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Facing the World: External Obstacles in Storytelling

Facing the World: External Obstacles in Storytelling

Storytelling is a complex journey where characters grapple with three fundamental oppositions: character vs. character, character vs. nature, and character vs. society. These oppositions are fluid, defined by the story's structure. This exploration delves into external obstacles emerging from the story world, distinct from internal struggles. 

They are pivotal in propelling the plot forward, often rivaling the characters in significance, as seen in "The Lord of the Rings." Distinctions between obstacles blur, with authenticity and character growth taking precedence. Beware the 'pathetic fallacy,' a literary pitfall. As we navigate this storytelling terrain, we encounter the dynamic interplay between characters and external challenges, breathing life into our tales.

Three Facets of Opposition

In the realm of fiction, characters encounter three fundamental forms of opposition:

  • Character vs. character
  • Character vs. nature
  • Character vs. society

However, these opposition categories don't precisely align with the concepts of internal, external, and antagonistic obstacles; their classification depends on the story's structure.

The External Frontier

The Diverse Ensemble

In any compelling narrative, the cast of characters often features a diverse array, highlighting disparities and conflicting interests among individuals. Some roles are intrinsic or necessary components of the story's setting, forming part of the story world. 

For instance, in a tale about a prisoner, the presence of jailors or wardens is implicit, as their interests inherently clash with the prisoner's yearning for freedom. Similarly, in a jungle adventure, natural elements such as wild animals or environmental forces impede the character's journey toward their goal. In these scenarios, the obstacles are external to the character in terms of dramatic structure.


Yet, when this opposition consolidates and becomes targeted explicitly against the protagonist's plans and objectives, it becomes antagonism. Characters like Warden Samuel Norton in "The Shawshank Redemption" cease to be peripheral figures and become the primary antagonists. In "Deliverance," the river down which the characters navigate isn't just a backdrop but a manifestation of antagonistic forces. 

Similarly, in "The Revenant," nature takes on an antagonistic role when it opposes Leonardo DiCaprio's character's pursuit of survival. Writers like Kafka in "The Trial" or "The Castle" construct entire societies that, for the characters entrapped within them, represent antagonistic forces.

The Realm of External Obstacles

An Inextricable Part of the Story World

External obstacles emanate from the story world rather than the character's emotional constitution or dramatic role. On the contrary, internal obstacles are inherently rooted in the character, while antagonistic obstacles often spring from the character's darker inclinations or polar opposites.

External obstacles play a more pivotal role in advancing the plot rather than in fostering inner transformation within the character. Stories that heavily rely on external factors to provide opposition strive to imbue these obstacles with significance within the story world. 

Consider "The Lord of the Rings," where the heroes must overcome topographical features such as mountains and marshes. J.R.R. Tolkien masterfully foreshadows and emphasizes these landscape elements, elevating them to formidable forces of opposition, bordering on becoming antagonistic in their own right.

Blurred Boundaries

The Interplay of Obstacles

The boundaries distinguishing these obstacle types are often nebulous, and categorization isn't of paramount importance. What truly matters is that these obstacles genuinely challenge the character's plans. Furthermore, each obstacle, whether internal, external, or antagonistic, must be more formidable than the last. 

Ideally, the character evolves and grows through the process of dealing with each obstacle, becoming better equipped to confront the ultimate challenge that awaits toward the story's conclusion.

The heart of any narrative predominantly comprises characters grappling with various obstacles and opposition. In storytelling, every obstacle — be it external, internal, or antagonistic — must escalate in intensity compared to the previous one. These challenges prompt character growth and equip the protagonist to face the ultimate climax, which is unlikely to be an external obstacle. Instead, it often takes the form of antagonistic opposition, potentially blending elements of external and internal conflicts into one grand showdown.

Beware the Pitfall

The Pathetic Fallacy

Writers should be cautious of falling into the trap known as the "pathetic fallacy," an extension of John Ruskin's original concept. This fallacy involves using external forces to amplify dramatic moments or conflicts, such as a thunderstorm coinciding with a pivotal emotional climax. Such instances of obstacles or opposition converging run the risk of becoming clichéd storytelling devices.


We've journeyed through the intricacies of external obstacles and their pivotal role in propelling narratives. These obstacles can become central antagonistic forces, blurring distinctions in their authentic challenge. Characters evolve as they face these escalating obstacles, preparing them for the ultimate showdown, which often combines external and internal conflicts.

To explore deeper into the art of storytelling and receive expert assistance in crafting compelling narratives, contact Hire A Writer. Our team is ready to help you master the dynamic interplay between characters and external challenges, breathing life into your tales. Explore the richness of storytelling with us; your stories deserve nothing less.

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