Q&A

How Can I Make Gods Work as Characters?

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I’ve noticed recently that a lot of my favourite stories centre around gods or god-like beings, such as more or less all of mythology, Doctor Who, The Sandman. Discworld’s Death books, the RG Veda manga, the Oh My Goddess anime, the Haruhi Suzumiya anime, the Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid anime, Spirited Away, the Okami video game, the Persona series [especially Persona 3/PSP], and even Mary Poppins to some extent [which is one of my only favourite Disney movies, along with The Lion King, Fantasia, The Emperor’s New Groove, and Winnie the Pooh].

What I’m curious to know is: what makes those sorts of characters work in this context, and are there tips to applying it to my own writing without revolting levels of candy?

– Tifa

Hi Tifa,

Creating god characters is pretty much like creating regular characters with superpowers, flavored to be god-like. You’ll be dealing with additional expectations that the characters are powerful enough to be a god, but people understand that gods in polytheistic systems usually have a specific domain and can only do magic related to it. Give their magic limitations, and if it fits your story, give them work to do. In Rise of the Guardians (one of my favorite movies), Guardians only have power if kids believe in them, and they have specific jobs to do to perpetuate those beliefs.

You’ll want to not only give their powers some limits but also give their general existence some rules. You can create rules regarding whether mortals can see or interact with them and to what extent they can influence the mortal world. Maybe they can only change something in answer to a specific prayer. Maybe they can only appear to mortals in their own temples, or if they are a spirit of a tree or river, maybe they must stay close to that item. This will not only help keep their power under wraps but also make them feel more like gods and give you more interesting story situations.

All the stuff I’ve mentioned about magic systems are good guiding principles with these characters. In particular, I recommend my post on creating a magic system for superpowers.

Happy writing!

Chris

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Comments

  1. Runewritten

    It’s worth noting, too, that these stories aren’t usually about the god characters directly: they’re almost always catalysts for the adventures of a mortal/normal companion.

    I can only speak for Dream, Doctor Who, and Mary Poppins as I’m not familiar with the anime characters, but all three of these people are near-omnipotent experts who you know won’t fail. The drama comes from how their expertise affects the people around them.
    The Doctor will almost always succeed, but how many people die before he does, and is his version of success the same as his human companion’s? Do the choices he makes cause more harm for his friend for the sake of a planet of people, or does he throw history into the bin just to save this one person? Ultimately, you’re cheering on his human companion’s ability to connect with him and direct his intellectual power toward what we as humans think of as the right thing to do.
    For the Sandman, it’s been a while but I remember him being a more passive character. Stuff happens around him, and you generally know he can change things with a snap of his fingers if he wants to. The exciting parts were when he deigned the situation important enough to intervene. So you’re really cheering on the poor mortal souls trapped in a tragic tale until Dream is swayed into action.
    Mary Poppins is pure plot device, so far as we know she can do absolutely anything, and that “anything” is aimed directly at helping this family grow into a more healthy relationship.
    But she’s the best example of what these god characters do: their name is on the title, their actions are at the forefront, but they aren’t the protagonist whose story arc we’re following. Hell, sometimes they just intentionally leave the protagonist in trouble just to force them to face some internal barrier.
    Superman’s another good example. The character is boringly powerful if he’s fighting for his own life, but the drama of Superman is how far he needs to go to do right by everyone else in the world, how much he can live up to their expectations.
    So as a general rule for expert and god characters: throw the people they care about into the line of fire, because you already know they can save themselves. They can have all the candy you want them to have so long as they still have to struggle to be two places at once, or have to balance the Greater Good versus their own relationships.

    • Cay Reet

      Most of the books focusing on Death in the Discworld series are also about characters around him (Mort and Ysabel in the first one, Susan in most of the latter ones). Only Reaper Man deals with him directly and in that one, he doesn’t have his powers and has been replaced by a plethora of smaller, more specialized deaths (of which only the Death of Rats and Death of Fleas survive, if I remember correctly).

      Yes, in most books featuring gods, they are in the title, but the actual plot is usually focused around a mortal in their vicinity. The same goes for extremely powerful, god-like beings like Mary Poppins (who is focused on helping people with their family lives) and Doctor Who (who was, after all, originally imagined as an edutainment program and needs to be able to resolve all situations eventually).

      I think if you’re using gods with less than absolute powers (like the Greek/Roman, Egyptian, Aztec or another polytheistic pantheon), it can work, because they can’t solve every problem. But an all-seeing, all-knowing, immortal, omnipotent being makes for a very bad main character (that is where the title ‘Mary Sue’ would actually be justified).

      • E. H.

        An allpowerful (or nearly so) god could work if they were bound by self-imposed rules. The problem might be that their devotion to these rules at the expense of people they could help might make them unsympathetic.

        As in real life theological debates in monotheism or religions with extremely powerful gods. Some people buy “the need to respect free will” or “allow evil for the sake of a greater good” stuff more than others.

  2. GeniusLemur

    In my experience, the way to handle characters with open-ended mega-powers is to give them principles just as strong (Superman) or make it a character-driven story that their powers can’t resolve (Dream from Sandman on the rare occasions he’s the protagonist).

  3. Cody Rapp

    I think the genre you’re working in also plays a big part in it too. For instance, you mentioned Dragon maid, which is a comedy. The fact they are all over the top powerful is part of the humor. Think about how easily Tohru catches the purse thief. For those who haven’t seen the show here is a clip on youtube. https://youtu.be/y6mog0ccgd8

    A lot of the comedy in the show comes from the dragons who aren’t used to how humans do things using their powers in crazy ways. Think about the Christmas pageant for a great example of that. They can be all the crazy powerful because it contributes to the story rather than taking away from it.

    In something more drama or action centered the power without limits thing the dragons having going would be an issue where it isn’t in a comedy. If you’re building up tension there has to be a chance that the protagonist will fail. That failure could come from someone they care about getting hurt, it could come from them trying to do something outside their normal power set, or any number of other things. There just needs to be a chance that something will go wrong that the character actually cares about. Civilian casualties won’t mean as much if the character doesn’t care, even if the reader does. If that makes any sense.

  4. DadMuscles

    Just read Malazan.

  5. LizardWithHat

    I also think that god can be made like any other characters. What keeps them interesting are well defined niches and well establishes powers.
    Also there are cool charms and other neat artifacts and rituals to seal divine power for later use.
    I also feel that there should be more outright benevolent or easy-going gods… flawed yes, but some gods seem very dark.

    Also, tangential related because is about god… i saw a lot of religious world building lately – that means people building religions and some had humane sacrifice in it… also there where similarities to the aczetcs (or outright copied).
    My trouble is now… i don’t want to judge another culture but I really can’t see anything good or positive in human sacrifice. i find it a waste of live. And it was treat as `just another religion, other people other customes´
    I feel I (like so often) like i missing something here…

    sorry to bother you with such a topic… I think that kind of got to me….

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Well I can’t speak for the entire internet, I don’t think many people would expect you to view human sacrifice as a positive or even neutral practice, whether it’s part of a religious ceremony or otherwise. That said the issue of how we should think about human sacrifice by the Aztec Empire is a complex one, involving both a lot of stereotyping and a long history of Europeans using said human sacrifice as an excuse to commit horrors of their own (while a lot of equally awful practices carried on uninterrupted in Europe). In most cases, a work of fiction isn’t going to have the necessary time or nuance to properly explore this issue, and so it’s something I would avoid.

  6. Dvärghundspossen

    Some assorted thoughts on gods as characters and god-like characters:

    I’ve said it before re Superman, but in the comics he’s not only vulnerable to kryptonite, but also to magic and to some extent mind control. Actually, being extremely strong etc makes the prospect of someone taking control of your mind and making you do things MORE scary than if you’re an ordinary human. (There was this famous fight with Wonder Woman for instance, where a telepath made him go berserk.)

    However, if you wanna use Superman examples for how to handle god characters, Superman Red Son is probably a good reading suggestion. It’s an elseworlds story where Superman is a Soviet citizen rather than American. At first he’s still more of a standard superhero, but he’s convinced (by the Soviet Lana Lang expy) that he ought to take over as party leader when Stalin dies, as a lot of people ask him to do, because he can do much more good that way. He really does make Soviet prosper, but also ends up being extremely controlling. However, I think the story does make it believable how he, over a very long period of time and without ever turning “evil” in any standard sense of the word, takes over people’s lives more and more and more because he has the power to do so and wants everyone to be happy. That’s an interesting situation for an extremely powerful being: You can find yourself in the dilemma of either being too controlling, or else sitting back doing nothing, despite being able to save people from various horrors.

    Another option is to have an extremely powerful character uncertain about how their powers work as well as how to best use said powers. I love the Books of Magic, even though Tim Hunter comes off as basically omnipotent, because he’s always so confused and ignorant about both his powers and circumstances in general, and he’s still just a kid. However, that also makes him a pretty passive protagonist. I think his passivity works fine for this particular type of story, which is more about an eerie, dream-like atmosphere than standard action and problem-solving, but a passive protagonist can easily become problematic.

    Something I DON’T like with god characters:
    Ok I LOOOOVED Sandman as a teenager, and like every single goth girl in history I thought Dream was SOOOO dreamy (pun intended). On re-reading them as an adult, I think they’re still really good overall, but also problematic in places. At one point, Dream is pissed off because a girl turned down his advances, so he strikes back at her by putting her in a cage in Hell for one thousand years. Eventually he lets her out, and she starts blaming herself and says she probably could have escaped if she really wanted to, so it’s kind of her fault too.
    Now, I get that it’s supposed to be a somewhat bad thing that Dream did here (and he’s supposed to grow as a person over the course of the series etc etc), but we’re still supposed to root for him, so it’s not supposed to be anywhere near as horrible as it really is. (And yeah, I get that Gaiman likely just took this plot from some old myth, but that’s neither here nor there.) But people who still can see nothing wrong whatsoever in such a classic comic tend to defend Dream by saying that he’s not human and yada yada yada. He’s TOTALLY written as having human psychology! Come on.

    Obviously LOTS of people are perfectly fine with this, but I HATE IT when authors use “oh they’re not human and don’t have human morality” as some kind of get-out-of-jail free card. I mean, sure, characters can have a different kind of morality, do terrible things and think of themselves as justified… But the NARRATIVE can’t justify or play things down and then just go “it’s because they’re not human, they’re so different from us.”

    • Tifa

      At least both Death and Delirium call him out on it. I do get what you’re saying. When I read it, I thought that was the point, that Dream was supposed to be unlikable right from the get-go, and his pride, stubbornness, fixation on rules and laws, and unwillingness to change is what makes him a tragic “hero” in the vein of old Greek “heroes”.

      • Tifa

        Death is easily the kind of girl I could fall in love with, ironically enough.

      • Dvärghundspossen

        Yeah I mean… he’s supposed to be bad. But not AS bad as he actually is?

        For a comparison, we’ve got this dude who imprisons and rapes Calliope the muse for inspiration. He’s supposed to be super duper evil for doing this, we’re supposed to cheer when he gets his punishment.
        The thing is… putting someone in a cage in Hell for a thousand years because she wouldn’t bang you, is also super duper evil. But Dream is clearly not meant to be THAT bad. He’s meant to be bad and unlikeable in the beginning, yeah, but far from THAT bad.

        I have an obvious problem with stories presenting bad people as great, but a similar problem arises when a story presents a character as being, say, badness level 2 on a scale from one to ten, when really they’re something like 9. On rereading Sandman, that’s what I felt like when I came to that part.

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