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My main character is up against the world, or, rather, the world and reality are up against her. A good story is in some ways defined by its villain. 1984 personifies its villain by adding a representative of the oppressor, but in my story, there can be no such person.

With this in mind, can I build out the world and reality as a good villain?

  • 17
    By "the world," do you mean environmental factors, social constructs, both, something else? Also, can you clarify why there can be no such person in your story? Something about your story's setting prevents you from having a character who exemplifies how oppressive the world is towards MC? – Thing-um-a-jig Aug 22 at 1:54
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    If you're literally going for a main character who is in conflict with a planet you should consider reading Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. There's some similarity between it's plot and your brief description. Studying how Lem made his work compelling might give you insight into how to make your story compelling. – Erik Aug 22 at 18:01
  • My character is dead. She can't communicate with the living, and there are no other ghosts. She can see and hear everything, but can't touch or do anything. – Calypso Writes Aug 22 at 21:57
  • Since there's no intent behind the way the world is, I don't see any reason to blame the world or cast problems as the universe's fault. One of the first questions that came to my mind though is, why is she the only ghost? Is there something she needs to do that the other ghosts have already figured out? – CramerTV Aug 23 at 1:22
  • So is the world or the universe a sentient being (gaia etc)? – Peter A. Schneider Aug 23 at 8:14

12 Answers 12

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A villain has intention -- it's out to cause some outcome, foil the main character (if it's personal), and generally advance its own agenda. The world, on the other hand, just is, barring worlds with minds and will. It sounds like you're trying to write a person-versus-nature (or society) story rather than a person-versus-person story.

Person-versus-nature/society is a fine way to structure a story, but the challenges your main character faces will be different. Rather than a villain being out to thwart him, the world is harsh and doesn't care. Whether your MC is struggling to climb the challenging mountain or survive alone on an inhospitable planet or get by in a society that has taken greed and self-centeredness to its logical conclusion, your story is about your character overcoming an environment, not a person.

How do you build it out? Think about how the world got that way, what makes it challenging to live in, and what that means for anybody trying to live in it anyway. Some time spent on thought experiments and worldbuilding before you write too much will likely pay dividends in a rich environment that you can write real struggles against.

It feels like I'm writing platitudes here, so let me illustrate with one example I recently read. Scorch by A. D. Nauman (2001) follows a main character who lives in a dystopian future where corporations run the world, ads are everywhere (and I mean everywhere, like you pay extra when buying a car to not have them on your dash), you have to work two full-time jobs to be able to afford to live in poor conditions, you better carry a personal flame-thrower when walking outside (and if you kill someone that way, meh, he deserved it), and innovative thinking is likely to get you fired, scorned, and maybe even killed. There is no actual villain here other than this broken society itself, yet the ideas in the book are engaging. (I didn't care much for the main character, but that's not because of the lack of a clear villain.) 1984 was brought up in the comments and that, too, is in this mold, though the malevolent intent of those in government is clearer there.

  • Dystopian future? This sounds more like a reportage... Thanks for providing this reference I will check it out. – Francesco Aug 25 at 8:36
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Your world is a character. Possibly more than one. Your environment is a character, your political structure is a different one, your culture, yet another. There is a lot of advice about how to attain this.

https://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/how-to-make-your-setting-a-character

https://www.thecreativepenn.com/2019/05/01/writing-tips-how-and-why-to-treat-your-setting-like-a-character/

It sounds like your wanting to take thus a step further by making your world your antagonist. In order to do this you need to humanize it. Take the different aspects of your world (environment, culture, political structure, etc.), give them motive and make that motive clear to your reader. What does the world want from your character? To take something from her? Drive her crazy? Kill her? Find the motive and make it a theme throughout the story.

Give your world emotions (anger, greed, distrust, joy) and describe those emotions as you would a person.

*Nothing could quench The Rebublic's insatiable hunger for power/wealth

*Society is a cruel friend. It promises pleasure and happiness, Then ostracizes you if you can't follow its rules.

*The reality she knew had abandoned her. Once a patient guardian, it had turned traitor, and taken everything she loved with it.

*The city screamed night and day, always angry and inconsolable.

Your world needs to act upon your character physically as well as emotionally. Always putting something in the way of her progress.

*The laws strangle her independance.

*The streets pummel her with trash.

*The super-secret facility laughed at her attempt to infiltrate it.

Your world will also need a character arc. It will be more believable as a villian if it changes, grows and adapts as your character moves through it.

I really think this can be done, though it will take seeing the world in a unique, and being able to describe it. Good luck!

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    +1 despite the links in the answer. It is about the personification of the world, making it a living willfully evil character that is actively out to get the hero. So it is more than just a caustic but neutral environment as others have suggested. – rebusB Aug 22 at 15:35
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This sounds more like a man vs. environment story, as @Monica says.

A simple MC vs. Nature

Imagine, in the modern world, an arrogant multi-millionaire, thinks he is a self-reliant, self-made man. He owns a private jet, has two pilots, and decides to fly overseas. The plane is struck by lightning and goes down at sea. The pilots are dead. Our MC ends up on a deserted island, perhaps injured, Robinson Crusoe style. Or Castaway style (A Tom Hanks movie).

The whole story can be about our MC figuring out how to survive, finding food and shelter, despairing over ever being rescued, and on a personal arc, understanding how utterly dependent he has been on society and others. The "villain" is the world the gives him nothing for free, not health, not safety, not food, not fresh water, not any way to successfully signal for help. There are spiders, snakes, rats, and poisonous insects; the heat is unrelenting. He has zero tools, he is reduced to rocks and sticks.

That is a story.

MC vs. Nature with People In It

Think of these stories in a similar way, the other people in the story don't have to be intentionally cruel or take any pleasure in standing in your MC's way, just like the spider isn't being intentionally cruel. Or a dog isn't being intentionally cruel to chase and kill a squirrel, it sees food and takes it.

Avoid the writing trap of making any particular character in your book persistent, thus making them a personified villain. Everybody that stands in the way of your MC is just doing their job, perhaps apologetic about that and knowing it harms your MC, but doing their job nonetheless because that is the only way for them to survive this same cruel world.

The thief doesn't want to rob him, but she's got a sick kid that needs insulin and this is the only way she can get it.

The cop doesn't want to arrest him, but he's got a quota to meet, and a family to feed. Same goes for the judge that convicts him.

Everywhere the MC goes he finds desperation, and this can extend to the top: Even the leaders of this society may regret the choices they are making, but there just aren't enough resources to go around, and they struggle daily with a constant stream of decisions forcing them to choose the least of multiple evils, trying to find some way out of the trap without resorting to genocide and all out war.

The essence of man against nature is prevailing against an uncaring, harsh and amoral environment. If that environment includes other humans or entities (e.g. science fiction aliens or AI), just make sure, as part of the environment, they are (like most wild animals) neither sadistic or altruistic, they all do what they do to live another day, keep their job, make a dollar, protect their young, ensure they do not become prey, and defend their territory (or other resources).

How to Make it Compelling.

You make this compelling like we make all fiction compelling. There should be some conflict or tension on every page, meaning we want the reader to be constantly wondering "what happens next."

After we introduce the Normal World at the beginning of the story (and you would definitely have to do this here), then we sustain tension in layers. We would like the reader to be always wondering what happens next in a scene (how this right now is going to turn out), what happens by the end of this chapter, what happens in this Act (roughly four acts in a story), and what happens at the end of the book.

We do that by giving our MC difficult tasks, making them fail and persist and fail and persist.

Basic story structure.

A compelling story begins with getting to know the MC, operating in their normal world, solving some small problems. We want to know why we should care about them. Then we give them an unusual problem, (the inciting incident), that is difficult to solve, and forces them out of their normal world (where they were coping) and into a new reality where they are, for whatever reason, relatively incompetent.

Being incompetent, they suffer losses, make things worse, get confused, perhaps despair, but all along they are learning the rules of the new world.

By learning the rules of the new world, they start solving some of these problems, having some success, but still aren't back to normal, their main problem (begun by the inciting incident) remains unsolved.

But then, they learn the final key idea that can solve that. It may take a big risk, they may even be risking their life, but they go ahead, and DO solve the main problem. Then they return to either their normal world, or a "new normal" in which they are better in some way, despite their losses.

Summary

You make it compelling by putting obstacles in their way, some of which they fail to overcome, and which cause setbacks. But generally these are not fatal (to the MC). Coming up with plausible obstacles and plausible reactions and plans that fail is the creativity of writing.

It is easy to come up with plans that succeed, but this gets boring for readers.

It is easy to make your characters do bone-head things that fail, but this disappoints readers, they see it is bone-headed, they wouldn't have done that, and the story no longer seems "realistic".

It is hard to come up with plans the reader believes they might have agreed to, that then fail for plausible reasons, something they should have anticipated but did not. For a little help, such plans are often the result of a misunderstanding of their situation; the MC is presuming something that is not true, one form of this is trusting somebody they should not trust.

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When the world is the villain. What does that mean? Society? Nature? Human nature?

It really doesn't matter..

I actually think you are onto something interesting, because i am not sure if what you are attempting has ever been done or done successfully.

However, i think there is a way to tackle it.

Man vs Nature (Jack London classics) handle the Man vs. Nature struggle very very well.

There is no reason why you can't do the same thing.

How? you ask.

In the Jack London story if you look at the antagonists, they are the wolves, the howling winter wind, and the blinding blizzards. Each threatening, dangerous, impassive, and deadly.

More than that, they are all faceless.

So I believe you can achieve what you are trying to achieve by making ALL the antagonists nameless and faceless, casually cruel opportunists.

I hope you have a good story for the main character..

But I think if you want the villain to be the society, the trick is to not name ANYONE

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It's been said that "a good villain has something to prove". If the world is the villain from the protagonist's perspective, then what does she discern of its motives or goals? A specific and singular embodiment (an avatar?) of the world's malice may not be necessary for the story if she can find answers to those questions by how her own actions and choices are frustrated by how events unfold around her. The trick is to give structure to those circumstances -- a structure whose outline takes the form of some (imagined?) antagonistic entity.

Perhaps forget about embodying the antagonist -- just make it personal for her and let the villain be her projection.

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I think @matildalee23 might have what you're looking for in an answer. To supplement that with an example, read the last half of the chapter "The Ring Goes South" in "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring".

Caradhras is a mountain, known as "Caradhras the Cruel" for his dislike of travelers attempting to traverse the Redhorn Pass. It is credited to him for the Fellowship being unable to cross (In the movie adaptation, this was too difficult an element to convey to the audience, so Saruman is used as the antagonist in this scenario).

A few of the personifications of the mountain:

    "Caradhras has not forgiven us."

    "It was no ordinary storm. It is the ill will of Caradhras."

    "But happily your Caradhras has forgotten that you have Men with you,"

    "'Enough, enough!' cried Gimli. 'We are departing as quickly as we may!' 
    And indeed with that last stroke the malice of the mountain seemed to be 
    expended, as if Caradhras was satisfied that the invaders had been beaten 
    off and would not dare to return. The threat of snow lifted; the clouds 
    began to break and the light grew broader."

    "A cold wind flowed down behind them, as they turned their backs on the 
    Redhorn Gate, and stumbled wearily down the slope. Caradhras had defeated 
    them."
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Ring Goes South"

Caradhras is mentioned again after they escape Moria:

    "'Down the deep-cloven way that climbs beside the torrent we should have 
    come, if fortune had been kinder.' 
    'Or Caradhras less cruel,' said Gimli. 'There he stands smiling in the 
    sun! ' He shook his fist at the furthest of the snow-capped peaks and turned 
    away." 
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "Lothlorien"

I hope this is helpful.

  • +1 This is a fantastic example of what I was trying to convey. – matildalee23 Aug 22 at 21:08
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Consider Disney's "Mulan" which is a wonderful film, but is noted for the weak strength of the character of "Shan Yu" who's entire motivation is "Invade China cause I want to". This seems like a terrible antagonist until someone pointed out to me that Shan Yu is the only character to see Mulan beyond her gender-class. When they finally meet face to face, and Mulan reveals who she was to Shan Yu, Shan Yu doesn't care that Mulan is a woman, but that Mulan is the person who single handedly killed his army of thousands. Shan Yu may be the villain, but he is not the antagonist of Mulan. An antagonist is someone who serves as a foil to the protagonist, and tries to stop them from being sucessful. This is Shan Yu, who doesn't ever learn Mulan's name and sees her only for her role... Mulan's antagonist is rather her own society, which holds that she is unsuited for the task of stopping Shan Yu becasue of her sex, not because of her talent at kicking Shan Yu's ass (which, I will point out, she always played Shan Yu like a cheap Guqin).

So while Shan Yu is a villain, he's not Mulan's antagonist. Mulan's goal is to help China fight Shan Yu. Shan Yu does nothing to stop this... when she's on the field of battle, he will let her help China stop him... He wants to prove China can't do it. What's stopping Mulan from doing it is her soiciety, which says she can't because a man must do it. Antagonists do not need to be evil to be motivated as Mulan's own father puts her in her place when she decries his inclusion in the draft, despite his injury and the lack of any male child to take his place. Her love interest, Shang, similarly abandons her and refuses to even listen to her rather critical infromation after he learns that she is a woman. He nearly kills her for it, and only spares her because she had moments ago saved his ass. Her own fellow citizens also refuse to listen to her at the start of the climax. We don't list these characters as villains and because they are not static and do learn their lesson at the end and apologize for their treatment of her (in the form of Shang and her Father, as well as the Emperor for the larger society as well as the crowd who bow to her (specifically they Kowtow, which is typically done in apology or other state of unworthiness).

Another film without a "villain" is the legal drama "My Cousin Vinny" in which the titular character is defending his cousin and his friend on capital murder charges. While there are plenty of antagonists, including the Prosecutor, Sheriff, and Judge, they aren't villains and are actually friendly with Vinny outside of the professional setting. Nothing they do to Vinny as antagonists is maliciously motivated, they are just two guys who are doing their best job, and unfortunately, those Jobs oppose Vinny's goal. They aren't trying to do anything that would intentionally harm Vinny in achieving their goal (in fact, the Prosecutor and Sheriff both offer Vinny help when Vinny at different points in the movie.). This is actually very common in legal circles as the lawyers and judges are normally very friendly with each other outside of the court room. There are occasions where the Judge takes some of Vinny's antics personally, but his opposition that hurts Vinny is by and large a fair ruling. Similarly, the Prosecutor is naturally an antagonist in court, we do have scenes where he explains that he was a defense attorney like Vinny and a good one, and had a question of conciousness after he successfully defended a man who he knew for certain did the crime he was accused of and decided to become a prosecutor (which would be a pay cut) to help people who were hurt by criminals. When he learns that Vinny's hotel is uncomfortable, he lets Vinny stay at his hunting lodge, and when Vinny shows that his clients are innocent, he immediately drops the charges as we know his motivation is to only hurt the guilty... not to wrongly imprison the innocent.

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Not sure what your context is, so I'll help you out with some theory:

When we think about the 'villain' or 'opposition' in a story, we should ask ourselves, is the force of opposition personified, present and active?. It doesn't always have to be giant robot or a serial killer, but readers need something to root against. This means that vague threats, generalised evil or unspecified possible disaster events don't really cut it. The danger needs to be specific, and wired to a ticking clock.

That's the way you engage a reader. Make them invested in the protagonist's struggle by making the obstacle clear .

I think, in most cases where the writer thinks the 'world' is the villain, it's not actually - and if it is, the story won't be particularly enagaging. I would wager that specific elements of your the 'world', influenced as they are by its corrupt state, are your protagonist's true opposition. Find out how this is personified and turn it into an actual, tangible barrier.

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@Monica and others talk about Man vs. Environment stories. Since that has been explored, let me take your premise in a different direction. Another way by which the world might be a compelling villain is if it is guided by a malevolent god.

If the cards are stacked against your character, if their luck is always bad, if they are "fated" to suffer every natural calamity, that would be very much the world acting against them. And if you think about it, quite a few things can happen to your character.

If this is the direction you choose to take, the one thing that your character must retain is their free will. That's the one thing we get to raise against a god. You can look as an example at the story of Job, but just as easily as Job's piety, you can take the story instead in the direction of proud defiance, for example.

If you think about it, we are all, to some extent, fighting the world every day, our whole lives. It's just that in your story you give the world will, agency. In the face of this, your story becomes, at its core, about how we, each of us, face, or should face, misfortune, fate, etc. An interesting theme to explore.

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The frame challenge of the day is whether the world is the villain, or is perceived to be the villain by the MC.

Other answers have already covered the case in which the world being a villain is an objective fact. I will address the frame challenge in which the MC attributes such a nature to the world as a subjective perception.

In this case, we are dealing with a delusional character. This state is a mental condition such that the character is unable to discern what is real from what is imagined. The imagined bit does not need to be hallucinatory in nature, but could simple be small nuances in everyday events. As an exaggeration, dropping a pencil could happen to anyone, but perceiving such event as driven by the evil and adversarial nature of the world is likely the result of a delusion.

Delusional disorder involves delusions that aren’t bizarre, having to do with situations that could happen in real life, like being followed, poisoned, deceived, conspired against, or loved from a distance. These delusions usually involve mistaken perceptions or experiences. But in reality, the situations are either not true at all or highly exaggerated.

(See https://www.webmd.com/schizophrenia/guide/delusional-disorder#1)

Such a twist is not uncommon. There are famous movies loosely based on this concept (apologies for the spoilers). A beautiful mind, the Machinist and Fight Club are the first that come to mind.

Just like in these movies, you can make it compelling by embracing the delusion and feed the reader with cues that the twisted perception, albeit at odds with our daily experience, may have reasons to be true. A very rational character may provide a good smoke screen for the reader to believe their subjective perceptions, even when the delusions gradually grow into the bizarre. The imagined world of delusions becomes then increasingly compelling as the main character feels that there is increasingly more at stake, and that their chances of resolving the issues, fighting back, or even surviving, decrease as the story progresses.

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I would focus on the main character's reactions to the world and their internal struggle.

Should they conform or give up or should they resist and try to enforce change? This is a very relevant internal conflict and one that any reader would understand. eg "Why am I even trying to climb everest? I could give up and go home to my wife right now." , "Why is everyone else conforming to this society that oppresses the poor/homosexuals/women etc?" etc

The story isn't about the world and the world isn't the villain. The villain is your MC's internal struggle with the reality they face.

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Not knowing what your outline is, please take this with a grain of salt. Have you considered making your protagonist green and/or inexperienced? If so her/his response to society could appear to them as oppressive and cold. Try portraying this character as selfish and sheltered, the stark reality of the real world should challenge her and give her plenty of reasons to assume the world is against her when it is actually the challenge that forces her to character to embrace change and growth.

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