When I go back over the indie books I have read over the past few years, I find myself interested in where a few of them were flawed or, in some cases, totally failed. To me, the core of good storytelling rests with a good balance between plot and character. Keeping the reader engrossed in the story requires presenting the characters in ways the reader can connect and understand their actions, while presenting a series of events that affects and directs these characters in a way that the reader can follow and accept the revelations the story presents. If the reader is truly embracing and understanding the story, the reader will begin to expect where the story is leading, but will still find satisfaction whether the actions and reactions follows expectations or takes a turn toward a totally unexpected resolution. The keys to whether the reader is accepting the story are whether the actions and events are explainable within the parameters of the story and whether the motivations of the characters are sensible in their reactions. For this reason, many authors work to empathize with their main characters, seeking to express the inner debate and growth these characters experience as they somewhat heroically face the challenges they are tasked to overcome physically or emotionally. However, when the author focuses too heavily on the main characters without taking into account the antagonists who have created and continue to push the challenges and dangers upon the main protagonists, holes will appear in the story that causes the reader to become confused and lose interest. In other words, the author needs to understand that villains are characters too, ones that are just as important for the proper balance of plot and character to keep the reader engrossed.
Nearly all stories deal with a major challenge or series of related challenges that are faced by a major character or set of characters. The reader is introduced to the major character or characters, gaining a quick understanding of who they are and where they are at a certain moment in a real or imagined time, then the elements of the challenge or challenges they must overcome are revealed. In some stories, the reader may be introduced to the main character or characters at the height or depths of the challenge, instantly enhancing the reader’s empathy with the character or characters. These challenges faced by the characters are the framework of the plot, and it is important that the segments fit together so the reader can experience the challenges with the protagonists. Often, these challenges are generated by other characters, whose actions run contrary to the general benefit of the main characters and the humanity they represent. These are the villains, responsible for the grief, danger, and obstacles faced by our heroes. It is when the author treats these villains like plot segments to generate story direction that the author risks losing the reader. This happens when the author depends upon a simple stereotype description – bully, terrorist, evil wizard – to present the villain, then just uses the villain to push the plot along at critical times. Sometimes this may work in a one-time fateful crossing of lives, like a bank robber who locks a man and a woman previously unknown to each other inside a safe, initiating a very unique environment to create a romantic connection before the two are rescued, or a terrorist bomber whose recent attack collaterally kills a woman, forcing her husband to spend the rest of the story trying to get beyond the loss of his soul mate. In these types of stories, the villainous party is not directly related to the main characters, so the reader does not have to ask why the villain created the situation, since the reader has become so engrossed in the aftermath of the villain’s actions on the main characters. However, if the story presents any connection between the antagonist and the main characters before a major evil action, or interaction occurs between the parties after the initial critical action, then the reader will become just as interested in both the motivation and ability of the villain to create the chaos and challenges to the main heroes. The villain is no longer a plot device, but rather a character of interest to the reader.
Of course, the reader does not need to delve too deeply into the back story and mental state of the antagonists of the story. The reader only needs to know enough to answer the “why’s” and “how’s” of the antagonists actions towards the main characters. The level of interest in the villain and any other secondary character who abets the villain’s actions will be dependent upon the level of interaction the villain and abettors have toward the main characters. If the interaction is somewhat random throughout the story, the reader will expect to discover an obsessive characteristic and a rash capability for action from the antagonist. However, if the antagonist and protagonist have a deeper history, then the reader will be expecting the author to provide a deeper understanding of the motivation behind the antagonist and a better sense of how the antagonist will be able to manipulate the actions toward the protagonist. Again, this includes abettors of the main villain.
As an example, I recently read a work about an erotic romance between a daughter of a well-to-do politico and a hunky owner of a small security protection agency. Some casual incidental meets at a night club and a coffee shop generate initial sparks, but her kidnapping and initial rescue by him and his team amps up the relationship to a new level. The kidnapper is revealed to an abusive and possessive mental case who had developed an obsession with our heroine, but before we can find out more, the hero security guy is informed by the police that the perp has escaped. How did he escape? To the author, this was not considered important. The escape meant that the heroine had to move into a safe house with the hero to be protected, creating the situation where the couple had to bond and submit to their carnal feelings for each other. However, as a reader, I had no real idea just how much danger our couple was in. How committed and skillful was this villain? If authorities were looking for him, why would he stick around? Was the escape skillfully planned or did it occur because of police error? After a period of time of this relationship, an ex-girlfriend villainess of the hero appears at the door and tells our half-dressed heroine that she is the hero’s fiancée, sending the heroine rushing home to her parents’ mansion. Of course, this ex doesn’t have to show off a ring on the finger to prove her lie, as the reader is supposed to accept this spur-of-the-moment attempt to reclaim an old beau. However, this little unrelated deception allows the kidnapper to come back and re-kidnap the heroine from her parents’ home that very night. However, the kidnapper brings the heroine back to the original location he held her before, allowing the hero to re-rescue her and re-capture the villain. But this does not tell the reader how the villain was able to escape in the first place. Oh, and how was the villain able to know when the heroine was back at her parents’ home? He had a cousin on the parents’ household staff who sent him a message when the daughter returned. No other information than the distant familial relationship is provided for why a loyal staff member would put the heroine in instant jeopardy. In the end, no matter how vested a good reader could get with the relationship of the two main characters, which wasn’t badly written when it was just about the interactions between them and their inner romantic insecurities, the reader begins to feel all of the antagonistic drama brought by the villains around them is just a bunch of straw plot devices to create action, slowly turning the main characters into straw figures of their own.
In the end, a well-defined villain or enemy actually enhances the empathy we have for our heroes and main characters. Whether the heroes are able to overcome or find reconciliation with their antagonists becomes a major part of a plot’s theme, which is why authors need to remember that villains are characters too.