Do Stories Need To Have an Antagonist?
Nope, not a bit!
I’m told that there are three basic kinds of conflict:
Man vs. Self, Man vs. Man, and Man vs. Nature.
Self means an internal conflict (Pen trying to force herself to write three more pages when she’s been up for 24 hours), vs. Man means person to person conflicts (in a literal sense, Covert and I in a gladiatorial battle with swords, in a less literal sense, Shannah and I locked in a tumblr death match in which we both try to disprove the other’s theory. In both cases they would be a clear cut antagonist (the readers are rooting for me, right? Haha.)) and Nature means going up against a force that cannot be controlled- like a tornado or sinking ship (in this case, the admins of FYCD could be stranded on a frozen mountainside, struggling to survive).
You could have a fascinating story full of conflict with only one character, if you select Man vs. Self or Man vs. Nature.
Lots of stories are a blend- ex., The Tale of the Mountain-Stranded Admins could combine Man vs. Nature (surviving the conditions) Man vs. Self (we struggle to hold on to our sanity) and Man vs. Man (Covert and I mutiny at the lack of pizza and try to kill and eat Pen).
You can also have a story with many small antagonists, or ones that trade out.
You can have an apparent antagonist, who is, in fact, less of an antagonist than the characters believe. The aliens in Ender’s Game, for example- everyone on Earth thought that, because of a previous attack, the aliens would return to destroy humans. The book is about humans going to great lengths to exterminate the aliens out of fear- only for the main character, Ender, to discover at the conclusion that the aliens had not realized that the humans they had killed were all sentient individuals at the time. They repented and left upon that realization, but had no way to communicate this to the humans. So the book was less about aliens attacking Earth, and more about what people would do if they thought that that would happen.
And, of course, you can have an antagonist that readers do NOT go, ” yup, that’s who we’re not rooting for”- a sympathetic antagonist.
You can even have a story totally without conflict- here’s an article about Kishōtenketsu, which is a Japanese concept that we had up a bit ago. It reminds me of the ‘Slice of Life’ genre of manga, which focuses more on people’s daily lives and experiences than Hero’s Journeys or conflicts, though those can appear on a smaller scale.
Many, many writers can and do have antagonist-less plots that work, and work well. My favorite example is Hayao Miyazaki’s movie Princess Mononoke- while it is full of conflict, nobody in the cast is painted as the bad guy. Rather, it’s a clash between nature and civilization, with different representatives of each that are not shown to be good or evil, fighting instead because they have conflicting interests. Miyazaki is actually famous for making movies without a strong sense of an antagonist, and is successful at it, so it’s worth checking out.
Thank you for the question!
This has been Evvy at FYCD.