why writers should have a god complex

Why Writers (Should) Have a God Complex

“You come upon the person the author put there. …

beside the small running river where a boy is weeping and no one comes…

and you have to watch without saying anything he can hear. …”—Marie Howe

Every author is the god of his own little world. No story is the same; each is a cosmos of its own: its own land masses, its own oxygen, its own lifeforms. No two authors can present the same world, no matter the similarities of setting and theme. The Chicago I write about is the not the Chicago that springs to life beneath the pens of Audrey Niffenegger or Dee Henderson. The Battle of Britain exploding on my pages is not the same as Milena McGraw’s Battle of Britain. Indeed, my Chicago and my Battle of Britain are not the same as the city we find on the shores of Lake Michigan or the battle immortalized in the history books.

The Fantastic Paradox of Being a Writer

What I write, no matter how heavily based in reality, is not reality. It is my world, ordered according to my whims and my paradigms. This is one of the most fantastic paradoxes of the writing life: we strive to present reality, but really we are controlling reality. It’s pretty heady stuff, when you stop and think about it. Historical novelist Stephanie Grace Whitson once commented that one of the reasons she enjoys writing is her “god complex”; she’s in control of the story, the characters, and their destinies.

Last month, we talked about “Catharsis and the Written Word.” The flip side of that catharsis is the control we have over our story worlds. It’s in our power to decide which characters die and which characters live. Will justice be done? Will good triumph over evil? Will truth be martyred to greed and sadism? Will it end happily ever after or in a vale of tears and frustration?

How We Play God to Our Characters

Knowing that “conflict is story,” we shove our characters into the deepest, darkest pits of hell our hyperactive imaginations can dredge up. In my own writing, I’ve forced my main characters to endure explosions, comas, familial rejection, horrific car accidents, slaughtered loved ones, life-threatening diseases, kidnapping, wars, wounds, and rape. And that’s the characters I like.

But it’s also in my power to drag my characters through these tragedies, to make sure they struggle and fight their way to freedom and triumph. I force them into sorrow and pain and unrelenting anguish to make them grow, to force them to become the men and women I need them to be. To defeat the despicable bad guys, to overcome personal problems, to bring even a modicum of justice to their worlds, they have to endure these trials. I know the ending. I know what they have to do fulfill that ending.

Dreamlander by K.M. WeilandOf course, as any author will be more than eager to explain, characters aren’t the docile creatures most readers take them for. Characters have minds of their own and ideas of their own on the best way to achieve their goals. And they don’t often appreciate the crucibles I put them through. Case in point, Chris Redston, hero of my fantasy Dreamlander, has proven himself a refractory character practically since the beginning, when I first slapped his name onto the page in bold black print.

He didn’t appreciate my interrupting his ordered, if aimless, life to shove him into an unheard of parallel world, mirrored to ours only in dreams. He didn’t like the idea of having his life snatched away from him, his destiny arranged for him by some outside force. But what he can’t see is the faraway ending. For him, too many battles, too many split-second decisions, too many mistakes fog the path to that ending.

He doesn’t know what I have in mind for him. He doesn’t know that I created him for a special purpose, that I shoved him into unthinkable trials to mold him for a special end. He can’t see that; but I can. He keeps fighting me, insisting he has better plans for his life. And I keep poking and prodding him, urging him in the right direction, knowing if he can just follow my lead, he will reach the other side of that fog having learned and grown beyond anything he could have imagined.

What the God Complex Teaches Us

I can’t help seeing the parallels between a writer mapping out the destinies of his little world and God organizing the much grander cosmos. If we think bringing order to one little story is tough, if we think spanking a handful of frustrating characters into shape is agonizing, we are experiencing only a taste of the Divine patience that organizes the universe. It’s an interesting exercise to look at our stories and recognize that God wants to direct our lives in the same way we want to direct our characters. Like our characters, we can’t see that He created us for a special purpose, that He shoved us into unthinkable trials to mold us for a special end. We can’t see that; but He can.

Marie Howe sums up her thought-provoking poem “Why the Novel is Necessary but Sometimes Hard to Read” with the following challenge:

This is the life you have written, the novel tells us. What happens next?

Tell me your opinion: Do you ever see parallels between how you plot your novels and life works?

why writers should have a god complex

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. The only difference being that God allows man freewill. Man decides whether he wants to be in the Book or not.

  2. I don’t know… sometimes characters seem to have all kinds of free will!

  3. K.M, too true! More than once I’ve stopped writing, re-read the passage I just wrote, and asked my characters what in the world they thought they were doing! 🙂

  4. That’s what makes life interesting though!

  5. I think about this all the time!!!!!

  6. Otilia Tena says

    This explains why sometimes the story flows from itself. Is it better to let a character with personality write himself or not? It feels more natural this way.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There has to be a balance between our conscious control over our stories and our ability to follow our own subconscious leading (which is, of course, what we really mean when we talk about listening to the character or following the character through the story). The subconscious is infinitely powerful, but sometimes it can get out of hand. It’s important to exercise our conscious/logical brain, so that we can identify when our subconscious is perhaps sending the story down a path that won’t make sense.

  7. Thanks! Loved this! It was interesting!

    This brought something else to mind. How does a writer include God in his writing without seeming cliche’ ? It’s something I struggle with. I would love to see an article with your view on that. ( Just an idea.)
    ~ A fan

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve addressed that (a bit indirectly) in this post. Ultimately, inclusion of faith will never be cliche so long as it matters to the story. If it’s stuck in just to stick it in, it will be extraneous to the story, just as anything else would be in the same scenario. But if questions of faith (questions are almost always a more powerful literary approach than answers) are inherent to the character’s own struggles within the plot, then they will never be gratuitous.

  8. Interesting way of looking at things. I’ve always thought that my interest in fiction (especially sci-fi and fantasy) has given me a bit of a leg up on some of the people around me who look at the Bible and God and just go “How does that make sense?”. To me, it’s the beauty of fantasy and sci-fi. Stretching your mind, believing the sometimes unbelievable. I mean, think of timelines.

    As authors, we’re sort of above and outside the timeline of our story, but we can dip in an insert ourselves anywhere we need to in the timeline of our worlds and unfold the things that happen there. For God, who was and is and is to come, maybe it’s a bit the same. He’s everywhere and sees everything and all that, ALL AT ONCE, but he also sees the big picture FAR better than we ever will.

    Now I just blew my mind and need to go turn on more worship music. Because wow. God. Omni-everything!

  9. Chuck Salvi says

    Hence the Omniscient viewpoint.

    A suggestion I often make, which isn’t really related to this topic, but this is as good a place as any for it: watch a Korean television drama called Jewel in the Palace (or Dae Jang Geum in Korean). It can be watched for free on the website, DramaFever.com, with subtitles. It is the story of an orphaned girl who rises from refugee to become the personal physician to the King – in a strictly patriarchal society. She (Jang Geum) is the most heroic female character I’ve ever found in world literature – if I can refer to a television drama as literature. The drama is 54 episodes long, each episode one hour in length. It was the best 54 hours I ever spent watching television.

    As one typical example of the value conflicts in this drama, when Jang Geum gets admitted into a training program for female physicians, this is how her professor greets her on her first day:

    “You think you can become a physician? I’ll make sure you fail.”

  10. One of the reasons I started writing when I was pre-teen was to feel like I had some control over SOMEthing in my confusing, hormone-driven, parent-and-teacher-controlled world. It helped. In fact, it probably saved me in some ways after I experienced my own personal tragedies.

    When I spent some time as a teen-moderator for a popular vampire-related social network, I often recommended writing to kids who were having trouble sorting out and dealing with their reality. It works for adults, too, but they are often more reluctant to face themselves on the page if they’ve never done it before. That is what you do, though, IMO. You face yourself. Every character is an aspect of you because it HAS to be, and you ARE the god/dess of that reality.

    Several religions believe that G/god/ess created human beings in his/her image. Maybe S/He is a writer just trying to work it all out through us. 😉

    Deep post, KM. Love it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Writing is such a valuable personal skill – aside from any social or commercial viability – and the sooner we start it, the better we are at being honest on the page. I think you’re absolutely right about that.

  11. I have had this thought with me for a while; I feel like being a writer and creating worlds and people adds an extra dimension to being a Christian for me. But this last week it’s popped up even more. During a five-hour drive on Sunday afternoon, after losing half of my current WIP to horrors of technological viruses, I suddenly decided to do NaNoWriMo this year for the first time. I had no idea what my novel would contain, absolutely none. But five hours of driving in the dark is an excellent way to spark a story, and it’s starting to come together now. It’s going to be my first high fantasy novel, though I have written portal fantasy before. And to get back to how this relates to this blog post, I’ve been trying to build an entire world in a week and it makes me extra amazed that God managed it!
    Also on an unrelated note, any tips for drawing maps?

  12. Wow, what an incredible connection you made. I think I understand why I like stories so much. Thank you so much for this! It really opened my eyes.

  13. The trick is balancing free will with fate!

    Thanks Katie!

  14. Danil Manison says

    I love this. I too came to the same conclusion.

    When you write a story, it’s not as simple as writing a scene and being done with it. Your mind has to create the situation, to cause these things to happen. You have to create the people, the families, the foe.

    All in all… to write… you first have to create. To make a world that you desire… you must first look deep into the mind and then mold it into a shape that fits your needs.

    You make the beginning…and the end.

    I am Alpha and Omega.

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