If you know me, you probably figure that title means I’m about to rant about being an atheist again and, well, that would be a good guess. But this time I’m thinking about gods in fiction and why I think their fictional existence is problematic.
I’m a big fan of fantasy, whether it’s epic or urban. I love to read about magic and magical creatures and giant battles and such. And in that genre, there’s many a story that includes a god or gods, whether it’s Zeus or a god created just for that story. (Many. Many many many.)
I was reading such a story last night and it was suddenly clear to me why those stories frequently make my suspension of disbelief much harder than usual.
To understand why, we need to step back and look at a problem in writing fiction. Maybe it has an official name, but I generally think of it as The Kryptonite Effect. The problem occurs when you create a character in your fiction who is so powerful that the story just doesn’t work. If there’s a character that’s all-powerful, then here is your plot:
- Villain appears and does something villainous
- All-powerful character shows up and destroy them
- Everyone goes home
Not exciting fiction, huh? But that’s the problem when you create a character like (for example) Superman. He has super strength and can fly and X-ray vision and freezing breath and…yeah. Your only options to use him are a) to create villains that are equally powerful or b) to give him a weakness.
Thus, Superman becomes weakened when he’s exposed to Kryptonite. Green Lantern can’t act on things that are yellow (really!). And the Go-Busters’ Sakarada Hiromu freezes when he’s exposed to chickens (seriously, I’m not making this stuff up).
One of the most common ways to weaken your magical character enough to make the story fun is to say that their magic uses a lot of energy and when they run out of energy, that’s it. So then your characters can have lots of good conflict related to running out of energy or working together to raise energy or getting more energy.
But what do you do when you have a character who is a “god”? Well, most authors seem to put constraints of some kind on the character, sort of like a Kryptonite weakness, but that’s where my suspension of disbelief starts dropping. Because how in the world do you define “god”, then?
I was reading a story last night that kind of crystallized why fantasy gods irritate me so much. I’m not going to name the story, because the story was perfectly well done. It’s not the author at fault, but rather how deities work in fantasy.
To very briefly describe the story, Our Heroine (OH) was intended to be the High Priestess of this goddess’ temple, but hundreds of years ago, she may or may not have committed a horrible crime and was banished. Now she’s back to find out if she did it.
Spoiler: She did. Why? Because the goddess knew that another person was going to do something horrible and brought OH there to stop that person. But the goddess also knew that in the process, OH was going to learn something so dangerous that she would be killed if anyone knew. So OH had to commit the horrible crime, spend hundreds of years wondering if she was a terrible person, and then come back to finish the job.
So…wait, what? If the goddess knew what was going to happen and could act enough to bring OH there, why couldn’t she just stop the other person without ruining OH’s life? Why couldn’t she at least tell OH something?
Don’t get me wrong, I still managed to enjoy the story, due to decades of exposure to this kind of god logic! But I just don’t get the appeal of a character who’s supposed to be all-powerful and all-knowing, but can’t actually be those things or it ruins the story.
If you need a super powerful character with a flaw, create Superman, not a god.
Of course, y’all already know how I feel about the fictitious deities people actually believe in 😉