The Necessity of an Antagonistic Setting
A trait of a bestselling writer is the ability to raise the stakes for the protagonist. A writer often turns to obvious means of adding stress, tension, and conflict through characterization, dialogue, plot twists, and emotive conflict. Those are powerful tools, but an antagonistic setting means shaky ground for the protagonist. Survival extends beyond defeating a villain, whether physical, mental, or spiritual. Every breath is met with potential disaster.
Establishing setting that is masked as a means to grow character takes skill. But once mastered, the technique gives the story a new dimension by creating additional stumbling points for the character.
Setting is as much a gift to the reader as an intricate story line.
Usually setting is physical, but it can be mental as in a dream world, an unconscious state, a hallucination, or altered thinking. Whatever the location, setting can keep your characters—and the plot—moving in directions that aren’t always predictable to the reader. When a surprise occurs, it should be seamless.
An unexpected challenge in a character’s environment reveals the true inner core by displaying strength or weakness. Does the character run or stand and fight? Sometimes fleeing is a form of courage. The adversity can be obvious or hidden but may include the deception in ways that force the character to make tough decisions and then accept responsibility for those actions.
Establish the time, date, season, and the culture where the story takes place. A wise writer shows enough setting for the reader to envision the story world—and no more. Information overload cheats the reader and closes the door on imagination. The writer’s hard work will keep the reader turning pages—an added bonus.
How does a writer accomplish an antagonistic setting? View the description as though it were a characterization sketch. Concentrate on a villain’s traits: determined, powerful, an outward appearance of beauty or charm, and the ability to manipulate and deceive. Use those traits to disguise what looks like a pleasant environment.
To ensure a tight, high-stakes scene, use the character’s fears and weaknesses against her. This forces the character not only to struggle, but also to face an inner and outer antagonist: fear and setting. Watch plot twists emerge that will take the story deeper. Seek ways to ensure the character changes and grows throughout the novel by facing one difficult situation after another. Setting is vital and full of spirit.
A character who is familiar with a particular setting will not make the same observations or mistakes as one who is a visitor. The seasoned character will respond differently from a novice. For example, a veteran police officer understands the challenges of his job better than a rookie, who can be either nervous or overconfident.
When plotting, a writer chooses at least one of the following scenarios to create a story with visceral impact:
Man vs. man
Man vs. animal
Man vs. nature
Man vs. society
Man vs. survival
Man vs. technology
Man vs. God
Every situation above requires a setting, a distinctive situation in which the writer can harvest the gems of antagonism.
The following are examples of an antagonistic setting in a few popular genres.
Contemporary: What looks like a beautiful afternoon in a park for a family reunion becomes the site of an untimely death when lightning strikes a beloved character.
Fantasy: In a land faraway, a kindly king is replaced by a tyrant who levies heavy taxes on his subjects. One man chooses to free the people of the greedy king.
Historical: A wagon train pulls into a peaceful valley where the weary travelers can rest before heading across a vast prairie. A band of outlaws attacks and steals their horses.
Romance: A couple honeymoons on an exotic, deserted island. The white sandy beaches and the call of seagulls appear to be a paradise. An unexpected storm rises, bringing high winds and twenty-foot waves. The couple is trapped with no means of contacting help.
Sci-Fi: An isolated, peaceful planet is invaded by highly intelligent aliens who require the inhabitants’ water supply for their own survival. Who can help the weaker people overcome insurmountable odds?
Suspense: A heroine refers to her backyard as a haven. A tall stone wall frames nature’s display of green and flowering plants. But when a killer chases her inside the garden, she is trapped by what she thought was her respite. Can anyone help her?
Thriller: An aide to a popular politician is invited to a mountain retreat with other staff members. An unexpected snowstorm traps all of them inside the lodge without communication to the outside world. The aide discovers the politician is accepting bribes that affect the safety of the entire country. He must tell the president before the country is at peril.
Why place your characters in an idyllic environment that makes solving the goal easy and pain free? Why not muddy the waters and create an antagonistic setting?
BIO: DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She combines unforgettable characters with unpredictable plots to create action-packed, suspense-filled novels. Her titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists; won two Christy Awards; and been finalists for the RITA, Daphne du Maurier, Inspirational Reader’s Choice, and Carol Award contests. Library Journal presented her with a Best Books 2014: Genre Fiction award in the Christian fiction category for Firewall.
DiAnn is a founding board member of the American Christian Fiction Writers and a member of Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, International Thriller Writers, and the Faith, Hope, and Love chapter of Romance Writers of America. She and her husband live in sunny Houston, Texas. DiAnn is very active online and would love to connect with readers on any of the social media platforms listed at www.diannmills.com.