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Q&A

Compelling story with the world as a villain

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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?

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/q/47490. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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5 answers

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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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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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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/47516. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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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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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 your MC, 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, worldbuilding, and your world's history 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 completely 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 is a more famous story in this mold, though the malevolent intent of those in government is clearer there.

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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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