Don’t Play God, Be God

The author’s role is to create a world and everything in it, but not force that world to do their bidding.

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When you write a story, you begin with a setting and a character. There may be more than one setting, most likely more than one character, but at a very basic level you have a place and a personality. To start the story, you then give the character a motivation. In that sense, you as the writer are very much God to the world you have made.

There is a big difference, however, between playing God and being God.

Turning to some biblical inspiration: God created the world, and within it the Garden of Eden, into which God placed Adam and Eve. That’s the story we all know, but by dissecting it we can see the level of influence a writer should have on the world they created.

Firstly, God created a world. When you write you have a world in mind, whether this one or another, set now or in the past or future, an alternative dimension or different universe. Whilst that is the overall setting in which your story will exist, it is not the setting that opens your story. For that, we zoom in to a specific place.

God set the story in the Garden of Eden—at least for the opening scene—and so too do we as writers. Our opening scene is set in a specific place that is rendered in considerably greater detail than the world in which it sits. It might be indoors or outside, in the air or underwater; the particulars are your own to fill in.

Within the Garden of Eden, God placed a protagonist. This is Eve. Your Eve may well be a different age, gender, species even, but will be your driving character. They are the character that leads the story, that we as readers can empathise with to some degree, and that cause the story to exist at all. Without Eve there would be no story.

Adam was also there, but in a supporting role. Even though he was introduced first, he still represents the surrounding cast of your story.

God then placed something in the setting to launch the story; a thing that, through their own choices, brought about the incitement of the story itself by the protagonist. This was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. For your story it might be a secret dossier, or lust for the next-door neighbour, or the resentment of an older sibling, or a gun, or anything at all that will change everything. It doesn’t need to be a physical thing, but it also doesn’t need to be an emotional thing. It is whatever you want it to be, as long as its presence will alter the motivation of the protagonist.

At this point, God vanishes from the story, which is exactly what you as a writer need to do with yours. You set up the world, and the place within it; you create the characters and the motivation. Then you let them all get on with it.

Playing God would be forcing Eve to eat the fruit without her own inner conflict leading her to make the choice (in the story represented by the serpent). Playing God would be having Eve use her knowledge—and newfound ninja skills—to subdue the angels guarding the border of the Garden and take over. Playing God would be forcing Adam to take the first bite.

Being God is not setting up a series of dominos and then knocking over the first one, so they all fall down in order, just as being God is not planning out a series of obstacles that just happen to crop up one by one in the way of the protagonist but are unrelated to anything that has happened before. That is playing God—also referred to as deus ex machina—and is typical of Ancient Greek adventures, as the Gods would be literally sitting atop Mount Olympus with a chessboard and pieces representing the characters, playing God with them. Being God is creating a fully functional, working world with characters in it who have their own personalities and make their own choices based on their own free will.

If you try to play God, you will be forcing your characters to do things they don’t want to do, or wouldn’t naturally do, and they will fight you. The writing will feel inauthentic and trite, and you will write yourself into a dead-end. Instead, be God. Create the world and everything in it, then make a protagonist, and finally place something there to alter their motivation. Then let your story write itself. You are not creating the story, simply capturing it as it happens. Just try and keep up.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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