Are your characters victims or dodgers of karmic justice?

Fiction is written by us. And what we like to see, what we cling to, is the sense that the universe will eventually fix everything. Whether that’s a god, fate or narrative causality, bad people get their comeuppance and good people get rewarded.

And when we see terrible characters undergo terrible deaths, it’s okay, even satisfying because, hey, they deserved it.

Subverting this is a great way of creating tension. It’s usually a good signpost that this is an edgier, darker story when the villain gets away with it and the good guys lose. It’s an accepted, even exciting plot twist which leaves you thinking. Some even argue it’s more ‘true to life’ where the bad guys do sometimes get away with it. 

But when movies aren’t starting from the premise of an edgy, cold and ‘realistic’ world portrayal, these karmic imbalances can seem either horrendously over the top or woefully lacking.

Jurassic World

In the remake of this perpetually doomed dino park, the assistant, Zara, gets a particularly nasty death which seems entirely unwarranted. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a link

Zara is portrayed as more concerned with her phone than the two boys she’s supposed to be watching. But otherwise, she’s a walk on who gets at most ten-fifteen minutes of screen time with her only remarkable feature being her Irish accent amongst a mostly American cast.

We’re expected to believe that this is her punishment for losing the nephews? Seems pretty unjustified and spans a horrific 40 seconds. Her best outcome is

5d576fc4514ebdd5860941cc103088ba5e4d86d93897ebf0382fa192685e5b7b
Ewww

she suffocated. At worst, she was… digested by a gigantic dinosaur. Ew. It’s one of the longest and nastiest death scenes in the movie. Even the main villain has a shorter death at around 30 seconds and most of that was him trying to convince the dinosaur not to eat him – the actual violent death is only about 10 seconds if that and mostly off camera.

Basically, Zara’s death is not 
proportional to her crime. It leaves the audience with an uncomfortable feeling.

Compare this to Dennis Nedry’s death scene from the Jurassic Park which, by the end of the movie, we feel is rather well deserved. In his case, we’re rooting for the dinosaurs.

But that’s because he’s portrayed as a jerk whose greed endangers the life of everyone else. In the original book, Dennis Nedry is bullied into working long hours and fixing IT issues he’s not qualified for. In the book, John Hammond threatens to fire him if he complains, which casts Dennis Nedry as almost a sympathetic character and therefore, in the black and white world of movies, it’s harder cheer at his downfall.

 

Wolf of Wall Street

Where to start with this one? Here’s an example of a character dodging his richly deserved comeuppance.

In brief, Jordan Belfort found a firm of stockbrokers and amasses a huge fortune by defrauding wealthy investors out of millions upon millions of dollars. Even as the SEC and the FBI investigate, he and his band of merry men spend two-thirds of the movie enjoying an unending party of sex, drugs, and thrills.

The writing is spot on, Leonardo DiCaprio’s acting blew me away and the cinematography was some of the best I’ve ever seen. But I couldn’t root for a single one of the characters. They were all appalling people and I was mostly watching to see them get their just deserts.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen.

Belfort does go to prison after being a rampant drug user, alcohol abuser, terrible and abusive husband and father and all around dick. But it’s not the psychically satisfying moment you might hope for, as it’s in prison he finds peace. It’s a happy ending for him.

It’s not unusual for protagonists to indulge in excess, but usually, it’s coupled with a greater flaw which means they’ll never be happy. For example, Tony Montana in Scarface indulges in drugs, sex and money just as Jordan Belfort does. But his inner demons (not to mention his incestuous obsession over his sister) means that nothing will ever make him happy. Cue downer ending.

Therefore, many critics slammed Wolf of Wall Street for its ‘self-indulgent glorification of the excess’. This movie is often what I think of when I talk about excess not being the character flaw it used to be. I write about it here.

That all being said, I want to be fair and say Wolf of Wall Street may not be as clear cut as I’ve tried to pretend it is. Some people have said the movie is, in fact, a commentary on how people in these industries do, in fact, escape justice. This movie is based on true events and the real life Jordan Belfort, after everything he’s done, is now a very successful public speaker. In real life, there is no inevitable karma.

 

Capture
Jordan Belfort himself in Wolf of Wall Street. I mean… look at that face…

In fact, a little detail which you might have missed, the actual Jordan Belfort appears in the movie, right at the end as he introduces the fictional Jordan Belfort to the stage. He introduces him as:

The single baddest mother f*****r I have met.

And does so with a coy, s***-eating grin which frankly made me really uncomfortable to watch!

In conclusion, there are unwritten rules in the fictional world. Good guys win the day. Bad guys get their appropriate comeuppance. As the TV Tropes site points out:

The Golden Rule states Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, but in fiction the rule seems to be more What you do unto others will be done unto you.

Breaking these rules can be used to great effect, but if they’re in accordance to the story you’re telling. You have to be clear that this is a dark, edgy story you’re telling which is going to be more true to life’s rules, than the comfort we draw from fiction.

Otherwise, you’re going to have an unhappy reader who’s unresolved desire to see a character’s comeuppance can tarnish their enjoyment of your story!

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