350 – Character Karma
If you see the protagonist confidently bragging about how they’re so good at ice skating despite never practicing, you know they’re gonna fall on their face. But how do you know that? The answer is character karma! It’s the invisible force that makes it feel like characters deserve good things or bad things, and it’s important to understand if you want a satisfying ending to your story. We discuss what character karma is, how it’s generated, and why Data did make dramatic mistakes, even if he didn’t make literal ones.
Generously transcribed by Nikki. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. With your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, West Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [Opening Song]
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Chris and with me is
Chris: Now you might think that we’ve worked hard for years on this podcast getting to episode 350, but really what happened is we saw other people producing podcasts and was like, “You know what? That looks hard. And we don’t feel like working.”
So we just found a genie to hand us this podcast and blog and give us followers and then just make it seem like we’ve been doing it for years. Bam done happy ending for us. We took this great shortcut to success. I’m sure nothing will go wrong.
Oren: How edgy. How artistic.
Wes: Wait, does that mean? The genie did 349 episodes and we’re actually doing 350? We could round that up.
Chris: Or are we part of the genie spell?
Wes: Oh no.
Oren: We’re all the genie now.
Chris: So, yeah, we’re going to talk about character karma, which is the reason why every time there’s a movie where a character wishes for something, it doesn’t work out.
Wes: Without exception. Don’t wish for stuff.
Chris: Don’t wish!
Oren: Alternative version of Aladdin where he wishes to be a prince and marries Jasmine and everything’s great. And then we have to find out, did the genie make-up country for him to be prince of?
Chris: This is also why we love the monkey paw, right? That wishes always have to go wrong because there are shortcuts that we didn’t work for, following the rules of character karma.
Oren: Yeah. This topic makes people mad and they’re like, “What you mean good things happen to good characters and bad things happen to bad characters. How? It’s so unrealistic. It’s not like real life.” People really don’t like this idea.
Chris: Although I have to say, yes, if you were to try to break character karma down into a few short sentences, you might say that, but that’s actually pretty reductive. And I do think that it’s way more complicated and flexible in practice than it is in concept. And a lot of the people who are reacting that way, just don’t understand that all the things that they’re used to seeing, unless they just hate all the stories they read, follow this basic principle. It’s just much more flexible than it seems.
So. Anyway, what is character karma?
Oren: I don’t know, what is it?
Wes: Tell us, tell us!
Chris: It’s the sense that characters in the story have earned punishments or rewards. Characters can also have neutral karma. So if we took a shortcut to success and avoided hard work and succeeded, but we didn’t do anything to earn that, we would actually have bad karma. And that’s we get the sense that we need to fall from grace or somehow receive punishment because we got success that we didn’t earn.
Oren: And then if we’re going to get the thing anyway, it’s going to have to be through hard work and our wits or what have you.
Chris: Right. Yeah. So things could still go wrong, and then cause us to do a bunch of things to actually earn success. For instance, like in Aladdin, that’s one of the trajectories that you could take. But basically, people when they watch a protagonist or a character, that’s an actor in the story and has agency, you know, do things, they have a sense that they deserve good things or they deserve bad things based on what they do. And that is part of what makes an ending feel satisfying to people.
And again, that feels overly simplistic and unrealistic just to say it like that, but just to get down to like why this is true, as far as I can tell character karma exists because at some level stories are just inherently lessons for people. They’re meant to be something that teaches us about what actions we should take or not take. And when you have somebody who succeeds in the story, it’s like that’s an endorsement of the action that they took in order to succeed. It’s like if you have write a character in the story who was successful by making a wish and avoiding hard work, and that’s how the story ends, it’s like you’re telling your audience that is the way to go and that we should all be trying to find the shortcut and avoiding hard work.
Which, people don’t like that; people wouldn’t not really like that message very much.
Oren: Yeah. And I mean, it’s not like I’m an expert on sociology or the evolution of tropes. But what I know is that weird random stuff happens all the time in real life and people who don’t deserve good things, get them and people who don’t deserve bad things get them. And if I wanted that in my stories, I would just look outside.
Wes: Turn on the news.
Oren: Like, I don’t need to read a novel to get that. That’s just what life is like. It’s more satisfying if things happen according to whether or not something deserves it, in fiction. And to me, that’s the point and I haven’t yet seen any story that had something to say that was important enough to override that. If I want a lesson on life, I’ll read an essay. That’s a much more efficient way to tell me about how life works rather than burying it in your novel and making the plot unsatisfying.
Chris: Again, I have to say that character karma is not as incompatible. It’s not necessarily pat way to divide people between good and bad. And say, you know, good people are rewarded, bad people are punished. It’s not that simplistic. So for one thing, karma is rewarded for specific choices – it’s not a judgment on a person, it’s a judgment on their actions. So your characters are not necessarily all good or all bad. In karma it’s just when they make the right choice, it has a more successful effect. And when they make the wrong choice, it has a not so successful effect.
And so they can be more complicated and make both good choices and bad choices. And when we talk about good choices, we’re not always talking about morally – it can be helping somebody else or something that we would consider ethical and moral, but it can also just be they worked hard – something that we would reasonably associate with success.
And also not all characters are actually actors in the story. So a damsel for instance, or another character that doesn’t have agency would generally not have karmic outcomes, ’cause they’re just not – that’s not what the story is, not about their actions.
Another thing is that karma doesn’t mean that everything happens for a reason or that you can’t have random bad or good events in your story. It’s specifically about how the actual problems and conflicts in the story are solved. So for instance, you could have a random bad event and that can create a problem that then the character has to do something to solve that problem. But that random bad event was just a random, bad event. They didn’t like cause it with their bad deeds.
Oren: I mean honestly, having a random, bad thing happened to a character is one of the main ways you build up good karma for them
Chris: Sometimes bad things just happen and they can happen to your story too.
Wes: Your inciting event, if you will. So Chris then pretty much anything that matters for character karma needs to happen during the course of the story, right? We can’t just backfill karma. No karma in the backstory, as it were.
Chris: Well, they do an action that earns them good or bad karma. And then by the time the story is done, the balance sheet, you know, is supposed to be balanced. So, a character for instance can do something that earns them good karma at the very beginning of the story and never receive any benefit from that until suddenly at the climax. This is what we call the prior achievement turning point. That comes back and it’s like, Hey, you did that good thing. And because you did that good thing, now you’re going to win the day. That good thing that you were never rewarded for. It especially works really good.
Again, good karma is about how we just feel like this character deserves better than they’re getting. So if they do a really good thing and not only do they not receive any kind of like credit for it – and again, if other characters are like, Oh wow, you’re such a good person because you do this good thing, that’s a kind of reward, right? So generally that means nobody recognizes them for the good deed they did, or even criticize them like, Oh, you’re so, Why are you nitpicking over these things? Or why do you, nobody cares about that anymore. Or even giving them a hard time for making the right choice, that will actually build up their good karma. And then at the end, it’s like, Hey, because you did that thing, you know, somebody actually did notice and now they’re helping you out, or something like that.
Oren: Yeah. And I think you’ll also find that even in stories that seem to be about how random bad things happen or whatever, if the story is satisfying, you can find the karma there. Game of Thrones is a very good example. The death of both Ned and Robb – those don’t happen because those characters did bad things and are then punished by death. What happens is they made unwise choices in, very similar ways, in a way that I actually think is thematically very interesting. And that both Ned and Rob made choices that make sense to us. Warning a mother so that she can flee with her children sounds like a good thing to do, but in cutthroat Game of Thrones politics, it’s an unwise move and you’re going to feel the backlash for that. Same thing with choosing to marry the girl that you love instead of the one that’s going to get you the political Alliance that you know you need. Both of those are instances where a character earns bad karma by making an unwise choice, not necessarily by making an immoral one.
Chris: And in that case, it was up to George RR Martin to set the context, to convince readers why that was an action that was the wrong choice. So the point is that these characters were overly idealistic and were not practical. So we can say, okay, we can understand their idealism and their values. At the same time, the readers can also appreciate a character that’s practical and understands the reality of the situation they’re in. So it’s not as simplistic as character do good/character do bad. It’s about looking in and saying these were the right choices to make in this particular situation. You know, given the context that the story creates.
Oren: I have, uh, another example that I really liked. This one is from the Star Trek Next Generation episode Peak Performance. And it’s not even the main plot. The main plot is they do a weird battle drill and some Ferengi show up who cares? Um, no, this is a little subplot where Data tries to play a couple games of Strategema, where you do some fancy finger wiggling, against a rude alien. And the first time, Data loses, really handily. And then the second time he wins. Now, if you look at that at first, it seems kind of random.
But the first time that Data loses it’s satisfying. It actually feels like he deserves to lose because he was being arrogant, which seems weird for Data, Data’s supposed to be emotionless, but he assumes he’s going to win because he is an Android and therefore must be superior to his organic meat bag opponent, even though his organic meat bag opponent is like the grand master of Strategema. And so Data assumes he’s going to win, and that arrogance makes it satisfying when he loses.
And then later he has a clever deduction where he realizes that he can win by playing to draw. And from a credibility standpoint, I doubt that would work – games with that kind of exploit get weeded out pretty fast and professional sphere. But in terms of drama, we see him make this clever choice, and that makes it feel like he deserves to win the second time.
And in the middle of that, he goes through this interesting crisis where he thinks he might be flawed because he lost this game and Picard gives him the speech about how it’s possible to make no mistakes and still lose. And that’s lechnically true – in character, Data made no mistakes – but from a dramatic standpoint, you can see the mistake he made, and why it was satisfying for those events to happen the way they did.
Wes: Right, so then his arrogance had kind of started that – well, arrogance, his Android overconfidence – basically in expressing that he earned himself bad karma. And then there was the payout by losing, so, okay. Yeah. I’m definitely following now. This is a good example.
Oren: We wanted him to win by the end, because his opponent is a jerk – just a real rude boy. So we want Data to eventually win, but by working up to it, it was way more satisfying than if he just won the first time because he’s an Android
Wes: I just really like how Data’s earning bad karma, and the alien he’s playing is also just full of bad karma, you know? And they get resolved in different ways, like Data loses, but then learns and then comes back, and the alien gets to lose ultimately as the karmic payoff for that. So it’s a good overconfidence, bad karma track episode, done pretty well.
Chris: Yeah. I think that’s another good example of another sort of misconception. Character karma doesn’t mean that if a character is good enough that they can do anything, or do unrealistic things. So it doesn’t mean that a good character can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It’s just up to the storyteller to decide, what are the possibilities – like how much can their choices affect in the context of the story? And then, you know, frame that as success. So in this Data example, he doesn’t like, yeah, resounding win, right? The most that he is able to achieve is this draw strategy. But that is framed as a success that he earned. But we didn’t suddenly, just because he got good karma, have him do something that wouldn’t be realistic in that context.
So, you know, depending on how gritty or realistic your story is, and how light or dark it is, you can still have in some cases, maybe a character who does everything right, the most they can achieve is not making anything worse. And that’s up to you to decide, and character karma just doesn’t change that.
Oren: Yeah. And you still of course have to make the actions plausible and linked, right? One of my favorite examples of a story that kind of understands character karma, but doesn’t do a very good job of linking it to the actual events of the story is Age of Ultron, where at the end, there’s this section where they’re on this city, that’s being lifted up into the air by the bad guy for plot reasons. And they need to destroy it before he turns it around and smashes and into the Earth, but there’s a bunch of civilians on the city, so they’re all like, ah, the moral dilemma. Ooh. And then a few of them are like, All right, well, we’re going to have to blow it up, but we’re going to stay here and share the same fate as these civilians. And that’s supposed to be a big,Yeah, we’re making the right choice. And the music reinforces that. And then suddenly Nick Fury rolls in with a helicarrier and is like, Actually everybody can get on my helicarrier, and we can escape with all the civilians.
And it’s like, ok, you’re trying to make us think they deserve to be rescued by making that choice. But Nick Fury would have shown up with that helicarrier, regardless of what they did. It, maybe would’ve been a little awkward if he’d been like, “Hey Cap, why are you flying away from that city full of civilians?” and Cap be like “No reason.”
Chris: But yeah, there’s still has to be direct causality. We still need to know how making the right choice directly led to success, and not just they happen to make the right choice and then they happen to succeed.
Oren: And then an unrelated thing happens and we’re like, well, I mean, throw ’em a bone, they deserved it.
Wes: So that’s then an issue of they made their decision, but because Nick Fury just randomly shows up, it didn’t feel like they earned that good choice. It had no merit to it because the savior helicarrier just shows up revealing that it was never actually a meaningful choice.
Oren: And it depends on how close attention people are paying. Because this is someone who’s not paying close attention. It might be like, oh yeah, they did a noble thing, and then they got saved, so yeah, that tracks. To someone who is paying closer attention, they’d be like, okay, well, first of all, how does them staying to die help the situation in any way?
Chris: You question whether that’s actually the right choice to take in this situation?
Oren: Right, is that actually the moral choice? Now there are just fewer Avengers the next time some aliens show up. It’s not even clear that they’re, for example, giving up their seats on the evacuation transport or whatever so some civilians can have them. We don’t even see that; they just kind of decide they’re going to stay. And then someone who’s paying closer attention will also be like, Hey, that helicarrier was going to show up anyway, so what was that scene about? So it’s a question of how critical your audience is. But nobody who isn’t paying close attention is going to object if the event, the thing that wins them the day, is actually better connected to the choice that they make. You will please the people who were paying closer attention and the people who weren’t paying attention will be just as happy.
Chris: Yeah. I will also say that there is definitely room here to make meaningful statements. This is why, even if you might be frustrated with the idea – it may sound trite to you – why it actually makes stories more meaningful, because it means that you are saying something by how you plot out the story, and you can use that for commentary. And sometimes audiences may not feel satisfied because they don’t agree with your message, but that may be okay for you.
And there’s some times it gets subjective. Interesting case I think is Raya and the Last Dragon. It definitely has a message in how the story goes, a very strong message about trusting people. But the character that has to be trusted, they don’t actually have any good reason to trust. So there might be some people where it’s like, well, no, it doesn’t matter, everybody has to trust each other anyway. But somebody can also be dissatisfied and be like, okay, but actually that wasn’t the right choice. Just like we might be like, how does the Avengers staying on the citythat’s about to be destroyed and also dying; is that really the right choice? We can question that. And that does change audience satisfaction with the story. But in many cases, they are sensing your message, and they may or may not agree.
Oren: Yeah, Raya and the Last Dragon is also a little weird because several times what we’ll have this character being like, I don’t think I should trust these people, and someone else would be like, You have to trust them. And then she’ll be like, Okay. And then trust them, and then they betray her. That happens several times. And so by the end I was kinda like, okay, I get what you’re doing, and the idea is that by the end, she is going to have to trust, but it sounds like you’re trying to build the the opposite message. Like it feels like the way this should end is with her deciding not to trust somebody because she’s been burned so many times before, but you know, who knows? That was just a very odd bit when I was watching that movie.
Wes: So Chris, can you hop in? I want to talk, I guess, good karma a little bit. You know, I was reviewing some year old posts on this and you had a good point. So if you crafted a main character – and we know how much writers love their main characters – and that character is just winning all the time, or getting all the cool stuff, then those might be good things that are happening to the character, but it’s creating a situation where we will just be expecting something bad. And that’s like a karmic debt, right?
Chris: Yeah. So one of the things that affects good and bad karma is when a character has to do something that’s difficult. They earn good karma when they have to work hard, and they do something even though it’s hard. And get through a tricky situation. They earn good karma for that. Conversely, one of the quickest ways to earn bad karma is when something is too easy.
Wes: Yeah, of course.
Chris: And just like my example of our podcasting shortcut, a podcast by a genie. But also, now I think there’s also a sense for some of that. If something seems too easy, there’s a little bit of meta knowledge. If you’re watching a movie and characters do something really easy and you’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop, that might be partly your meta knowledge of that. A storyteller’s not going to leave it that way. At some point in time, tension has to appear. But there’s definitely also characters who get things that it doesn’t feel like they’ve earned. They actually have bad karma. And this also links to likability, which we haven’t yet talked about, but we want to talk about.
Oren: The other thing we say that makes people real mad. [Laughter] That’s a common way to build audience antipathy for a villain, especially a villain who might otherwise seem moral and upright. So, just as a completely random example, if you had like a superhero and you need the audience to root against the superhero, I might have the superhero show up and start singing about how you need to stand back everyone. The lady thinks that the hero saved her, but actually it was the thing that the villain did. And so now the hero is getting praised for that, that he didn’t earn… just completely random. That would be Horrible if that happened.
Chris: So good karma basically is linked with sympathy for our character. Because it means that they deserve better than what they’ve been getting. And so if they suffer in the story and we don’t feel like they’ve earned that suffering, right; they don’t deserve that suffering? We have sympathy for them and we want to see good things happen to them.
So, whereas bad karma it’s like when a character got success that we don’t feel like they’ve earned. And they’ve been, for instance, doing immoral things and being successful, this is how villains… For most of the story, the villain accumulates bad karma by doing bad things and getting more successful by doing that. And that builds antipathy. And then we see them punished at the end and that karmic balance sheet is evened out.
But yeah, in Dr. Horrible, it’s great because it really shows them in action. They have these sequences where they show all of these fans of Captain Hammer and like, O Captain Hammer is so great. Like they, they actively give him glory and credit and candy in order to make people hate him. Because that gives him things that he hasn’t earned, just like taking credit for saving Penny, when he actually didn’t save Penny.
Oren: All right, so how does this link with likeability?
Chris: Well, likability can come from many factors, but generally sympathy is one of the three big ones. So basically if a character has a lot of good karma, they’re more likely to have sympathy. And if they have bad karma, they are very unlikely to have sympathy. So good karma. They are more likable than if they have bad karma. And specifically when we’re talking about candy and spinach, I think that the karma is the reason why candy and spinach has the likeability effects it does.
When we talk about this, we’re usually talking about somebody’s main character who they love. They love their main character and they want to like live vicariously through their main character and just give the character all the glory and have them succeed all the time and have them be perfect in every way. And the problem is that audience members who don’t identify with that character and don’t place themselves in that character’s shoes so hard that they’re living vicariously through them are really put off by this. And I’m pretty sure it’s because it’s a feeling that they haven’t earned all of the success.. They kind of get bad karma from all of this easy success that they’re getting throughout the story.
Oren: I think I have something stuck in my throat. [Mock cough]-Kvothe.
Chris: Oh wow, Oren, you better work on that cough.
Oren: I don’t know what that was. Who knows? We may never know.
Chris: Whereas when we talk about spinach, which is a character that kind of like humiliated during the story or never gets anything right, and you know, people look down on them, they tend to be really well-liked because again, they’re earning that good karma and that sympathy because they deserve better than what’s been happening with them.
Oren: Although just be aware – I’ve written posts about this – that you can go too far with spinach. And at that point, the character just becomes dismal. Like, f there is nothing cool about them, and they’re just being constantly humiliated and crapped on by everything that’s happening, and they don’t get any wins, most people are going to check out at that point. Some people have a higher tolerance for it than others. You need a balance. The issue is that most protagonists need more spinach than a lot of new writers want to give them.
Chris: There is such a thing as too many failures in a story. Where it feels like success is impossible or it’s just very unpleasant reading because everything is always unhappy.
Wes: And then for that kind of situation, if we’re talking about not the main character, plenty of side characters are punching bags. And is it – I think I know the answer – but is it okay to just let them accrue good or bad karma and not resolve that? Cause they’re the side character. Does that matter as much?
Chris: I would say it depends on whether they have agency, and are solving conflicts. So if we see them solving problems of the story, their reward can be earning success for the main character. So if you have a scene in your story where – generally the main character should be solving most of the problems in your events and child arcs of your story – but to show that a side character is useful every once in a while. And it’s okay for the side character to solve it for the main character. Step in – main character struggling – side character step in, help them out. Once in a while. And when they do that, if they do the right thing, their reward is they wanted their friend to succeed, and their friend succeeded. They succeeded at their objective, even if their objective is helping the main character.
Oren: Yeah. And of course it also depends on how long the character is around for. A good example of this is actually the character Hooty from Owl House, particularly from the first season, because Hooty is a consistent character. He’s like in almost every episode, he’s not just a random bystander. And the show is basically constantly giving him spinach because Hooty is a very unpleasant person. Well he’s an owl demon, poor thing. But he’s a very unpleasant person to be around. He has no social skills and he’s really annoying. And as a result, everyone treats him really badly. That’s just kind of unpleasant. It’s not like Neelix where Neelix is really annoying and a bad person and everyone acts like he’s good – that’s a different problem. This is like, yeah. people are being realistic. This is probably how you would treat a person like that, the fact that he’s a giant, scary owl demon, not withstanding. It’s still just very unpleasant. It’s just, it feels lopsided. Like why did you put this character in here just to be a punching bag? Fortunately it improves in season two. Hooty becomes more of a rounded character, who can still be irritating, but like that’s not his entire character anymore.
Chris: I think in this case, what happens is, Hooty wants to socialize… Hoody is then obnoxious. Makes the wrong choice, and then the social interaction fails. So if we could take those scenes and look for, okay, where’s an actual problem that Hooty is trying to solve here? We can see that there is actually karma working through there. Now, if we had a situation where Hooty was being perfect, was actually not being obnoxious in many cases, or just kind of overstaying his welcome, shall we say, and was actually just being a nice person and trying to help out, and everybody was just being mean to him? He would accumulate tons of good karma from that. And we would, if that did not resolve at some point, if that just happened, if he’s just a punching bag and we don’t feel he deserves it, we’ll get pretty fed up if at some point the show doesn’t give him some big reward because he clearly deserves it.
Oren: All right. Well, now that we’ve answered my all important Hooty related questions, we can go ahead and call this podcast to a close as we are out of time. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First. We have Kathy Ferguson, who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber; he is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo; she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.
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