Most plots can be summed up as simply as Man vs. Man, but some plots are more like Man vs. Nature. So how do you make a natural event a compelling villain? You create a person to represent the villain.
In “The King’s Speech,” the biggest obstacle is the Duke of York’s stuttering problem, which renders his public speaking abilities painfully useless. In this case, his biggest obstacle is simply overcoming his own stuttering problem, which is more of a mental condition than an outside physical problem.
So how do you make this villain more terrifying? In a traditional plot, it’s easy to see how a giant robot (“Transformers”) or hostile aliens (“Battle: Los Angeles”) could be frightening villains, but stuttering? This is how “The King’s Speech” does it.
First, “The King’s Speech” makes the hero’s mentor an enemy. Initially, the Duke of York does not like the speech therapist and they initially butt heads. Once the hero (the Duke of York) learns to trust the speech therapist’s lessons, he gradually improves. Then the hero gets angry when the speech therapist tries to push him to be great, causing the hero to break off contact with the speech therapist.
Another battle occurs when the Duke of York is about to become the king. During the rehearsals for the ceremony, the archbishop clashes with the speech therapist and later performs inquiries in the speech therapist’s background to discover he’s not a doctor, had no training in speech therapy, and is a failed actor. Essentially the archbishop is trying to discredit the speech therapist and get the Duke of York to leave him. In this brief battle, the archbishop represents the villain.
Finally at the end, the hero must face the microphone to give his speech to the people, waiting to hear about the coming of war. The villain is now the microphone and the hero is left to face the microphone to make his speech. For this final battle, there is only the hero battling himself, with the eyes of the entire nation watching how he performs to raise the stakes. Personifying the villain at this point would actually distract from the final battle because the conflict had always been within the hero.
When you don’t have a clear villain, you have to use people to represent that villain at various times. In the original “Poseidon Adventure,” the ocean is the villain, trying to drown everyone, but the various people opposing the survivors represent personification of the villain.
In a Man vs. Nature plot, people always represent the constant battles of the villain against the hero. At the end, it resorts back to the hero battling the natural elements whether it’s the ocean or making a speech live in front of a microphone.
Just like an ordinary story, your villains representing nature may not actually be in league with your actual villain. They just provide the necessary conflict for your hero to face and overcome.
For example, in “Die Hard,” the terrorists represent the villain, but the incompetent FBI agents represent another obstacle to Bruce Willis, so they act as villains as well even though they’re actually fighting the terrorists too.
The key is to make sure your hero is constantly fighting against a villain, which is best personified by a person or in the case of science fiction stories, by aliens or robots. Fighting against nature all the time is pretty dull because it’s almost always more exciting to watch someone fight against another person.
Would fighting against a person be more exciting or fighting against a tree be more exciting? Answer that question and you’ll know how you need to make sure your story has constant conflict between people most of the time.