Understanding Character Karma

Lady Justice sits with her sword, holding up her scales

Character karma is a useful concept that helps us understand how to craft stories that are engaging and satisfying. While I’ve mentioned the concept in many other places, it’s overdue for a full article on the ways it affects our stories.

First, what is character karma? As its name suggests, character karma is the sense that a specific character deserves a fate that’s either good or bad. Even when audiences aren’t aware of it, they keep a tally on whether each character has a karmic debt or surplus, and this tally changes their emotional response to story events.

What Creates Good or Bad Karma?

Karma depends on cultural values, so audiences won’t always agree on karmic accounting. However, there are two categories of personality traits that affect a character’s karma.

  1. Morality – A character who is moral earns good karma, whereas someone who acts immorally gains bad karma. While cultural morals differ, a selfless person looks better to audiences than a selfish one.
  2. Merit – A character who’s clever or determined is favored for good karma. A character who’s incompetent will gain bad karma.

To influence karma, the audience must witness the character doing things that exhibit these traits. If you just tell the audience your character has these traits through narration or dialogue, it’s unlikely to have an impact.

The context also matters. Characters gain more good karma when they use their merit or morality to overcome difficult obstacles. In general, the more they have to struggle to overcome the obstacle, the more good karma they will get. Characters gain more bad karma if they have it easy. If your selfish character is already living in luxury or your incompetent character messes up a done deal, they’ll acquire karmic debt.

However, a character’s actions are only one side of the balance sheet. A karmic deed creates an expectation that something good or bad will happen to a character, but once it happens, their karma disappears. In other words, the character may have wracked up a karmic debt, but has that debt already been paid?

In many cases, karma will resolve itself. If your character messes something up, that failure will likely be punishment in itself. If your character shows merit during the story, they’ve probably benefited from it somehow. A character showing moral or immoral traits might have already been rewarded or punished by the people around them. Karma really comes into play when characters do good or bad things but don’t get what they’ve earned. In these cases, the karmic imbalance builds up.

Using Karma to Change Character Likability

I probably don’t need to spell out that good karma makes a character more likable and bad karma makes them less so. Even so, you may not realize how many story conventions are rooted in this effect.

We’ve talked a lot about how spinach (humiliation) and candy (glorification) affects character likability, and karma is behind that. A character who eats their spinach is likely to have a positive karmic balance because they’ve been paying their karmic dues with bad fortune. If they also exhibit selfless traits, then the audience will feel they deserved much better than what they got – a karmic surplus.

This is a great recipe for a protagonist at the beginning of a story. That’s why writers try so hard to give their main character sympathetic problems in the first chapter. It’s also why problems aren’t effective sympathy generators if they are the character’s fault in some way. If the character did something to deserve misfortune, the spinach will only pay off their debt, not create a positive balance.

We don’t always want our characters to have good karma though. Having a villain or jerk-ass side character with bad karma will give the audience someone to dislike and raise tension in the story. If a rival ally is given credit for something the protagonist achieved, that will get the audience’s blood boiling. If the antagonist is steeped in karmic debt, that gives the audience another reason to root for the protagonist.

What matters is that the storyteller has a sense for how their audience will tally the karma of their characters. When the storyteller is not on the same page as the audience, a negative audience reaction is likely.

Storytellers who love and identify with their main character can be tempted into glorifying that character. But when a character is given lots of candy at the start of the story, the audience is likely to feel it’s unearned. This is a recipe for karmic debt – and for a protagonist that is unlikable to most people.*

Side characters intended as humorous are also likely to accumulate karmic debt by accident. In these cases, the storyteller will show the character messing everything up and escaping consequences by sheer luck. This routine is supposed to be funny, but it’s actually a recipe for an irritating character.

Using Karma to Create Satisfying Endings

Karma has a large role in determining whether an ending is satisfying. A great ending has two karmic requirements.

1. The ending must balance karmic accounting.

If you heap misfortune on a character with good karma or reward a character with bad karma, you risk creating an unsatisfying end.

However, balancing karma is not the same thing as letting your hero win. If a happy ending feels unrealistic, a bittersweet ending will be considered an appropriate reward for a hero. There’s also room for a heroic character with enough karmic debt to create an ending that’s sad but satisfying. The key is that if your main character fails, they must deserve to at some level.

In most cases, punishing a villain for their bad deeds will give the audience some long-awaited catharsis. However, if your hero has bad karma, the villain’s escape may be seen as punishment for the hero. So an evil villain doesn’t always have to settle their karmic debts.

If you have side characters with lots of good or bad karma, reward or punish them before the story is done. Otherwise, it may feel like you have dangling plot threads.

2. The main character must shape their ending with karmic deeds.

This may sound complicated, so let me break it down. Even if your protagonist has lots of good karma, a god can’t just swoop in at the end and reward them. At the story’s climax, the main character has to do something that saves or dooms the day – and that something must give them good or bad karma, respectively.

I refer to this deed as the critical turning point, and I have an article with six formulas for creating them. For instance, in one formula, the protagonist shows kindness to the antagonist and wins them over. Their act of kindness grants good karma because it is moral. In another, the protagonist pieces together a puzzle, allowing them to defeat the villain. Their cleverness grants them good karma because it demonstrates their merit.

A big-picture view of karma shows us why character deaths often create battles between fan communities or between fans and storytellers. Heroes and sidekicks die not only to raise tension or create drama but also to balance karmic accounting. When a woman dies after having sex or a gay couple dies after getting together, it suggests the storyteller thinks those characters are sinful and is punishing them. Whether or not that’s true, the fan reaction will be the same. So be aware of the morals you want to express to your audience, and make conscious choices about who should be punished – and who shouldn’t be.

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  1. Dave L

    Frequently a writer will try to innovative, or gritty and realistic, by ignoring karma

    These stories CAN be innovative, gritty and realistic, but they’re also usually unsatisfying as @#*$!

    There are reasons for the story rules. You can follow those rules unquestioningly, but then your story might be boring and predictable

    You can break those rules, but then your story might be incoherent or disappointing

    Hey, nobody said writing was easy

    • Michael Campbell

      “No good deed goes unpunished.”

      It’s a cliché because it true.

      If the meek shall inherit the Earth, who then does it currently belong to!?!

    • Chris Winkle

      Actually, some people do say writing is easy. In particular, Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, a husband-wife pair who advocate a quantity over quality strategy to writing and self publishing. Of course, what they actually mean is that it’s easy to put words of some kind down on paper.

      I think there’s plenty of room for surprises while still following character karma, but breaking karma, like breaking other rules, can work if it’s your story’s point. There just has to be a benefit big enough to make up for the dissatisfaction.

  2. Sam Victors

    Sounds somewhat similar to the Medieval concept of the Wheel of Fortune. My College English teacher described Fortunata as capricious and fickle. If you are on the top of the wheel, you will definitely hit bottom. If you are at the bottom, you will reach the top. To balance the wheel, you must remain in the middle.

  3. American Charioteer

    “There’s also room for a heroic character with enough karmic debt to create an ending that’s sad but satisfying.”
    I think the fates of Walter in “Breaking Bad,” Ragnar in “Vikings,” or Moses in the Torah are good examples of this.

    • Michael Campbell

      I’m not sure if feeding into the cosmology of the public is necessarily a good idea.
      In aboriginal* cosmology a guy doesn’t just die. Someone else must have sung the guy’s soul out of his body.
      *And yes there is no one aboriginal cosmology.

      In the end of the original Ocean’s Eleven, the heroes do everything right and still they end up putting on the dark glasses and walking down to the train station with nothing in their pockets but their return tickets.
      A greater truth trumped their karma:-
      In Vegas, the house ALWAYS wins.

      If one follows the cosmology of an unhealthy worldview then one can get to the point that since the NRA says that anyone who goes on shooting spree must be mentally ill (I recall seeing footage of Wayne LaPierre saying exactly that).
      Then logically all people arrested after a shooting spree must be set free on the grounds of innocence by way of mental illness.

      Maybe a cosmology where you must make the change you seek, is healthier than one where the cosmos always hands down a fair & just sentence.

  4. Michael Campbell

    I’m not sure Karma can be used as the key word for this issue.
    I think “comeuppance” or even “poetic justice” might be better terms.

    Because of reincarnation; the bulk a person’s karma was actually generated in previous lives which is something the current person has no ability to rectify. You suffer because of what you did (if the cosmos so chooses to bestow) and you suffer because of what the cosmos claims you did in previous lives. If the audience view that as capricious and arbitrary…well who are they to tell the cosmos what to do!?!

    Also sometimes an author just has to quote Lloyd Kaufman; “Make your own damn movie.” If everybody gets what they deserve then there’s no verisimilitude.

  5. Lizzie

    Great article! It’s useful to see how karma works with the candy and spinach concept too. Thanks for writing!

  6. Michael Campbell

    Actually I’ve got to say, that by the logic that the audience needs karma correctly resolved, in Saving Private Ryan:-
    Captain Miller had considerable white karma and dies.
    Sergeant Horvath had considerable white karma and dies.
    Corporal Upham had substantial black karma and lives.
    By that logic, Saving Private Ryan should be a deeply unsatisfying film.

    • Greg

      The Wire would be another example of deliberate karmic imbalance. But these exceptions are actually tropes of their respective genre. They don’t disprove the importance of Karma in stories. They just subvert it.

  7. Circe

    I have a problem. In my story, two cousins help a princess by taking a magical artifact that will save her kingdom from her evil twin brother. It’s the cousins who take the artifact, but in the end, the princess becomes queen. I don’t want to change the plot, but it feels like the princess did little to earn this title. How can I make the ending satisfying?

    • Cay Reet

      I don’t know the details of your story, of course, but here’s a few things I would do:

      1.) make the princess help in some way with taking the artefact. Perhaps she has a way to tell where it is, guiding the cousins to the right place. Or she has a way to distract her brother, so the cousins have a time frame for their retrieval mission.

      2.) make the princess become queen for other reasons than the artefact. Perhaps the artefact gives her evil twin brother an advantage in battle and she proves the better strategist once it’s gone.

      You will, I fear, be forced to change the plot (to tweak it a bit at least) to make it feel earned. The princess has to be involved in becoming the queen, so if it hinges on the artefact, you either have to take the artefact out of the story or you have to change the way she is crowned.

    • Dinwar

      Why does it have to be earned? An exploration of the internal struggles of someone who does the work but doesn’t get the credit could be an interesting element to your story. You could also explore the guilt the princess feels for having the title that others have earned. There have been many examples throughout history of people who did the work, but didn’t get the glory. And it’s a nice inversion of the classic idea of the person who gets the McGuffin also getting the crown.

      This idea has been used successfully in fiction in the past. Lord of the Rings, for example: Frodo and Sam do the heavy lifting, but Aragorn gets the crown. The Chronicles of Amber also do this (I won’t spoil it for anyone). Even Arthurian Legend touches upon it–Arthur has to fight several wars because other nobles thought the whole hidden-heir-comes-to-light thing didn’t make a whole lot of sense, and since those other nobles had been defending the country for decades they should be the ones to rule. Eventually Arthur wins them over, and ultimately that process is what earned him his crown (and cost him it, as some of the nobles never forgave him).

  8. Slayd

    My favorite example of this is Frodo and Sam getting rescued by the eagles in Return of the King. Normally that would feel like a Deus Ex Machina, but since they’ve been through so much at this point, it feels more like “finally, they’re catching a break”

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