Stories grow from many kinds of seeds: little bits about characters, or a setting, or plot elements, or images, or twists, or conceptual frameworks, or memories, or…
But as soon as you have a seed that grabs you, then you have to start gathering and/or inventing all the other elements that the story needs. You need characters, a setting, at least the start of a plot, and much else. If you’re the type of writer who plans a lot in advance, you’ll need a firm grasp of all these components before you get started. Even if you’re the type of writer who mostly improvises, you still need a sense of what kind of story you’ll be writing and why it’s worth your time. (I’m prepared to believe that a few good stories have resulted from writers sitting down to write with absolutely no ideas of what might come out, but this strikes me as an unreliable way to build a career.)
One of the elements you need in order to build a story is an answer to, “Who is this story about?” Who will readers be following? And why will they want to keep following that character’s experiences? Even in a story like Ray Bradbury’s There Will Come Soft Rains, there may not be any humans, but there are “characters” with whom the reader connects: the dog, and of course, the house itself.
Such central characters may be called “heroes”, “protagonists”, “viewpoint characters” or several other names, depending on how technical you want to get and how useful you may find it to make subtle literary distinctions. One way or another, however, they’re who the reader makes a connection with. Readers soon know whose story they’re following…and if the story is any good (or at least halfway conventional), they’ll realize when the story has come to an end, because they’ll recognize when something significant has changed in the central characters’ lives.
Villains are the agents of change. They may force the heroes out of a rut, or they may push back when the heroes try to change on their own. Classically, villains constitute the foremost obstacles to the heroes being able to change in positive ways. Remove the villains, and the heroes just romp across the finish line without resistance.
So when you’re developing a story, devising a suitable villain can be crucial. The villain must suit the tone of the story—comedies need comic villains, thrillers need thrilling ones, etc. And this is where the villain’s motivation comes in: what villains want and why they want it has a huge effect on the feel of a story. Grim motives create grimness. Sincere sympathetic motives create a sincere sympathetic ambiance. And so on.
As a simple example, consider a story about a music competition. The hero and the villain both want to win the prize. If the villain is an arrogant scumbag who wants the prize for the sake of ego, that gives you one type of story. If the “villain” comes from a poor family and really needs the prize money in order to go to music college, that’s completely different…and your hero damned well needs to have an even better reason to win the prize, or else the hero is at risk of switching into the villain.
The big question is what kind of story you want to write. The nature of the conflict between the hero and the villain determines what the reader feels as the story unfolds.
Next time, I’ll talk more about the hero-villain dynamic, and how you can use it to convey emotions.