The dread god of the machine

On August 6, 2017, Melissa Mead wrote, The world of my would-be trilogy has humans, serpent-demons, the sort-of-angelic Aureni, and an omnipresent, basically omnipotent and benign deity, which the Aureni can heal people by praying to.

Book 2 started out as a NaNoWriMo project, and in the name of fast word count I invoked the “A wizard did it” rule and handwaved a lot of stuff. Now I want to turn it into a serious sequel, but the central premise hinges on the villain doing something that only the deity should be able to do. (And I don’t want to invoke deus ex machina any more than I can help.)

I’m also somewhat worried about offending people’s religious beliefs (it’s already happened once), but I’m hoping that readers will understand that everybody, including the deity, is fictional.

This from me: I agree that the dread deus ex machina should be avoided! Can you go back into the first book, since it isn’t published yet, and set up conditions that will make your villain’s heinous act possible in another way? Seems to me this is another time for a list of possibilities.

And from Moryah: The villain could harness the deity’s power somehow? Coerce the deity? Coerce an Aureni/some Aureni into doing it, through mind control or bribery or blackmail (would that even work?)? The villain has an object that connects to the deity? The villain coerced an Aureni into creating such an object? If only the deity can do whatever it is you need the villain to do, then logically the villain needs the deity’s power (unless you change things up in the first book, or things in this book). So the question is how the villain can harness the deity’s power – unless there are OTHER ways of obtaining a power of that magnitude. Maybe there’s another deity (like, a light-dark balance good-needs-evil idea, idk). Maybe there’s something that’s not a deity that doesn’t like the deity and would aid your villain in one-upping the deity in power (whether or not your villain is directly striking against the deity/Aureni).Maybe a random portal opens up spontaneously halfway through the book and the villain reaches into it and rummages around and pulls out a recipe for a magic vegan cornbread that when eaten gives the eater a temporary power (read: a power that will wear off once the cornbread is digested) to talk to stars, and instead your villain enslaves the stars and uses them to blackmail the deity, or uses them to perform the act you said only your deity could do.

Back to Melissa Mead: Mm, cornbread. Maybe I should put some cornbread in the story. I know a spot in Book 3 where it might be particularly plausible.   

I wish I could give more context without being spoilery… The basic idea is that the Aureni have the healing touch, and the villain has twisted that around. I can explain that storywise on a small scale, but for the big thing I’m thinking of….

…hey, I may have just caught the tiniest whiff of an idea…!

BTW, I don’t want to get rid of the actual “deus.” (Don’t think I could, actually.) I think the scenes between it and the MC are fun. I just don’t want it acting when the finite characters should.

First off, for those who don’t know, deus ex machina means, literally, god in the machine. The term originated in classical Greek theater, where play conflict was resolved when a contraption bore actors onstage who portrayed the gods and solved all the problems.

The charm of a deus ex machina is that the writer can pile on trouble after trouble without worrying about their resolution, because the gods are going to swoop in at the end and whoosh the difficulties away. I imagine that ancient theatergoers expected this and derived their pleasure from watching the train–or chariot–wreck unroll.

Fairies in most fairy tales as traditionally told operate as dei ex machina. And we who adapt these stories for modern readers struggle against this device to give our human characters agency.

The question about offending readers has come up before, and I’ve written posts about it, which you can find under the category “giving offense.” But I’ll revisit the subject briefly. I worry about this, too, although I tell myself not to. We can’t control our pesky (hah!) readers, who may take offense at story elements we think are completely innocuous. As long as we aren’t intending to give offense–I don’t even want to write that! I don’t want to give offense in my books for kids, but I don’t much care in my poems for adults, who can watch out for themselves, and some of you may be writing for grownups. And I think an argument can be made even in children’s books for being willing to give offense. A writer may want to challenge readers, for example. My guess is that YA author M. T. Anderson wasn’t very concerned about giving offense when he wrote Feed, which is a terrific though disturbing book.

On the other hand, I don’t want to encourage people to write stories that, for example, reinforce stereotypes. As a newly old person who just turned seventy, I often cringe at representations of the elderly in the media. How many forty-year-olds can drop down and pop out twenty push-ups, heh? I can, though of diminishing depth after the first ten.

And, of course, I oppose any writing that may incite violence.

But I think we know when we’re crossing a line. Most of us are probably over-cautious and keep the danger zone too far from our writing.

Onto the deity!

Melissa says that the second book’s central premise hinges on the villain doing something that only the deity should be able to accomplish. If this is a central premise, we need to take time to set it up.

We can ask ourselves, Under what conditions might this villain be able to do this impossible thing? I haven’t in decades, but I used to read super-hero comic books, and this kind of cosmic shake-up would happen regularly, especially, if I remember right, in Superman. I’d say what I always say: make a list of conditions, and, just saying, there’s no shame in putting a few of Moryah’s ideas on it.

I’m assuming that the villain is defeated in the end, so I don’t think it’s out of bounds for the villain to accomplish this thing if the reader understands how it’s done. I love the idea of a villain wily enough to usurp a deity’s power. I’m thinking of the bible story of Job. I’m not a biblical scholar, but my recollection is that Satan manipulates God into testing Job. If Job loses all his good fortune, Satan says, he will curse God. Game on. God takes away Job’s wealth, health, and, worst of all, his children.

So Satan, a much lesser being, has pushed God into an action He wouldn’t have taken otherwise. And Job, unwittingly, can also spur God to action. His fate hangs on his response to his losses.

I’m thinking also of the very old Ingmar Bergman movie called The Seventh Seal, in which a medieval knight plays a game of chess with Death. Presumably, if he wins, he lives forever. In the movie, the knight loses, which the reader expects, but one can imagine a different story with different results.

Melissa has kind of a David-and-Goliath situation going, with the villain the underdog. There’s fun to be had in playing that out. And if the villain wins, he (she? they? it?) becomes even more scary. Look! He can out-maneuver a god!

Melissa says that this god is omnipresent and omnipotent but doesn’t mention if she (he, etc.?) is omniscient. If she isn’t, the villain can use her ignorance to get the power he wants.

As a pantser, I regularly get myself into this kind of trouble. For me, it’s setting something up without realizing the long-term consequences. One solution, which both Moryah and I have suggested, is to reexamine the conditions that underpin the story, looking for elements we can use to approach the story from a new direction. For example, does the villain have to wield this particular power to do what he needs to? Does he have to do this particular thing, or can some other action bring about the same result?

As I suggested when I first responded to Melissa, she can go into the first book and tweak things to give the villain the power to do whatever has to be done. In a single book, we can go back to an earlier point in our story to make the changes.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Set your story in a world where water is limited. Two kingdoms are vying for control of the mighty Nipar River, and each kingdom has a hero/heroine who will do most of the heavy lifting. On the supernatural side, there’s an elf king, a dragon, and a goddess of justice who has limited powers. Each being backs one side or the other, though allegiances may shift. Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ Pick one or more of Moryah’s ideas and use it in a scene.

∙ Taking off from the fairy tale “Aladdin,” have Aladdin usurp the power of the genie of the lamp and do something only the genie could do.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Thank you! There are lots of helpful suggestions in here, and I think I might’ve come up with a few more ideas in the meantime, too.

    I’ve also decided that the god isn’t entirely all-knowing. I’ve already established that it takes different forms depending on who it’s interacting with. The Aureni know it as the Holy Light, and the demons call it the White Fire. In that form, it technically knows everything, but doesn’t have feelings about things the way it would when it’s in Auren or Demon form. OTOH, when it’s in those forms it’s subject to the limitations of those forms. (Malak is the only one who realizes that all these beings are basically forms of the same thing, because Malak isn’t all one thing himself. When he mentions it, people think he’s nuts.
    I love writing interactions between Malak and the deity, because it’s like writing a comedy duo with the deity as the straight man. It also takes about 5 different forms in Book 1, which was REALLY fun to write.)

    The villain in Book 2 wasn’t in Book 1, so I can’t tweak him ahead of time. Don’t know if he’ll be in Book 3 or not.

    This trilogy offended people before I even finished Book 1. Well, one person. The Aureni were originally Seraphim (and their children cherubim), but I was talking about it at a convention and a lady pointed out that those words have specific meanings (which they do, in our world,) and she felt I was disrespecting her religion. The Aureni are NOT supposed to be real-world angels, but I changed the name anyway. Their children are now fledglings. I just hope it comes across that I mean no disrespect to any real-world religion.

  2. I really appreciate all the good advice and encouragement on here, so as a sort of thank you I, um, wrote a cornbread scene.
    It would go in Book 3, and book 2 isn’t even half-done yet, so in case something changes between now and then and it never sees the light of day I thought I’d post it here, if that’s ok.
    (Moryah, I couldn’t make it vegan cornbread because I needed an egg for plot purposes, but you get credit for inspiring it just the same. Thank you! :))

    -(Malak had) gathered up a small pile of dead wood when he heard the swish of wings. Ben, heavily laden and flying barely above the grass, landed beside him.
    “I suppose I should’ve walked, but it feels so good to be able to fly again! I’m sorry, Malak. I tried to convince Anna and Paul, but they won’t let us stay in the house. Or even sleep in the barn. They’re afraid that, um…”
    “That I’ll eat their beasts. Or at least frighten them.”
    Ben nodded.
    “Well, they’re right. I WOULD frighten them.”
    “They felt really bad about it. They let me borrow all kinds of kit. Even a camp oven.” He held up a three-legged iron pot with a lid. “These things are wonderful. If they weren’t too heavy to fly with, all Pilgrims would carry them.”
    “What do you do with it?”
    “Cook! And you’ve already laid a fire. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you’d been walking trail for a century.” Ben rummaged in the sack he’d brought. “And based on what Anna’s provided, we’re having cornbread. With cheese! Bless her.” Ben set about pouring and stirring and trying to whistle. When the mixture in the pot had turned into a golden-brown loaf, Ben broke off a steaming chunk and offered it to him.
    “Ben, I can’t eat cornbread.”
    “Give it a try! Maybe it’s a bit “rustic” for settlers, but it’s good. Trust me. Besides, we Pilgrims aren’t supposed to eat while our companions go hungry.”
    “No, I mean I literally can’t.”-

    Now I’m off to look for “Giving Offense” posts…

  3. I have a question. My main character and her griffin friend are interpreters for each others’ species. They can’t understand anything without each other, but with help they can understand the speech of each others’ side. Right now I have the humans in regular dialogue and the griffins in italics. I’m having a bit of trouble with the dialogue though. In conversations with multiple parties, I don’t want to have my interpreters repeat every single line or even state “She translated it…” every single time, but I’m not sure it can be assumed either because they don’t always repeat every single word. Any advice?

    • I think that if you get across that they’re communicating through translators in the beginning you can write it like normal dialogue after that. Unless something happens to call attention to the translating, like a suspicion that the translator isn’t being accurate, whether as sabotage, or because one of the speakers has intimidated them, or the translator becomes suddenly, mysteriously ill, or something.

    • interesting. I have a situation where my MC can understand other creatures, but her best friend can’t and MC forgets to translate unless reminded, resulting in scenes rather like this:
      “What is he saying?!”
      “Oh, sorry” She translated and transferred her attention back to _____ (the creature in question).

      it may not be the ideal solution, but having someone forget to translate might remind people that translation is still going on.

  4. Hello! I have a question about POV. I’m writing my fairy story in first person. I tried third person and it made my MC Lio feel “distant” from me, like I couldn’t feel for him as much. First person works better for me in this story. My problem is whether or not First person is overused these days. It seems to me that over half the recently published books I pick up are written in first person.
    I’m also a little tentative when it comes to first person because some of the most annoying characters I’ve ever come across in books have told their stories in first person (although Mrs Levine’s characters are wonderful in both first and third person). : )
    Any thoughts?

    • I know what you mean about annoying first person characters. Two causes I thought of (There probably are others)
      1. Sometimes, it seems the author thinks the bigger the attitude of the first person narrator, the better. Basically, the annoying or arrogant character should NOT be the one telling the story.
      2. Sometimes there’s too much “telling” – relying on witty commentary or unusual ways of saying things rather than backing off and letting the reader see it. Let the reader experience the story, not just hear it.

      Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think I’d worry about it being over-used. It’s a form of storytelling. It doesn’t fall into the same category as cliches.

  5. Stephanie Leflower says:

    I’m writing a retelling of Beauty and the Beast but with quite a few changes. Without giving too much away, everyone isn’t quite what it seems. One of the characters is actually evil but I don’t want to reveal that. However, the story needs to be told from their point of view. How do I do that?

    • It sounds like you’d need an unreliable narrator. You can research those, starting here:
      Other questions that might help you figure things out: Is this first or third Point of View? Does the main character know that they are evil (like Disney’s original Maleficent) or do they think they are doing good? One of my antagonists in my WIP is what TV tropes calls a “Well-Intentioned Extremist”. He’s working for a good cause that most of the audience would approve of, but he does so in increasingly evil ways.
      TV tropes is a great resource for learning about what the audience might expect, how to play with those expectations, and getting ideas. It’s super addicting though! For instance, here’s one on “obliviously evil”, if the character doesn’t realize he’s doing wrong:

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