Oh, karma! What could we do without it in writing? It’s all about actions having consequences and typically, negative decisions lead to negative outcomes. This is built into almost all writing despite using a word that comes out from Southeast Asia. A reader comes to expect it, already knows it intuitively and when it doesn’t happen is either surprised or confused.
As the writer for Tarus Space, sometimes I get into talking about the craft of writing. Karma is something that has held my attention lately. It’s the concept that builds the reader’s expectations for a work; whether in this setting the karma is such that bad characters get bad lives most of the time or the opposite where the heroes are never rewarded for their good deeds. Karma can be used to make the world is cynical or ideal. So, it sets the tone. Then, it goes further than that. When you know actions can have consequences it invests you in the characters and plot. You know that an action leads to consequences and so you eagerly await those consequences. A bad guy just dropped kicked a dog? Oh boy, at some point someone must drop kick him! And, with that then you can build real excitement and tension. A story that follows karma just enough to have you expect consequences but not quite adhering to the laws too strictly means that the reader doesn’t know whether the outcome is going to be desirable or not.
It’s almost intuitive; people expect equity in life. That doesn’t change when it comes to fiction. In fact, it’s even stronger. What is usually unfair in life is expected to be fair in a work of fiction. This is almost used as a yardstick to determine whether a world is bleak/grim/dark/cynical versus ideal/bright/happy/light-hearted. In a world where bad guys doing bad things always gets what is coming to them can be very satisfying and builds an ideal world. On the other hand, a setting where the heroes who help others are never in turn rewarded builds a barren dark place. Ultimately, it means that the writer sets the tone and the expectations. Readers who first read Warhammer 40000 will quickly realize it is a grim dark future but if they were to watch Batman the animated series, they can pick up the fact that bad guys go to jail for their actions.
These expectations are powerful. It creates a sense of consistency that many people inherently desire. Sometimes it’s episodic. One chapter, episode or issue might flip between them, using the reader’s own intuitive sense of what is fair, and having them build out the rest of the plot in their minds. Think of your favourite TV show when it’s normally serious and then at the start of episode, instead of guns blazing against bad guys, he has his gun jam in a hilarious manner, bullets are flying but nobody gets hurt. Ah, then you realize, this is one of those lighter episodes in which actions have no real consequences. The karma this time is that it really doesn’t exist.
Karma builds you time delayed investment. Action equals consequence. So, you see a bad guy do something bad then you expect some consequence later. For darker settings, typically they have the hero do something bad to accomplish their mission and this creates the expectation that something bad will happen to them later. Then a reader is guided to flip the pages of a book waiting for the other shoe to drop. Other times, readers are pushed to move through a plot because they just want to see a bad guy get what’s coming to them.
Here, we see the excitement and tension grow organically out of this writing. When you have karma lead to the expected consequence most of the time but not all the time, then a reader has a consistent world they can live in but also feel tension because they don’t know whether or not the karma will work out this time or it might be just that one time where it fails. It also is a means for checking whether a plot is moving forward correctly; did the heroes actions lead to the later scenes due to consequences? If not, maybe you had a plot tumour that destroyed the original thread (think of some stories where the start of it is some complex political situation and they’re working through it, only for everything to be dropped because a prophecy happens or some random big bad rolls in… then you think what was the point of the whole half of the plot?), or perhaps there’s a character being railroaded (nothing the character did led her to the situation that she is, yet there she is for absolutely no reason). This is where karma becomes crucial to making sure a writer is building a plot worth following. Everything has causality, the plot is a whole being, characters that do anything affect the whole of it.
Tension also comes out of the consistency built out of karma and the slight deviations from it from time to time. When a bad guy normally gets thrown in jail after a crime, you come to expect it but then if every so often it doesn’t happen then you still feel a sense of tension of “maybe it’s one of those times?”. Without karma, and anything happens, then a reader becomes confused or gives up. Of course, that’s not to say that a sitting that consistently doesn’t have karma isn’t its own kind of consistency in a way. In a setting where actions never have consequences, it may serve as a vehicle for fun when they do. It can also be a writing trick to give more reward to those moments when a hero is finally given her due. Think of those stories where the protagonist is always scrambling, always fighting for what they deserve but never getting it until that one time; it’s the central theme to a lot of character dramas.
So, there’s my love of karma as a tool in writing.