A writer asks if his work might suffer because he doesn’t write “antagonists”, by which he means there is no specific person for his hero to fight. He writes books about climate change and how it affects his characters.
My answer: “Of course you have an antagonist―it’s NATURE”.
Traditionally, there have been five types of antagonists in literature:
Man against Man
Man against Nature
Man against Society
Man against Himself
Man against the Supernatural
Recently, another antagonist has been added to the list:
Man against Technology
Given those choices, how do we figure out which of those antagonists fits our needs?
Man vs Man: You can look at any of the Hero sagas for this theme, whether it’s Beowulf or Batman. It’s also a common theme in mysteries, westerns, and romances, where the villain (whether murderer, rustler or ex-girlfriend) must be vanquished in order for the protagonist to succeed.
Man vs Nature: This theme is found in Moby Dick and The Old Man and The Sea, but also in stories like Cast Away and The Towering Inferno, where the protagonist must either use the natural world to save himself, or fight a natural force to save someone else.
Man vs Society: Here, the most commonly cited author is Jane Austen, whose characters are always bumping up against the artifices of 18th century England. To Kill a Mockingbird is another fine example, as is Riders of the Purple Sage, where a woman is pitted against the strictures of Mormon society when an unscrupulous bishop wants her for her wealth.
Man vs Himself: While Hamlet is the most obvious example of this theme, Riders of the Purple Sage also shows us this conflict, as the woman’s non-Mormon champion, Lassiter, must give up his guns to gain her trust and, eventually, her love. Lassiter’s internal struggle to reconcile himself to a non-violent solution to their dilemma is just as strong as Hamlet’s, though his ultimate act is much different (no spoilers here!)
Man vs the Supernatural: Whether it’s called Fate, God, or a wizard’s spell, conflicts can be found from the myths of Prometheus and Loki, to the witches in MacBeth, through to Harry Potter. It also includes vampires, flying monkeys, as well as the zombie apocalypse.
Man vs Technology: Both Brave New World and 1984 demonstrate the challenges of technology changing our life in ways we could not anticipate. Other good examples of this conflict are 2001:A Space Odyssey and Frankenstein.
Now that we’ve explored the kinds of antagonists, the question is: can a book have more than one antagonist?
We’ve already seen two examples of antagonists in Riders of the Purple Sage. We could also see it in The Towering Inferno, where the protagonist is not only striving to save people from the fire, but trying to discover what went wrong, while the builder is hiding the cost-cutting measures he employed in construction.
In my forthcoming book, Whispers in the Canyon, the human antagonist is dead before the story begins, but that doesn’t mean his evil deeds died with him. My characters, Adam Donovan and Jesse Travers, must deal with the aftereffects of the abuse Jesse suffered at her dead brother’s hands.
These two also have problems with nature to be faced, and the Man vs Himself theme rears its ugly head when Adam begins to blame himself for not recognizing Jesse’s plight earlier.
So, if your manuscript doesn’t have a “good guy” and a “bad guy”, and there’s something other than that (or several other somethings) causing problems for your hero, never fear. The antagonist of your story doesn’t have to be human at all.