What stands in your main character’s way?
Maybe it’s a person whose goals clash with those of your protagonist. But sometimes it’s a situation. What we can call the force of antagonism.
It may be a societal restriction, a collapse of order, or a natural disaster. Many powerful stories rely on a force instead of a person. As you build your plot listen to the needs of your story. You shouldn’t force a villain into the mix.
Think of the great stories, and your personal favorites, that never offer an antagonist. Gone With the Wind is an example. No one specifically operates against Scarlett’s desire for mastery of her fate. You might say that Melanie is in the way of Scarlett’s romantic goal of Ashley Wilkes. But Melanie is merely a passive obstacle, forever married to the man of Scarlett’s dreams. The real dramatic question of Gone With the Wind is, Will Scarlett escape the ravages of war and find her place in the world? What stands in her way? It is the collapse of the South and the civil war. These are the forces of antagonism.
In The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the opposition to Caesar (the protagonist) is actually humanity. A nice trick, that! Humanity’s subjugation of chimps stands in Caesar’s way.
Even a force must grow in power. But the force shouldn’t be static; it must change, or the plot can’t thicken. How do the forces of antagonism escalate in their impact? How does society push back against the protagonist when he tries to overcome prejudice, skepticism, or injustice? The more your hero grows in his willingness to confront, the more society will push back. If it is a story of the collapse of society, the downward spiral of the social order must grow precipitous. In Gone With the Wind, the civil war is at first a distant threat. By the midpoint we have the siege of Atlanta, and finally the decimation of the South through carpetbagging and economic collapse.
A force should be personalized. For a short segment of the film about Caesar the chimp, humanity’s evil role is personalized by the caretaker at the animal refuge. This focuses the general force of opposition and allows Caesar to interact with a specific enemy, at least for a time. In Gone With the Wind, Scarlett kills the union soldier intent on rape. It is a brief scene. But consider the power of it: He climbs the stairs of the ruined mansion at Tara (union soldiers have ravaged it), and Scarlett shoots him full in the face.
In Dan Simmons’s The Terror, the story of a disastrous nineteenth century sailing expedition in the arctic, the force of opposition is the cold and ice. Through starvation, exposure and animal predation, almost everyone on board the ship will die. Meanwhile we hope in vain for the northwest passage to thaw so that they can sail home. Simmons personalizes the extreme landscape in the shape of a monster, the essence of the wild landscape.
Or, digging deeper, we might say that the antagonist of this story is actually the hubris of the British navy and the false ambition to conquer the land. In these terms, we can better understand the final stand-off with the monster, in which the hero bows down to creature’s rightful rule.
Sometimes the force of antagonism is not overcome in any conventional way. This kind of story is not necessarily a tragedy. Sometimes the force of nature passes by, having wreaked its damage. We have endured, with lessons learned. And sometimes, it is a tragedy with an upbeat ending, if that is possible. An example is the apocolyptic tale where civilization is destroyed. But a few remain to start again.
The important thing to remember, as we use the writer’s toolkit (which contains the antagonist), is that such tools are strategies for creating drama. Modify them and let them suit your story.