Every novel needs conflict, and every novel needs antagonistic forces.
But this doesn’t mean you need a villain (a person who actively sets out to thwart the hero). No; conflict, challenge and opposition can come from all kinds of places, as proven in The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton.
Set in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, Nella arrives in her new city home after marrying merchant Johannes Brandt – a man she barely knows. He avoids consummating their marriage and leaves Nella to settle into her new life in a household occupied by her frosty sister-in-law, Marin, and two servants, Cornelia and Otto. As a wedding gift, Johannes presents Nella with a miniature replica of their house – but the items Nella orders from the Miniaturist to populate her cabinet house are uncomfortably accurate and strangely prophetic …
The Miniaturist is beautifully written, full of layers and delicately interwoven imagery, and explores powerful themes of power and prejudice, morality and society. I’ve avoided major spoilers in this post.
There are many forces working against the main characters, yet no real villain. Here are some of the ways this novel uses antagonistic forces to create conflict. You might consider using some of these ideas in your own novel.
1. Friend or foe?
When Nella arrives in her new home, she finds herself living with strangers. She barely knows her husband, his sister and their two servants. Will they be kind to Nella? Cruel? When Nella employs the Miniaturist to create items for her cabinet house, the items sent uncannily mirror details of the house and the people in it, and this makes Nella question the Miniaturist’s intentions. (Is she being spied on? Why?)
At first it’s not clear who is an enemy and who is an ally.
2. Conflicting desires
Nella wants nothing more than to fulfil her role as wife, and that includes become pregnant as soon as possible. But her husband remains allusive. In another plot thread, Marin – Johannes’ sister – wants love and passion, but not at the expense of her own freedom and authority, and her choices are always the lesser of two evils; when she gains in one area, she loses in another.
When the desires of one character don’t align with those of another, or if they are at odds with societal expectations, there’s conflict.
3. Unfriendly relations
Johannes has been employed by Agnes and Frans Meermans to sell their stock of sugar, but Johannes and Frans dislike each other greatly. This conflict simmers below the surface of every interaction they have, and Johannes’ unwillingness to please his clients creates a lot of problems for the whole household. Nella’s speculation about Frans creates more tension as she tries to understand the motives behind everyone’s actions.
Clashing personalities can provide ample conflict in a story.
4. Immoral choices
Jack is the closest character we get to a villain. Reeling after his secret is revealed, he becomes angry and violent – and throws Johannes under the bus to save himself. Jack’s actions are cruel and immoral, but driven by fear and oppression, not a desire to be evil.
Characters don’t have to be driven by a desire to do evil in order to do bad things – sometimes they’re just put in difficult situations.
5. Unjust society
Finally, the laws and social conventions of seventeenth-century Amsterdam provide the characters with some of their greatest challenges. Both Otto (a black man) and the Miniaturist (a foreign woman) are driven to exile. Both Johannes and Marin face tragedy because they don’t follow society’s expectations of them. Nella must learn how to manage a household of social misfits.
No society is perfect. This is ripe ground for creating conflict.
These are just a few ways you can add tension to your novel, and provide complications and challenges for your protagonist to overcome, without a villain. Read The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton to see exactly how it’s done.