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 Away, Snow 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 Storm, White 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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