We’ve all heard the ‘deus ex machina,’ right? Everyone knows that little story about how the folks in ancient Greek theater used to end a play by hoisting a God out over the stage at the end of a play to resolve the major problems in the story line. We all know that the phrase is now used derisively to describe any device in which an author solves problems by means of an external resolution. When the protagonists of the story can’t solve their own problems, we consider it cheating to have the cavalry ride in at the end or cut to the central character waking up to find it was all a dream, or find out the protagonists were really faking the audience out right along with their villain. (Supernatural, I’m looking at you!) I cringe when a hero pinned down by bad guys with automatic weapons manages to run across and open field without getting hit, and I have long since grown tired of engines that are supposed to blow up at warp-factor 10, but somehow manage warp factor 12 for a minute or so as Captain Kirk looks at us with that special mixture of fear and confidence, and possibly without his shirt. It’s also bad when the hero somehow gets through all the guards without any explanation as to how she got there to confront the big-bad-evil Night King and win the most important battle of the whole series two full episodes before its over, and now we have to wonder why we should watch the last two episodes at all when this was supposed to be the biggest conflict of the whole story? Why!?! WHY!?!
…okay I get a little carried away, sometimes.
Anyway, the point is that it’s cheating to impose a solution on the end of a story without forcing the protagonists solve the problems for themselves. If they can’t solve their problems, then they can end tragically. Sometimes that works too, but when the problem is solved magically, it feels like a cheat. We call that sort of ending a ‘deus ex machina’, and when we use that phrase it is not used in praise.
So what about a Satanus ex machina?
I’m probably botching the grammar in that phrase, but in my defense, the Devil Made me do it.
I personally find it no less irritating when the central problems to be resolved in a story are unmotivated by any reasonable sense of how the world works or what a villain wants. Oh, I can suspend belief for a central premise or two, but there is a point at which the story should begin to follow a logic of it’s own. Once those premises are established, the actions of the characters in question, including those of the major antagonist of the story ought to make sense within the universe in which they live. If this isn’t the case, then how do we understand the protagonists own responses to the difficulties at hand? What do they need to do to solve those problems? Unless the problems facing our main characters present them with some meaningful choices, they are just as deprotagonized as they would be if someone else solved their problems for them, and the problems posed by the story do not have a meaningful logic of their own, then they impose no meaningful choices on the protagonists.
What am I talking about?
I’m talking about the villain who is doing villainous things just to be a villain? Worse yet, I am talking about the villain who has a clear rationale for their actions, but whose actions leave that rationale aside as the story approaches its climax. We knew why he did this, but why is he doing that? Why would a bad guy who steals a ton of money, for example, wish to cause havoc with the global economy on his way out the door? (Sorry, Die hard. It’s a sticking point.)
I’m talking about a supernatural power that kills people right and left, and does so without any clear explanation.
I’m talking about any sort of fight in which supernaturally powerful characters pound away at each other with no effect until the writer finally decides to show us mercy and let one of them actually get hurt and/or die. (Alright, this may not be entirely a problem of villain construction, but it’s damned irritating and all-too damned common.)
I’m talking about a world in which the rules are frequently rewritten to undo whatever resolution our protagonists come up with. If “It was a dream” makes for a cheap resolution to a story, then so does; “You only beat the bad guy in a dream and now you are back in the battle again.” You may even get by with that one if I can be seduced into believing the next solution will actually matter. Do it enough times, and I am ready to surrender the hero to his nightmares.
In all of these cases, the villain, the monster, the mysterious force or natural disaster, all seem to emerge from out of nowhere, being imposed upon the plot almost as if hoisted in on a machine themselves. Think of the wolves from The Grey. They don’t really make sense in themselves; they are just there to make the characters miserable and kick off a plot point there never really rises above the implausibility of its central villains.
I get the fact that a certain degree of mystery can help drive a story and pose interesting questions for us at its start, but somewhere along the line, we need to get a sense for what is happening and what can be done to stop it? We can even be mislead about that sense of a possible resolution, providing the revelation that our hero’s strategy won’t work after all makes sense when we come to it. If mystery persists, however, the central characters need some plausible course of action to pursue, at least a hope that this or that stratagem could help to resolve their problems. Otherwise, they are just thrashing around. Hell, they can even thrash mindlessly for a scene or two, but if we don’t develop a meaningful sense of the problem and a meaningful response to that problem at some point, then I for one start to lose interest.
This is the central damage done by villains that are just their to be villainous; they often leave us with no sense of how the heroes are to engage them at all, no ideas about what could possibly work. An apparently infallible villain renders the actions of a protagonist pointless. A pointlessly evil villain deprives the conflicts they create of depth and richness, and a one dimensional villain tends all-too-often to set us up for a one-dimensional hero. If the events that kick off a story have no motivation behind them, it is unlikely that the responses to them will have much more depth to them in the end.
I think writers sometimes leave the villain undeveloped to convey a sense of mystery; they sometimes leave a natural disaster or a mysterious force unexplained in order to convey a sense of hopelessness. This approach can certainly be interesting, for a moment anyway. If that hopelessness persists throughout the whole story line, then, I for one start to say; “let the bad guy’s have them!” (Even monsters gotta eat,)
A villain, a monster, or even a natural disaster must have some logic to it in order to give the protagonists a meaningful chance of beating the challenge. Letting us wonder about them works early in a story line, but if the answer to our questions comes too late (and by ‘too late’, I mean after the central strategies of the protagonists are put into play), then this doesn’t help the story. Generating a problem with no central rationale to it is a lot like solving one without addressing the problems posed in the opening scenes. In the latter case, the heroes do not engage the problem; in the former, they cannot. The effect is the same. It makes us care less about the main characters.
As with any kind of writing, I’m sure there are times when all of this works anyway, but in most cases, the kind of narrative I am talking about just seems lazy. You won’t get an interesting answer if you ask a stupid question. Likewise, you will not get an interesting hero out o a conflict with a poorly written villain, and you will not get an interesting 3rd act out of a story whose first act is just literary vandalism. A villain too has to make sense. Her actions must be part of the story. They must fit in the story.
And by ‘fit in the story’ I do not mean that we should learn all about the true nature of the villain or mysterious force in the last pages of a novel or the final minutes of a movie as we also learn why some strategy we could never have imagined from the story-line actually works after all. In such moments, we get both Satan and a god on a machine.
It’s a wedding of sorts!
They make a happy couple!