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Non-Human Antagonists

I’ve spent several weeks talking about heroes, antiheroes, and villains, and how to define them, so I think it’s time to apply the knowledge a little. But first, I want to back up for a moment and talk about protagonists and antagonists.

I think it’s vital to recognize that the protagonist is not, by default, the hero of the story, nor are antagonists automatically villains. The protagonist of a story is, at the most basic level, the main character. Of course, even that definition can be misleading—the protagonist of The Great Gatsby is Gatsby, not Nick, even though Nick is the narrator. I think it’s more accurate to say that the protagonist is the character around whom the story revolves—the person whose actions and reactions move the story forward.

The antagonist of a story is the thing that throws obstacles in the way of the protagonist getting what he or she wants. Notice that I didn’t say “the person who throws obstacles in the way.” An antagonist can be a wide variety of things, not just a human or human-like villain.

I’ll talk more about the villain spectrum and compelling, layered antagonists in later weeks, but I want to veer to the side for a moment to talk about non-human antagonists. I’m not talking about paranormal creatures, elves, or gods—characters with human-like characteristics. This week, I’m talking about completely non-human antagonists. These are the creatures and forces that do not have anthropomorphic qualities but still act upon the protagonist to put obstacles in his way.

I think we don’t see a lot of these kinds of non-human antagonists in fantasy, and I’m not sure why. Is it just convention? What we’re used to? I don’t think it’s quite as uncommon in science fiction—David Brin’s brilliant book Earth puts scientists up against a microscopic black hole. Even though there’s conflict between the scientists about the best way to deal with the problem, the black hole is the real obstacle and the force or thing that keeps putting obstacles in the way of saving the Earth. It’s also not uncommon in science fiction to show space, a spaceship, or a foreign environment as the antagonist.

I’ve seen three main types of non-human antagonist:

1. Creature

This might be the exception to my above statement about not having a lot of non-human antagonists in fantasy for one reason: dragons and their kind. Here, I’m talking about dragons who are merely animals, not those controlled by some external force or those with human qualities. I mean, the type of classical, European dragon who goes forth to destroy things with little real motive aside from instinct. Creature antagonists are quite common in literature, but I think when we see them in fantasy, they’re often minions of some other overriding force.

2. Environment

Weather (tornado, storm), destructive natural forces (volcano, meteor, earthquake), and hostile alien or foreign environments (Mars, spaceship) are all good examples of environmental antagonists. The best examples are the ones where the setting has a personality of its own. I think one of the most brilliant examples of an environmental antagonist on film is the island in Cast Away. The island was just the island. It behaved exactly as islands should. It was amoral. But even as it threw obstacle after obstacle in front of Tom Hanks’ character to keep him from his goal—returning to his old life—it also acted to save him. The island provided food, water, and shelter. And perhaps partly because of Hanks’ fantastic performance in that movie, we saw the island take on a personality of its own—sometimes benevolent, sometimes angry.

3. Social

This is a tricky one, because it’s an antagonist that’s created by man, but not driven by man. What do I mean? A social antagonist might be present in a story where a slave or lowborn person strives to improve his or her position and climb the strata imposed by society. Racism, castes, or mores could stand in the person’s way, but perhaps there isn’t a single human antagonist driving the structure. It’s just the way things are, and the protagonist fights to improve his lot.

I wonder if perhaps the hesitation to write more typical Man vs. Nature/Creature/Society/Environment types of stories in a fantasy setting stems from the classical history of the genre. At its root, fantasy harkens back to myth and legend, where the non-human antagonist was being manipulated by the gods or other forces behind the scenes. Thoughts?

I don’t think there’s anything to prevent an author from writing compelling stories in fantasy with non-human antagonists, and I think it might be interesting to see more of them. Perhaps the genre has developed a certain amount of formula that it really didn’t necessarily need, and it might be up to some enterprising author to write some new, fresh stories with unexpected antagonists that aren’t driven by a big bad off-screen evil.

Any takers?

Next week: The Dreaded Adverb Issue
In Two Weeks: The Villain Spectrum

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7 Comments

  1. Avatar SLWestendorf says:

    Love your post. Very concise information. With regard to point number 3: Social. A excellent reference would be the movie ‘Crash’. This deftly crafted story submits many POV characters and how their social status or perceived status all contribute to the fabric of this amazing celluloid. You won’t see the end coming. It is a wonderful example of how a social antagonist can beset those from all walks of life. I think you are the perfect candidate to lead us into new realms of fantasy, I am looking forward to reading your books Amy!

    • SLWestendorf, I have heard that about the movie Crash, but it’s one I never got around to seeing. Sad, since it sounds like one I’d really enjoy… Maybe I’ll see if it’s on Netflix… 🙂 But since I hadn’t seen it, I didn’t want to mention it. Thanks for weighing in with that detail–I think you nailed the point perfectly!

      Maybe to a degree the series Mad Men would also apply to point number 3. We’ve been watching Season 4, set in 1965, and in one episode, the female copywriter Peggy Olson is talking about how even though she sympathizes with the civil rights movement in the south, the truth is that most of the things blacks couldn’t do, she couldn’t do either because of her gender. She couldn’t go to the clubs where all the business was taking place, and she constantly finds herself running into social blocks that keep her from getting where she wants to go. And one thing I love about this season–it points out how she gets the smackdown from other women as much as from men. Really interesting how those societal issues can be so entrenched…

      Thanks for the comment, and for the compliment! 🙂

  2. […] in two places today. As always on Wednesdays, I’m over at Fantasy Faction. This week, I’m looking at non-human antagonists, and I’m curious: Can you think of […]

  3. Avatar Khaldun says:

    Crash was excellent.
    Mad Men, also amazing.
    I couldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t point out that The Wire is the best television show ever. Check it out. Society in conflict with itself.

    • Khaldun, thanks for the recommendation. I’ve heard great things about that show. I just don’t watch a lot of TV anymore… I’m always writing. I just replaced one addiction with another, I’m afraid. Maybe this is an example of Woman vs. Herself… 😉

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. […] week: Non-human Antagonists In two weeks: The Dreaded Adverb Problem VN:F [1.9.17_1161]please wait…Rating: 9.2/10 (13 votes […]

  5. […] remember—the antagonist doesn’t have to be human. The antagonist is the thing that prevents the protagonist from getting what he wants. In addition, […]

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