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Friday, February 17

There is No Bad Guy: What to do When Your Antagonist Isn't a Villain

By Janice Hardy. @Janice_Hardy

All stories need an antagonist, but not all stories have a villain. At least not in the literal sense of the word. I've talked recently about the man vs. self type bad guys, so today, let's talk about man vs. society. (and we'll wrap up the four basic conflict types next Friday with man vs. nature)

A great example of man vs. society is the movie In Time. It's a world where people have been genetically altered to stop aging at 25, with a one year advance on their lives after that. To continue living, then need to get more time. They work and get paid in actual time (as in it gets added to their lives). The rich live for centuries, the poor struggle with just days (or less) left. The protagonist is a poor guy named Will who is living hour to hour so to speak.

Will's beef is with the society he lives in. He just wants to live, he isn't trying to bring down a specific person or anything. It's the system he hates. The culture and ideals of the world he lives in. And the system doesn't care one whit about him. It's the antagonist, but it's pretty much everyone's antagonist. He decides to fight the system, and thus fight the society he lives in, and the rules of that society are the obstacles he has to overcome.

Just like man vs. self, society will have representatives to fight directly against. In Will's case, it's a timekeeper (a cop) who's just doing his job and trying to keep the system running. Even he has no personal stake in Will's problem, but he represents what's wrong and is the person getting in Will's way and helping to drive the plot and provide stakes.

(Here's more on what to do when your bad guy isn't a person)

Eventually things get personal, and Will does find a bigger symbol to focus on. A man with enough time to live forever, and one who controls the time banks and the system itself. Bring him down, change the system.

This is a common element to a man vs. society conflict--changing the status quo. Whether or not it happens doesn't matter, it's the fight to do so that provides the goals and narrative drive. (Shirley Jackson's The Lottery is a good example of a man vs. society story that doesn't end on a happy note)

And like any good plot, there will be things to overcome.

(Here's more on adding conflict to your scenes)

To start, there's always a trigger for the protagonist to want to change society. No one wakes up and says, "I think I'll risk everything and try to change the world today." Something happens that makes the status quo unacceptable. (Your inciting event.) This will most likely be deeply personal and a strong enough trigger to make that person want to change things. They might not start out wanting to change the world, it might just be a way to survive.

(Here's more on crafting the inciting event)

Then come your plot obstacles. Typically, these problems will be examples of the system and why it's bad. How it hurts the protagonist, the detrimental effect it has on the people he cares about. Society trying to reassert control. You'll most likely have characters to fill the roles of society here, people the protagonist can spar against and fight.

Before long the protagonist will probably find the one person/thing that is the biggest symbol of the society he's trying to overcome (and the personal issues he's trying to resolve), or be the thing that will actually bring about change if destroyed or altered. There's a good chance this will happen in the third act, and drive the story to its climax.

By the end, the protagonist has either instigated a change (for good or bad), or has lost to the system. How far to either side that is depends on your story. You might blow society out of the water or you might have done just enough to start society on a path toward change, even if you failed. (Repent Harlequin! Said the Ticktock Man is a good example of this type). Or you might die in utter failure, stoned to death by your neighbors.

Personally, I feel man vs. society conflicts are probably the easiest conflicts after man vs. man, because there are so many ways in which the society can cause the protagonist trouble. There are tangible obstacles to overcome, established stakes, and a ton of thematic elements to work with. They're also a nice mix of the grand idea and the personal problem.

How do you feel about man vs. society conflicts? What are some of your favorites? Have you ever written one? Have one in the works? 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl.

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  1. Sabrina AlexanderFeb 17, 2012, 9:47:00 AM

    When She Woke by Hillary Jordan is an excellent example. As you mentioned above, there are several representatives of the antagonist's (society's) struggle, though the change the protag makes is small at the end. It's easy to imagine the seeds growing to spark larger change. I found that a realistic and thought provoking ending.

  2. I think the lines between "man vs. society" and "man vs. man" can blur. In some fantasy books I've read, the objective is to bring down the tyrant who is the cause of the terrible societal problems (corruption, poverty, etc). In that case, like in this, the Big Bad Guy is a symbol for everything that's wrong with the society. However, it usually works in the opposite direction from what you described -- hero decides to take down Big Bad first and ends up solving societal problems, rather than hero sets out to take down society and ends up having to take out a Big Bad in order to do so.

    Hope that made sense/was relevant...

  3. Ooh, this is so great! It really helps me to think of villains in these four types of conflict, because my villains generally end up just like this: the antagonist to the protagonist, but not a true "Villain". Thanks for this!

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  4. Oddly, I think the story I have in the works is something that works it's way towards this. It's just a matter of self-discovery turned discovery of society then on to pitting the main character against the establishment.

    I'm a little nervous about it but working to see how it will turn out. Thanks for this post as it's pretty helpful as I begin the first revision of the first draft. I know I have a LOT of work ahead of me.

  5. Love these stories! Hunger Games comes to mind, even though there are plenty of villains in that story.

  6. Great wealth of info here, thanks!!

  7. Great post Janice! Going to link it to my blog.

  8. Great tips, Janice and I love the sound of that book too.

  9. Thanks all! I've been having fun with this series. I get such a kick out of examining the nitty gritty of writing (I know I'm weird)

    Laura, oh totally, and that's half the fun. My book was like that actually. A small problem that turned into a societal one.

    Julie, I almost used Hunger Games as an example. :)

  10. I feel the best story is when the antagonists goals are actually quite courageous rather than selfish. It create a character which not only questions the traditional novel, but can also create ways to connect to the protagonist. Alternatively a good antagonist is the one which you do not expect to be evil, in fact you saw him as a good guy right up to the reveal. A good example of this is Captain Aizen from Bleach. ( although that is a Manga)

    1. Those are my favorite antagonists myself. Even when they're evil, I like to see the reasons why and understand them.

  11. This is very helpful, thank you so much!