project with introducing the villain myself, but I did it through the eyes of a victim, so there was no look into his head.

  2. GeniusLemur

    I’d nominate the shade from the opening of Eragon (covered elsewhere on this site) as a good example of this in action. The scene is largely done from his point of view, and the reader is supposed to see him as a terrifying threat, while what the reader does see is a miserable bungler who conveniently forgets all the great powers he has and throws a tantrum when his poorly planned and poorly executed ambush fails.

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