Getting authors out of trouble: When deus ex machina does not suck!

Last year, I finished two grand, epic science fiction sagas almost at the same time. Though they had some major differences (not the least because one was a book, the other a film), they also had some astounding similarities, both climaxes involved space battles with enormous space fleets above the villain’s home planet, following the villain’s own psychic destruction of entire worlds. Both also featured roughly similar endings, with male and female protagonists coming together to summon the combined psychic power of light to overpower the bad guy and all his minions in a huge blast of positivity, which the good guys gained access to just in time to turn the tide. Both were examples of that most problematic of plot devices, the infamous deus ex machina. Yet, what was really strange, was the fact that in one case, Julian May’s Magnificat, the deus ex machina definitely worked, while in the other case, Star Wars: The rise of Skywalker, it certainly did not.

Most writing guides and resources; going as far back as ancient Greece, assume that any and all deus ex machina plot resolutions are all kinds of bad and wrong and should be avoided at all costs. However, I find it interesting just how often, and in how many popular and successful stories, from Harry Potter, to The Stand, to most fairy tales (Disney’s included), the deus ex machina not only works, but is considered the most glorious part of the story.

As is well known, the term “deus ex machina; or god from the machine”, comes from an ancient Greek piece of theatrical equipment, a crane used to lower an actor playing one of the Greek gods onto the stage, so that the gods could insure the play ended properly with the hero triumphant. These days, the term deus ex machina has also been extended to any particularly lucky set of circumstances which serve to get a character out of trouble, from a character finding they have a sudden unexpected power, talent or special item, to help; divine or otherwise, showing up at just the right moment, to dumb luck or handy inanimate objects being there just when the protagonist needs them, the author essentially stepping in to fulfil the roll the Greek gods did, pulling the protagonist out of trouble when no other solution is possible.

The first question I find myself asking however, is why are these types of deus ex solutions necessary. I don’t mean: “why couldn’t the author set up their ending better to allow the character to succeed more logically?”, I mean, if a character is in a position where the threat they are facing is so terrible that there is absolutely no way out, why does there actually need to be a way out.

Why for example, during Harry’s graveyard confrontation with Voldemort in Goblet of Fire, did Rowling feel the need to introduce a hitherto unforeseen quirk of Harry’s wand to get him out of trouble. Why couldn’t Rowling have Harry Potter simply killed by Voldemort, and continue the series with Ron or Hermione as the main character. The simple reason is, that we like Harry Potter, and having Harry die halfway through his journey would; to borrow an American idiom, just suck!

When the author has done their job properly in getting us to sympathise with a protagonist, we generally want said protagonist to succeed. Yes, in reality, lots of people’s lives, journeys and aspirations get cut short by people, events, or circumstances outside their control, but this is because, as is also well known: reality also, sucks!

As I argued in my likable characters article, since being invested in a work of fiction involves empathizing with its characters, wanting them to succeed or fail, having the characters always fail, and frequently die, when they come up against things that are bigger and nastier than they are, would hardly make for a good story. Of course, the more commonly converse is also true, where having characters succeed too often (especially through deus ex successes), can lead to a character becoming dislikeable because they have had things a little too easy; see my article on succeedinators.

Contrast this however to the moment when the downtrodden hero, the one who has journeyed and suffered and coped with their own flaws suddenly is allowed to succeed no matter how much darkness they face, the moment when their journey is accomplished, often with the attainment of some personal goal, or the fall of a tyrannically powerful antagonist.

This kind of positive deus ex machina moment isn’t often talked about, or at least when it is, it usually happens in context of those who disliked the moment trying to point out that it’s a deus ex machina, and its defenders trying to argue it isn’t, since the deus ex machina is always thought to be something negative.

J. R. R. Tolkien however, gave this sort of moment a far more positive name: eucatastrophe, combining the term “catastrophe”, usually an unexpected disaster, with the Greek prefix “eu”, meaning good. To Tolkien, this was one of the most profound truths about fiction, and one specifically tied to Christianity, since what more literal, or indeed more hopeful “deus ex machina”, could there be, than the idea of God dying, and then triumphing over death.

The concept of eucatastrophe doesn’t however have to be seen in a specifically Christian light to explain its effectiveness. After all, what more positive or transcendental moment could there be than acknowledging that however dark things get, sometimes the universe itself isn’t always fundamentally grim; an affirmation of the idea that sometimes, just sometimes, things work out right, and once in a while, reality actually does not! Suck!

Why however do I regard the climax of Rise of Skywalker as a deus ex machina, which I greeted with a resounding “meh”, and the climax of Magnificat as a eucatastrophe, and a moment of transcendental beauty. The simple answer is, that I cared far more about Jack and Diamond than I did about Rey and Kylo Ren.

The question of whether Rey is a succeedinator, (more problematically called a Mary Sue), is one which has been run over so many times on the internet it’s marked with permanent tyre tracks, however it’s far easier to explain why I really like Diamond Mask, aka Dorothy McDonald.

Rey and Diamond have a number of startling similarities, both being very much almost archetypical hero characters. Both lose their parents at a young age and grow up in isolation, only to discover their powers in extremis. Both have character traits which make them superior to those around them and earn them quick advancement, Rey’s abilities with piloting combat and her place in the Resistance, while Diamond is a 15 year old genius who literally ends up running her own planet!

Both also have moments of awesome where their powers are shown, even in a galaxy full of people with similar powers, to be extraordinary, heck Diamond holds back a volcanic lava flow with her mind alone.

However there is one absolutely clear difference between Rey and Diamond. Diamond grows, develops and is affected by the world around her, while Rey stays the same. Rey goes through many situations that should make her grow, from battles where almost all of the Resistance are killed, to being tortured by Kylo Ren, to seemingly making friends with a number of other characters along the way, however none of these experiences seem to have much effect on her. She’s still the same wise cracking, independent minded loner at the end of Rise of Skywalker, than she was at the beginning of Force Awakens.

Diamond by contrast we see radically changed by her experiences, from her initial hatred of the being called Hydra which killed her parents, to her suspicion that one of the powerful Remillard family is behind it. Heck, even though Diamond’s romance with Jack Remillard is built on a predictable structure, with suspicion and enmity leading to liking, leading to love, it is still a relationship which Diamond develops over time, and something which radically changes her relations to other characters, especially to the series villain Mark Remillard; also a complex character with his own distinct path.

Ultimately, Diamond is a character with whom I felt I went on a journey, whereas Rey is a character who I felt I was merely watching do cool stuff. I do not hate Rey, but I don’t especially like her either. Indeed, even though we are told directly about Jack and Diamond’s death at the start of Jack the Bodiless, the moment itself is amazingly tragic and bittersweet, whereas my reaction to Kylo Ren’s death was: “ah, okay.” I’d have reacted no differently if Rey had died as well.

Many people criticise the rescue of Frodo and Sam by the Eagles from the collapsing Mount Doom in the end of Lord of the Rings as a moment of deus ex machina, however, Tolkien very much intended it as a moment of eucatastrophe. Frodo and Sam are characters who endure a long and bitter journey, sticking together to the very end, characters who we fundamentally have come to care for. Having them both die in the eruption of the fire mountain would be a pretty crappy way for their story to end.

Of course, the other major point about eucatastrophe, and likely the other reason why I didn’t find the climax of Rise of Skywalker all that surprising, is that, eucatastrophe in fiction is rather like cooking with salt, namely the more of it you use, the more everything tends to taste of it, and the less effective, and less healthy it becomes. After all, moments of eucatastrophe derive their effectiveness from the fact that they work expressly against the way that reality usually does. However if, as is unfortunately the case in a lot of fiction, we are already in a world where nothing bad will happen to the heroes, then having something bad fail to happen to the heroes will not exactly be a surprise.

This is, ironically, where Game of Thrones style grim dark gut punches also get their effectiveness. Since we are so used to deus ex machina solutions in fiction, to undercut our expectations with a dose of harsh reality, can often be just as affecting.

However, the same rule of consistency still applies, indeed even more so, since if a book turns into nothing but a constant cavalcade of grimness and failure with no moments of eucatastrophe to act as a counterbalance, it can, like reality, also, suck!

So is the deus ex machina always a bad thing? Well of course it is. However, if an author has done their job right, given us characters who go on a real journey, and whose story we want to see come to a triumphal end, setup a world where bad things can, and do happen, then, the moment when the authorial god bends reality to let the protagonist prevail against the odds will not be a deus ex machina, but a moment of eucatastrophe, a moment of truly transcendental beauty, and something which can make a book truly amazing! Since; especially in the rather grim times we’re living in, what better lesson is there to take from fiction, than that reality might actually not! Suck!

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