I have a story where the conflict is mostly internal reaction to exterier circumstances. So throughout the story I have antagonists who show up, but non of them are really the main source of conflict, they are only the expression of the conflict in a scene or act.
I'm concerned this could be a perceived source of 'weakness' in the story. I don't want the reader to go "where's the villain?". The story is really a journey with the Protag really battling a theme more than a specific person. Kind of like LOTR where you never really have someone having a showdown with the Great Eye. Another example could be the Time Traveler's Wife, except the ending left me severly dissatisfied.
So for example, I can't reveal let's say the villain who gets the ball of conflict rolling because most of the story including the final resolution scene deals with other villains, but they all deal with the same conflict. So little is added by introducing the ball-roller villain.
So what tips would you have for facilitating that kind of story? So the reader leaves satisfied even though a villain never takes center stage?
Make sure all the villains represent the same evil. Are they members of the same creed? Perhaps just give them a common feature like a piece of clothing. Make that stand out and it looks as if all the characters are arms of a single invisible monster.
It would also be good to make sure each villain has a unique and different feature so the reader knows it's not one guy coming back to life. Give these characters specific personalities and you might achieve a dramatic climax as if each villain is a step in a larger staircase to the summit of the story/drama.
There are plenty of good stories out there that do not have a villain. At least three of the four Hugo nominees for short story this year are like that. (Maybe the fourth one, too, but I haven't read it.)
You don't necessarily need a bad guy. To create conflict, you need to establish what the protagonist wants and then throw obstacles in the way. The bigger and more daunting those obstacles are, the better.
I hear a lightbulb burning. Writer on fire.
Antagonism, a protagonist can and should in some small or large way get in the self's way; in other words, be a self-antagonist.
Antagonism as I understand it is when two or more discrete circumstances come together and are changed by the encounter. Muriatic acid and baking soda, mutual antagonists when combined, yield carbon dioxide gas, water, and table salt.
Consider conflict in the creative writing sense as diametrically opposed forces clashing. Somewhat related to antagonism, as much as theme is, but more related to stakes and outcomes, like acceptance or rejection, life or death, growth or decline.
A self-antagonizing protagonist has an internal conflict as well, perhaps, as a related external conflict. Developing an internal conflict reveals a protagonist's internal life personality through behaviors responding to conflict, shapes thoughts, shapes actions and reactions; in other words, reveals the personal character of a protagonist.
With internal conflict, there's still antagonism's two extremes of purpose and complication, as there is with external conflicts. Like external conflict, an internal conflict's antagonism may start with a desire (purpose) that is then complicated by opposition, or vice versa, a complication that compels a desire to resolve the complication in the face of escalating opposition.
Related internal and external conflicts make for a rich, braided shape story. Rich in the sense of intimately engaging readers in the settings and characters and events as participants in the mystique. Braided shape in the sense it's all connected and beautifully engaging and entertaining from that braiding.
I think there's a kind of symmetry between the reader and the character when it comes to the interaction of internal conflict with plot. A character's internal conflicts are what move him forward in a plot and what gives him insight into the events of the plot. The plot is what keeps the reader moving forward through the characters' story arcs and gives him insight into their motivations.
What it appears you're talking about is shaping a plot when character motivations are too complex to be embodied in simple one-to-one correspondence with some plot element (e.g. gain the McGuffin and prove you are worthy; defeat the villain and obtain revenge). Perhaps you are aiming for a more naturalistic style than a "hero's journey" or a three act structure.
That's fine, but it puts greater demands on the other aspects of your writing. A simple, tight plot keeps readers turning pages, even where the rest of the writing is pretty sloppy. A book with a less streamlined plot is going to have to hold readers other ways. And chances are it's going to be long-ish because you have to keep introducing new characters, settings and problems. Many great, classic novels like Les Misérables or The Brothers Karamazov are like this, sprawling, complex, organic entities that are impossible to boil down to a simple plot without losing coherence.
Still, it's important even in a more complex (or if you prefer "less structured") story to keep things moving forward, making each page rewarding. Characters have to be vivid, so we understand the goals they are pursuing at any given time, that we can read their agenda into their dialog.
One messily structured story that enjoyed commercial success despite cardboard characterization, rotten prose style, and big does of plain ole' dumb is Dan Browne's The DaVinci Code. It is an irritatingly juvenile story, but it's easy to get through (one person I know called it "a book for people who don't like to read") because at any given time the hero has clear, understandable goal with an obvious, understandable motivation.
I was reminded of David Lindsay's 1920 classic A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS. The protagonist is essentially on a quest for self-discovery. Similarly, Bunyan's PILGRIM's PROGRESS, James Branch Cabell's JURGEN, and even Tolkien's LEAF BY NIGGLE.
Sometimes the antagonist in a story is the protagonist as well.
To clarify further. The Main Protag is facing for the whole story a single conflict of circumstances (a possibly reversible apocolyptic event). However the cause is unknown to him and everyone he meets. The circumstantial result is scarcity in every physical resource, which then manifests itself in antognism by otherwise 'civilized' people. Image War of the Worlds (novel or movies).
So he ends up for most of the story dealing with other people who are either noble and trying to save at least some other people, and other people who are primarily interested in saving themselves. Of course this is a contiuum because the MC realizes early on that he is susceptable to become the latter, while others still have not realized it, and others have embraced their self-preservation while part of them is struggling to get back to nobility.
Of course other factors are intervening, to bring the MC and his party to the place where they can halt the apacolypse so there is a structure and a goal, but the MC's goal changes from "save yourself" to "be noble" to "nobally throw yourself on the altar to save the world". So there is I believe a clear goal in every stage but it changes from small to large.
So the result from a circumstantial point of view is he's dealing with small unrelated villains all related to the same temptation for most of the story while he progresses to dealing circumstantially with the ball-roller villain, all the while dealing with his own internal conflict and in that sense becoming a hero to others. A dramatic example as Bruce Wayne would call him.
I was thinking yesterday that Gulliver's Travels might be an example (the 96 miniseries since I haven't read the book).
Can those internal and external conflicts be reduced to a short phrase? Say, self-serving versus self-sacrificing survival.
Self-sacrifice is, in a nut shell, the very modern definition of nobility, good, and all that's genuinely righteous. Because humans are social beings, we are dependent, interdependent, and intradependent upon our community. Serving society's community needs, the proverbial greater good, reciprocally serves one's own needs. At least that's the way it's a best practice to be as I see it.
Conversely, selfishness is evil incarnate. Taking indiscriminately for one's own enrichment without regard for the needs and social rights of others is evil. Yet if one doesn't take care of one's own needs, and no one else is, one cannot serve the greater good.
Seems to me the protagonist's desire (purpose), so to speak, is to preserve human dignity in the face of social and moral decline. That's an external goal driven by an internal desire as I see it. Others' self-serving means and ends insuperably complicate that goal.
The internal struggle as I see it is resistance to self-serving means and ends, despite the temptations of selfishness in the face of rampant selfishness.
Wouldn't man against woman count as man vs. nature?
I do understand the different types of conflict, just its hard when feedback says "I want to know what's going on" seems only soluable by introducing one otherwise irrelevent villain (at least for the moment). I want to showcase the man vs self and man vs nature, which is natural because that's where the pov characters are. In the thick of it not knowing the why, but progressing through the journey towards the why.
I guess I'll just have to wait till I'm finished with this round of edit and see what some beta readers think.
I'm seeing theme-conflict. Thematically congruent conflict. Conflict as it relates to a diametric opposition of antagonism forces, to motivations and stakes, and to purpose and complication outcomes. Like life or death and so on.
NAME OF THE WIND by Patrick Rothfuss has no "main" villain. That's because it's a hardship story.
THE ROAD by Cormack McCarthy has no main villain. It too is a hardship story.
Lots of mysteries have no main villain thwarting the hero's efforts. For example, ANCEINT SHORES by Jack McDevitt, or the many crime dramas.
THE PERFECT STORM didn't have a main villain acting against the hero.
Nor did CAST AWAY.
Nor, in fact, does HUNGER GAMES.
So you don't have to have ONE main antagonist to write a story that works for readers.
What I think you want to do is focus on the hardship and increase tension as you go. Otherwise, it might feel like just one dang thing after another, i.e. no progression. If there's a big mystery element to it, then you want to focus on that.