Friday, 25 May 2012

Playing God and the Devil’s Advocate

I’m odd. My favourite book of the Bible is Job. I think the main reason is the wonderful theology that a foolhardy exegete such as I can eke out of it. However, the book is also a great example of how writers should treat—or rather mistreat—their protagonists.

Job’s normal existence is portrayed as idyllic: gifts from God abound, and Job doesn’t have a care in the world. But that doesn’t last, of course. What a boring read the book would be if it did! Unbeknown to Job, Satan gains permission from God to mete out a progression of blows on the man. Initially, Job’s possessions are taken away and his children die. Then, to kick him while he’s down, Satan inflicts a painful disease on him.

The final problem to befall Job is a lack of understanding from his friends (well-meaning though they be).

These troubles give rise to the conflicts that comprise the bulk of the book. The main conflict is internal: since Job wasn’t privy to the scenes in which Satan communicates with God, he attributes his afflictions to God and this causes him to question his faith. The external conflict involves Job defending himself and his beliefs against the questionable logic of those around him.

As writers, I think we all know what it’s like to play God in the stories we create. We fashion the characters and settings. We shape how events unfold and direct the final outcome.

But the bit that interests me is that we should also play Satan. In the same way that Satan seeks and obtains permission from God to inflict travails on Job, we must grant ourselves permission to inflict travails on our beloved protagonists—and preferably several layers of them. If I may be permitted to refer to mystical arts in a Christian blog, it’s like sticking pins into a voodoo doll.

I’ll confess that I derive a perverse sense of satisfaction from inflicting challenges on my protagonists. Perhaps I should be worried about this! Hopefully it’s only because I’m curious to see how they’ll respond.

As writers, it would be a problem for us if we get so attached to our stories’ heroes and heroines that we become unwilling to load them down with obstacles. Without problems, there can be no conflict; with no conflict, there can be no drama, no plot and no story. A hero with no challenges can’t show how heroic he is (and presumably a heroine couldn’t show how heroinic she is).

So next time you’re playing God, don’t forget that you’re also the devil’s advocate.

Peter McLennan writes YA novels. His first novel has just been published on Amazon and Smashwords.


  1. I have had hero and heroines go through trouble, Shootings, drugs, faith issues, premarital sex and more.
    In the end they triumph over these issues and as I write Christian usually through God's help. The trial show them their need and God's purpose in their lives.

    In the end I did 'kill' a bad guy off because I liked him too much, but he did redeem himself before he took his last breath.

  2. What power, Peter, to play both God and satan to those hapless characters of ours! I agree the book of Job is a very interesting read.

  3. I love it Peter! Perhaps the 'perverse satisfaction' comes from pride in your characters - ie you know they'll come through with flying colours in the end.
    Just like God believed that Job's faith was strong and would not ever turn his back on God and so allowed Satan to give him strife.

    1. Interesting point. I guess we have an unfair advantage since we know that Satan won't win.

  4. Yes, I too confess to messing with my people... I mean characters. Mischief, then calamity, then that long bony finger of death to poke them through the heart. With the hand of God to redeem what is lost, and restore as He did for Job.

    Great post, Peter.

  5. Interesting post, Peter. Being mainly a non fiction writer I haven't had as many opportunities of playing both God and the Devil's advocate in my writing as the rest of you. But I've been busy on a Children's story book this past week and I have to confess that I did enjoy the process of working on the characters of two different types of people - the hero and the anti hero! :)

    What we do when we play 'God' in creating characters is a bit different to how God does it, don't you think? Our characters don't have a chance! They have to act out the roles we give them. (Although sometimes they are obstintate and go their own way! :)) In the case of real people in the real world though - they always have a choice. To follow God's path or Satan's path for them. Rather sobering but also freeing.

    Thanks for making me think, Peter! :)

    1. I write to make people think, so thank you!

      The points of similarity between non-fiction and fiction narrative would make an interesting blog post (if not more). Even a non-fiction character-based story would benefit from, if not demand, the main character having one or more problems that they overcome. Maybe the writer doesn't get to devise what these are, but they can bring them out. In this regard, perhaps non-fiction writers are more like the devil's advocate whereas fiction writers are akin to the devil himself!

      Your point about whether our characters don't have a chance whereas we actually do (due to free will) is a great one. Many books have been written on the topic of free will versus God's sovereignty, predestination, etc. Exploring this parallel could also be the topic of a future blog post! It's dangerous territory, though.

  6. Really enjoyed reading your thoughtful post, Peter. With my latest novel I am currently editing, I have had the greatest fun making my male protagonist quite an angry, bitter person - but I know he will change! Now that sure does bring up all sorts of theological discussion, as you point out. Not sure what it says about me, however! Hmmmm.