The separation between the story’s hero and the villain is wide, and yet at the same time it can be narrow. Each character has a goal to achieve, a journey to take, and a stake in the game. The protagonist, or hero of the story moves outside his comfort zone to pursue his goal while the antagonist or villain does everything he can to oppose him.
Normally, the reader expects to place himself inside the mind of the hero, to accompany the story’s hero on his journey, to route for him to win – but what would it be like for the reader if he were to place himself in the perspective of the villain- instead? Would it make the story more interesting? Or, conversely, would it cause too much anguish to step inside the villain’s inner world, to join him on the same wavelength, as someone who wants to do harm, destruction or evil to someone else?
Upon reading this month’s book club book, I did not miss the author’s curious choice to have the writer within the writer’s story use a villain’s point of view to tell her story. To write a non-horror/thriller from the perspective of someone our readers are normally persuaded to fear adds a compelling twist to the narrative. And beyond that, it allows the reader to question the things that would create a villain, or to cause an individual to turn bad to begin with.
Isn’t this something many of us attempt to do in our real lives, to understand why another individual would do harm to someone else? When we hear about someone in the news who subjects another or others to pain, or we observe someone we know behave out of character, don’t we wonder what happened to cause that person to become so troubled to the point that his behavior turns negative, bully-like, malevolent, or downright evil? Don’t we want to press ourselves up against his story like a scientist studying a foreign specimen, to understand his thought process and behavior? We become addicted to the stories unfolding before us and we can’t stop ourselves from watching safely from the sidelines. Afterall, there is something compelling about someone who turns bad. But, perhaps – getting inside with him instead might be the only real way to figure out how to protect ourselves and our loved ones, not only from becoming a victim, but from leaning into that “bad” side laying dormant in each of us.
In Verity, by Colleen Hoover, one of the main characters in the story is a writer who writes her life story behind the scenes. (Warning: this paragraph contains a major spoiler if you have not read it yet.) She writes her autobiography from the point of view of a villain, supposedly the opposite of her true “normal and good “ self. The autobiography is to be a writing exercise suggested by her editor, referred to as “antagonistic journaling” to help the writer cope with her grief. Her editor suggests it to help Verity get inside the mind of a villainous character, by writing “phony” journal entries. However, the catch is to write the inner dialogue contrary from her actual experience, to essentially lie to the reader. “It was never meant for anyone to read and believe. It was an exercise … A way to tap into the dark grief that was eating at me,” she writes.
Hoover creatively places the reader uncomfortably in Verity’s head when she writes:
No one is likable from the inside out. One should only walk away from an autobiography with, at best, an uncomfortable distaste for its author. I will deliver. What you read will taste so bad at times, you’ll want to spit it out, but you’ll swallow these words and they will become part of you, part of your gut, and you will hurt because of them.
From this excerpt, the reader anticipates that what is coming will be something bad, making the assumption that Verity suffers from a troubled mind. The point is to get the reader to be told the story from the other side, to fully feel the evil, to become so embedded in it that she becomes a part of it, -a creative and smart way to gain a perspective of someone’s objective without dancing around it to second guess what is going on.
Or at least it is an interesting idea to ponder.
In the May 16, 2022 blog post written by Stina Leicht; “Empathy for the Devil; Villains, Antiheroes and Origin Stories, Leicht says about writing horror in general, but it also explains the relevance of writing and reading from the villain’s point of view;
It forces us to gaze into the darkness and learn advanced lessons about being human. Because concentrating on only the Good means ignoring the shadow, and as every religious fanatic has demonstrated since the beginning of time, we ignore our shadows at our peril.
In life, as in writing, we have our heroes and our villains. Every day we encounter individuals with good intentions and sometimes those with not so good intentions, although I truly believe there are substantially fewer of the latter, than of the first type. The idea to probe around in someone’s head to examine the thoughts that drive him, allows us to gain an awareness, to discover the reasons why someone does what he does. It’s like the surgeon who opens up his patient to locate and remove the tumor that is destroying her. The writer does the same thing, only she explores the insides of the mind from the outside instead. The goal is the same, to locate the root of the sickness, or malevolent thoughts and behaviors, to discover both how to handle it, and how to prevent it from growing inside our own selves or in others.
Sometimes, the individual is not necessarily evil. It could be a slip up, a one-time temporary moment of weakness or extreme vulnerability, a moment in which any one of us could find ourselves.
Stephen King explained this notion in Scott Meyers’; November 7, 2021, Sunday’s with Stephen King’s “On Writing”:
Not only that, by immersing ourselves in the lives of our characters, we set out on a path in which we discover their complex nature. Villains who have self-doubt. Villains who feel pity. Good guys whose desire is to turn away from their responsibilities.
Through the journey into the antagonist’s inner world we hope to uncover the reasons behind his thoughts and behaviors to understand and potentially (and hopefully), treat, cure or save him, while saving the rest of us in the process.
It might, in some cases, also help us identify who the villain really is, to distinguish between the alleged heroes and supposed villains in each story we encounter.
In Jason Sechrest’s “Who is the true Villain in Carrie?” from May 25, 2018, we gain another interesting perspective; In Carrie we learn that behind the fire in every angry woman’s eyes, there exists a lifetime of sorrow, and that behind that sorrow lies great pain. This is most notably evident in one of the book’s most quoted lines:
Sorry is the Kool-Aid of human emotions. It’s what you say when you spill a cup of coffee, or throw a gutter ball when you’re bowling with the girls in the league. True sorrow is as rare as true love.
What this says, Sechrest claims, is sometimes there is the need to pay attention to the sorrow within someone before labeling that individual as a villain. Perhaps, the individual is only a broken hero in her own story, with the basic need of repair. And that repair does not have to cost much.
While people may associate Stephen King with horror, it’s rarely the pervasive feeling one gets as a reader. Sometimes it’s nostalgia. Sometimes it’s desperation. With Carrie, it is heartbreak. For we all knew (or perhaps, were) a Carrie White in school. We may feel shame for how we treated that individual when we were “just kids,” or perhaps we stood idly by, and allowed bullying to occur. But to read Carrie is to be enlightened as to what it’s like to be in such well-worn and tattered shoes; to know the madness that ensues behind closed doors by night, which makes one so awkward by the light of day.
It is interesting that Carrie would become one of King’s most infamous villains over the years when in many ways she is in fact a victim. The question remains a common discussion point among readers over 40 years later: Is Carrie White the villain of Carrie, and if not, then who is?
Stephen King took the black-and-white out of Carrie and began painting its characters in beautiful shades of gray. They were not good. They were not bad. They were just… human. Much less like characters in a book, and more like the flesh and bone people who would be reading it. It made Carrie White instantly likeable, but more than that it made the book itself instantly relatable.
I love how Sechrest describes the reader, as the flesh and bone people who would be reading it. This is to whom I write, both to the writer who creates the story, the reader who reads it, and to the individual just trying to live her life. So, when we ask ourselves who the villain really was in Carrie, we might learn that the true villain in Carrie is- us. The villain is the possibility inside us to judge, to condemn, to ostracize, to exclude, to label, to treat badly, to misunderstand,… lurking around in each one of us. And if making a short trip to the insides of someone’s inner world could possibly make us more sensitive and empathetic to another- who might feel troubled or is going through a “down period”, to which we have the opportunity to step in to help, perhaps it might prevent any other Carrie’s from being created, if we visit that place just for a bit.
And so, if the villains of Stephen King’s stories, and in other stories, both fiction and non-fiction, or in real life, could help us learn how not to become a villain, or a victim, then the idea to see the world from inside that point of view, if only for a brief period, could help us become more caring individuals, then writing in the antagonist’s perspective is a trip worth taking.
Stephen King’s characters are painted so perfectly human—so flawed and so fallible—they show us there is light and darkness in everyone. Carrie holds up a mirror to expose the potential villain that exists in each of us. The bully we can become. The judge. The zealot, or control freak. The man or woman scorned, hellbent on revenge.
So, the next time we contemplate whether to step inside the villain’s point of view for a few uncomfortable moments, to take a shot at understanding his or her story, to write from the his or her point of view, I say go for it. Like the cross and holy water that keep the vampires away, if understanding what makes a villain a villain, or a seemingly normal person think and act out of the ordinary, could keep evil away or from developing, then the temporary discomfort of glimpsing a different perspective- to write from the villain’s viewpoint, should be worth the temporary uneasiness that might work toward saving each of us at the end of the day, or in this case, at the end of the story.