Playing God in Fiction

Ask a group of fiction writers why they enjoy writing fiction, and chances are a substantial chunk of the answers will have something to do with how much fun it is to create our own little worlds and play God in them. As long as we’re playing God, we may as well do it right—treat our characters the way God treats us.

1. Pull them out of their comfort zone.

Think back to when you first committed your life to God. You probably had a lovely little honeymoon phase when everything was sweetness and light. But then things started to get stickier. As you drew closer to God, He began to peel back the layers of your personality to show you things about yourself you’d much rather not have known. He began pushing you to be a better, braver, more trusting, more risk-taking, more loving, more sacrificing person than you ever believed you could be.

And that’s just what a good writer does to her characters. If we left them in their comfort zone, there would be no story. Take any story you like, even the sweetest stories of childhood, like Winnie the Pooh. We have Pooh pursued by angry bees or stuck in Rabbit’s front door or falling into a pit meant for Heffalumps. We have Piglet facing his terror of Heffalumps to rescue Pooh, or giving up his house to Owl. Definitely out of their comfort zones.

And if you look at more grown-up literature, you have Frodo leaving the comfort of the Shire and ultimately heading into Mordor. You have Fanny Price leaving her family to face all the terrifying grandeur of Mansfield Park. You have Anna Karenina’s placid if less-than-contented life turned upside down by passion. Comfort zone? That’s for those left behind.

2. Give them free will.

Non-writers tend to think writers are a little nuts, or at least exaggerating, when we talk about our characters as if they’re independent entities: “My character just won’t behave.” “I thought I was going to write X, but my character wanted to do Y.” “My characters are taking over the story—I have no idea where it’s going.”

If you write fiction and you’ve never had such an experience, you may be keeping your characters on too tight a rein. Yes, you created them, but now they exist in their own right—in some bizarre mystical sense we can’t quite understand. If you want your story to ring true, to be the best it can be, you need to give them their head. Let them find their own way and make their own mistakes. That’s what God does with us, after all. And provided you’ve given them a good heart to begin with, they’ll turn out all right in the end.

3. Give them what they need, not what they want.

In the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Not “Give us this day our sports cars, our Prada, our iGadget 16, our McMansion.” God has promised to give us what we need. He never promised to give us everything we want, either on the material plane or otherwise.

Our characters, being human, want all sorts of things that aren’t the best for them. They may want a peaceful life in their comfort zone. They may want worldly success, not knowing it would ruin them spiritually. They may want the love of the wrong person. It’s our job to make sure they don’t get these things—or, if they’re really stubborn, to let them attain their false desires and then take them away. In the end, our characters have to end up with what they really need in order to become better people.

This is the flip side of “give them free will.” We let them do what they want, but we control the results.

Think of Emma Woodhouse. She thought she wanted to be the benevolent dictator of her social circle, directing everyone else’s love life while remaining unattached herself. But of course, that life would only have intensified all her flaws. What she really needed was marriage to a man who would never let her get away with being less than her best, and Jane Austen made sure she got it.

4. Rescue them only at the last minute.

How many times have you prayed for God to save you from some situation—a financial crisis, a life-threatening disaster, or just an everyday contretemps—and found yourself biting your nails, wondering if He was really going to come through this time? Then at the very last possible second, He swoops in and delivers you, usually in some spectacular way you could never have predicted. Who says God doesn’t have a sense of the dramatic?

A wise fiction writer will do exactly the same. We’ll let our characters get themselves up to their necks in a pool of quicksand surrounded by ravenous lions, with cobras slithering toward them across the mud, before we drop them a line from a hovering helicopter.

The lava of Mount Doom was licking at Sam and Frodo’s furry toes when the eagles swooped in to carry them off. Harry Potter had to go all the way to death and back before he could defeat Voldemort. The White Witch had her wand out to turn Edmund to stone when Aslan finally appeared to save the day.

Don’t save your characters too soon. Stretch them to their limit. It’s good for them, and it’s good for the story.

What would Jesus do?

So next time you’re stuck in your novel, wondering what to do next, ask yourself, “What would God do with me if I were in that situation?” Then try doing the same thing with your characters. Not only will you get a better novel, you’ll get that secret thrill that comes from playing God—in just about the only context where you can get away with it.

How do you, or how do your favorite authors, play God in your/their fiction?


One comment on “Playing God in Fiction

  1. Elizabeth says:

    What a fantastic reminder! I love this! Really well thought out and articulated.Thanks, Katherine!

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