Writing Is A Bad Habit: Life Isn’t Fair Or Is It? a.k.a. The Karma Houdini

Life isn’t fair.  That’s what we are told most often.  Yet, many of us feel deep down in our hearts that there should be some inherent sense of fairness or justice in the universe, some balancing factor to make up the common injustices of human society.  In many philosophies and religions, this takes on a more substantial, codified form, such as karma.  We writers like to create worlds that are more fair or just than the real world, but every once in a while we come across a character that seems to dodge, duck, and weave the chains of justice and karma.  Those would be the Karma Houdinis of the world.

As it says on the tin (or on the TVtropes page), a Karma Houdini is a character for whom karma and justice do not stick.  They can cheat, lie, steal, and murder, yet they come out of the story clean as a whistle.  All ill consequence rolls off of them like water off a duck’s back.  There is no comeuppance, no final justice.  The story ends and our Houdini skips away into the sunset.

Many times, there is a certain moral dissonance the Karma Houdini creates with the reader.  It all comes back to that feeling most of us have that there should be justice in the world, even if there often isn’t much of one in our society.  We want the evil oil baron to lose his fortune and the vicious dictator to be thrown out of power by the scrappy rebellion.  When we don’t get that, we can feel that sense of righteous indignation we often feel in real life at such injustices.

However, when properly set-up and presented, the Karma Houdini can inject a certain degree of realism into a story.  The sad state of affairs is that things do not always tie up nice and neat in real life.  In fact, they rarely do.  While a fiction reader is often looking for some escapism in their reading, they also like to feel as if the stories they read are connected to reality.  The Karma Houdini can be used for this purpose.  You see, the main clause of the Houdini contract isn’t that the Houdini has to succeed.  It is that they do not suffer consequence for their actions.

So you can plot a book wherein you can have a classic sequence of the protagonists overcoming the antagonists, providing a high point for the reader’s sense of justice, but still have the antagonists evade all punishment for their crimes, perhaps even ending in a better place than at the start, giving a nod to the sad state of reality.  I think an important step to make this sort of thing to work is to ensure that the method through which the Houdini gets away with his/her deeds is to ensure that it makes logical sense.  Just like a poorly-created deus ex machina is bad form, the same is true for a poorly-handled Karma Houdini.

What do you think of this particular trope?  Is there a good use for a character who gets away with it all?  Leave your thoughts and insights in the comments below!

Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!

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2 comments

  1. I like my baddies to incur wrath in what I write. If I’m doing a series, they can get away with it in the first few, but by the time my series wraps up, they’ll have to face karma, square in the face. When I read, I don’t mind the Karma Houdinis. If they’re in the peripheral (Dean Koontz does this a lot) and never have to face the music, I don’t mind, but I find if the main antagonist, or even the protagonist if it’s a story about them or their selfishness, doesn’t have to pay up in the end, I feel… not cheated but I close the book feeling like an opportunity may have been missed. Yes. It could have been one of the more raw or honest stories of the human condition I’ve read, but I’ll still walk away without loving the book. Two examples I can think of that I’ve read recently are the Dovekeepers and The Valley of Amazement. Both, were honest. Both featured narcissistic characters that I didn’t much care for, but I read on, thinking they would grow, change, and break their cycle, or at the very least, be penalized. I think on both fronts, they did – to a degree. However, it wasn’t final enough. It wasn’t justice. And so, what could have been favorite books of mine because of the power in the writing, became books I will forever feel disappointed in.

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