Paths To Darkness: Deus Ex Machina
I’ve spent a great deal of time lately reflecting on positive influences for a writer. But as many reviewers point out, it’s just as important to understand negative influences or trends so that readers and writers can avoid them. And since this week marks the return of Legend of Korra, the slightly less spectacular but still worthwhile sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender, I decided to take time to restart Paths to Darkness and comment on a flaw both series, and many others, suffer from – the deus ex machina.
The Definition, And the Problems
A Latin phrase that translates to ‘god in the machine’, deus ex machina is the sudden resolution of an unsolvable problem, usually by the intervention of a contrived character, event, or device. It’s origins came from Greece, where machines were often used to lower actors playing gods onto the stage during plays. Oftentimes, the gods would enter to save the hero from an insurmountable problem, thereby ensuring a happy ending. However, poets such as Horace criticized the device, warning poets in his work to avoid them. In modern literature, use of the device generally implies a lack of creativity on the part of the writer, who uses the device after writing into a corner. It is also criticized for ruining internal story logic, or to create a forced happy ending to satisfy readers. But unlike other literary flaws, the deus has been used positively, usually as a comic device, or as a deliberate effect by the author.
Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra– as mentioned, both of these shows, while exceptional in all other aspects, suffer from ending on this note. In Airbender, Aang is conflicted by his duty to kill the villainous Fire Lord, which goes against his belief that life is sacred. Rather than confront this dilemma and make a difficult choice, Aang meets a mystical creature that gives him a new bending technique that allows him to strip the Fire Lord of his power without killing him. Korra actually uses the device twice. First, when Korra learns Airbending at a crucial moment, saving the day despite not using any of the established methods to Airbend or showing any previous ability to do so. And second, at the show’s end, when she is stripped of her power, but has it magically restored by Aang’s sprit to ensure a happy ending.
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
One of the classic fantasy tales also has a well-known DEM at its conclusion, when Frodo and Sam are trapped on an erupting Mt. Doom following the destruction of the One Ring. At this point, the characters must either escape by their wits, or die. However, neither happens, as they are rescued by eagles and flown to safety.
The son of Marvel Comics’ Sue and Reed Richards, Franklin Richards is a mutant, gifted with incredible but undefined cosmic power, which has often been used to solve massive problems instantly. Most recently, the mini-series Fear itself used him as a DEM, by using his power to magically cure Ben Grimm of a demonic possession that had afflicted various Marvel heroes and villains.
Monty Python’s The Life of Brian
A successful parody of the device, the film features scene in which Brian, a Hebrew in the time of Jesus, is saved from a fall by a passing alien ship, which then files him about the world before crashing back in Jerusalem. Brian emerges safely, and the event is never referenced again.
Lord of the Flies
The classic tale of boys left on a island to devolve into mindless savages ends with a navy officer happening to swing by and rescue the children. However, William Golding used the DEM to emphasize the horror the savage boys would’ve inflicted on Ralph (the lone ‘sane’ boy), had the ship not come by. As such, the DEM manages to serve a serious purpose and offer a new question- what is the captain bringing back to land?
The DEM is in essence, a test of creativity and integrity. Just like in real life, we may wish for a magic solution to come and solve the problems of our characters. Or perhaps, we fear the results of a downcast ending. While these urges are understandable, remember that as writers, we should always look to challenge ourselves. Real life does not always has easy solutions that fall into our laps, and neither should stories. If you are creative enough to get your story to its end, then you have no need to resort to alien spaceships or magic powers that can somehow solve the problem. You simply need to sit down, look at what you have, and flex your creative muscles to come up with a true, logical, emotional ending. Because anything else, makes as much sense as a giant lion-turtle talking about bending a person’s soul.