It’s said that conflict is what drives a story, but does conflict need to derive from an antagonist? Real life doesn’t always have antagonists, so why should a story? Is writing without an antagonist even possible?
First, we must define what an “antagonist” is. In the traditional, Aristotelian narrative, an antagonist is an individual who is preventing a protagonist from achieving a goal, which formats the narrative as a duel, i.e.: God versus Satan. But if an antagonist is only created as a means of challenging the protagonist, does the presence of other, non-corporeal challenges for the protagonist remove the need for an embodied antagonist?
I bring this up because the pilot I’m currently writing, Mind Over Matter – Gravity of the Situation, has no antagonist. The characters are there, and all of them could potentially become an antagonist at some point, but right now, all I have is the first act: who they are, what their lives are, and their relationships with each other. But other than that, there’s nothing. Whereas, contrast this with another pilot I’m developing as notes, Multiple Occupancy – Baptism of Fire, which works with a “villain of the week” format that can sustain the series over numerous episodes; structured as a western with a revolving door of ad-hoc villains with consistent heroes. Now, I probably won’t start writing Multiple Occupancy – Baptism of Fire until I’ve finished Mind Over Matter – Gravity of the Situation, but the idea of working with clear-cut antagonists every episode appeals to me much more than not knowing whether there even is an antagonist.
And yet, there are some series that have been able to work without individual antagonists. In The Prisoner, No. 6 is determined to discover the identity of 1, and clashes with No. 2 over this issue. While the No. 2s are themselves always changing, the position of No. 2 provides an antagonistic pedestal for No. 6 to oppose. Only in the finale, Fall Out, does No. 6 discover that 1 is his own, inner dark side, and that the prison – the Village – is actually a micro-construct of his flawed imperfection. 1 is represented as an individual, but as another No. 6, while also being a psychological creation of socio-political philosophy and existential doubt, but is also an analogy for everyone, and yet doesn’t technically exist as an individual himself. The Prisoner is the best example of an an antagonist-free series, because The Prisoner reveals that every true antagonist is within ourselves.
And then there’s The Thick of It, which relies on comedic ironic; both parties are equally as terrible as each other – each episode is driven by which party’s managed to screw-up more than the other one on that particular occasion. The Thick of It has no antagonist, because every character is an antagonist to themselves (through incompetence), to each other (through bitterness) and to everyone else (through cynicism). But within the confines of the series, The Thick of It doesn’t have a defined protagonist, because to do so would be to redeem the ensemble characters, which is against the central conceit.
Perhaps most importantly is that real life has no antagonist figure. Ideally, stories should remember that everyone is a complex individual that just thinks differently to each other. Which is not to say that some people aren’t more correct than others, but that everyone thinks they’re right. Most people think they’re right. Even if that’s that nobody is, or that everyone else thinks they are. Doctor Who – The day of the Doctor does this well, as the Doctor encourages the Humans and the Zygons to literally sit-down and negotiate their interests into something that can work. And once that happened, the Zygons were no longer the antagonists, but just a group that does things differently. Contrast the Zygons with the Daleks – who consider themselves fundamentally superior. Destruction is the Daleks’ only motivation, which makes them boring very quickly. In real life, everyone has numerous subplot occurring simultaneously. I can’t speak of everyone else, but nothing in my life is influenced by what other people do. As John Watson told Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock – A Study in Pink, there are no archenemies in real life. Instead, there are people we know, family, friends, people we like, and relationships. Most people don’t have time to have “antagonists”.
And speaking of Holmes, the Sherlock Holmes canon is an example of how a protagonist’s story doesn’t end once the antagonist’s been defeated. Once Holmes had defeated Moriarty in The Final Problem, Holmes’ life continued, despite having extinguished “the Napoleon of Crime”. No other case was ever as significant as The Final Problem, but what’s important is that Holmes’ story didn’t end with Moriarty, because Moriarty is only one person of many in Holmes’ life and world.
Ultimately, what stories should do is find a place for who’s experiencing it. When a story is told, the storyteller should be making people care about the protagonist, and their decisions and actions. If a storyteller can create a character that makes people care, an antagonist may not be needed decision, because “antagonist” is a function of character – it’s a job that is sometimes required to allow a story to be told, but every story’s world is different, and that means that an antagonist may be simply irrelevant.
Finally, a good story is a good story. The reason I can appreciate comedy-dramas like Cucumber, as well as police-procedural situation comedies like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, as well as animated science sitcoms like Futurama is because I don’t factor genres into my tastes. I don’t care if it’s a dark and gritty crime drama, or a fun and amusing romantic comedy. It’s not a case of “is it this?” or “is it that?” but “is it good?”. Any story can work if it’s well-told. Anything can work for any audience. And if I’m watching a series that I’m finding enjoyable, at that point, whether there’s an antagonist – and how defined that antagonist may be – no longer matters.