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


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.

Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, narrated by Peter Coyote

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

11 thoughts on “14.27: Natural Setting as Conflict”

  1. So many fantastic examples in this podcast, and so many good tips.
    Howard: How similar are you to Brandon in terms of devising a plot and then crafting characters that suit the plot? This is something I would love to try some day, my struggle is that I am gardener and any idea I have inevitably changes over time. The project I’m working on right now has a sort of big picture idea that has changed so much now that it has become almost unrecognizable from what it was a few months ago. Does this happen for you as well?
    Has Delancey Place ever been featured on the podcast? It’s at the very least fun, and potentially a very helpful resource for new ideas. You can either subscribe, or just browse their archive of quotes from a huge variety of books of scholarly quality. It’s basically a curated archive of bite-sized awesome.

  2. The winning foursome, Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard, fought off the heat and humidity of Houston (po’ baby, you all think this is hot and sticky?) to talk about Person vs. Nature, the match of a lifetime! Survival, disaster, adventure, all wrapped up in a story. So, whether your setting is the big antagonist or just one of several getting in the way of the protagonist, you too can set a timebomb or solve the mystery, and… we gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do! So, read all about it in the transcript, available now in the archives. Then look around and see if that vine is trying to catch you again!

  3. It’s kinda interesting how so many stories start in a place of “man vs. nature” and move to “man vs. man” or “man vs. society”. I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head where the *latter* part of the story becomes man vs. nature, but for some reason I feel like they would probably feel less satisfying. Like, nature almost feels like it is a more easily conquered obstacle (we’re pretty good at shaping our environment, but not each other) or maybe that we get more catharsis out of seeing someone confront/conquer people instead of the uncaring world.

    1. You could probably do a tricky maneuver by starting with man vs. man, building up the protagonist/antagonist conflict, and then… switch to man vs. nature, with the two enemies forced to work together by the disaster or whatever that has overtaken them? Kind of an odd buddies story, with them forced to overcome their initial distaste for each other because survival trumps dislike. Man vs. society… well, again, you could start with man fighting the organization or society, and then… the flood, earthquake, asteroid collision, pick your disaster comes, and they decide that they can work with it, after all. Could be kind of interesting stories there, now that I think about it. Go for it!

    2. I would guess that a man vs man story that turns into a man vs nature story is harder to do than the opposite.

      It seems like man vs man arises more “naturally” from man vs nature as there are plenty of ways the suroundings could spark conflict. Scarcity being a common one.

      For the opposite to happen, I think there would have to be a lot more set up. Either the switch would have to be foreshadowed, promised, or already in the background. There would also have to be some way to wrap up the man vs man with out wrapping up the story.

      I believe this leads to a lot of stories that start as character conflict and end as setting conflict being highly one sided. Either the man vs man is the insiting event or the man vs nature is the final hurdle to success.

      I’m probably rambling.

  4. Another kid-vs-nature book, probably considered middle grade, is My Side Of The Mountain by Jean Craighead George. I believe it was in my 5th grade literature book (in the 1960s).

  5. Something that interests me is the idea of nature as protagonist, rather than antagonist. It seems , somehow, rather facile to go to the “human vs nature” theme whenever Nature gets involved. I know that there’s nothign stopping Nature being both protagonist and antagonist, but it seems as though we cannot escape the pioneering spirit when subduing nature was the goal.

    A book where, arguably, Nature is the “good guy” and the protagonis is at best, an abusive partner of Nature, is “The Hunter” by Julia Leigh. Another book with ambiguous relations to Nature is Linda Hogan’s “Power” in which a beleaguered Florida landscape takes on the persona of both an antagonist to and victim of human characters, including protagoinists.

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