The Antagonistic Setting

Bestselling writers are adept at raising the stakes for their protagonists. It’s easy to turn to the obvious when adding tension, stress, and conflict to a scene: characterization, dialogue, plot twists, and emotive conflict.

But an antagonistic setting provides shaky ground for the point of view character. Survival means more than fighting a physical, mental, spiritual, or natural villain.

What’s involved?
Begin by concentrating on a few traits of a villain: determined, powerful, beautiful or charming, and deceitful. The adversity of setting can be obvious or hidden, but it must force your character to make tough decisions and accept responsibility for those actions.

What does an antagonistic setting look like?

  • Contemporary: 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 faraway land, a kindly king is replaced by a tyrant.
  • Historical: A wagon train pulls into a peaceful valley where weary travelers can rest before heading across a vast prairie. The lush surroundings include tall shade trees and a clear stream filled with fish. A scout points out there is only one way in and out of the valley, but the travelers insist upon staying. Early the next morning, they discover they are surrounded by hostile Indians.
  • Romance: A couple honeymoons on a deserted island, surrounded by white beaches, exotic plants, and colorful birds. Their cell phones have no service, but they don’t care. A storm rises, bringing high winds and 20-foot waves. Their paradise has become a prison.
  • Sci-Fi: An isolated, peaceful planet is invaded by aliens who require the inhabitants’ water supply for their own survival.
  • Suspense: A heroine refers to her backyard as a haven. A tall, stone wall frames nature’s display of flowering plants. But when a killer chases her into her haven, she is trapped.
  • Thriller: An aide to a popular politician is invited to a mountain retreat with other staff members. A snowstorm traps them inside the lodge. The aide discovers the politician is accepting bribes that affect the safety of the country and realizes he must escape before thousands of people are killed.

Have you set your characters in an idyllic environment that makes reaching the goal pain free? Muddy the waters and make your protagonist squirm and fight to overcome every obstacle.

You’ll be pleased with the results—and so will your reader.

React: Share ways you can make your setting antagonistic.

DiAnn Mills

DiAnn Mills

DiAnn Mills is a fiction writer who combines an adventuresome spirit with unforgettable characters to create action-packed novels. She has 50 books in print and has sold more than 1.5 million copies. Her Sworn to Protect won a 2011 Christy Award in the Contemporary Romance Category. Breach of Trust previously won the same award in 2010. DiAnn is the Craftsman mentor for the Christian Writers Guild.


  1. Amy Swierczek says

    This post has piqued my creativity. How about a catering service unwittingly serving poisoned food to foreign dignitaries? So many ideas for suspenseful fiction are blossoming. Thanks, DiAnn, for your inspiration.

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