Why Gods Are Usually Better Left Off-Stage in Fantasy

Call me old fashioned, but a God in fiction should have god-like powers. What exactly are those? Well, a snap of the fingers and they can bring drought, famine, flood or plenty, kill hundreds, create hundreds, change the world or influence people’s lives and fates. Hell, they are usually the ones that created the world in the first place. Most importantly, their powers trump everyone else’s. If they’re a god, they’re more than everyone else: they’re the ultimate power.

This leads me to why I often have a problem with gods traipsing around centre-stage in fantasy novels, TV shows, or films. If they’re no longer a mysterious, largely absent and only mildly-interfering power, they can become problematic. Here are a few reasons why (and I’m well aware other people may not mind these things as much as I do!):

Gods Who Might As Well Be Wizards

Poster: SupernaturalIf ‘gods’ just walk around in human form doing a magic trick here or there, they are wizards or witches, not gods. I understand that people may call them gods, and I’m more accepting if the book or film makes this clear, but in some stories they’re literally gods: they announce themselves as Zeus, Loki or the like, and then come down and start involving themselves with the political squabbles of humans or the territory grabs of vampires and werewolves (The TV Show Supernatural is often guilty of this, though in fairness it is humorous and doesn’t take itself too seriously).

Worse, in these gods vs humans (or other creatures) scenarios, it is often a relatively even fight. Gods that are supposedly all-powerful become conveniently inactive, despite the fact we’ve been assured of their supreme powers, or have an achilles heel that miraculously stops them in their tracks before they pulverise everything. Of course, gods vs gods is different, but a gods vs humans battle never quite works for me.

Gods Who Interfere and Solve Everything

The phrase Deus ex machina from ancient Greek theatre, meaning “God from the machine”, refers to a moment in a play when a god descends and solves everything. It’s often used to describe conflicts or plots that get conveniently resolved by an external or previously unseen force and are thus disappointing. The association of this problematic plot device with gods reveals the problem at the heart of using them in storytelling: the moment an all-powerful all-seeing being becomes an active force in a story, they can snap their fingers and remove the conflict.

Gods Who Don’t Interfere When They Could

Following on from the above, if a god doesn’t magically solve everything, you have to wonder why. Sometimes there are decent reasons, for example in The Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne, gods are from another plane of existence entirely, and are weakened when taking human vessels in the main world (though even here some of the gods were so powerful I felt uncomfortable with their lack of action on certain fronts). But at other times the reasons for a lack of interference remain unexplained, are put down to whimsy, or are simply weak, making the whole story illogical and unsatisfying.

Gods Who Seem to Have Very Little Power at All

These are generally presented by the story as legitimate ‘gods’, but use their power so rarely or in such bizarre ways that I have to wonder why anyone bothers to call them gods at all. Sure, often there is a lot of talk of worship and ideology and philosophy, but ultimately the gods are so impotent and boring they just irritate me (For me, American Gods is a case in point here – there were several reasons why that book wasn’t my cup of tea, and this was one of them).

Exceptions

Book Cover: HyperionBook Cover: The Final EmpireOccasionally, a fantasy or science fiction series puts gods centre-stage and really gets it right (in my opinion anyway). I’d say the Mistborn trilogy and Hyperion Cantos are two good examples. I won’t go into too much detail as it might involve spoilers, but suffice to say, both give their gods truly god-like powers, as well as decent explanations for why those gods don’t have or use those powers at certain points in the story. Both were wonderful because they actually took a look at what having world- and universe-altering powers would mean and made their gods more than just glorified wizards or figure heads.

However, the fact remains that in many cases when gods walk the earth, it feels a little illogical or ridiculous and doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t have a problem with unseen gods influencing the characters, their magic, their society, their history and their beliefs – indeed religion is often a rich component of fantasy worlds – but I generally don’t like it when they start playing central, present, walking-and-talking roles in stories. Maybe this is just a personal pet peeve of mine, and a result of my rigid idea of what a god is and does… but I’ll always be wary if Odin, Athena or the like pops in on stage right in a fantasy novel.

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What do you think of gods playing central roles in fantasy stories? Do you have any favourite books, films or TV shows that you think do the “gods walk the earth” scenario well?  

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23 thoughts on “Why Gods Are Usually Better Left Off-Stage in Fantasy

  1. Ah I actually like stories that play with the idea of gods (and I got halfway down when I realised my example of american gods was an example of a book that didn’t work for you- so figures… 😉 personally I like the play of ideas in that book and the figure of weakened gods). Maybe this is coming from my background in classics, but I’m the kind of person that gets excited when these figures turn up (although if they get it wrong I’ll be doubly annoyed and I really don’t like when stupid theological arguments are made). But I can understand why a lot of this wouldn’t work for you- especially the god vs human problem. And a lot of this made me think of the issue of “god-modding” in general- giving a character too much power- whether they are a god or not- is a problem in general and there has to be a counterbalance for the story to work (in my opinion)

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    • Haha yes I’m bit fussy in this case, I tend to like my gods mysterious and all-powerful, not weakened and humanised – and I’m not even entirely sure why! After all, there are countless religious and mythological examples of gods walking among humans and not being all-powerful.

      And yeah when people get pre-existing gods/myths wrong it is doubly annoying (I should have added that to my list!), e.g. I’ve seen fantasies completely misrepresent Greek and Hindu gods in a way that trivialised them and was just plain old silly.

      I’d never heard of “god-modding” so thanks for adding it to my vocabulary! That’s definitely a problem if the main character is too powerful and there’s nothing to counterbalance them.

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      • haha fair enough! Yeah- I guess that’s why I have less of a problem with it.
        haha yes- that drives me mad! I find it *really* hard to read YA retellings of Greek/Roman mythology!
        haha I should have explained- I once knew a girl who was very into writing roleplay type stories- she wanted to do it with me, but it didn’t work very well cos our characters were mismatched and she kept saying I was god-modding… hence I knew the term 😉 (and that was a very long winded and unnecessary explanation 😉 ) Yeah for sure!! It happens a lot in YA books with Chosen One’s I find :/

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  2. I definitely agree that it depends on how the gods are defined in a fantasy setting when it comes to my suspending disbelief while reading the story. If there is no clear definition, then readers will implant their own, and this could lead to dissatisfied readers. I have gods making appearances in my WIP, so I need to take care in the matter. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

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    • Yes that’s a very good way to put it re. readers implanting their own definition – I guess like many things in fantasy it’s about rules and internal logic. If I’m told what powers and limitations a god has, and those work in the story, it’s fine. But if I’m given no definition I will presume they’re an all-powerful god and start wondering why they don’t use those amazing powers to get their way. So I guess as long as you do the former in your WIP, you won’t get people like me grumbling about the gods when they show up 🙂

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  3. My feeling is that gods should take a strong interest in affairs of the world, especially if they have a specific area of interest, ie: Hera, goddess of women, should be acting against anyone who abuses women.

    However, I think gods should be sending their clergy to perform miracles and advocate with political leaders, rather than showing up in person. For exactly the reasons you state.

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    • That’s a good point about gods sending their clergy to do things, I hadn’t even thought of that but you see it a lot in fantasy. I particularly like the ambiguity that often you don’t know if it’s really the will of a god they’re acting on, or their own self interest.

      Gods who have specific areas of interest are also great – the Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne does this well, as does the Gentleman Bastard’s series, though in the latter the gods never appear and are only worshipped/referred to.

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      • Right. Why do gods have clergy, if not to carry out their teachings? But, yes, the question of god’s will vs. human self-interest is always there in any good story.

        I guess if you’re afraid of being too cynical, you could have some visible sign that the god is acting through the priest/priestess. A vibrant halo, perhaps?

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    • True, that mysterious philosophical and religious element was such a key part of the book… at one point I was worried all that build up would come to nothing or would result in something disappointing in the end, but it paid off really well! (in my opinion anyway)

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  4. Well this got me thinking and i think i agree a lot with you. I guess in fantasy when everything is magical or out of the world, god still needs to be god and be above all of it with double magical powers or something. Am i making sense lol? I feel like if it is a fantasy book then might as well go out with god. I would like to give more of a critical opinion but i don’t remember having read any book with god in it so this thought will have to do haha. Great post:) – Avi

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    • Thanks! Yes I guess I feel if everything is magical the word ‘god’ should suggest some grander world-creating type power – though some people would argue immortal magicians who get worshipped are pretty much gods (especially if the book is emulating a religious system with many less-powerful gods, not one all-powerful god). I’m more of a fan of the going all-out version though 🙂

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  5. I’ve never really thought about this before, but you have a fair point. I like when deities are either off-stage or kept mysterious, even if they come into the picture now and then as part of the story. The key is the sense of otherness. When they lose that mystery and otherness, they tend to become mere supernatural beings, like wizards or created spirits, but not gods.

    As for American Gods, it was a fascinating book, but it didn’t sit well with me, either. As I recall, the “gods” were simply concepts born of the human mind, becoming stronger or weaker with changes in human belief. Interesting concept, but rather too small and cynical, and not as fun or as lively as a true mythology. There’s a lot more energy in Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” which still includes god-like beings, though they maintain an air of wonder and otherness hidden in the mundane. I *did* like that.

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    • Yes true, a lot of it is about the sense of otherness. Even if gods do appear, if they maintain a strong sense of mystery and being ‘unknowable’ they still feel like a higher order of being to me, whereas if they are too ordinary they lose that.

      I haven’t read ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’, but it sounds like the air of wonder/otherness would suit my tastes more than American Gods (though I should mention that it wasn’t just the ordinary, human-ness of the gods in that book that put me off, but also how bizarre they were and strangely they behaved)

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  6. I prefer to have gods involved, but I do agree with the points you’ve made here: that they should have god-like abilities if involved and good reasons given for why they do or do not help. I’m a sucker for gods and/or religion in fantasy stories (so I’ll take your mention of Hyperion as a recommendation because I really want to try another Dan Simmons book) and love it when those are done well. An example, I think, is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion, which I read earlier this year and loved. Gods are mentioned, things happen that make it seem like they are involved, but there is no proof. However an explanation is given for why gods may or may not exist. (I’m vague to avoid spoilers.)

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    • Yes it does really come down to god-like powers and reasons for interfering/not interfering… I also love gods and religion in fantasy when done well, I guess I have just been disappointed by lack-lustre gods so it makes me wary of them!

      I can highly recommend Hyperion, it’s brilliant (the first 10 pages are a bit clunky/slow but it gets way better). I’ve seen Curse of Chalion mentioned online a few times but have never read it, so I will add it to my to-read list, thanks! I love the mystery of those maybe-real-but-there’s-no-hard-proof type gods.

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      • I’d be curious to see what you think when you get to Curse of Chalion.
        And I’ll try Hyperion. I read Simmons’s Song of Kali, which was a good read but also clunky n slow in the beginning.

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        • Well, “Song of Kali” wasn’t what I expected god-wise. It was more focused on a cult that worships Kali rather than on the god. It was still a good read though, but unsettling. It’s a horror novel.

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  7. Pingback: What’s On Your Nightstand: May 2017 | Zezee with Books

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