In a story, there are five types of antagonist. Only one of those is what you would consider a “bad guy” in any way.
A story without conflict is not interesting but did you know that there are four other ways to bring conflict other than by having a villain? I made mention of this on my blog when I wrote about combat free encounters for Role Play Games.
1. Nature as the antagonist
The weather, the environment, the setting itself – this can be the leading source of conflict. Take The Martian by Andy Weir, for example. This is a classic example of a man vs nature story.
When nature is your antagonist, you can have a thrilling story without a single character other than your protagonist.
2. Fate or the gods as the antagonist
Less commonly written exactly like this, these days, but some hidden higher power can still be the antagonist. Often presented as a man trying to outwit a prophecy, or a time traveller trying not to be steamrolled by the inevitability of history.
You don’t need a “bad guy” when fate, or time, or some god (Loki, is that you?) is in play.
3. Society as the antagonist
This is a story where the cultural setting is the source of conflict. For example, a Polish or French protagonist in the days after the Brexit vote. For example, an environmental campaigner trying to prevent global warming.
Any time it is society as a whole that is the source of the conflict you do not need a central bad guy. Of course, it can help to personify the attitudes of society in one or two characters but that causes you to stray into a different type of antagonist.
4. A person as the antagonist
This is the one you are probably familiar with. This is your villain antagonist territory. The one person your protagonist must overcome in order to achieve whatever it is they are trying to do.
Filmmakers are very fond of taking the other forms of story and crafting a villain as well. Having a villain puts a human face on things and gives the hero someone to punch. Which is, of course, cheap and not something you would ever do. (Right?)
5. Self as the antagonist
So far, we have dealt only with the external forms of conflict. But conflict can be internal as well. This is where the protagonist is also the antagonist. The angstier types of vampire story are quite fond of going down this route. It’s not just teenager vampires that this is a suitable antagonist form for, though. For example, a mother’s struggle with drug addiction would be a possible example of this kind of story.
Any story where a person is struggling to change, fighting to hold on to their own humanity, or wrestling with their own conscience – these are all self as the antagonist stories. They are most satisfying when the protagonist fails heroicly or slowly transforms finally overcoming a (usually symbolic) hurdle or personal demon.
Over to you
Which of these five sources of conflict have you used in your stories? Can you think of any exceptional examples for each form? What’s your take on introducing conflict into a story?
Where do you think supernatural stories fall in this list? Or man against technology for that matter?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments.