Hard & hostile world

Sometimes the world is just a harsh and hostile place and it keeps antagonising the protagonists.

For example, consider this description of one young person's life on a Native American reserve:

The reserve used to flood all the time. When my father was little it was really bad. I also remember floods happening. The whole community would gather on the big hill on the baseball field to get out of the way of the rising water. Graveyards would get flooded. They still do. The water treatment center would break down.

Our drinking water is safe now. A few years ago we had E. coli in the water, which can kill you. They sent us all out of the reserve. We had to go. It was an evacuation. Still, people got sick. They got terrible rashes and bad stomachs and got very weak.

The environment antagonises the protagonists through regular floods and outbreaks of toxic bacteria.

Although, if you wanted to look more deeply, you might notice that 'environment' in this instance doesn't refer to nature, it refers to a human-made environment, so you could say that the real antagonist in this snippet is a wider social system that deprives indigenous people of native land, confines them to a reserve, and then fails to invest in its maintenance and care.

What types of environmental conflict might arise in our zombie example?

After two weeks, the worst thing wasn't the zombies. You could avoid zombies: walk quickly and, if you were ever cornered, climb up something. 

The real problem was there was no fresh food in Kowloon. In the street markets, there were tables piled high with rotting choy sum, snake beans, and flies. In the supermarkets, stacks of cucumbers turned to jelly and dripped from their shelves. The kids didn't mind at first, but after a fortnight of cold spiced pork cubes and spam there was a lot of painful farting.

There was no running water either. Turning a tap yielded nothing more than a squeak of dry metal. Pressing the button on a toilet got you a faint clunk in the tank, while whatever you'd done in the bowl sat there and stared back at you. They'd started using a fire exit stairwell as a toilet, door propped open with a bin so they didn't get locked inside, bottoms over the rail, letting their business drizzle and plop into the darkness below from whence rose an increasingly poisonous stink.

The zombies are an amorphous environmental force, like pollution, disease, or evil raccoons.

In this story at least, the toughest element in the environment is not the zombies, who you can avoid, it's the lack of food and water.

An environment doesn't have to be apocalyptic to be antagonistic:

Summer was the worst. The aircon would cut out every other day and I'd cook in the oven-like store, meticulously gluing an oryx cape to a polyurethane skull while sweat dripped from my fingertips and diluted the adhesive and ruined my work. The carpark outside became a vanilla glare and radiated heat through the front window in crippling waves. I'd get migraines from it.

Even worse, if I had to clean a carcass, then I'd have to go to the shed out the back so squeamish customers couldn't see, but the shed was even hotter than the store. It was like the shed intensified the heat, weaponised it, and then beat you with it like a hammer. I'd feel dizzy and sick. Sometimes I cut my own hands while fumbling with my knife.

  • How could the physical and social environment in your story world directly antagonise your protagonist? Either try to kill them, or make them miserable?
  • Describe those environmental forces at work.
Describe an environment antagonising your protagonist—making them miserable, or even trying to kill them.

We've seen the kind of conflict that arises when the environment is hostile.

But what if the environment is fine—and the hostile party is you?