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God out of a Machine?

Posted by admin on July 10, 2013

Raise your hand if you like to read books where the characters slip out of their troubles because some supernatural force suddenly shows up and makes everything all right.

I thought so.

We hate that. It feels so like cheating for a writer to end a book or get his character out of a mess by coincidentally having his mother show up to pay his bills. It feels so yesterday--like we’re still in grade school and think Batman and Superman are real.

What we do like to read about are characters who get themselves out of their own messes by their smarts or their valor. Can you say Odysseus? Think about almost every movie Harrison Ford has acted in. Whether he’s a President who singlehandedly defeats a band of wicked terrorists when all others are helpless or a doctor who solves his wife’s murder when all others are clueless, he’s doing it himself. No deus ex machina for him.

But in life? In real life? Ah, then we’ll take all the miracles we can get.


I had my own miracle today. After months of hoping that my great nephew would be freed for adoption, it actually happened today, even though the judge began the proceedings by making it clear that it wouldn’t happen. To sit there and watch (and hear) him change his mind was a remarkable experience. I was in the presence of a miracle and I loved it.

Why do we scorn in literature what we want in life? Is it because we force our literature to be what life never is--a chance for man to show how in control he is? A chance for woman to prove she has what it takes? Literary critic Northrop Frye said that all of literature is either a wish-fulfillment dream or an anxiety dream. Guess which dream sells books.

So what does this mean for the writer?

Seek the miraculous. It is good to know the limits of your own strength. A writer who knows himself is good. A writer who can touch eternity can be great. The greatest writers do more than present insights into life with artistry. They add inspiration--and that means you need to experience the miraculous.

But when it comes to the actual book? Don’t cheat. Don’t give your characters an easy way out. Don’t look for God out of a machine, for your readers crave a character who can inspire them be better. That means your character must be flawed but savvy, helpless but stubborn. When your character finally solves his problem, your reader will cheer, and feel better about himself.

What do you think?



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