I’ll admit it. If I’m not enjoying a book, I’ll quit on it. The decision to abandon a book might come in the first chapter or sometimes the last, but ultimately the decision is made by one simple question: Do I care about this character? If I discover deep into the third act that I don’t really care what happens to the main character, I’ll move onto the next book in my bedside table stack.
Life’s too short. There are too many other good books I haven’t read yet.
And, boy, when I open that book and meet that character that fascinates me, that character who demands deep emotional investment, get ready late night reading bender. Hello, whipping through pages while brushing my teeth. Sorry, responsibilities, for ignoring you for the past few days.
Transformation is at the heart of great children’s books. Young people are constantly going through so many physical, emotional, intellectual, and social changes. Compelling fictional characters reflect these changes. That character I deeply invest in as a reader is often that character where I am desperate to see their life changed for the better in some meaningful way. I don’t want Wilbur to just be another farm pig fattened for the slaughter. Charlie can’t just go back empty-handed to his kindly, impoverished grandparents after leaving Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Absolutely not! I want to see these characters’ lives transformed in powerful, dramatic ways.
Nothing gets a reader to care about the hero of the story like a good villain. The villain—or antagonist—is the who or what that stands in the way of our hero reaching the life circumstances we readers desperately want for the hero. As a writer, I’ve come to an interesting discovery about villains. The villain is the best thing that’s ever happened to the hero. Okay, Harry Potter might disagree that Lord Voldemort is the best thing that ever happened to him. But who would Harry be without Voldemort? Just an ordinary kid at Hogwarts. He would never have become the extraordinary hero if it hadn’t been for Voldemort.
Just as rules in fictional worlds differ from the rules of our actual world, our expectations for what we want to happen to a character is different from what we want to happen to real people. We don’t want any parents to abandon their kids in the woods, but when it happens in a work of fiction like Hansel and Gretel, we eat it up.
In Holes by Louis Sacher, Stanley Yelnats is falsely accused of stealing a famous baseball player’s shoes and is sent to a Kafka-esque juvenile detention center called Camp Green Lake (which has no lake, nothing green, and is as far from being camp as any place can get). But after enduring the abuse and torment from the malicious counselors and fellow campers, even after Stanley has risked his life trying to escape from Camp Green Lake, he thinks near the story’s end that “there’s no place he’d rather be.” Stanley realizes his ordeal at Camp Green Lake has transformed him into someone he never would have become in his safe old, ordinary life.
This is a fascinating message that lies at the heart of so many children’s books. Life might present you with some nasty villains sometimes. But those same villains hold the potential of transforming you into someone great. In other words, conflict is not something to be avoided or feared, but something to be embraced as a positive agent of change. Fate sends each of us lemons sometimes. It’s up to us to decide what to do with them. The heroes of many great children’s books affirm for young readers that kids can positively navigate life’s difficulties.
Writers, as you create villains or conflict in your story, keep in mind that you want your reader to despise that bully, that wicked witch, or that unfair situation with a white-hot fury. Your characters might hate these antagonists as well. But you don’t have to. You are the omnipotent god of your fictional universe. You love all your creations, even your most sinister children. Place your antagonist in your story not only as a nasty barrier to your hero, but also as an agent of change.
If your story is about the most important thing that’s ever happened to your character, then your villain plays an essential role. It doesn’t matter if your villain is a dark lord or just an annoying situation. The end result is the same. This antagonist will allow your protagonist to become a hero. The better you make your antagonist as a character or situation, the more your readers will invest emotionally and begin to cheer for your protagonist. And that just might keep a reader like me from putting the book down on chapter one.