Does a plot have to have an antagonist – a villain? Do you enjoy books or movies without a villain?
One of the classic plot lines for a story is a protagonist – the hero – defeating the antagonist. It’s the classic good vs. evil tale, and in most cases the hero is an underdog, someone thrust into the limelight against his or her will, and comes of age or defeats his/her fears or weaknesses during the process. Sometimes this is an iconic clash mano-a-mano, e.g. Superman fighting Zod, or Harry Potter vs. Valdemort, or Ahab vs. Moby Dick. Sometimes it is a series of encounters with minor villains, or henchmen, culminating in the big fight at the end, e.g. Luke Skywalker taking on the Empire, fighting his father, and finally defeating the Emperor, or almost every Bond movie where 007 battles and tricks his way through countless minions to confront the evil mastermind.
So do we need an antagonist? No. That said, without one, we need some other dramatic force for the hero to foil against, but this could be nature, the environment, his own fears, anything that provides tension and interest. Let’s look at some books/movies without an antagonist: 2010, Wool (pre the shift trilogy), Gravity, Europa Report, Apollo 13, Deep Impact, Castaway, almost every disaster movie ever made, Flood, Ark (Both by Stephen Baxter), Love in the Time of Cholera, Contagion, Rain Man, Close Encounters. Here’s a post by David Brin.
Then there are those plots that on the face of it have an antagonist, but that isn’t the point of the movie/book. The clue here is that if you removed the villain(s) the plot would be almost entirely intact. 2001 for example: It’s a mission to find an alien artifact, the fact that HAL operates against the cast is incidental. Titanic: The husband is a villain, but the movie is about love found and lost on a sinking ship. Up by Pixar: Yes there’s a madman with an airship, but the movie is about discovering and exploring a lost world. If inclined, you could put many murder mysteries into this category. Certainly the murderer is the villain but is often only the inciting incident, and the plot is about the detective solving the clues.
My 3rd novel, that I am working on right now, falls into this category. Certainly some folks aim to stop my heroes, but the book doesn’t have a central villain. Actually, it sort of does, but you’ll have to read it to realize who it is.
What about you? Do you need a villain to hate?