In 2015, I was watching an episode of television when I realized that an arrogant side character was headed for a downfall. But how did I know that? After thinking it through, I finally concluded that in the world of stories, the force pulling characters toward a fate they deserve is as real as gravity.
I named it character karma and wrote the article Managing Bad Character Karma about how it influenced horror movies and minor antagonists. But I had already begun to see karma everywhere.
- In any story where a protagonist gets a wish granted, they rarely get to keep the spoils. In fact, a great many stories use the monkey’s paw trope, in which a wish backfires on the wisher. We even have a movie series, Wishmaster, about a big bad that grants a wish before killing the person who makes it. Why can’t characters just benefit from their wishes? Character karma.
- When movie makers don’t want the hero to dirty their hands by killing the villain, the villain will end up dead another way. But they never die because of random chance. Either their efforts to attack the hero will somehow rebound, or the villain’s previous victims will come for them. Their own misdeeds are the direct cause of their downfall. Why is this? Character karma.
- Most of all, protagonists don’t get their happy ending with just another swing of the sword. A well-crafted climax contains a moment where the protagonist does something remarkable and heroic. This is the direct cause of their victory, which makes the ending feel right. It’s character karma.
As I observed character karma at work in story after story, it grew from an occasional oddity to a deeply embedded principle. Character karma is the magical link between character and plot. It’s the secret to crafting conflicts that resonate.
I didn’t write my original primer on character karma until 2018 (PDF), and only four years later, it’s time for a new version. The way karma operates in stories is complex, and my understanding of how it works has grown deeper.
On top of that, character karma hasn’t gotten the sunniest reception; it’s as controversial as likability. Since the Romantic movement took over in the 1800s, the cultural attitude among many Western storytellers has been antagonistic toward morality tales. Character karma reveals that at an instinctual level, every story is a morality tale. That’s not what many storytellers want to hear. Plus, when stated in brief, it can seem simplistic and pat.
But we need not fear character karma; it’s already at work in the stories we love. It enables us to add meaning to our work, and in practice, it can be very nuanced.
So in version two of this primer, my goal is not only to explain the concept better but also to help bridge the gap between the abstract principle and its application across countless stories. If afterward you’re still a karma skeptic, let me just say this: you may not believe in character karma, but it believes in you.
Spoiler Notice: Midsommar, Free Guy, and Ms. Marvel episode two.
The Polarity of Our Choices
Allow me to break down why you can’t avoid character karma – not if you want a pleased audience. To do that, let’s dive into how karma manifests in a single conflict: the climactic conflict. Why the climax? The more epic the conflict is, the more noticeable karma becomes. Plus, what unfolds at the climax is usually the final outcome for the story. That makes analysis a lot less complicated.
For the purposes of plotting a story, the role of a character is to determine the story’s outcome through their intentional actions, aka choices. This is called character agency; audiences generally become frustrated and dissatisfied when it is missing. They’ll often turn against protagonists without agency and root for characters who make a difference instead.
A story conflict occurs when the protagonist struggles to achieve a goal. For the conflict to have enough tension to be entertaining, both success and failure must be possible. Then, because the protagonist needs agency to make audiences happy, they’ll make a choice that determines whether they succeed or fail to achieve their goal. This is the turning point of any well-crafted story.
From there arises karma. If you grant your protagonist a successful outcome, you’re making their choice look like the right choice. It led to success! If you hand them a failure, you’re making their choice look bad. They had a chance to succeed, but they failed because they made that choice.
Of course, the conflict’s outcome isn’t the only thing that makes choices look good or bad to us. Some actions are obviously right or wrong. What do you get if your protagonist eats a baby and is rewarded with eternal youth?
You get an angry audience, that’s what.
Take the 2019 movie Midsommar. This folk horror features a straight couple slowly and painfully working their way toward a breakup. The boyfriend, Christian, neglects the relationship and becomes hostile when his girlfriend, Dani, tries to communicate with him constructively. Since this is folk horror, they visit an isolated Swedish community that sacrifices people. The community gives Dani the love she is desperate for, and she joins them. At the end, the community gives her the choice to sacrifice either one of their own members or Christian. She chooses Christian. She smiles in the movie’s closing shot, indicating the choice made her happier.
One of the most common complaints from viewers is that Christian, for all his faults, did not deserve to die. Yet it looks like Dani is rewarded for killing him instead of someone who is complicit in murder.
If creating this kind of disgruntled reaction and discussion is your goal, go do that. I’m not the boss of you; I’m just trying to explain how stories work. In this case, I’m not sure the reaction is what the movie’s writer and director, Ari Aster, intended. In the director’s cut, Christian’s actions look worse, making Dani’s choice look better. Aster only removed those scenes because the studio made him cut the film down.
To summarize all that, by showing what choices lead to success, the storyteller is seen as endorsing those choices. However, the audience has their own opinions about what choices are good choices. They want characters to be rewarded for making the right choice, not the wrong one. This can create some push and pull between audience and storyteller.
Okay, but surely there’s still a way to avoid karma. What if the protagonist makes a hard choice to kill one person to save the many, and they succeed but they’re haunted by their choice? Every day, they ask themselves if they did the right thing.
In this case, your endorsement might come off as less resounding, and the story may be interpreted as welcoming discussion. But as long as the cost of the choice doesn’t negate or exceed the benefits of success, you’re still endorsing it. Basically, the protagonist’s guilty conscience is the cost of doing business. This is typical in stories; protagonists make sacrifices to succeed all the time, including sacrificing their personal happiness. It’s considered heroic. If the costs are high enough to negate the success, that means the protagonist failed. You’ve endorsed the other viewpoint.
Alright, it’s time for a Hail Mary – what if the end is ambiguous? This means that the audience can come to more than one conclusion about what actually occurred in the story. First, I’ve got to say this is incredibly difficult to depict. Stories that manage to pull off an ambiguous ending rather than merely confusing the audience are rare. The 2010 movie Inception is one of the most successful. Based on how you interpret the last scene, the protagonist either gave into temptation and failed or resisted it and succeeded. Either way, the storyteller’s endorsement is the same.
Could you create an ambiguous ending that also makes your endorsement ambiguous? Theoretically. But even if you succeeded, it wouldn’t erase the existence of character karma, and it would be completely impractical for the vast majority of conflicts.
No matter which niche scenario you try, there’s one big reason it can’t change the rules of the game. That’s because if you manage to remove any endorsement from your story’s turning point, it won’t give the audience a meaningful experience. It will only make your end feel pointless. Why? Because you aren’t making a point.
I imagine some storyteller out there wants their audience to walk away feeling like their time was wasted, but that’s probably not you.
What Makes Choices Look Good or Bad
So far, we’ve covered that when our characters succeed or fail, we are seen as endorsing a course of action. However, audiences have their own opinions about what choices are the best. When the audience disagrees with us, they’ll have complaints.
I’m not of the opinion that we should only say what other people will agree with. However, I am of the opinion that it’s better to understand as much as we can about how they’ll react. Plus, even when we want to be provocative, doing that for every single conflict would overwhelm audiences and drown out the principal point we’re trying to make. For this reason, rewarding choices that look good to audiences is our bread and butter.
When a choice feels right to the audience, we can say it gives a character good karma. When a choice feels wrong, it gives a character bad karma. To clarify, “right and wrong” doesn’t necessarily refer to the morality of their actions. In many cases, it’s more a matter of practicality or reasonable causality. Put simply, gaining karma means that in the mind of the audience, a character deserves success or failure.
Naturally, the culture of the audience impacts a character’s karma. Some actions, such as staying chaste, may or may not generate good karma depending on cultural values. Since I couldn’t cover the values of every culture if I dedicated this entire blog to it, let’s stick to what appears to be the most universal, at least to Western audiences.
Good Karmic Actions
Characters generally gain good karma with:
- Cleverness, including solving tough puzzles, creating ingenious plans, or making insightful observations.
- Selflessness, including generosity toward others, extending olive branches to enemies, or any form of self-sacrifice.
- Perseverance, including hard work, pushing past barriers, or showing discipline in the face of temptation.
Let’s take an example. In the 2021 movie Free Guy, the main character, Guy, is a non-player character (NPC) in a video game. He becomes free of his programmed routine after he acquires a pair of sunglasses that give him the powers of a player – he can level up and get in-game cash and equipment. Guy wants all the other NPCs to expand beyond their programming and enjoy the freedoms he enjoys, and as the movie continues, many of them take tentative steps.
At the climax, the real-world antagonist who controls the game server sends in an antagonistic NPC designed for violence, named Dude. Dude attacks Guy, and Guy struggles to keep hold of the sunglasses that give him extra fighting powers. Finally, when the antagonist pins Guy down and starts crushing him, the turning point comes. Guy puts his sunglasses on Dude.
This gives Guy a ton of good karma. First, because Guy shows that he considers Dude to be a person worthy of freedom like everyone else, and he’s willing to risk his safety for it. Second, because it’s clever, as giving your enemy your greatest weapon is not an intuitive action to take. Naturally, Guy is rewarded for his choice. Dude is too delighted by the glasses to bother with the fight.
For more examples of standard turning points, see Six Types of Turning Points for Climaxes.
Bad Karmic Actions
Characters generally gain bad karma with:
- Carelessness, including ignoring warnings, cutting corners, or acting impulsively.
- Selfishness, including cruelty to others, hoarding resources, or just being full of themselves.
- Indolence, including avoiding work, giving up easily, or embracing temptation.
Generally, actions that earn the most bad karma are reserved for villains. Heroes can also earn bad karma and fail, but in most cases, we still want them to be likable. For this reason, storytellers usually soften the wrongness of their choice.
As an example, let’s take a downward turning point from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The characters are in an ancient temple, where Indiana has just recovered the Holy Grail and used it to save his father from a mortal wound. Elsa, the untrustworthy love interest, grabs the grail. She doesn’t believe in its powers, but she’s ecstatic that she and Indiana found the artifact – it’s worth a lot of money and fame. Indiana warns her that she can’t take it out of the temple, but she tries to leave with it anyway.
The ground opens up beneath Elsa, and she falls into a crevice. Luckily, Indiana manages to grab her hand and keep her from falling. However, Elsa can see the grail just out of reach on a ledge below. She continues to try to grab it as Indiana pleads with her to climb back up, and, as a result, she slips from his grip and falls to her death.
In this sequence, Elsa wants the grail for self-serving reasons, she ignores multiple warnings that what she’s doing could result in disaster, and she chases the temptation the grail offers instead of making the hard choice to give it up.
For more examples of downward turning points, see Six Types of Downward Turning Points.
Context Always Matters
Listing actions that usually result in good or bad karma can obscure what is actually a much more complicated picture. Many choices are not automatically right or wrong because of their inherent worthiness but because the storyteller has created context that demonstrates they are right or wrong.
In Hamlet, the titular character decides to use due diligence in investigating his father’s death, rather than immediately assuming his uncle is guilty. In most contexts, that would be the right decision. But in this context, Shakespeare demonstrates that Hamlet’s choice is an act of carelessness, because it gives the uncle time to strike first. Indecisiveness is Hamlet’s fatal flaw.
Your audience will make their own judgements, but as long as they like your protagonist, they won’t be looking for reasons to judge decisions harshly. In most cases, you can keep the audience happy just by making a reasonable argument why the protagonist’s choices are the right ones – or the wrong ones.
If you want your protagonist to do something edgy, that’s when you’re likely to get some negative reactions. Creating a context where the protagonist must eat a baby to save the world will leave a bad taste in people’s mouths even if it’s technically justified. Everything that happens in the story is by your design, and your audience knows this.
The Karmic Balance Sheet
So far, we’ve been examining character karma in the context of turning points. But the effects of karma extend far beyond that one moment. If the character earns karma and doesn’t get any punishment or reward, that karma doesn’t just dissipate. Instead, it’s added to their tab. Then, the audience will expect this tab to be paid out before the story’s finished. In the case of good karma, that means the cashier will give out money instead of collecting it.
The Effect of Prior Deeds
Characters can succeed or fail conflicts because of something they did much earlier in the story. At Mythcreants, we call these prior achievements or prior misdeed turning points. A very common prior achievement is for a protagonist to selflessly help another person. Then, later, when the protagonist is battling the antagonist, the protagonist will be on the verge of losing when the person they helped shows up to save them.
An observer might conclude the protagonist has no agency in these conflicts, but that’s false. The protagonist made the choice to help someone, and that led to their victory.
For this to work well, one detail is key: the protagonist must not have received any prior reward for their selfless deed. If the person they helped already returned the favor or the protagonist benefited another way, then the protagonist’s tab won’t show a positive balance. When the turning point comes and the protagonist asks for money, the cashier will just shake their head. In practical terms, that means it won’t feel like the protagonist has enough agency in resolving their big conflict.
However, a karmic balance sheet doesn’t mean that every single good act or misdeed needs its own outcome for the audience to be happy. A hero can be rewarded for being kind to people in general. Often, a whole group will show up to help them, but if just one ally says, “I’ll help you because you help everyone else,” that counts. Similarly, villains will typically hurt numerous victims, and their comeuppance might come when just one of those victims gets revenge.
The Effect of Payouts in Want of a Deed
An essential storytelling tactic is giving characters punishments or rewards they did not earn. Why do we do this? To alter character likability and set up for a change in fortune later.
If a character faces hard times and they didn’t do anything wrong – or not wrong enough for their terrible punishment – the audience will sympathize with them. Rooting for the underdog gets the audience invested in seeing the character succeed. Then, once the character has done some good deeds, we can lavish extra rewards on them to cash out their tab and satisfy audiences. Countless stories about heroes employ this method.
If a character gets rewards and doesn’t earn them, that can be used to build resentment against them – if we want. Using this to build apathy for minor antagonists is quite useful, but if it happens to a protagonist that’s already likable, the audience won’t necessarily turn against them. However, that doesn’t mean the protagonist doesn’t owe money on their tab. Sooner or later, that unearned reward will be taken away, transformed into a punishment, or the protagonist will scramble to earn it.
This is why characters are rarely allowed to benefit from wishes. While there is nothing morally wrong with making a wish, a character usually hasn’t done enough to earn those rewards. That’s why in Aladdin, the titular protagonist struggles with the knowledge that his wish-granted status is a lie, and the villain ultimately reveals him as a fraud. In Big, the protagonist wishes that he’s an adult, but naturally he has to go back to being a boy by the end.
Making a wish means taking a shortcut and avoiding the real work of earning success. That’s bad karma right there. This is why the monkey’s paw trope is so satisfying – we want to see cheaters get punished. However, you might notice that none of these wishes are for world peace or anything else that doesn’t directly benefit the character. Such selflessness would negate the bad karma, leaving storytellers with nothing to punish.
The 2021 Spider-Man: No Way Home uses this to soften the protagonist’s misdeed so he doesn’t look too bad. In the movie, Doctor Strange casts a spell for Peter Parker that is broad enough to be very wish-like. Peter asks for the spell to help his friends, who didn’t get into MIT because they were associated with him. That’s pretty selfless.
However, after Peter asks for the spell, the audience learns that Peter hasn’t done his due diligence by appealing the admissions decision first. Then, during the spell, Peter overreaches by trying to get what he wants without making any compromises. Because of this, the spell goes poorly. At the end of the movie, Peter fixes this by making a personal sacrifice, thereby paying his tab.
What This Means About Endings
Characters rack up a tab with their deeds, and that tab is paid by the end of the story. Does that mean every single character needs a fate perfectly matched to their accomplishments? No, it doesn’t.
First, characters vary in their level of agency. The story’s protagonist should have the most, so balancing their karmic accounting is the most essential. You’ll only want to neglect that if you’re making a point that is worth reducing audience satisfaction for. The antagonist also has a lot of agency. Balancing their karma is expected, but not quite as essential.
Side characters may have agency, but sometimes they’re more like objects. In the latter case, their fate is usually tied to whether the protagonist succeeds or fails. For instance, in the second episode of Ms. Marvel, protagonist Kamala uses her powers to save a boy who’s about to fall. However, when success is near, she becomes overconfident and careless. While she still saves the boy’s life, he falls a short distance and is injured. This injury is Kamala’s failure, not his.
Second, character karma only determines the things that characters have control over. You decide what level of change is possible and how big successes and failures are. A homeless character probably can’t pull themself up by their bootstraps and end up with a new apartment, but if they’re clever, they might find a safe place to sleep the next night. A character’s fate at the end depends not only on their deeds but also on the tone and setting of the story.
How Karma Creates Meaning
Let’s go back to what happens if you actually remove any endorsement from a choice your character needs to make. In the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds episode The Serene Squall, the Enterprise is trapped in an energy net that’s maintained by devices on the asteroids around them. To get out of the net without it blowing up, they have to shoot the device that’s powering the whole net.
Science Officer Spock analyzes the net, and he identifies two devices that could be the right one. But he doesn’t have the data to narrow it further. Time is running out as the net closes in on the Enterprise, so Spock is told to simply use his gut to choose one. Since Spock is half Vulcan and generally rejects emotion, this is difficult for him. Finally, he does the hard thing and simply chooses a device to shoot, and luckily it’s the right one.
In this sequence, the choice of device is trivial. There is no endorsement of a specific device, and no greater meaning assigned to which one Spock chooses. It’s the choice to choose one at all that matters. Why? Because Spock persevered in making a decision that didn’t feel natural to him, and that made viewers feel like he’d earned something. Then, when the Enterprise survived, they attributed it to Spock’s karmic choice. Spock pushed himself, and it made all the difference.
Imagine if, once Spock had narrowed his options down to two, he’d simply picked one without difficulty. In the absence of another karmic moment, viewers would feel like the Enterprise survived through sheer chance. That would give them no meaning to take away from the conflict, making the resolution feel pointless and ultimately dissatisfying.
Stories are lessons, in the same way a tree is a plant and my cat is a killer. But that doesn’t mean our lessons have to be simplistic. You can create a nuanced context and invite discussion. Plus, let’s not forget that in most stories, we have more than one conflict to work with.
In the first season of The 100, two story arcs run in parallel. Down on the ground, one of the teens has been murdered, and the leaders, Clarke and Bellamy, not only have the murder weapon but also know who it belongs to. Clarke wants to tell everyone, while Bellamy is afraid that will lead to violence. Meanwhile, in the space station orbiting Earth, the adults are in conflict over whether to tell the inhabitants that they don’t have enough air for everyone. Jaha fears that it would create a panic, while Abby wants to follow the wishes of her dead husband, who was killed for trying to tell everyone.
In both arcs, the information is leaked. On the ground, it leads to disaster. Since the owner of the weapon is already unpopular, the teens form a mob and almost kill him before another teen confesses to the crime. Up in the space station, it brings out the best in people. Instead of the authorities choosing who lives and who dies, people volunteer so their loved ones can have a better life. By showing how two similar dilemmas had a different solution, The 100 demonstrated that the issue was a nuanced one without an easy answer.
Today, many writers don’t want to be seen as endorsing any message. An endorsement makes us responsible for what we write, and that means we can be judged harshly. But if we were to wish away that responsibility, our stories wouldn’t mean any more to us than yesterday’s trash. Let’s put that monkey’s paw back on the shelf.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?