Karma’s a bitch!”
We hear that all the time. Somebody does something good, they get good karma. Something bad happens to someone, it’s because they have bad karma. It’s justice, retribution and balancing the scales of right and wrong.
Karma is commonly understood to mean our actions, words or deeds and their outcomes. But I believe that this interpretation is specious. Karma’s more profound than that.
Believers in spirituality come a little closer. For them, karma refers to the spiritual circle of cause and effect, often called the “Principle of Karma”, wherein intent and actions of an individual (cause) influence the future of that individual (effect). Good intent and good deeds contribute to good karma and happier rebirths, while bad intent and bad deeds contribute to bad karma and bad rebirths. But this interpretation is still built on a basis of quid pro quo.
It’s my belief that the key word here is “intent”. Karma isn’t retribution. It isn’t justice or fairness or revenge. It’s not, “I’ll do something nice for someone and then something nice will happen to me.” That’s just “karma farming“.
Karma goes deeper than external outcomes. Karma is our why.
So what has this got to do with character development?
I’m glad you asked.
It has everything to do with it.
Karma is closely aligned to the kind of thing we try to do as writers when we create a compelling and sympathetic character. In stories, our characters must learn something about themselves, have insights, revelations, change flawed beliefs, become individuals who strive to be the best they can be through their actions, words and deeds on a daily basis. It’s not tit for tat, or what’s in it for me.
Karma, the idea of karma, is a critical component in the creation of literature. The best stories are predicated on unbroken chains of causality provoked by our actions, words and deeds — and that’s the bedrock of the whole Principle of Karma. A storyteller’s job is to craft a tale that captivates readers and educates them about the values and beliefs that are common to humanity.
Storytelling and spiritual insights both spring from the same source — the basic need for individuals to relate, not only to the rest of humanity but also to something larger than ourselves which, (and this is just my opinion), is probably an instinctive and deeply-rooted desire to return to childhood, cared-for and carefree, without the necessity of having to be responsible.
We all have a yearning to belong. Somewhere. This longing is based in a need to feel safe. It’s a fundamental requirement of being alive, and subconsciously, we know that being part of a larger whole will make us feel more secure, whether it’s part of a family unit, a clan, a tribe, or a connection to a spiritual force or being.
In order to achieve this social acceptance, the obvious solution is to conform to guidelines that allow us to be worthy of that family, tribe or god, suppressing any behaviours that don’t fit the norm. So we adopt the ethics, values and behaviours that will get us “in with the in crowd”, part of the herd and conforming to the edicts of the powers that be. That’s fair, just and good, according to the tenets of our social order. It’s give and take. Mutual support. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.
We acknowledge the concepts of justice, right and wrong, fairness and retribution and we do our best to cooperate and adhere to the common standards and principles of our culture and society. To do otherwise invites exile to the outer darkness, where there are ginormous snarly things with sharp teeth and claws.
The more closely we conform to these standards, the “better” person we are and the higher our moral status. Therefore, the more value we accrue as a member of the herd, the greater our reward in this world and in whichever afterlife accords with our beliefs.
But that’s not Karma.
That’s negotiation and commerce.
No, karma is our journey as human beings. Karma lies in our values and the struggles we undergo in order to overcome our own failings.
Our stories, histories, religions, and individual conflicts are all concerned with our actions, words and deeds, but they’re about the beliefs and understanding that we have regarding them.
Our karma isn’t just what we do.
It’s our intent. Our karma is why we do it.
Just like the characters in the stories we write.