Can A Catastrophe Be A Character In Your Novel?

character in your novel

Conflict and villains are standard fare in every genre and mode of storytelling. But a villain isn’t always human, and conflict takes on many forms, as seen in these examples of literature and film.

Conflict in fiction is often considered in terms of character-against-character tensions and struggles. The good guy, heroic, but usually with some notable weaknesses, versus a villain. Effective villains in fiction often hide their evil nature, displaying an outward personality that conceals the monster underneath. Think of the cultured Dr. Hannibal Lector in Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs.

As author Dan Brown says about conflict in the intro to his storytelling class on MasterClass, “Write the villain first, because your villain is going to define your hero.”

What makes a villain?

The villain — the source of the tension that drives the narrative — doesn’t have to be a person. The tension can emerge from someone’s internal conflicts, struggles against an unjust society, or life-threatening conditions in the natural world. Along this vein, some excellent fiction has been centered around catastrophes serving as the arch villain—individuals battling disasters, whether caused by humankind or triggered by nature.

Although it may seem as though we are currently locked into an inescapable time bubble dominated by extreme climate events, mutating viruses, insect-borne bacteria, and impossible political friction, a look through current and past literature shows that other eras have addressed similar monumental disasters, catastrophic pandemics, and societal upheavals. Looking at some of the literary landmarks in this multi-faceted genre shows how other writers have mined catastrophic events to shape stories and demonstrate the essence of human nature in the process.

Termination Shock

Termination Shock, a keenly anticipated and thoroughly rewarding novel by Neal Stephenson, features a disparate collection of characters ranging from the Queen of Netherlands as an accomplished jet pilot, a wild boar-hunting Comanche, a Sikh martial-arts master, and a Texas magnate scheming and soliciting support to confront climate change using surreptitious geoengineering. Set in a near future in which many of the world’s environments, including all of Texas, are uninhabitable without protection from the elements, the varied cast of characters respond to the challenges in ways that reflect their positions, government affiliations, personal agendas, and unquestioned beliefs.

The story is rife with fascinating, fully researched technical details, a characteristic of most of Stephenson’s novels. As Cory Doctorow commented on the book, “Because this is a Stephenson novel, there’s a lot of delightful tech in it. A lot of the action revolves around the Maeslantkering (“the largest robot in the world”), a massive pair of flood-gates that defend the port of Rotterdam and the lands beyond it. I read Termination Shock while I was in the Netherlands last month and it prompted me to take a special trip to see the Maeslantkering in person: a pair of horizontal, Eiffel-Tower-sized arms on 10m bearings that shut out the sea. It didn’t disappoint!”

The Ministry of the Future

Equally compelling, though not overflowing with quite as many white-knuckle, action-adventure subplots, The Ministry of the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson, presents an in-depth, multi-level view of how humans might cope with global climate disruption.

In the early stages of the narrative, the story depicts a frighteningly realistic account of a death-dealing heat wave in India. The horrors of that event set one of the characters on a desperate mission: the violent destruction of corporate evil-doers, the world’s banking establishments, and other societal mechanisms that are driving climate disruption.

Much of the conflict in the novel is the tension between those parties who are trying to orchestrate a reasoned response to global warming versus those who feel everything has gone beyond known boundaries, justifying an approach using direct—often violent—action. Shifting back and forth between the two viewpoints as the characters evolve, the novel successfully uses the central conflict to imagine the possible outcomes of different courses of action.

A Message from the Future II

In The Intercept, Naomi Klein writes about her most recent film, A Message from the Future II, saying, “Covid-19 acts as a kind of character in the drama, almost like a tough teacher instructing humanity in a series of lessons that should have been obvious long ago.”

The concept of a virus as a character or a heavy backdrop to the narrative surfaces in a number of novels discussed in an article in The Guardian,Inside story: the first pandemic novels have arrived, but are we ready for them?” In the article, Lara Feigal says, “The pandemic, in its actual and its more luridly imagined forms, will continue to find its way into fiction, even as the actuality of Covid becomes something more everyday (a new normal in which few retain a sense of smell and daily life is structured around lateral flow tests).”

On the Beach

Catalog Hana BannerAmidst the rising threat of nuclear war in the 1950s, Nevil Shute wrote On the Beach. In this novel, set in Australia in the aftermath of a nuclear war that has released a giant cloud of radiation that will seal the fate of everyone living in the country, Shute traces the ways in which the characters deal with the grim news. The varied personalities include an American nuclear sub captain determined find out if his family has survived the conflict; a scientist who tries to fulfill his lifelong dreams in the days remaining; a mother who cannot accept that the world is coming to an end; and a young woman who imbibes spirits and dances to forget the peril, among others. Through these characters, Shute does a masterful job showing the best and worst of people facing the end.

A Friend of the Earth

Set in 2025, T.C. Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth presages a world in which biosphere collapse is rapidly progressing and the characters in the novel struggle to survive in the deteriorating conditions. The story relates, with astonishing accuracy, many of the climate issues we are witnessing today, despite being written in 2000.

The characters who carry the story forward are a curious lot, as you would expect from Boyle. The primary narrator, Tyrone O’Shaughnessy Tierwater, is a former ecoterrorist currently managing a menagerie of the few surviving exotic animals on the planet. The book skips back and forth between his younger days and his elder years, showing his personal evolution as the world tragically degrades around him.

The tone throughout is one of mordant humor. About this book, journalist and author of The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert said, “Fiction about ecological disaster tends to be written in a tragic key. Boyle, by contrast, favors the darkly comic.”

A contrary view about handling conflict

The usual tropes surrounding the way conflict should be used in narrative works can sometimes be influenced by political leanings. Writing for Literary Hub, Madeline ffitch draws distinctions about the way conflict in stories is often treated in a one-dimensional manner.

“I’m thinking about how many times over the years I’ve heard that worn truism of the fiction workshop, that conflict is essential to craft. It’s handed down by workshop leaders, passed around during critiques. Where’s the conflict? I’m not sure I understood the conflict. This conflict is really working. That conflict kind of got dropped. Conflict drives the plot, we hear. It creates drama. It motivates characters. One writing blog tells me that in real life we avoid conflict, but in fiction that’s boring. The blog tells me to ‘invent’ obstacles for characters in order to keep people reading. Conflict is useful, I read, because it helps to illustrate values. Yet even as all of this pretends to champion conflict, it betrays a lack of faith in it. It casts conflict as something to be controlled and managed, a tool of manipulation, useful only as far as it suggests an outcome. Far from treating conflict as a fundamental aspect of craft, it reduces it to a gimmick.”

Is this the end of the world?

Is it bad form to end a story on a down beat? When writing a story bound by catastrophe, should you give the reader some light to recover from the dark journey? As Albert Camus said, “Where there is no hope, it is incumbent on us to invent it.”

Rebecca Solnit, in her nonfiction book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, offers surprising insights into the ways in which people have often come together to contend with disasters of every sort. She chronicles examples of human empathy and caring in numerous disastrous events, including the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the flooding of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, the fall of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, the 1917 explosion of a cargo ship in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and other events.

The takeaway is that despite the notion that humans are selfish and uncaring, disasters often bring out the best in humanity and elevate those involved to remarkable acts of charity and kindness. This side of human nature deserves a role in fictional stories in which catastrophes put individuals to the test — whether to follow the guidance of their better angels or succumb to their basest impulses.

“Horrible in itself,” Solnit said, “disaster is sometimes a door back into paradise, the paradise at least in which we are who we hope to be, do the work we desire, and are each our sister’s and brother’s keeper.”

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