Every story needs conflict. Internal or external, it's this crucial element that sets everything into motion. A problem the protagonist is desperate to resolve. Something that needs to happen or be stopped at all costs. A goal that comes with tough decisions and sacrifices.
At the heart of most conflicts is the bad guy. The antagonist.
But why only most? Why not all?
When we think about antagonists in fiction, we often think of characters. They can be outright villains set on (or are at least okay with) leaving chaos and debris in their wake to achieve their own agenda. Or it could be a rival on the opposing side creating competition for the protagonist or keeping them from reaching their goals.
In some cases, however, this antagonistic figure is not going to be human. Not in the sense of The Big Bad Wolf being an animal or having an antagonist that is a supernatural being such as the titular It in Stephen King's novel.
Rather, your protagonists might be up against something that isn't human, but inanimate. It could be a circumstance turning them against each other, nature, or other causes of conflicts with no control or ability to make decisions that pose obstacles for the protagonist.
In this post, we'll be examining three examples of inanimate antagonists found in fiction.
Setting Up Conflict With Settings
Whether you're crafting a unique setting from scratch or bringing a real-life location to life on the page, the worldbuilding in a story can be one of the most immersive elements for readers.
It can also be a source of conflict for your characters.
The setting a reader is introduced to might be one the protagonist is determined to change by inspiring a revolt to take down a corrupt government. There might be rules that need to be abolished. They may be caught up in a conflict between their nation and another that has been going on for much longer than the main character has been alive.
These forms of conflict are usually the result of someone making a decision.
Some setting-related conflicts, however, are out of anybody's control.
Climate conditions can pose threats to your characters. Your story might take place somewhere experiencing a drought or a heat wave. Contrarily, you could have a romance where the love interests meet because they are snowed in at a ski lodge because of a fierce nor'easter and cannot leave until the roads are safe.
Neither of these, nor any other types of weather, can be influenced by human decision.
Geographical location can also be a source of conflict. In the event of an emergency, for example, a character living on a mountain or an island might have a harder time getting supplies or medical help than someone living in a city. Even if the character actively chose where to live, they did not decide where that place is located in relation to other things.
When you are setting the scene in your writing, you may discover that you are also setting the stage for conflict to arise.
This inanimate antagonist type is something of an offshoot from the above section, and it's one you will often see within my own stories' historical setting.
Society is constructed around standards. An agreement on which behaviors are acceptable and what is inappropriate.
How characters choose to act within these established conventions can cause some conflict. Stepping out of line can pose problems, as can someone else going against the grain and interfering with the protagonist's desire to abide by the shared understanding of how a person should act or what they should do.
The Regency Era, where my WIPs are set, has an abundance of rules within societal boundaries—and those around romance and courtship have plenty of potential for conflict.
For one, the definition of a "suitable match." This is especially prevalent in the upper classes who, suffice it to say, would rather marry within their own set. Be it for appearances, maintaining or moving up in rank, finances, and other reasons, it was expected that a person high in the ton would wed someone of similar standing. But let's say the character is the daughter of a duke who falls in love with a miner. That probably wouldn't go over as well within the ton.
And of course, these scandals do not just affect the people at the center. The reputation of the entire family could also be tarnished merely by association. Yikes!
On the other hand, an acceptable match could open doors for other relatives entering the marriage mart. Back then, it was expected that a mutual acquaintance facilitated any introductions. Simply walking up to someone and introducing yourself was considered improper. So if your older sister married an earl, these new connections would become available to you in time.
The pressure was on. Not only did marrying well or poorly impact the bride and groom, but those they hold most dear.
How society factors into your story's setting can heighten conflict. In some respects, it's not laid out by the decision of one individual, but by a collective sense of right and wrong. Your character might feel conflicted in times they want or must defy these customs. Do they put their head down and follow the rules? Or do they take the risks that come with standing out from the status quo?
Before The Last Petal Falls
We all know what it's like to be confronted with a deadline. That clock ticking incessantly behind us like a heart under the floorboards reminding us that time is running out.
Some people thrive under the pressure. Others, well, don't.
Time and the lack thereof is something everyone has faced at one point or another, and it's something that (unless they have a DeLorean going 88mph), your characters cannot manipulate.
Conflicts revolving around time have been used in fiction for centuries, and it's one of the first we are introduced to as young readers. Cinderella only has until midnight before the spell is broken. The Little Mermaid has but three days to win the prince's heart and remain human or else she, depending on the iteration, dies and becomes sea foam or transforms back into a mermaid and belongs to the sea witch. The prince only has until the last enchanted rose petal falls to find his one true love or else remains a cursed beast forever.
Running out of time is a common fear. Deadlines are all around us.
Implementing time-based conflicts can raise the stakes even though they are not of any antagonist's design.
In a novel set in high school, your protagonist might be feeling the pressure of needing to choose between two universities by a specific date. Or they only have until the end of the year to bring their grades up in order to graduate on time with the rest of their class.
Maybe your protagonist told a lie on their resume that spiraled out of control, and now they have one week to learn the ins and outs of a computer program they had never even heard of.
The clock continues to tick on, second by second. With each minute gone, that threat of their goals slipping through their fingers draws ever closer.
And your protagonist is likely powerless to stop it.
Conflict is the driving force in any narrative, but it's not always characters who are taking the wheel. Antagonistic forces are not always sentient.
You might find that while you do have an antagonist, or even a villain, creating problems for your protagonist, there are conflicts beyond their wheelhouse.
Antagonists are not always human. They're not always Big Bad Wolves.
Sometimes, they're just forces pushing your story forth.