Since all fiction essentially narrows down to Conflict between two or more opposing forces, it is typical to represent these forces in the story's characters, with one faction, called the protagonists or main characters, usually (but not always) being the "good guys" (from the perspective of the work, at least), and another in opposition to the protagonists called the antagonists, who are usually (but not always) the "bad guys" (again, from the perspective of the work, at least).
Some stories, however, are cut from a different thread. Rather than representing the conflict as the "good guys" against the "bad guys", the central conflict is caused by other forces and does not feature characters in direct opposition to the protagonists. There is no evil villain hiding in his lair with a plot to destroy the world, no tyrannical ruler bent on mayhem and destruction, and no rival waiting to foil our heroes at every turn. Instead, the forces at work are more intangible and not bound to a set of characters.
This obviously doesn't mean that there is no conflict or tension. It simply means that the central conflict of the work has no characters that are the source of friction. This could mean that the conflict comes from an internal struggle, such as with addiction, or it could mean that the conflict arises from sort of natural/scientific disaster. As long as there are no "bad guys" directly opposing the main characters, this trope applies.
It's possible that one of the characters will be the Hate Sink: not actually a villain, but someone who makes the characters' lives more difficult to give the audience an outlet for the bad-guy hating.
For example, if Bob is seriously addicted to heroin and the work focuses around his battling of his addiction, then a drug dealer that constantly supplies Bob would not count as the antagonist, even though he is certainly not nice, unless there is conflict generated between Bob and the dealer. In the case where it is not, the work would have No Antagonist.
The trope does, however, require an actual conflict taking place within the story—works with no real conflict, such as sandbox games, would not apply. Most Slice of Life works have No Antagonist, due to the conflict being life itself, but that doesn't apply to all series where the antagonist can easily be someone damaging the life of the protagonist.
This trope is often found in Slice of Life programming, particularly modern ones that target preschoolers or younger viewers.
Note: "No Antagonist" means just that. If one or more sentient beings get in the way of the protagonists, however well-intentioned they are and however justified their actions, it's not an example.
Anime and Manga
- Stellvia of the Universe: Has no antagonists whatsoever, as it is about a united humanity trying to prevent a cosmic cataclysm that is about to hit Earth.
- A lot of Studio Ghibli/Hayao Miyazaki, especially the Slice of Life, films are like this. Some of them have characters who at first seem to be antagonists, but are really not.
- My Neighbor Totoro: The story centers around character's exploration of the rural life they are thrust into and its magical title character. The chief dramatic tension comes when a 5 year old girl goes missing, not from any antagonist.
- Kiki's Delivery Service, where the main conflict is Kiki's struggle to forge a satisfying life for herself in the big city.
- Ponyo: The main conflict is the massive storm and flood, and while Fujimoto at first appears to be an antagonist, he's really just an Overprotective Dad.
- Most Slice of Life anime shows follow this trope, such as:
- Haibane Renmei fits this.
- Digimon Tamers follows this trope for the first 13 episodes. It's an unusual example in that the protagonists initial struggle is in how to deal with the fact that digimon are real, this may have been one of the reasons why the start is widely considered to be slow.
- Black Swan has this in spades. Lily and Thomas have no ill will towards Nina, but Nina's own fragile psyche puts her through a confusing hell.
- Fairly common in any Disaster Movie that doesn't add an extra adversary (many times, a Designated Villain) for the protagonists to face during the tragedy.
- Armageddon: One whacking great rock to destroy, but it's not malign in its effect. The moment when the military decide to detonate the bomb early is almost the only antagonism not related to the "destroy the asteroid before it destroys us".
- The Core: All the story's conflict revolves around the Earth's core going haywire, and no antagonists are involved. You could stretch a point and finger the people behind the experimental earthquake-generator weapon that caused the problem in the first place, but they a) didn't do it on purpose and b) never appear onscreen.
- Deep Impact: The main conflict is an asteroid about to hit the Earth and there are no antagonists to this end.
- Into the Wild: The main theme of the story is the main character's escape from society and there are no antagonists.
- Juno: A classic example shown in a coming-of-age drama.
- Requiem for a Dream: The story is centered around several characters' drug addiction, so no antagonist is present.
- The closest thing Inception has to an antagonist would be Fisher, but even he isn't working against the protagonists and for some time is even tricked to work with them.
- Teen Witch: The protagonist and eponymous witch, Louise Miller, has no opponents throughout the movie. The main conflict is that she has the ability to make anything she wants come to pass. So all she has to do is wish to be the most popular girl (which she does) and that gets the attention of the most popular boy.
- Up in the Air: There isn't even much of a real conflict in this movie until the last 30 minutes.
- My Dinner with Andre. Two main characters, one or two minor ones, and no conflict beyond argument. The whole thing is about two people sitting down and talking over dinner.
- Apollo 13. Fighting for Survival aboard a badly damaged spacecraft.
- Lost Signal. Drugged teenagers wander around the forest during a blizzard.
- The Starfighters was really an advertisement for a series of fighter planes shot as a movie. The movie has almost no conflict whatsoever. The closest the film has to an antagonist is the Congressman, whose son is a part of the Starfighter project against his wishes, but he never does anything other than call his son or the CO to try to talk them into reassigning him.
- Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was specifically written to not have a real villain; the probe undoes all damage it does to the Earth once it gets to talk to the whales, and the army guys can be justified in being suspicious of a guy with a Russian accent asking about the nuclear "wessels" at the nearby Navy base.
- Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: The Thompson's are obnoxious neighbors, but their kids can be alright and the whole family reconciles with the Szalinskis at the end. Otherwise, nobody is ever intentionally causing trouble for anybody, they just happen to become an obstacle for the tiny children through accidents.
- The scorpion is portrayed as evil, even though nothing it does goes outside basic animal instincts.
- Airplane! deals with the passengers of the titular plane (pilot included) succumbing to a virus, as well as one of the few passengers on board who didn't catch the virus having to land the plane on his own, despite not having flown one for years as well as previously flying a different model.
- Bolt has meddlesome TV executives and dog catchers who cause problems for the main heroes, and Bolt initially blames "Dr. Calico" for everything, but in reality there is no central villain.
- The third Warrior Cats series, rather than having a main villain to be defeated, features the protagonists struggling with the meaning of a prophecy about them.
- Seeker Bears, another Erin Hunter series has no main villain (and no villains after book two) and instead features the bear protagonists as they fight global warming.
- Felsic Current
- A lot of chicklit and romance novels.
- A lot of H.P. Lovecraft stories as well. It's easy to overlook or forget that very few of them actually have villains as opposed to horrific sights, beings, or facts with a Blue and Orange Morality to them if there is any moral dimension going on at all.
- Jane Austen's Emma.
- Kurt Vonnegut has stated that none of his novels have a villain.
- Isaac Asimov mentioned that someone told him his stories don't have villains. Asimov replied that he feels that no one see themselves as a villain, so he tried to write his stories to reflect that.
- Three of the books in the original Circle of Magic quartet have no villains. The kids fight some bullies in a couple scenes of Sandry's Book as well, but it's a side issue, not the main conflict.
- In Brian's Saga the protagonist is stranded in a forest without ready access to supplies.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The episode "The Body" uses this. It's even lampshaded in a rant by Xander:
"Things don't just happen! Not like this!"
- Mad Men is probably the closest thing to this on tv currently. Character's problems and worries are all caused by their own actions and traumatic events of the 1960s (like the Kennedy Assassination and the Cuban Missile Crisis for instance). While a character may occasionally have a rival of some sort its never on such a level that the other character could be defined as a Big Bad or even a Villainy-Free Villain.
- Many episodes of House fit the trope: the "antagonist" of the medical part of the show is just some kind of disease or medical condition, whilst in the protagonist's life the "antagonists" are merely his own personal problems, such as drug addiction. In the first season (at the wishes of the network) they introduced a villain named Edward Vogler, but this arc was resolved rather abruptly, as the creators of the show were well aware that a villain did not really fit the show's dynamic (although a second antagonist, Det. Tritter, was introduced in the third season; naturally, when push came to shove his arc was resolved just as hastily as Vogler's).
- Animal Crossing. The conflict is simply "you're living on your own and have to pay for your house."
- The Atari 2600 game Pressure Cooker. You're working at a fast food restaurant and the conflict is in keeping up with the flow of burgers before they all fall off the chute and not get the orders wrong. There aren't even any other visible characters besides yourself.
- Many puzzle games without characters or plot proper.
- Final Fantasy XIII appears to be this way at the start, what with the inescapable situation that the protagonists are in and no clear cut villain aside from the entire world. But then Barthandelus shows up and suddenly he's the bad guy.
- The Harvest Moon franchise.
- Unless you count the indeferrent plague and human frailty as a Big Bad, Pathologic plays this pretty straight.
- Uru involves the player character exploring the history of the fallen D'ni culture, so unlike the rest of the Myst games, there is no villain here.
- A lot of life simulation games are like this, especially The Sims or SimCity or many of Maxis's Sim games.
- Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar: the goal of the game is to become the titular Avatar. While a fair part of that quest involves the traditional Dungeon Crawl, there is no villain and most of the work involved in completing the quest involves simply acting virtuously.
- Left 4 Dead and its sequel take place in a Zombie Apocalypse and is about the characters trying to escape from it. The "Director", commonly said to be the one placing hardships on the characters, is merely the name of the game's AI system that spawns enemies. The closest thing to a villain would be the military in The Sacrifice digital comic, although even the military's own leaders are more concerned with eliminating the zombies than opposing the main characters.
- Wapsi Square has a complex save-the-world plot without any antagonistic characters. Instead, the conflict comes from the difficulty in figuring out how to save the world, as well as difficulties in carrying the required plans out. Certain people can't be told certain elements of certain plans, but those people are still working towards saving the world. It's all very confusing.
- Dissonance: Two researchers deal with a new life form which challenges what they thought they knew about evolution, and their own Angst. Even the life form - a catlike creature that can walk on two legs - is friendly and completely non hostile.
- Dumbing of Age. Possibly to the frustration of fans, most of the conflict is derived from interpersonal relationships and inner demons. When an actual antagonist designed purely to be hated shows up, however...
- ReBoot: Subverted in episode "My Two Bobs". It was originally set up to lack a villain, as both Bobs were initially portrayed as "good" and the conflict was whether Dot would choose to be with Glitch-Bob or Normal-Bob. But this style of conflict was thrown out the window when Normal-Bob is revealed to be Megabyte.
- Most Postman Pat episodes are like this, with inclement weather, lost kites, special events (such as fetes and birthdays) and too-small suits of armour amongst others typically being the things that drive the plot, rather than a conflict between characters.
- The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, as well as most Pooh media in general. Usually, the conflict instead comes from characters trying to solve simple problems and/or misunderstandings.
- Rescue Heroes has the conflict being between the Global Response Team and the natural disaster of the week.
- While G1 had an antagonist almost every episode, and occasionally G4 has one, other series in the My Little Pony line didn't.
- Transformers Rescue Bots: With no Decepticons, the real conflicts are against natural disasters, malfunctioning machinery, and interpersonal issues between the Autobots and their human allies.
- However recent episodes show that a shadowy figure is manipulating things from a distance and is turning various devices and weapons against the Rescue Bots. It seems that the series is simply building up to the reveal of it's antagonist.
- Strawberry Shortcake for the most part, to the point it causes a Broken Base when actual antagonists appear.