In the world of books, karma is much more commonplace than it is in real life. At the end of the story, the bad guy gets their comeuppance, and the good guy lives happily ever after. In other words, good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. But do you really need this karma in your work? And if you do, how should it manifest? Here are a couple of my own thoughts on the topic.
Do I Need Karma?
Not every story ends with the cosmic balance in alignment. Depending on an author’s style, the result for heroes and villains can vary and there’s plenty of middle ground that doesn’t quite fall into the categories of total victory or total defeat. I have noticed that the most common ending seems to be that the hero is victorious but has made some sacrifices along the way. I suppose that’s the closest you can get to real life while still keeping the ending positive.
Of course, some authors go in completely the other direction by having their heroes tragically defeated and their villains victorious, although this style is somewhat less common as it can be quite unsatisfying for the reader if you get it wrong,.
So, where does your work fit on the karma scale? Your demographic will have a big influence on this. For example, if you are writing a chirpy, mainstream novel for people to read on the beach, you will probably lean more towards the happily-ever-after ending as this will likely be the most satisfying for this audience, who are looking for a light, feel-good read. On the other hand, if you are writing for literary enthusiasts who are practically allergic to anything by Stephenie Meyer, you will want to unbalance things a little bit, or even go for the catastrophic ending as this audience may find it hard to accept perfect karma in their stories.
Another element to consider is how close to real life you want this to be, and that decision may depend heavily on how realistic the rest of your story is. A fairy tale can get away with happily-ever-after because if the reader can suspend their disbelief enough to accept that the princess was awoken by true love’s kiss, they can probably also accept a picturesque ending.
One element of karma that I personally find very important is devising proportionate punishment for your villain. Even in a very gritty novel, it can be off-putting to see your villain punished more than they deserved. For example, if one of your characters was a jealous sister who seeks to undermine her successful sibling’s career, it would probably be too much to have her eaten by a bear at the end of the story. She might be mean, but few readers would think she deserves to die horribly. You could go down the route of poetic justice if you want; for example, having the sister lose her own job after her corruption is discovered. But it can also suffice to have her punished in a way that is not quite so perfect, but still relevant and appropriate. For example, her boyfriend gets sick of her meddling ways and leaves her.
Under-punishing your villain can be dissatisfying too, but it can be used successfully as a tool in a more realistic novel. Villains in real life don’t always get their comeuppance, so it would be reasonable to reflect that in your fiction too. In this case, I suggest you tread very carefully and ensure that this ending comes across as a deliberate theme, rather than a result of carelessness in planning your plot.
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