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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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

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. 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.

  2. What would it mean to defeat a ghost?

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. Very helpful !! Much appreciated.

  9. Hi! Thanks for the post, is very helpful.
    First: sorry for the english, is not my main language.
    My question is: what if the antagonist is an imaginary force that does not exist outside the mind of the protagonist, and i’m not talking about schizophrenia or imaginary friends, i’m talking about the protagonist “being sure” that somebody is ploting against him, but in reality is only him that is paranoid and think the worst of the people, creating this inexistent antagonist.
    For example: i’m writing about a farmer that is being robbed. The thing is that the rob is an one-time incident, and in reality that does not happens again, but the farmer is convinced that somebody is continuing stealin him and ploting to steal again. How i can work the antagonist figure here? I make the antagonist his own mind?
    Thanks for the help!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s fine. Just remember that the antagonistic force is nothing more or less than whatever is creating obstacles between the protagonist and his plot goals.

      • Thanks for the answer!

      • In a man vs self story, can an antagonistic force still manifest as a person in the external conflict?

        How is the climax handled in a man vs. self story if the climax expected to be a show down between the big bad and the protagonist?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Man against Himself is, of course, a time-honored storyform, so there’s nothing wrong with writing a book that centers primarily around a character’s inner conflict.

          However, that conflict will almost always manifest in the outer world as well. 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.

          Whatever ultimate obstacle the antagonistic force is creating–that’s what the protagonist will have to overcome in the Climax.

  10. Can an antagonist be a group of people in your story responding negatively to a position or belief the main character/protagonist takes? In this case they keep pressure on the protagonist to the point where she starts to doubt herself. Just curious to know. Thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes. However, for dramatic purposes, it’s usually better to personify the group with one particular character representing them.

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