For any author, it is a fine balance between leaving a reader befuddled by a complex plot and having them twiddling their thumbs while they wait for events to play out. And to be sure, there are cases where writing from an antagonist’s POV can further a story. Exploring the mind of a serial killer can help the reader understand why he kills. Placing the reader in the room with terrorists plotting an attack can enhance the sense of danger in a way writing from a protagonist’s POV cannot. Showing a criminal as a devoted spouse and parent blurs the line between good and evil and forces the reader to ask tough questions. All are legitimate instances where getting into the head of the antagonist is a good thing.
Another example is the old Peter Falk classic Columbo. The show always started by showing us the murder. There was no suspense in finding out who committed the crime or why. But Columbo wasn’t a “whodunit.” It was more about the psychological battle between Lieutenant Columbo and the killer. In that case, being in the head of the killer works.
When writing from an antagonist’s POV becomes a problem is when the reader gets ahead of the protagonist. The last thing you want as an author is to have your protagonist come to that “aha” moment when they make a major breakthrough, only to have the reader respond with, “Yeah, I’ve known that for eight chapters.” You don’t want your protagonist looking inept and uninformed. If you’re going for that Ted Dekker sort of psychological brainteaser where the good guy turns out to be the bad guy, or if the main obstacle for your protagonist isn’t solving some mystery, then all bets are off.
But assuming your protagonist is truly the protagonist, and assuming he or she is going to be trying to solve or resolve something, make sure you don’t give away the ending! It sounds obvious, but as I mentioned in the instance above, I’m ahead of the protagonists. You don’t want that happening.
So how much is too much? How do you balance the intrigue of delving into the antagonist’s mind without spoiling things for the reader? Here are a few suggestions from a reader who has too often been frustrated by knowing more than the protagonist in a novel:
1) If a clearly-defined protagonist is trying to solve a mystery of any sort, let the reader have a chance to solve it along with him. It’s one thing to place clues so that if your reader is a better detective than your actual detective, he or she might solve the mystery ahead of them. It’s another thing entirely to give them the answer by placing them in the head of the antagonist.
2) Use the antagonist’s POV only to provide necessary information that couldn’t be revealed otherwise and that won’t be revealed otherwise. For example, a conversation between terrorists reveals that the bomb they are going to detonate is actually a nuclear device. Now the reader realizes the stakes and is drawn in. The problem is, if the authorities and heroes searching for the bomb don’t know that it is a nuclear device, they won’t have the urgency the reader does, which will be frustrating for him or her. It might be better to find a way to reveal this information from a protagonist’s POV.
3) Don’t give the reader personal details from the antagonist’s POV unless they are relevant to the story. As a reader, I don’t care that the terrorist lost his parents as a child; I just want him captured or killed. I don’t need to know why a killer likes chocolate ice cream instead of vanilla; I just want him arrested before he kills again. I don’t care how the criminal feels about the environment unless it is pertinent to his crime. You can flesh out a protagonist just to round out the character. Don’t do it with “baddies.”
4) Be careful of creating a situation where the reader is rooting for the antagonist (unless that’s what you want). It is only human nature that we begin to assume the point of view of whoever’s mind we’re in. When I watch Columbo, I often find myself hoping the character gets away with his crime, simply because I’ve been in his mind for 30 minutes as he perpetrates it. If you give the reader much time in the mind of your villain, unless he is utterly and totally repulsive, they’re going to start to pull for him.
5) Ultimately, the adage that so many writers use is KISS—Keep It Simple Stupid. The same applies here. Give the reader no more insight into the mind of your antagonist than is absolutely necessary. Focus on the hero. He is, after all, the hero.