1. terobi
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    terobi Contributing Member

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    Plots without a "primary antagonist"

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by terobi, Feb 21, 2016.

    So this is something I've been thinking about for a while;

    I've noticed that I tend to stay away from having one singular "bad guy", one single recognisable person who is the villain of the piece. While I might have several characters whose interests directly conflict with my protagonists, some more prominently than others, my "antagonist" tends to be a system, or an opposing government, or an organisation.

    My question is, how do I make this a more satisfying plot, if I can't make it a "personal" conflict, is it possible to make the plot and its resolution more satisfying on a personal level?
     
  2. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Well it's hard to say - what's your genre? I do a different sort of dystopian, fantasy and thriller. I don't tend to have villains or antagonists per say - usually the battle is within the mc. He's battling his own desires, his own demons. Not that their aren't figures to clash with.

    Say your character is fighting a fur industry - that's pretty big - maybe it needs to be narrowed down. She fighting a particular department store or narrowed down further - she's a fashion designer and her opposition is using fur in his designs.
    To make it personal you could narrow your idea down to a specific point, a specific direction, a less broad nameless organization and a more specific person. But again it's hard to say without knowing the plot or genre.
     
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  3. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think there needs to be an antagonistic force. Well, there doesn't need to be, maybe, but it'd be more challenging if there wasn't. But I rarely enjoy stories with a simplistic "villain" filling that role.

    Your conflict can be made personal by showing how it matters to your MC. Fighting to survive in the wilderness matters because your MC wants to survive and you've made us care about the MC, not because we hate wilderness and want to see it beaten.
     
  4. Feo Takahari
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    Feo Takahari Active Member

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    These sorts of stories often have a sort of "mascot" for the opposing force, a character who represents everything that force stands for. For instance, the central "villain" of the prison drama Rainbow is the post-war economy, but a corrupt guard and a predatory doctor show how people in positions of power abuse and exploit those who are desperate.

    On the other hand, The Grapes of Wrath got away with explicitly not having any individual-level antagonist, even joking about it in a scene where a minor character tries to figure out who he should be shooting. Personal investment comes from witnessing the struggles of an individual family caught in something so much larger than them. The conclusion to the story is one woman saving the life of one man, a very small-scale victory.
     
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  5. Caterwaulings
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    Caterwaulings Member

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    I agree with the above. There are lots of great examples in literature of people going against forces/systems. Think of The Hunger Games--President Snow is the main representation of the regime that has been created. The force can come down on the character without his say-so, but like Feo said, it gives someone to direct anger towards.

    You don't even need to necessarily have just ONE, but there definitely needs to be a person/people that represents the force. And I think that you do need to make it personal, somehow. What could the organization do?

    Here are some ideas, although I don't know your story:
    -- Destroy their family
    -- Maim them physically
    -- Hurt/kill someone they care about
    -- Put restrictions on people they care about

    etc.
     
  6. terobi
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    terobi Contributing Member

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    Well I do certainly have the "antagonistic force" hurt, restrict and otherwise oppose (obviously), but the problem is, that's pretty much exactly what I'm trying to get across. Just like with the Grapes of Wrath (I wasn't going to use the analogy, but since someone else has) by definition the universes I'm buiding and playing with often don't have one particular "enemy", or even any coherent "figurehead" for that enemy. Who would be a suitable candidate in the Grapes of Wrath, for example? One of the peach/cotton farm owners, who barely get a single line of dialogue between them? The big corporate farms and banks who buy up the Joad's estate (do we even see a single one of them at any point?)? Even if that were to be the case, almost by definition the person responsible for the problem (let's say the president of the US, for simplicity's sake) clearly isn't going to turn up and develop a personal conflict with the protagonist early on in the book, and it would be ridiculous to think so.

    So let's take that rough idea as a narrative (I've written similarly structured pieces), and who counts as the "antagonist"? What counts as that conflict being resolved in a satisfactory way, without having to reduce it to a simplistic "get rid of the bad guy"?
     
  7. Caterwaulings
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    Caterwaulings Member

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    Hm. If you'd be willing to share some of the nature of the system I might be able to give a more helpful response.
     
  8. terobi
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    terobi Contributing Member

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    The issue is more that it seems to be a general trend for me rather than one specific work; my "primary antagonist" is much more likely to be a faceless edifice than a specific individual - which is why The Grapes of Wrath is a reasonably good example.

    Unfortunately, much of the works I've read that attempt similar (the Hunger Games, for example, as @Caterwaulings mentioned earlier) I've found to be absolute mince which feel really unsatisfying to me; you can show over and over again that they are deliberately seeking to destroy your main character, but just showing a figurehead every so often (and by necessity, relatively late on in the narrative) doesn't really seem to solve the problem.
     
  9. Caterwaulings
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    Caterwaulings Member

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    No, I understood that. I meant more along the lines of: it's a crime organization, dystopian society, serfs against the system. Each one offers many different opportunities. I'm sorry if I'm not being helpful.
     
  10. BoddaGetta
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    BoddaGetta Active Member

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    One modern example I can think of off the top of my head is the movie Princess Mononoke. There is no truly evil force, and even the "antagonists" aren't really such. The relationship of every character is dynamic with the main character.

    This blog analyzes and puts it better than I could in a post in this thread, especially if you have not seen the film. The reason I mention it is because it is one of the first pieces of media example that popped into my mind.
    https://studioghiblideconstructed.wordpress.com/tag/princess-mononoke/

    Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep/Blade Runner is another example that comes to mind when I'm thinking of the blurry line between protagonists and antagonists.

    As far as recommendations for your story, you don't have to "get rid" of the bad system. Perhaps someone already in the system is trying to bring about change. Or perhaps weed out corruption?

    Sorry to be vague, I'm just working with what details I have.
     
  11. GuardianWynn
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    GuardianWynn Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't see a connection here. If the conflict is lacking or the plot is lacking I don't see how that connects to the lack of a direct villain.

    I once heard that stories really go into three categories.

    Man vs Man
    Man vs Nature
    Man vs Self

    In only one of the above cases is the man vs something you would call a villain. In the case of nature there is seriously no tranditional villain. That is a like an entire genre that avoids a villain. And while you could argue that man vs self is technically involving a man that is the villain, being himself. It still isn't tranditional.

    If you say your problem is that it isn't personal enough. That again really seems like a seperate issue. If the villains are not directly against the hero, but it is just accidental and they opposion isn't on purpose. Well you wouldn't expect that kind of conflict to be personal. Actually the reverse, it sounds like you are making a point for that to not be personal.

    Which is fine. A conflict doesn't need to be personal between the two people. It only needs the investment of the MC. If to him, the stakes are high enough, we can get a personal connection to him struggle regardless of if the person blocking him is an asshole.

    Does that make sense?
     
  12. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    You don't need a villain. Lots of books don't have villains. Inserting a figurehead to represent the antagonistic force can work, but it isn't necessary.

    The challenge of a non-personified antagonist may be that it's harder to have a clear resolution to your conflict. In Grapes of Wrath, the victories, such as they are, are smaller and more personal (as I recall - it's been a long time since I read it). The Joads manage to maintain their humanity in the face of cruelty and indifference. It's huge, on a spiritual level, but not quite as simple as pushing a villain into a pit of acid.

    In what genre are you writing? In literary, I'd say there's no problem. In other genres, it may be more complicated.
     
  13. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    It should always be possible to have one character represent the evil/bad in the world of your story. According to Swain (Techniques of the Selling Writer) having a character personify the evil in your story helps the reader in several ways:
    • when that character enters a scene, the reader knows there's going to be plot movement,
    • if he/she and your protagonist are both in a scene, the reader knows there's going to be a fight, and
    • when he/she is defeated, the reader knows the protagonist has won.
    Yes, it's likely possible to write a story that has no particular bad guy, but then you have to ask yourself: how do I (the author) and you (the reader) know if/when victory has been met?
     
  14. terobi
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    terobi Contributing Member

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    I'm writing primarily in various versions of science fiction (though often with technology not overly far in advance of our own). Not literary by any means, but I'm convinced it's part of my general political worldview, that broken systems create people working for evil means, rather than evil people creating evil systems, and it's difficult to claim that one figurehead can represent that successfully without being a tragic figure (not entirely convinced that works either).
    When people talk about the Hunger Games, it seems strange to point to President Snow as an antagonist, simply because he can only ever have been a product of a system someone else created rather than its architect. That doesn't feel satisfying to me at all; and the same tends to be true in a lot of YA fiction that tries this trick.
    This is the problem I'm having. It's easy to see when the battle is lost (Nineteen Eighty-Four, for example), but is "systemic change" either satisfying, or realistic in most cases as a victory condition?
     
  15. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't think I've ever written a book with a clear villain.

    No, that's not true. One YA novel did have one. And, actually, I think it's the only book I've ever written that DIDN'T sell. (I blame that more on it being a dystopian novel ready to be submitted right AFTER the Hunger Games crash, but, who knows? Maybe the villain did me in!)

    Anyway - there's a type of novel that does well with a villain. As mentioned above, they'd be classified as man vs. man. There are other types of novels (man vs self, man vs nature, man vs. society) where a villain not only isn't necessary, but might actually be kind of absurd.
     
    Last edited: Mar 15, 2016
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  16. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Perhaps I've become too embroiled in mainstream storytelling, but even in stories where it's human vs. <something other than another human>, I see character in the antagonist, be it nature, inner nature, or society. Without that personification, the struggle seems one-sided to me. Nature may not seem like a character, especially when the reader isn't allowed to know and understand any plan the antagonist may have, but by treating it as if it has one, the struggle between protagonist and antagonist becomes more intense.

    Also, with my background in filmmaking, that whole antagonist-personified thing was drilled into my head. It's hard for me to think in any other terms now.
     
    Last edited: Feb 23, 2016
  17. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    Good question.

    And you're right. It's easy to see when Winston falls victim to the system, but if he'd won? He would have needed either an army or godlike powers.

    But the system, personified in O'Brien, that wins.
     

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