Happy Monday, my peeps. Today we are going to talk some more about the antagonist. The antagonist is THE most critical element of our fiction. Yes, even more important than the protagonist. Blasphemy! No, I’m serious. Our protagonist cannot become a hero (heroine) without the antagonist. No opposition and no story.
Yet, every time I blog about the antagonist, I get the same comments:
But what if nature is the antagonist?
But what if a belief system is the antagonist?
But what if my protagonist and antagonist are the same person?
Most of the time, questions like this alert me that you have slept since high school or college English. Do not feel badly about not knowing this stuff. The English we are taught in school is not meant as preparation for a career in commercial fiction. I struggled with this stuff, too, which is why I am using this blog to help part the fog of confusion.
Today we are going to talk about Man Against Nature, since many new writers believe that bad weather, a hungry bear or a Shark-Clown can be the antagonist (or the BBT if you read last week’s post). Yes, they can, but uh, not really. If we want our story to have more depth than a Hollywood B movie, we need to really understand this Man Against Nature thing and how to make it work.
But First, Man Against Man
Man Against Man is fairly straight-forward. This is probably the simplest form of story antagonism to see and understand. In simple Man Against Man, we have an antagonist who has a goal that conflicts with the protagonist’s goal.
In the Chronicles of Riddick, Lord Marshall wants Riddick dead because Riddick is the last Furian male, and a Furian male is prophesied to bring Lord Marshall’s end. Riddick, however, wants Lord Marshall dead because Lord Marshall wiped out Riddick’s planet trying to kill all the Furian males so that he could stop the prophesy.
A smidge of irony there.
So here the conflict is pretty clear. Lord Marshall wants Riddick dead and Riddick wants Lord Marshall dead. Only one of them can be dead at the end of the story, lest this become a French film and be hailed as genius at the Cannes Film Festival.
Everybody died, even the houseplants! It was brilliant!
Thus, all of Lord Marshall’s actions are to capture and kill Riddick. All of Riddick’s actions are to avoid capture but press closer to take out Lord Marshall. It is this tug-of-war that creates the story tension.
Ah, But What About Man Against Nature?
Okay, to start. How many NYT best-belling novels have we seen where the protagonist is fighting bad weather for 400 pages? And how can a protagonist ever really win against the weather? It isn’t something we can control, so is the weather really the BBT (Big Boss Trouble-Maker)?
Yes, and no.
Often Man Against Nature will also generate a Man Against Man and a Man Against Himself story.
I know. It’s okay. Breathe in a paper bag and trust me. First, understand that even if a storm or a shark-clown is the BBT, we need a corporeal antagonist to generate much of the conflict.
Humans don’t do so great with existentialism.
Thus, your story likely will lend itself more to a character battle. What is it about your protagonist that will change when pitted against nature or the worst parts of himself? There will often be a flesh and blood representation of that ugly nature.
The Perfect Storm
The Wolfgang Peterson film The Perfect Storm is a great example. Was the storm really the BBT? Or was it merely a catalyst that brought forth the real BBT…pride and greed (Man Against Himself).
George Clooney plays Captain Billy Tyne who is desperate for money. Tyne convinces the crew of the Andrea Gail to go fishing during a dangerous time of year to preserve his business and his pride (and frankly, the men agree because they are desperate, broke and trying to preserve their manhood).
The crew presses out beyond their normal fishing grounds, leaving a nasty developing thunderstorm behind. Their luck seems to improve when they hit the Flemish Gap. The men bring in the haul of a lifetime…but then ice machine breaks.
Of course it does!
There are but two choices—go through the storm of the century to get home before the fish rot OR go around the storm but lose the haul and their dignity. A fight breaks out among the crew (Man Against Man). Some want to take on the storm. Others know it’s a fool’s errand and no money is worth dying for.
Ultimately, it is the captain who makes the final decision to risk his men for the fish. He is the physical proxy of greed and pride. He (mistakenly) believes believes that their skill will be able to triumph over the perfect storm, and he is wrong and everyone dies…which is probably why I really didn’t care for the book or the movie, but that is just me.
But, notice how the storm doesn’t directly generate the story problem. The captain is broke. He is staring down the barrel of bankruptcy. The men are broke. They are fighting with loved ones over bills.
It is pride and greed that propel the men out into the ocean during the most dangerous time of year. Pride and greed drive them beyond their normal fishing area. And, in the end, pride and greed lands them at the bottom of the ocean.
It is the captain who leads the way, and that is why HE is the proxy of the BBT. It is his decision to go fishing during a dangerous time of year that changes everything. If Tyne had declared bankruptcy and taken on selling hand-painted garden gnomes, there would be no story and the men would have lived.
Yes, this can be a mind-bender, but practice this enough and it gets easy.
Man Against Hungry Critters
Another great example of Man Against Nature is the 1997 survival story The Edge. Anthony Hopkins plays braniac billionaire Charles Morse who becomes stranded in the wilds of North America when the small prop plane he’s traveling in crashes. Charles is not alone. Though the pilot is killed, two photographers–Bob and Stephen–survive with Charles.
If this were a simple Man Against Nature story it would still be good, but what makes it great is the story doesn’t stop there.
Charles is aware that photographer Bob is having an affair with Charles’s wife (a supermodel). He also suspects that Bob deliberately invited him out into the wilds to kill him. This agenda is, of course, put on the back burner due to the fact that Bob is a total city boy and he needs Charles’s photographic memory if he hopes to survive.
***Charles loves reading survival books and Bob is in a pickle without that information running around Charles’s noggin.
Man Against Himself
Charles is a billionaire, a man with the Midas touch. His mind is what has helped him amass a fortune, but he’s never really had to get his hands dirty. When he crash-lands in the wilderness with a man he knows wants him dead, can he do what it takes to come out alive? Nature is what will test this.
See, Nature becomes the catalyst–the brutal weather and sparse food of the Pacific Northwest. Oh, and add in a hungry man-eating bear and now we have the perfect test for Charles, to see what he is really made of.
This movie isn’t scene after scene of fighting off a bear and keeping warm–though there is a lot of that. The fighting the weather and evading the bear really drive the Man Against Man story. Charles vs. Bob. Only one man can walk out alive.
Thus, I hope you can see that Man Against Nature is doable. Mother Nature is a viable choice for a BBT, but she does need help for our story to have any depth. In The Edge, screenwriter David Mamet could have written a script where characters outran a bear for 90 minutes…but he didn’t, and THAT is why the movie rocks.
Next week we will explore some more unconventional antagonists. Did this help? Are your brains now the consistency of scrambled eggs? Any questions? What are some questions or troubles you have with the antagonist?
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