What if your antagonist isn't a person?

What if Your Antagonist Isn’t a Person?

Good fiction is overflowing with excellent antagonists. In some instances, those antagonists end up being just as memorable, if not more so, than the protagonists they oppose. Hannibal Lector. Darth Vader. Agent Smith. But what if your story doesn’t have a human antagonist?

I like to refer to the story’s opposing faction as the “antagonistic force,” since it takes the emphasis off the antagonist’s humanity. Nowhere is it written that your story has to have a bad guy (or girl, as the case may be). The obstacle that stands between your character and his overall story goal could be any number of non-human manifestations. Let’s consider a few.

Man vs. Animal

This one is a favorite of a certain class of horror movies: King Kong, Godzilla, Jurassic Park, Jaws, The Ghost and the Darkness, Night of the Lepus (which you may never have heard of, but which, and trust on me on this, is pretty traumatizing for a ten-year-old channel surfing her grandparents’ cable television).

Man vs. Self

Here we have the age-old existential quandary of man as his own worst enemy. Most stories feature this antagonistic force on some level, since the hero often has to overcome his own problems before he’ll gain the tools to defeat the external antagonist. But we also see it in play as the primary antagonistic force in stories such as David Guterson’s East of the Mountains, Ridley Scott’s A Good Year, and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

Man vs. Setting

Survival stories often include a gamut of antagonists, but the most important one is always the setting. Whether the character is dealing with the wilderness or the urban jungle, his first concern is always surviving his surroundings. Good examples include Cast AwaySnow Walker, The Towering Inferno, and The Road.

Man vs. Society

Man vs. Society is a lot like Man vs. Setting with the addition of an oppressive societal structure. These stories usually take place in an urban environment, which can either be primarily comfortable (as would usually be the case in a modern setting) or primarily uncomfortable (as in an apocalyptic setting). What’s important in these stories isthat the authority structures are oppressive (or perceived as such) by the protagonist, such as we find in The Invisible Man, Equilibrium, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and The Hunger Games.

Man vs. Supernatural

Sometimes your protagonist will find himself bucking fate or even God Himself. These stories are rarely about the defeat of the supernatural antagonistic, but rather about the hero himself coming to grips with certain truths and learning to surrender to them. Karen Hancock’s Light of Eidon is ultimately a story of this, as is Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Meet Joe Black, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Man vs. Technology

Many sci-fi stories use overarching technological antagonistic forces to oppose their heroes. These can be faceless computers, such as War Games’ WOPR or constructs personified into distinct characters in their own right, such as in the Terminator or Matrix movies. (And, then, of course, there’s the flip side of all this, in which the technology is the hero and the humans are the antagonists, as in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.)

Man vs. Weather

In many ways, this is an offshoot of Man vs. Setting. Via horrendous weather conditions, an otherwise ordinary setting becomes an antagonistic force that threatens the character’s life or the completion of some specific goal. The Perfect StormWhite Squall, Armageddon (a rain of asteroids is weather, right?), and The Day After Tomorrow are all good examples.

You don’t have to limit yourself to human antagonists. You don’t even have to limit yourself to just one type of antagonistic force within your story. Most stories will use a combination of several of these options to oppose the hero throughout the plot arc, even though one specific type of antagonist will usually rise to the fore as your primary “villain.” Have fun playing around with the options!

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever used a non-human antagonistic force to oppose your character?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Great post! 😀 I have one question: my protagonist’s non-human antagonistic force is poverty. So would that be man vs. society or man vs. setting? :/

    • Hello Magic Violinist! That would be man vs society because it’s not setting making he/she in poverty, it’s the way society works! You could work in both though to have society and setting such as being in poverty in a dangerous city.

    • Maybe you’d benefit from refining or redefining the antagonistic force.

      Poverty is like having a poor “balance of trade.” In any transaction, there is a social principle of reciprocity: I do something for you, and you do something for me. In the case of poverty, for whatever reason, I am asking others to do for me more than I am doing for others, or I am unable or unwilling to do anything for others that they value, or I am a poor negotiator and did not ask for enough money for what I do.

      THAT is the way society works.

    • The “rules of the game” (or “rules of the world”) do not count as an “obstacle” because they are impossible to overcome by any amount or type of effort. I imagine being in a maze strewn with stones and boulders: we use effort to get over or around the boulders, and struggle with the stones, but we don’t expend any energy trying to fight against the walls. They just define the course of our struggle.

      And then the antagonist is neither the walls nor the obstacles. The antagonist is the source of the obstacles and throws them into the maze. Or perhaps, in the case of an impersonal antagonistic force, that would be the boulders.

      So how does “poverty” fit into this kind of picture?

  2. As I read this out of all the stories I have only one story that’s on the back burner of my flash drive popped up. It’s a ghost story where the ghost is the perfect antagonist. Since my summer has started I have been looking for a story to dive back into ( a lot of my stories are ghost romance)Just the idea of a sexy ghost coming back and romancing a lonely woman who has bad luck with human males is so intriguing and a bit weird or creepy as that may sound makes me that much more interested in writing it. Thanks for the great ideas.

    Debi

  3. My last novel was mc vs herself and my current novel is mc vs the govt – in this case, the corporate state in some far flung future.

  4. @The Magic Violinist: This would probably be considered man vs. society.

    @Connecting: Ghost stories are, of course, technically man vs. supernatural. But depending on how human your manifestation of the ghost is, he can basically become a human antagonist.

    @mshatch: So that be man vs. society – a popular one these days!

  5. @K.M. Weiland: Thanks! 😀

  6. My antagonists are usually none human, specifically man vs society. I really appreciate this article 🙂

  7. @maluba: There’s so much emphasis put upon human antagonists that it can sometimes rock the confidence of authors who are utilizing one of the above instead. But there are so many great stories that don’t feature human antagonists.

  8. In my historical wip, the antagonist comes primarily from an opposing force or forces on one hand the Mexican Army and the force of manifest destiny again American Indians and pending relocation in another. It’s much like VC guerrilla’s in Vietnam.

  9. Thanks for an intriguing post K.M.. I really liked your statement,

    “You don’t even have to limit yourself to just one type of antagonistic force within your story. Most stories will use a combination of several of these options to oppose the hero throughout the plot arc, even though one specific type of antagonist will usually rise to the fore as your primary “villain.””

    In each of my manuscripts a primary villain does emerge but it makes sense to me that it there is often more than one force at work thwarting the protagonists dreams and plans. In my Adelphi the antagonist is as much the struggle within the protagonist to resist becoming manipulative as the human antagonist.

  10. During my protagonist’s long journey to his ultimate fate, he faces each of the antagonist on your list. He turns some into allies, others are always a threat, and one particular antagonist triggers the darkest moment that leads to the climax against another antagonist.

    As I think about each antagonist, I bounce in my seat, excited by the protagonist’s tribulations. I look forward to the next draft when I will make the events even more intense thus adding to my protagonist’s suffering.

    I am having too much fun.

    P.S.
    I like the eyes. Reminds me of my “Dragon Eyes.”

  11. I tend to do a lot of man vs. self

  12. I realize that I do a lot of man vs the powers that be.

  13. @Rich: To some extent, there’s a definite “man vs. society” element in most war stories, especially those that don’t personify the enemy as a specific individual.

    @Jenny: Antagonistic forces such as setting, weather, and the supernatural are often present to some extent in most stories. It’s just a matter of degree.

    @Lester: We writers are so mean to our characters. :p

    @Anne-girl: Man vs. self is arguably the strongest story there is.

  14. @Stephanie: Probably man vs. society then.

  15. I’ve never personally made my main antagonist a non-person, however, usually my protag has to battle self-doubt throughout their stories, or have some personal hurdle, so I usually do have a secondary antagonist that would fall into a few of these categories. Right now, I’m deciding whether to scrap a portion of a character profile that makes her own health difficult to solve the murders I’m throwing at her (Type-1 Diabetes.)

    • Is the diabetes related in some way to the murders, or to the victims? Or to anything so that it isn’t extraneous?

      I imagine Dorothy in Oz getting a bad case of hangnails.

  16. It’s often a nice extra layer when the protagonist’s personal problems directly add to the main conflict.

  17. The setting’s the major antagonist in my first story–magic swallows everyone the protagonists love, and they must find the source of the magic to get them back. Also man vs. monster, since the source has a few guardians…

  18. Monsters are always fun!

  19. Oh, all of the above! The more conflict, the better! My current story is a guy and a girl who are enemies but working together against outside forces trying to destroy them–social, political, environmental, and supernatural. And they also battle each other and themselves. And naturally falling in love doesn’t help matters at all. It’s so much fun. 🙂

  20. Conflict is fun! In fiction anyway. 😉 The thicker we pile it on, the more options we have to play with.

  21. I prefer to put my protagonists up against non-human antagonistic forces – generally the environment (setting and weather).

    My real-life experiences with “man vs man” conflict have only ranged from quiet opposition to a maximum risk of getting a bit of a beating, while my real-life experiences with “man vs nature” have ranged all the way up to the very real possibility of death.

    Therefore, I feel I can write with greater authority about a person facing death at the hands of nature (not necessarily a earthquake or anything so cataclysmic, just the risk of slipping of that rock and not making contact with anything for about sixty or so metres would do) than I can about a person facing death at the hands of a human opponent.

    I’ve never faced an armed threat nor had to consider the possibility of using a firearm to defend my life from another person, but I’ve certainly had to get out of situations were one wrong move would be my last.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      I would venture that most authors never face even a tenth of the danger they put their characters into – whether it’s from a human or a non-human antagonist. Imagination and research can carry us far. But writing we know definitely brings added strength and verisimilitude to our work.

  22. What a gold mine your website is!
    It is remarkable how much your posts shape my writing process.
    This post made my story’s antagonist-combo much clearer for me.
    I can now play with the human and non-human components of it with renewed awareness. Thank you!

  23. Elin Skrove says:

    Hi Katie, I don’t know if I can still comment on this old post, but I’ll give it a try. I’m writing a MG novel and am wondering if my main antagonist can be an antagonistic force and not a classic villain? There will be plenty of conflict with people along the way, but I feel that my main antagonist is a magic ability my MC was given at birth. Until she rids herself of this ability, no one will ever see her for who she is and love her. Her ultimate goal is to be loved and be seen as a person, not this ability. Is this too complicated for a MG audience?

    I also have a “false” antagonist, a dragon (gotta have a dragon, right?) Is it a bad idea to “fool” the reader like this? The dragon actually believes he wants to eat (!) the MC, but in the end he wants her ability (and everybody lives happily ever after). He creates tension throughout the story but is not the antagonist she triumphs over in the climax.

    I’d be so grateful for a comment on this.

    (Pardon my English, it’s not my first language)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ultimately, *all* stories are fundamentally about the protagonist’s inner struggle between Lie and Truth–which is exactly what you’re describing here. Most stories will also feature an external conflict of some kind that helps the protagonist in his inner struggle. So it sounds to me like you’re right on target with what you’re doing.

  24. Hello, thank you so much for writing this article…I needed that! I have a question I am writing a script and I found that my antagonist is life. Is that okay or does it needed to be more specefic becauae at time life offers multiple obstacles including flesh, spirits, society, settings etc. Is that okay to state the antagonist to be life?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As long as the generality is thematically pertinent (e.g., the theme is about the triumph of the human spirit or the working man), you can definitely make that work.

  25. What would it mean to defeat a ghost?

  26. Bodil Hov says:

    Going through lots of your posts now, trying to get unstuck from this swamp that I have walked straight into. In my story I have two antagonists, a plot level one, and a personal level one, but neither of these are around for most of my story.
    However, since my story takes place in a medieval setting, and my protagonist, a stranger, and a group of mercenaries all escape from prison, they are now on the run. They are chased by armies on both sides in an ongoing war, they have to traverse diverse terrain, and they have to fight hunger, sickness and sanity on their journey/mission to stop the war.
    Would my antagonistic force then be the setting? To me it *could* also be society, and surely weather has some bearing. Maybe deciding the force isn’t black/white, but more grey?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The antagonistic force *can* be the setting certainly (since it will be causing lots of obstacles), but I would say that *the* antagonistic force is whoever is prompting the armies to pursue them.

      • Bodil Hov says:

        Hmm.. interesting thought, though my plot level antagonist is manipulating two kingdoms into starting a war between them. So in my case neither king is actually an antagonist. So I’m back at the plot level antagonist actually being there all along, just in the background, after all. I really love writing, but some times it is a lot of hard work. Your blog truly helps, though, so thanks for sharing your knowledge!

  27. JS Hamilton says:

    Another terrific article. Here’s a question that might get a little technical if I let it, but I’ll try to keep it simple:
    My story features a character primarily involved with learning sorcery – there are a lot of man vs. society (the society of sorcerers working for and against this endeavor). This is somewhat like learning to play the violin without a teacher – only piano and guitar players and flutists to advise you.

    I realize I could move the focus into another area- but for argument’s sake – how would one approach this? Usually in this kind of thing, there’s a big final test with an opposing force (vis a vis Karate Kid). But I wondered – do I have to resort to that or can I make learning the thing the conflict?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The best way to think of conflict is as a series of related obstacles that prevent the character from reaching her overall goal until the end of the story. The best way to think of an antagonistic force is as whoever or whatever is presenting those obstacles. (The antagonistic force’s moral alignment within the the story is irrelevant as far as the foundational conflict goes.)

      Take a look at what is consistently standing between your character and her goals throughout the story. Whatever you find, that’s your primary antagonistic force.

  28. I still find myself a little confused with the man vs self conflict. In one of my stories, my protagonist doesn’t want his brother to inherent his father’s wealth, but what he needs is to make peace with his brother instead, how could the protagonist, who is also the antagonist create obstacles in each plot point and how could he overcome the antagonistic force?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Usually, in a man vs. self conflict, the obstacles created by the “self” are all internal: i.e., his Wants keep getting in the way of his Needs. On the level of the outer plot, there will usually be an exterior antagonistic force creating physical obstacles.

  29. Thanks for the blog.

    Just to clarify, would you say that Jane Eyre (the protagonist in “Jane Eyre”) is facing an antogonistic society rather than just a series of unrelated antagonists?

    My first draft of my fantasy novel has an antagonistic society, but I’m wondering whether I bulk up the antagonistic people so that they are a co-ordinated group of evil rather than just manifestations of an antogonistic society.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Woman vs. Society is a good way to look at Jane Eyre, although ultimately most of that conflict manifests as Woman vs. Self, as Jane learns to overcome her own hang-ups and live in spiritual freedom.

  30. Ali Ali says:

    Thank you for the blog, I learned from the comments as well!

    I wonder if you wrote about twists in writing?

    Many of us know their characters, wants and needs and the start of the story, sometimes even hints of the ending! I wonder if you have some tips about twists.

    Thanks!

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