Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Subtle Antagonist

The most commonly known and used trope to set up conflict is man vs. man. We use another person (or creature as the case may be) to fight against our protagonist and give us a story worth reading. And I think we've all scoffed a bit when that antagonist gets too cheesy or isn't strong enough to put up much of a fight. We've all secretly thrilled, adored, or hated a strong villain. Villains make stories go round.

You don't have to use a man vs. man conflict in a speculative story, though. It's usually the first thing we writers think of. "I need a bad guy." But in truth, maybe we'll have a stronger story if we don't have someone bagged and tagged as the villain of the piece.

We can use man vs. nature or man vs. the establishment as a more subtle antagonist. Anything from the clock ticking during or before a natural disaster to a restrictive society that the protagonist must rebel against. I've read some good stories that use subtle antagonists, usually in science-fiction, but also in the occasional fantasy or dystopian work.

Identifying what the main conflict of the story needs to be is a great way to determine if you need a poster child bad guy or a subtle antagonist. And in some cases, you can use both to keep the conflict flowing. Every scene doesn't need to be the protagonist vs. the antagonist (embodied). Maybe the human antagonist has set in motion a sub-conflict that uses a subtle antagonist. Or maybe you've started out with that restrictive society subtle antagonist and the further in your protag gets, the societal movement gets a face in a political leader, peace officer, or socialite.

Having a subtle antagonist propelling the main conflict is a bit freeing in some ways. There's no character development to be done with a natural disaster or plague of killer frogs. This opens up word space real estate to dive in deep into the protagonist and any secondary or tertiary characters. We can explore their darker sides even, where the line of friend and foe blur a bit as normal human reactions override goodwill and intentions.

What books have you read that use a subtle antagonist as the main conflict? Are you writing a story that uses a subtle antagonist? What do you think about mixing the two?

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