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I have had this thought running through my head and wondered what your thoughts were on it. Can a book, a story I should say, be written without an antagonist or antagonistic theme? I have an idea to write a story which takes place in the Judeo-Christian heaven which would not contain, necessarily, any antagonists.

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What the heck is an "antagonistic theme"? I'm just picturing the theme chasing the protagonist around, shouting Imma getchu! –  Aerovistae Aug 6 '12 at 5:52
    
@Aerovistae, I imagined "an antagonistic theme" as being a story where there's something to fight against but isn't necessarily conscious (like universally accepted morals even if wrong/natural disasters/anything you can't predict or expect with logic/etc...). Now about "Imma getchu!", I don't know what that means, I couldn't find out and I'm seriously curious. –  Mussri Aug 20 '12 at 4:54
    
Yes you can. It's called nonfiction –  Snakes and Coffee Aug 20 '12 at 6:04
    
@Mussri That was a joke. "Imma getchu" is a phonetic rendering of someone very quickly saying "I'm going to get you!" Is English your second language? If not, forgive this explanation: A lot of the time we don't say "I'm going to (do something)..." out loud, we just say "I'm a (do something)..." I know that sounds ridiculous, but casual talk is weird. And then "get you" just sounds like "getchu" when you're being silly. –  Aerovistae Aug 20 '12 at 17:42
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What about books of discovery? Where the only antagonist is the unknown, which upon closer examination is not hostile at all, and all problems came from lack of understanding? –  SF. Oct 21 '13 at 14:16

13 Answers 13

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A story without an "antagonistic theme" is a story with "no conflict." Conflict drives plot. Without plot, you have a character study. Without conflict, the character has no reason to change, grow, or develop, so there's not much to study.

What in heaven's name (pun intended) could you write about without any conflict occurring?

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I am not sure what I could write, it is just a thought experiment at this point. To me, it would be an exploration of what the reality of heaven would consist of. –  Michael May 27 '11 at 15:23
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Check out C.S. Lewis's "The Great Divorce." It addresses some of what you're musing about. Dante also wrote about this idea in "Paradiso," although it's best understood in context of the entire Commedia. John Ciardi's translation is readable and heavily annotated. –  Lauren Ipsum May 27 '11 at 15:54
    
It's been too long since I read the Divine Comedy, but there was conflict in "The Great Divorce": inner conflict, inside all the more minor characters as to whether to face the certain pain and unknown consequences of Heaven or to go back to the known comforts of Hell. –  David Thornley Jun 2 '11 at 3:45
    
@David: Sorry, I was responding to Michael's first comment on my answer: "it would be an exploration of what the reality of heaven would consist of." That's what "The Great Divorce" is -- not a story without conflict. –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 2 '11 at 11:54
    
Actually @LaurenIpsum I once wrote a story with no conflict of any sort. It was kind of like a written version of a nature documentary-- it was a characterless tour of an alien world, with a disembodied narrator sharing all the sights and sounds as he passes over transparent plains and through ghostly cities carved from the underside of a frozen ocean. The world was scattered with historical and ecological mysteries, all of which were explained in a sequel story. No antagonist! –  Aerovistae Aug 6 '12 at 5:57

Yes, a book can work without an antagonist. For example, in "end of the world" disasters, the source of friction often comes from the disaster, and not an antagonist. (To use an example, while not a book but a film, think "Armageddon" as exhibit A.) Romance novels often don't have antagonists, either. The conflict could also come from inner conflict, such as drug addiction.

Can a book exist without any friction (which is what I assume you mean by no "antagonistic theme")? Possibly, but I can't imagine it would be an exciting read; it may depend on the audience. Perhaps someone has an example of a book like that, but I can't think of any.

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Certainly stories can be written without a "traditional" antagonist. An example that popped to mind was Daniel Abraham's The Curandero and the Swede: A Tale from the 1001 American Nights; this story meanders between fable-like stories, all basically dealing with how people cope with the troubles life sends their way.

But really, I've seen lots of no-antagonist stories. The trick is to find out what is interesting in the story, if it isn't overt conflict. Sometimes it's a character portrait; sometimes it's an intriguing situation; perhaps a personal experience. Sometimes it'll be a unique literary experimentation. (In general, short fiction seems a better match for this than a novel - it doesn't need to be as compelling or as plot-driven, and you can mess around with format more because it doesn't need to hold up very long.)

"Angels in heaven," for example, isn't a story yet - it is, perhaps, a setting. An angel ruminating on the nature of sin and of providence might be spun into an intriguing short piece; or angels trying to learn to see the world through mortal eyes - you've got movement, development, and story even without an antagonist. But "angels sitting around all day praising the Lord" would be rather dull, whereas "angels fighting demons and bringing justice to Sodom" would be lively, but have clear antagonists.

Edited to add: here's a few short stories I can readily link to which I'd describe as not revolving around antagonism:

  • Rotting, by Shannon Dugan Iverson - character portrait of a man trying to pull his life together.
  • Bad Enough, by Kristi Petersen - a protagonist determined to starve herself to lose weight, in an absurd but compelling manner.
  • Synesthesia, by E.E. King - in which our narrator experiences a fantastical heightening of his senses.
  • Anatomy, Mechanics, by Jack Kaulfus - character portrait of a person on the cusp of a sex-change process.
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Just because the main character (the protagonist) doesn't have some particular person/animal/company/law to fight (the antagonist) doesn't mean there's no conflict. Going purely by your summaries, the first story's antagonist is either the man's self-destructiveness or his situation, the second is the woman's weight or the society which demands she be thinner, the third is the man's senses overloading with new input, and the fourth is a person going against his/her own genetics. There are conflicts galore. You don't have to be trading fisticuffs or insults to have an antagonist. –  Lauren Ipsum May 29 '11 at 18:35
    
I didn't say there's no conflict; I said there's no overt conflict. Similarly, what you're describing aren't antagonists - they're issues, difficulties, what-have-you. An antagonist implies personification, agency, and some degree of threat or rivalry. And the stories, for the most part, aren't describing the struggle against these - they're much more portrayals of characters with issues. –  Standback May 29 '11 at 19:21
    
To expand on that, some stories, issues and even conflicts don't need to involve a sense of antagonism (let alone an active antagon_ist_). A tidal wave can be portrayed as an antagonist, but it could just as easily not be, if the struggle against the tidal wave is not the center of the piece. Describing every conflict or difficulty as necessitating an antagonist seems to me an abuse of the term. –  Standback May 29 '11 at 19:23
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I disagree on both your points. I don't think conflict has to be overt to be a conflict, and if you Google-define "antagonist" you will see the definition does NOT necessarily require agency or threat. I think you are being too literal in your definition. In literary terms, the antagonist is whatever is stopping the protagonist from achieving his/her goal. This is where the term "anti-hero" came from. The Hero of the piece is supposed to be the protagonist (the main character), but if your protagonist is a bank robber, then the antagonist is a cop (the good guy, or the "hero"). (cont'd) –  Lauren Ipsum May 30 '11 at 12:49
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There might also be a useful distinction to be made between terms. (A distinction I failed to notice in my initial response). Whether human or not, an antagonist has to be characterized (otherwise the concept is indistinct from "obstacle"). Conflict may or may not be "antagonistic". The tidal wave is only antagonistic if it is characterized that way. An obstacle is "antagonistic" if it opposes the protagonist with intention. "The man dodged the rock." Is a story without an antagonist. "The man dodged the thrown rock." Is a story with an antagonist. Both have obstacles, but one has intent. –  patrick Jun 1 '11 at 15:52

Why no conflict in heaven? There are a number of accounts of war in Heaven in both Jewish and Christian literature.

"And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven." -- Rev. 12:7-8

But the conflict need not be so visceral. Perhaps the conflict lies in the difference between the expectations of the newly arrived and the reality(?) of the Heavenly circumstances.

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All fiction must have conflict, but that conflict certainly doesn't have to spring from the existence of a personified antagonist. There's man-against-nature (e.g., any survival story), man-against-himself (any kind of addiction-recovery story), and even conflicting protagonists (i.e., two characters have incompatible goals and struggle to defeat each other but reader isn't invited to root for one over the other). Even in traditional man-against-man stories, sometimes the enemy doesn't exist as a character, the protagonist is struggling against the villain's malign influence.

There are even weirder cases. In the Sherlock Holmes short story, “The Man with the Twisted Lip”, there's no antagonist, no villain, and no crime, although I don't think Conan Doyle could have stretched it out for a whole novel without enraging his readers. Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Rendezvous With Rama similarly lacks any kind of negative character (although you could argue it lacks a plot altogether). My wife is reading Eat, Pray, Love -- I bet there's no antagonist there, but I can't be troubled to check.

An interesting example from the movies (it's much easier to talk about movie plots because they are so much simpler and because there are so fewer movies made then novels, most people have seen most popular movies): The Fifth Element has a clear and heroic hero (Dallas) and a clear and villainous villain (Zorg) but the two never meet and are never aware of each others' existence. They are in the same scene, once, but Bruce Willis walks out of frame before Gary Oldman walks in.

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Westerners, esp. movie goers, are conditioned to expect certain elements in a story eg protagonist antagonist etc. A goal must be set and the goals impeded somehow by an antagonistic force, whether darth vader or the weather in " a perfect storm". If there is no antatgonist, the story can still "exist" or "be written", but it may not be appreciated.

I accept a Short Story(eg 7 minute play) and poetry for example dont necessarily have time for a hero's journey and may not need an "antagonist" and they can still be "good" because they reflect on the depth of an issue rather than "plot".

But if you want to engage an audience for 2 hours and be liked (story/movie/novel), you'll need a goal and impedance, and audience to root for the hero. The tried and tru structures work. change them after ytou ahve mastered them. As a corollary any person can record music in their garagae, but whether 900/1000 will want to listen to it is another thing.

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I absolutely think it's possible for a novel to be written without an antagonist. So long as it's entertaining, enlightening, and the characters grow and change, then there doesn't need to be a "bad guy"... but I agree about conflict. Your characters must face and deal with/overcome obstacles for the plot to be interesting to /most/ readers.

Take children's literature and/or picture books as an example. Sure there are a lot of differences between novels for adults and stories for children, but that may be a place to start your research. A lot of books for small children don't have an antagonist. The situation becomes the "antagonist" or the obstacle to be overcome.

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An antagonist doesn't have to be a physical or internal entity, so i'd argue no. Any good story has a force of any description that opposes the hero, that in the long run they have to overcome. For instance, the "antagonist" in a psychological thriller might be the main character's mental illness and how it might inhibit them along the course of their journey. In Disaster movies, the Antagonist is usually the disaster itself, although this obviously doesn't have to be exclusive. In Post Apocalyptic stories showing how the main characters survive, often the antagonist turns out to be the apocalypse itself and how it turns mankind against itself.

An Antagonist is crucial for any story, because otherwise its not a story, its just a series of events that happen. Without an antagonist of any description there is nothing for the hero to overcome.

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Theoretically, it's possible as long as you replace the lack of antagonism with an inner conflict in the protagonist.

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The "other side" in an inner conflict is basically an antagonist. –  Lukas Stejskal Aug 6 '12 at 13:31

Isn't there conflict in every story? If there's no conflict, there's no interest for the reader...what a boring story it would be! As far as an antagonist goes, I agree that it could play the part of anyone or anything, internally or externally, but there is almost always an antagonist to create conflict. By simple definition, it's that someone or something that opposes the protagonist or hero, which I think could extend to natural disasters, internal conflicts like drug addiction or depression, and divine intervention.

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As many of the other answers discuss, conflict with an antagonist drives plot, and plot is something that a story is obviously heavily reliant on.

Keep in mind however, that an antagonist doesn't necessarily have to be someone with evil intent. You can still write a story in Heaven.

An antagonist can be someone whose views differ from the protagonist.
This can be as obvious as Satan who has clear evil intent, or as subtle as the protagonists best-friend. The best friend could be just as 'good' as the protagonist, but if his opinions differ slightly, or the reader is led to believe they are, then they become an antagonist.

Done correctly, this can be a hugely rewarding concept.
There will always be an antagonist, otherwise there is no story.

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You can't really write a story without an antagonist. Remember an antagonist could be anything from a person, to an internal conflict in the protagonist. It's what gives readers a reason to read your books.

http://www.ipl.org/div/farq/plotFARQ.html <-- gives more info than I intended but here goes..

http://www.slideshare.net/caitlingillmett/types-of-conflict-5478403 <-- this one is better (direct info)

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Of course there is narrative fiction without conflict. Example:

  • Adalbert Stifter's novel Der Nachsommer describes the idyllic life and growth from childhood to maturity of a young man during Biedermeier. The story is completely devoid of any kind of conflict.

Many children's books tell tales that do not feature an antagonist and are free of conflict, instead they focus on learning (usually without resistance on the part of the protagonist) or happiness (Guess how much I love you).

You can find many examples in adult fiction, too, if you stop confusing the presence of conflict with an antagonist. An antagonist is an opposing force that the protagonist has to overcome to reach his one central goal. There is much fiction, where the protagnoist does not have a goal (e.g. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), or where conflict is not opposed to the protagonist's goal and does not have to be overcome (e.g. much of documentary fiction).

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There is conflict in GHMILY; the little nut-brown hare keeps trying to express something, and the big nut-brown hare keeps topping him. The kid has to keep upping the ante to "win" the discussion. I maintain that any story without a conflict is a character study. That's not a bad thing; it's just plotless. If that's what you want, fine, but it's not a story. –  Lauren Ipsum Jan 30 at 14:37
    
A story is when things happen. Not all things happening are or cause conflict. When I tell how I managed my life without ever being unhappy, then that is a very interesting story to read, because you all could learn a lot from it, despite the fact that it contains not conflict. -- Also, I can't agree with your perception of the playful and loving competition of "I love you more" as conflict, certainly not one that involves an antagonist that needs to be overcome (see original question) :-) –  what Jan 30 at 14:42

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