by Lawrence Watt-Evans
Latest update to text: March 19, 1999
When I offered to write some stuff for one of my favorite fanzines, the editor offered three suggestions for topics.
The second one was, "Deus ex machina and the fantasy writer: When do and don't you play God?"
Actually, if that editor will forgive me for saying so, that's a silly question. All fiction writers play God all the time, and fantasy writers more than anybody. That's what writing fiction is -- creating your own private little world to play in, complete with people, places, good, evil, and all the rest of it.
In some genres the invented world looks a lot like the real world, at least at first glance -- but it's still the author's creation. No matter how hard the author tries to be realistic, what he puts down on paper has been filtered through his own perceptions, through the mind of God as far as the characters and events are concerned.
The trick is to be a benevolent and consistent deity, not one who pulls miracles out of a hat as needed.
In fantasy, playing God is a little more blatant than in most genres, since the author not only creates the characters and events, but generally the entire setting, and even changing the laws of nature to suit the story. In a mystery, for example, you know that a gun will work much as is does in the real world, that a corpse will stay dead (if it's really a corpse in the first place), that a dropped rock will fall.
In science fiction, even though you may be on other planets, the basic rules stay the same. Corpses may be revived if they're intact and the right technology is available, guns may work entirely differently from ours, but if someone standing on a planet drops a rock it will still fall. It may fall faster or more slowly than on Earth, and in space it may not fall at all, but the basic laws are the same--gravity works, even if it doesn't always apply.
In fantasy, you don't know what the rules are until the author tells you. Corpses might well get up and walk when enough moons are in the sky. Guns might only fire if the right spell is said. And a dropped rock might go anywhere. You can't be sure that the sun will rise, that the Earth is round, anything, until the author tells you.
However, while this might seem like a magnificent freedom for the author, it isn't really. If anything, it's a nuisance, a disadvantage--because it means you have to explain the rules to the reader as you go along, without any boring lectures, and you have to do it fairly.
You don't need to do that in other genres, not the same way.
Consider the mystery. It's certainly possible to cheat the reader. Set up a plot where there are just a few suspects trapped in an isolated manor house, and then have the murderer turn out to be a burglar hiding in the basement, and the reader will feel swindled--you haven't played fair, haven't laid out the situation properly, haven't played the game.
On the other hand, you can pull obscure facts out of nowhere without offending anybody. Consider Have His Carcase, by Dorothy Sayers--and if you haven't read it, I'm about to blow the whole plot out of the water for you so you might want to stop reading and skip ahead a couple of paragraphs.
In that book, the entire plot, with its complicated timetables and alibis, hinges on the fact that the victim is a hemophiliac.
The body is missing, however; nobody knows the victim was a hemophiliac; hemophilia is never mentioned until Lord Peter Wimsey suddenly makes the connection and Sees It All. If a reader never heard of hemophilia--and that was entirely possible in the 1920s, when the book first appeared and most hemophiliacs died before the age of eight--then there's no way that he could possibly have figured it out.
However, because hemophilia is real, Sayers can get away with that. It's something the reader might know, so it's fair.
In fantasy, you can't do that, because the reader only knows what the author tells him. You can't have your villain trap your hero, throw a fireball at him in exactly the same way that incinerated a dozen minor characters earlier, then have the hero stand there unscathed while the villain scratches his head and asks, "Why aren't you dead?" and then explain that your hero is the rightful heir to the Demon Lords and therefore immune to fire.
If, back in Chapter Two, your hero casually walked through a campfire to dry his feet and explained that his family has always been immune to fire, then you could pull a stunt like that--but even then, it's a cheap way out.
You can't even use real things without first establishing them, because fantasy doesn't work that way. You can't have your hero suddenly pull a gun when he loses his sword; guns are assumed not to exist in fantasy until it's stated otherwise. In fantasy, the reader only knows what he's told.
If you show your hero on a horse, the reader will say to himself, "Aha! A horse! I know what they're like."
If you then give the horse a few lines of dialogue, the reader will say, "Aha! Horses can talk!"
But if you then have your horse pick up a gun and shoot somebody, the reader will balk. "Wait a minute," he'll say, "Horses don't have fingers!"
Let us suppose, though, that you put your hero on a glumph.
"What's a glumph?" the reader asks.
You, the author, don't say, but you mention the moonlight gleaming from the glumph's sleek purple hide, you mention the strange, birdlike tracks it leaves, you mention the humped shadows of glumphs on the horizon, the sour smell of a glumph's sweat.
The reader starts to build an image of a glumph.
Then you give the glumph a few lines of dialogue, and the reader says, "Aha! Glumphs can talk!"
Then you have the glumph pick up a gun and shoot somebody, and the reader will still balk.
Ah, but let's go back a bit. Suppose that while your glumph is talking earlier, he casually picks up a stick and scratches his back with it.
Okay, now the glumph can pick up a gun and shoot somebody.
In other words, to get back to the original question, when do you play God, and when don't you?
You play God when you create the world and the story set in it, and once that's done, you do not intervene directly. You don't change the rules in the middle of the game. You don't let the detective summon the victim's ghost and ask whodunnit in a mystery, and you don't change the laws of magic midway through a fantasy. You don't spring surprises on the reader. If you're going to use some loophole in your invented rules, then you need to let the reader know as soon as possible that that loophole exists, and you want to try very hard to not make it look like that loophole was created just to make your plot work.
You don't let a god come down out of the sky and save the good guys at the end.
Instead, you set things up at the beginning so that the good guys can win without that--and you try not to be too obvious about it, and not to make it too easy for them.
The hero shouldn't win the wizards' duel just because his will is stronger; he should win because somewhere along the way to the final battle he's learned a trick that gives him an edge.
He shouldn't survive the fireball because he was born to the right family; he should survive because, earlier in the story, in anticipation of just such an event, he went through the sacred initiation ritual of the cult of the Demon Lords and acquired an immunity to fire.
The approaching assassin shouldn't be shot by a horse that happens to have fingers, or even by a glumph that happens to be awake--but by a glumph your hero's girlfriend secretly trained to guard her beloved, whose training was shown in an earlier chapter.
You play God at the Creation, and then you sit back and watch it all unfold. If you've done it right, you won't need to show your hand again.
All contents and referenced pages are copyright by Lawrence Watt Evans except as noted.
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