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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! – temporary_user_name Aug 6 '12 at 5:52
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    @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
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    @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. – temporary_user_name 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
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    @MichaelKjörling: A(n interesting) book cannot be written without a CONFLICT. That's the word you're looking for. Antagonist - person. Conflict - effect - be it caused by antagonist, impartial forces of nature or shortcomings of protagonists. – SF. Oct 22 '13 at 7:56

21 Answers 21

19

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
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    @what "Children grow without conflict"? That doesn't make sense. Kids have conflict all the time -- about bedtime, cleaning up their toys, dinner, dessert, going to school, what they're wearing, etc. If I didn't have conflict with my kid, I'd be letting her do whatever she wanted all the time. She wouldn't even be potty-trained. – Lauren Ipsum Jan 30 '14 at 14:32
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    @what A child literally raised in the wild will learn no language and no social rules. And yes, kids do need "antagonizing experiences," because how else do they learn how to overcome them? How do you as a person learn how to be patient if you never had to wait for anything as a kid? I'm not talking about beatings, just providing structure and rules. There's a difference between love/support and spoiling. Do you have kids? – Lauren Ipsum Jan 30 '14 at 15:37
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    If you read the Flow theory, in psychology (@what and @lauren-Ipsun) you'll see that if there is no conflict (or challenge) of any sort, one will get in a boredom/apathy zone. The only way to increase one's skills is to provide him/her with challenges increasing in difficulty accordingly to the current skills. So I have to agree with @lauren, actually. I agree that a story may not have a "concious" antagonist, but even forces of nature represent conflicts to be overcomed and therefore an antagonist. – ClayKaboom May 10 '15 at 19:34
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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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    An antagonist does not need to be a person... – Stradigos Feb 4 '16 at 22:31
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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 the 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 than 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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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
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    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
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    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
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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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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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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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There are a certain class of works in which the theme is discovery or enlightenment and the antagonistic force is simply ignorance. The effort to overcome ignorance may be a struggle, and enlightenment a victory, without any external attempt by anyone to hinder or obscure discovery.

In others, the antagonist is doubt and the denouement is certainty.

In others, the antagonist is discontent and the denouement is peace.

The appeal of such stories depends very much on the reader's sympathy with or attachment to the ideas which are discovered, in which certainly is gained, or in which peace is found. Stories of conversion to our own views (which, naturally, affirm our attachment to those views) are obviously more appealing than stories of conversion away from our views to their rivals.

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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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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
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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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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 '14 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) :-) – user5645 Jan 30 '14 at 14:42
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    "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." Unless there is something that reasonably threatens to make you unhappy, a story of how you manage to remain happy -- against absolutely no resistance at all -- would probably be quite boring to read. – Stephen R Mar 20 '17 at 14:14
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    I would add that conflict doesn't need to be "life or death" to be conflict. GHMILY is a game -- a competition by your own description -- between the two characters. A playful, loving one, but a competition nonetheless. Competition, by definition, is conflict. Imagine rewriting it without the conflict: "I love you." "I love you too." The End. ;-) – Stephen R Mar 20 '17 at 14:18
  • A story is not "when things happen". If "things happen" it is a list of events, not a story. A story is when SOMETHING is overcome and some sort of change of state occurs. Without some sort of conflict, story is impossible. – JBiggs Jul 26 '17 at 18:01
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An interesting example of a movie without a "bad guy" is My Cousin Vinny. There is definitely conflict, but with the exception of a murderer who never appears on screen or is even named, every person in the movie is essentially a good person doing they best they can. The judge, the sheriff, the prosecutor, the lawyers, the (innocent) accused -- none of them is a villain

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    yes but "villain" ≠ "antagonist." Just because everyone means well doesn't mean that some of them are not opposed to the protagonists (Vinny, Lisa, and Ralph Macchio). Anyone or anything which keeps the protagonist(s) from their goals is the antagonist. See my comments above on Standback's answer. – Lauren Ipsum Mar 20 '17 at 17:25
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I know this is years late, but I disagree that books must have conflict and an antagonist to be interesting.

One type of book that seems relevant to this question is one that paints a picture of a time and place; the people living in a location and their relationships with each other. These relationships don't have to result in major conflict to be interesting, and I think the mood created by these books is special. I'd also argue that it two minor characters don't get along, that doesn't make one of them the antagonist of the whole book. I'm thinking of books like The Country of Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett and The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. In The Country of Pointed Firs, the protagonist is an author who takes up lodging in a country town with the goal of getting some work done. No one interferes with this goal, and the book itself is a series of vignettes about the people of the town and how they live. Similarly, The Summer Book is a series of stories about the summer vacation of a small girl and her grandmother. I might classify Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan in this group as well. It certainly evokes the attitude of a time and a place, but I'm not sure I could tell you who or what the antagonist of this book is.

Another type of book that might fit the idea of exploring what Judeo-Christian Heaven would look like is the travelogue. Describing the physical journey of the protagonist can be interesting and even full of adventure without being antagonistic. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome has plenty of comic mishaps, but I don't think I'd be able to point to an antagonist. Even something like The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macauley might fit this. There are some conflicts during the travels, but most of the character growth is the narrator introspecting on events in their recent past. One might count this as self-antagonistic, but I also think you could argue this isn't so much conflict as just taking the time necessary to sort through some mental baggage. I guess having the character reflect on past antagonism and grow from that is a bit of a cheat, but one that might work for a book set in heaven. (Admittedly it has been a while since I read the Towers of Trebizond, so I might be misremembering it a bit.)

Finally, I think it is possible for a book to create a relationship between two characters that isn't necessarily one of conflict, but which can be interesting and lead to character growth. Tove Jansson has another book that fits this category: Fair Play. This is about two women who have been friends for years, and how they both live, relate to one another, and get on with their creative endeavors. Their relationship isn't all flowers and sunshine, and they do have disagreements, but they don't interfere with each other's main goals, so I don't know that I'd feel comfortable calling them antagonists.

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You cannot have a novel without an antagonist. An antagonist comes in two forms:

A physical antagonist: a person with a grudge against your protagonist, who will do whatever it takes to overcome the protagonist e.g. Voldemort, the Joker, Loki.

There is also the abstract antagonist: An event or similar, something like a weakness that the protagonist must overcome to achieve his goals e.g. fear, poverty, a corrupt government.

Either way, an antagonist is an obstacle, designed to prevent the protagonist from achieving his goal. This is where the antagonist is critical: if there is nothing stopping the protagonist, if it is all smooth sailing, then the novel is not exciting, a must for any bestseller, and usually a must if you want to be published.

For your plot, why not bring hell into it? You could send some demons in to wreak havoc on the heavenly community.

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Absolutely, unequivocally no. There is absolutely no way to write a story without some kind of antagonist. By definition, a story is a logical series of related events which resolve something and seem to have a meaning greater than the sum of their parts when strung together. You can't resolve something without an antagonist, because there is no problem without one.

What are the three classic types of plot in literature? Man Versus Man -Obviously, Man is the antagonist (probably a bad man, but this can take lots of different forms). Man Versus Nature -Nature is the antagonist. Nature can be cruel, it can be deadly, and it is unmerciful. Nature actually makes a pretty good antagonist. Man Versus Himself -Man is still the antagonist! Now, he's just getting in his own way, which is very much in character for him.

Notice a pattern? It's the "versus". There must be a "versus" in order to have a plot. You can get very experimental and actually write a story with no protagonist (I wouldn't recommend it, but it can be done). What you cannot do is go without some kind of antagonist at all. This need not be a "bad guy", but a "bad guy" is actually more important to telling a story than a "good guy" is!

Your problem here is a philosophical/theological one, not a problem of storytelling. You want to write a story set in a place with no conflict of any kind? How about a realistic novel about the residents of a graveyard? The only way that people can have no conflicts at all between them is if their are either dead or no longer human. I might submit that the Christian view of heaven as being entirely without conflict is not necessarily supported by the text of Scripture, but that is a totally different argument. Conflict isn't bad per se, in fact it is part of our nature. Even God engages in conflict in the Bible... There are many types of interesting conflict beyond an apocalyptic clash between ultimate good and ultimate evil for the ownership of the world. In fact, that is a pretty boring scenario. People would much rather read about the difficulties of learning to live with your newly dead relatives who you keep having misunderstandings with when they move into heaven down the street from your own little personal piece of paradise.

I'd suggest that if you can't conceive of a "heaven" where some kind of conflict is possible, do not write about it unless you want to create something indescribably boring.

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There are three basic conflict themes: Man against nature, man against man, and man against himself. If the story theme is "man against nature," you have no (human) antagonist. Unless you consider "nature" the antagonist.

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Can a book be written without an antagonist?

Yes, it can.

I'm answering late and have read the other answers. I had to look it up, but in every dictionary reading I have found, "Antagonist" is a person or "One who opposes ...", and in this context I think "one" is obviously singular, and refers to a person with intent to oppose (or in scifi or fantasy, a sentient being capable of such intent).

I don't think "antagonist" and "conflict" are synonymous, if anything it is closer to "antagonist" and "villain" being synonymous.

A book can be written without any specific villain or villains. A story like the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away, marooned alone, needs no specific villain with intent. The pain is thirst, hunger, heat, isolation, medical emergency, the triumph is finding solutions to those problems. No villain with intent is required.

Another plot could b a woman coming to terms with her imminent death due to cancer. No villain with intent is required.

Or, a teen girl struggling with the realization she is gay. This needs no villain with intent, it can be her struggle with her own beliefs and expectations, her anticipations about how her parents, siblings and society in general will treat her. She simultaneously wants to be a conformist and fit in, and desires a non-conformist love life and sex life.

A book cannot be written without conflict of some sort; a disparity between what exists and what is desired, puzzles to be solved, physical or emotional pain, hardships. Irrevocable events, like a death, that demand adaption to a new reality.

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The answer to any "can I write" question is always "yes." But antagonists do a lot of heavy lifting in a book, they provide a lot of intrinsic interest, and useful narrative conflict. Readers tend to like works with compelling antagonists, and find them interesting to read.

So, if you do want to write a book without an antagonist, you'll need to work that much harder to find a way to draw in the reader without one. It may be possible, but you'll be given the reader a much different experience than a typical novel.

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