Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.27: Natural Setting as Conflict

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard

In this episode we stories with the “Person-vs-Setting” structure. These are stories where nature fills the role of antagonist, and may also be what governs the pacing, and the delivery of key emotional beats.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Pick a milieu, a starting point, and an exit. Brainstorm about twenty things preventing the character from exiting. Rank your five favorites in order of difficulty.

Thing of the week: Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, narrated by Peter Coyote.

How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler, by Ryan North.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Person versus nature, setting, environment! Adventure based on survival, disaster, endemic. Start with research! You have to be smarter than the Boy Scout in the room. In person versus nature, nature serves the function of the antagonist, stopping the protagonist from achieving some goal. There are often plateaus of goals for the protagonist to achieve. Sometimes nature is a time bomb. You can also use person versus nature as one arc or subplot in a story. Person versus nature, especially in science fiction, often has a sense of wonder reveal as the resolution. So it’s a mystery story, a puzzle box story. Setting is more interesting when the familiar becomes unfamiliar. Person versus nature, in MICE terms, is a milieu story, with the goal of getting out of the milieu, or at least navigating and surviving it. So, what does the setting throw up as barriers that block that? Especially unanticipated consequences of decisions that the character makes. Often there are anthropomorphized elements, too. What does the character or the setting want, need, and get? Start with entry into the milieu, end with exit from the milieu, and add in lots of complications in the middle.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 27.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Natural Setting As Conflict.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Brandon] And we’re in conflict with our environment.



[Howard] I don’t think you should do the joke.

[Dan] We are in Houston. It’s so humid and hot.

[Brandon] Yeah, we are.

[Mary Robinette] Oh, sweetness. It’s so cute that you think it’s humid outside.


[Mary Robinette] I’m just… Oh, poor bunny.


[Brandon] We, on the podcast, have rarely done anything where we’ve dealt with person versus setting. In specific, setting as natural setting, natural… Meaning, these are adventure stories that are survival based, disaster based, or even endemic based. These sorts of things. We’re going to talk about how to do that, how to approach making this type of story. You guys have any starting out pointers when you’re going to create a person versus setting story?

[Dan] Yes. Do your research. Because, in my experience, the more research you do, the cooler your story is going to get. Because you… Even if you think you know how to survive in a particular environment or overcome a particular disaster, the more you learn about the things that could go wrong and the various solutions that already exist to solve them, will suggest a thousand cooler things you hadn’t thought of yet.

[Howard] I… Years and years ago, I think I watched one episode early in the season of Survivor. I watched that for 10 minutes and thought, “Okay. It is taking them way too long to invent stuff that I learned how to make in Boy Scouts. There’s got to be a reason why these people don’t know how to do that.” Because when I was 10 years old… Well, 13 years old, it made perfect sense. I only had to be shown half of this before I figured out, “Oh. Well, obviously, this is the other half.” If you’re doing person versus nature, you have to be smarter as a writer… You have to be smarter than the Boy Scout in the room. Because the Boy Scout is going to be pretty disappointed if the story starts and they feel like, “Oh. I’ve got this.”

[Mary Robinette] I think, also, for me, one of the things about the person versus nature is that the nature is serving the function of your antagonist. So that means that your protagonist has to have a goal that the nature is stopping them from achieving.

[Brandon] That’s a very good point.

[Mary Robinette] That’s something that a lot of people leave out. That’s why frequently they wind up being very flat. So, a lot of times, it is a character driven goal or some other aspect, but it’s the nature that is keeping them from doing that.

[Dan] One thing I see a lot in nature survival stories is that the protagonist’s goal is allowed to change more frequently and more completely than normal. Because they achieve plateaus of, “Well, now I’ve got the shelter built. Okay, I can move on to another goal now.”

[Howard] I want to point out that it’s… When we think of person versus nature, we very often default to survival. But you can absolutely have a person versus nature story where the big conflict is I am trying to go up the hillside, and come back down with the perfect Christmas tree. The mountain doesn’t want to let me do that. The mountain isn’t trying to kill me. The mountain’s trying to ruin Christmas.


[Brandon] Would you call Calculating Stars, even though I know there are some villainous characters in it, would you call this a person versus nature story in some ways?

[Mary Robinette] Certainly part one is. I mean, I’ve… I’m killing the planet, so yes. But part one is very much we have to get out of nature. After that, it is… Most of the major conflicts are coming from societal problems. Where you’re having trouble convincing people that in fact the climate is changing on the planet.

[Brandon] Right. But there’s also this sense of we have to overcome this thing together as a species. I wonder if that could be put in that same category?

[Mary Robinette] I think it can. Because it… This is one of the things that when you’re introducing it into your story… I said that it serves the function of as… Excuse me, of an antagonist, that it’s preventing your character from achieving a goal. But the other thing that it can do, which is why I hesitated with Calculating Stars, is it’s not so much serving the function of an antagonist. It’s a time bomb.

[Brandon] Right. Yeah, that’s true.

[Mary Robinette] That’s what it’s doing. It is providing goals. It’s actually allowing people to break hurdles. So I don’t know that in… That’s in part two of the book, I don’t know that it serves the function…

[Howard] Well, what you’ve raised is… I don’t love a novel length pure person versus nature story because that’s a long time to wrestle with nature. That said, I loved The Martian.

[Mary Robinette] I was going to cite Isle of the Blue Dolphins.

[Howard] Yeah. I haven’t read that one, but I loved The Martian. But it is absolutely useful and beautiful to work person versus nature as one of your big arcs. Knowing how person versus nature works, and knowing how to do it correctly, means that if you’re using some sort of formula for timing the delivery of emotional punches, you know how to time these things.

[Brandon] Can I put you on the spot and ask for any tips along those lines? What makes these stories tick? Why do we love them? What are some of those beats? Dan’s already mentioned one, reassessing of goals, as you achieve smaller and smaller… Larger and larger goals, I should say. You start off saying, “I am helpless. I am going to die. Well, at least I’ll do this thing. Well, since I did that thing, maybe I can do this thing. Since I did that thing, maybe I can do this thing.” Then, it just escalates to the point that you believe that they can survive in this.

[Dan] Then they build a radio out of coconuts.


[Howard] In a science fiction setting…

[Mary Robinette] Gilligan!

[Howard] Often the… Yeah. Was it Gilligan who built that, or was it the Professor?

[Mary Robinette] The Professor. It’s always the Professor [garbled who’s building things?]

[Howard] I was pretty sure I saw transistor tubes in there somewhere.

[Dan] Those are also made of coconuts.

[Howard] Yeah.


[Howard] Coconut glass.

[Mary Robinette] Everything that you need, you just pull out of that ship.


[Mary Robinette] It was the most amazing… Anyway, your point being, Howard?

[Howard] Yeah. The point being, when you are doing person versus nature in science fiction, often the resolution is not oh, I learned how to make a structure out of sticks, the solution is some sort of sense of wonder reveal about how this alien environment really works. That moment… If you’ve planned that, what you’ve written isn’t what we classically think of as a person versus nature story. What you’ve written is a mystery story, in which we’re being a detective and we’re solving a problem. Then you wrap that around a story in which characters are in conflict and the solving of the mystery… It could be a time bomb, it could be a puzzle box type story, but… I do think of these things as name dropping the formulas as I’m building them, because that allows me to very quickly picture what it is I want to do. Then, when I have that picture, I start mapping character names onto it and moving things around. I’m writing a longform serial where I already have a whole lot of established pieces. Coming up with a story and then very quickly mapping a bunch of characters on it… The mapping the characters onto it is often the easiest part. It’s coming up with what is that fun reveal? One of the ones I’m working with right now in the Schlock Mercenary universe is Fermi’s Paradox. Which is fascinating to think of as person versus nature, because nature here is, and the mystery as it stands, Galactic civilizations have been wiping themselves out every few million years and we do not know why. Is it an enemy? Is it something natur… It’s a mystery. It is a reveal. It’s fun. If I can stick the landing, I’m going to make so much money.


[Mary Robinette] That’s really what person versus nature is all about. It’s about the money that you’re…

[Howard] I want to get out of these woods as a millionaire.


[Brandon] Dan, you have our book of the week this week.

[Dan] Our book of the week this week is what I consider one of the classic man versus nature survival stories. It’s called Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. It’s Newberry winning young adult novel. It’s about a kid who gets for his birthday a hatchet and throws it in his suitcase and hops on the little Cessna that’s going to take him to visit his dad on an oilfield in the Canadian wilderness. Part way there, the pilot has a heart attack and dies, and the kid has to do his best to land the plane in a lake and then survive as long as he can in the middle of nowhere. He’s the only character. It’s all about him doing his best to survive. It’s really… Everything we’ve been talking about in its purest little young adult form. It’s a fantastic book. Very short and easy to read, and awesome.

[Howard] Boy versus nature.

[Dan] I’m going to recommend one more, though.

[Brandon] Okay.

[Dan] We’re getting two book of the weeks for the price of one.

[Mary Robinette] Whoo!

[Dan] Ryan North, the guy who does dinosaur comics. He’s got a brand-new book out called How to Invent Everything.

[Brandon] Oh, I really want to read that.

[Dan] He sells this, he promotes this as kind of like a cheat sheet for time travelers. If you end up stuck in the past for whatever reason, and have this book with you, you will be able to invent electricity and penicillin and everything you need to make a civilization work. So, as a resource for writers who want to be able to describe characters doing this stuff, it’s a really good resource.

[Brandon] Yeah, I think it’s… He has this poster that I’ve seen for years, that is… Hang this poster in your Time Machine, that has all the little tips you would need. It’s done jokingly, and he’s adapted that now into an entire book.

[Dan] Expanded it into a full book.

[Brandon] Let’s… On the topic here, Mary talked about setting as antagonist. Let’s dig into this idea a little bit more. How do you go about making your setting an interesting antagonist? How do you go about having a story that perhaps has no villain other than survival, or… Yeah?

[Dan] One of the principles that I teach in my How to Scare People class is that something familiar becomes unfamiliar. That’s one of the basic premises of a horror story. It’s also exactly what’s going on in survival and disaster stories. Something like the Poseidon Adventure. It’s a cruise ship, we know what a cruise ship is like. Now it’s upside down. So we recognize everything, but it’s also weird and new at the same time. That gives us that sense of horror, and that sense of unknown. Even though we still kind of understand what’s going on.

[Mary Robinette] That’s exactly why the upside down is disturbing in Stranger Things. Huh. Interesting.

[Dan] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Surprising no one, for me, one of the tricks on making it an effective antagonist goes back to the MICE quotient, which is… It is often a straight up milieu story. So, for me, the thing is, again, you got a character goal, there’s the character goal of… Whatever their emotional character goal is, but then there’s also the goal of I want to get out of this place. I need to navigate this place. So, finding the environmental setting things that can throw up barriers, that challenge your character’s competence, and that are, often, I think, most effectively a result of a choice that they have made. So it’s like, well, we’ve got fire ants coming at us. So, in order to stop them, we’re going to flood this area to keep them from coming in. But now, having flooded it…

[Howard] Oh, no. Oh, no.


[Howard] Islands of swimming fire ants are a thing.

[Mary Robinette] Yes. Exactly. Yeah. This is a film. So it’s this unanticipated consequence that makes things worse. I think that’s often one of the ways that you can ratchet up the tension and something that a good antagonist does, is they react.

[Brandon] All right. And escalating. That’s like… That’s a very good point. Making it worse and worse and worse, even as our protagonist is leveling up in what they’re able to accomplish.

[Dan] A lot of survival stories also have… Not, they don’t have villains, but you can see anthropomorphized elements of the environment that function as a villain. You mentioned Island of the Blue Dolphins earlier. She’s got this rivalry, so to speak, with an octopus. She knows, she’s scared to death of this octopus, but she knows at some point she’s going to have to dive down into that part of the reef, or she’s not going to have enough to eat. So it’s building this thing up as a villain over the course of the story until you get a showdown. You get a similar thing in the movie Castaway with his tooth. I’m going to do my best to survive here, but sooner or later, I’m going to have to confront that tooth. It’s going to be a showdown.

[Brandon] Howard, earlier you mentioned something I thought was very interesting, which is using person versus nature as a subtheme in a story, which you pointed out, you like a little bit better sometimes. Any tips on keeping this as a subtheme or as a secondary plot cycle?

[Howard] The book, Michael Crichton’s book Jurassic Park, the character of Dr. Malcolm is… He is the personification of chaos. Chaos is the person versus… Is nature in person versus nature. Malcolm tells us we have a complex system and things are going to go wrong in unexpected ways and they are going to amplify each other and things are going to get worse. By giving voice to that, when it happens, it doesn’t feel like, oh, the author just picked the worst possible thing to happen and it happened. It feels like a natural consequence because now we can understand chaos theory. That is layered on top of a corporate espionage plot where it was corporate espionage that caused all these things… That we like to think caused all these things to go wrong at the beginning. But when you stand back and look at the book, you know, well, if it hadn’t been corporate espionage, it would have been something else. So having a character who gives voice to the nature without actually being on nature’s side can be useful.

[Mary Robinette] Something that you said made me actually think of Lord of the Flies, which definitely begins as person versus nature. One of the things that happens over the course of that, as the boys achieve goals… It’s like, okay, we’ve created shelter, we’ve created fire, and all of those things, is that the antagonist shifts from being the island to being the boys… The society of the boys themselves. I think that that’s something that you can actually do. Something that we see when we have human antagonists, that a lot of times on antagonist will shift. It’s not the antagonist that you thought it was the entire time, it’s something else. So I think that’s something that you can play with with your worldbuilding and your… The setting as…

[Howard] It’s an echoing of the principle… The story begins and there’s a thing that our main character wants. There’s a thing that our main character actually needs. And there is a thing that, in the course of the story, the main character’s actually going to get. Often, these are three different things. If you treat nature, the antagonist, the same way, the want, need, get being different things, there’s this twist as we discover it doesn’t matter what nature wanted, this is what nature needed… And this is what actually happened.

[Brandon] Mary, you’ve got some homework for us.

[Mary Robinette] Yes. So what I want you to do is, we’re going to take the milieu MICE thread concept. Which is that a story begins when you enter a place in a milieu story, and it ends when you exit the place. All of the conflicts are things that stop from getting out, they stop you from navigating. They are things that get in your way of achieving that exit strategy. So what I want you to do is I want you to pick a milieu. Pick a setting. Just pick your starting point, this is a character entering. Pick your exit point, that’s the character leaving. Then brainstorm about 20 things that are going to get in the way of your character exiting the place. Then, I want you to pick your five favorites and rank them in an escalating order of difficulty. So this is just a structure exercise. If you wind up with something that sounds fun, you can write it. But really, what I want you to do is think about a way to build that setting as antagonist, and that setting is getting in your way.

[Brandon] Excellent. This has been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go write.