Literary Trope of the Week: Karma Houdini

A literary trope in a story is like a cliché with impunity.  It’s a recognizable convention, but if the author knows what to do, it can be used to great effect.  Any writer looking for ways to add useful details and situations to a narrative will find tropes helpful.  As such, this series of posts analyzes the endless well of information that is (from a literary perspective).

The Literary Trope: Karma Houdini

TV Tropes defines the trope as follows:

[The villain] has done just about every conceivable thing that would make an audience boo, hiss and hate him with the burning fire of a thousand suns. So when the Karmic Hammer falls and the time for his comeuppance finally arrives, the audience is going to sit back and bask in the satisfaction that can only come from watching him get what he so richly deserves, up to and including a highly ironic and gruesomely appropriate death.

Only… that’s not what happens. He doesn’t get what he deserves. Instead, he gets away scot-free, thumbs his nose at the hero, dons his baby seal cape (made from baby harp seals he personally skinned alive), and walks off into the sunset.

This is a fruitful trope, but one that I think a lot of the TV Tropes examples gets wrong.  There’s a difference between a villain who lives to see another day and a villain who society ensures lives to see another day.

Take comic book villains.  Would the Joker work as a Karma Houdini?  Not to me.  Sure he has nine lives, and though he frequently ends up in Arkham, he never really gets what is coming to him.  But this is only as it is because of the nature of comic book stories: the villain must return.  The status quo is for the villain to be out there concocting his next scheme.  To constantly create and permanently punish villain after villain would not serve the episodic nature of such storytelling.

The Karma Houdini is different (or should be).  It’s a character who keeps contorting his or her way out of facing true retribution because they can–because they are permitted to.  Take the Malfoy family in Harry Potter.  They survive Voldemort’s first downfall with nary a scratch on their reputation/public standing.  While the second downfall may have gone worse for them, they escape with their lives and Draco is still respectable enough to be permitted to send his little Scorpius to Hogwarts (whoever says Draco gets better as a person need ask themselves how a reformed Slytherin could name his son Scorpius and be considered to have mended his ways).  The Malfoys don’t survive because of luck or bravery or anything like that; they survive because they are wealthy and privileged and suffering consequences is not what they do.  

Why You Need a “Karma Houdini”

There are two broad reasons why you want this character:

(1) It allows you to explore some semblance of reality.  Let’s face it: there’s a lot of bad people out there who constantly get away with things because of who they are.  Always featuring bad guys who have bad things happen to them tests your audience’s patience.  Be willing to explore what makes some people immune to punishment and your story will be richer.

(2) It’s dramatically satisfying.  What?  Satisfying?  Isn’t this the opposite of satisfying?  Yes and no.  Obviously the audience wants the bad guy to get what’s coming.  But they are so used to seeing it that it becomes boring, bland even.  Surprising your readers with something much more complex and morally unsatisfying ends up being a far better way to make your story more entertaining, memorable and dramatically satisfying.

How to Make Sure this Literary Trope Doesn’t Become a Cliche:

A few guidelines:

1) It’s not just the rich. We don’t need to only see wealthy characters taking advantage of their societal privileges.  Take O’Brien from Downton Abbey; she’s about as evil as they come but never gets any true comeuppance.  Iago from Othello.  Neither are rich and truly powerful but they fit the trope perfectly and add a lot.  Didn’t you know bullies who were clever enough to avoid any and all punishment?  They weren’t all privileged by wealth; usually such bullies are privileged by a society where people are too lazy to intervene.

2) Make it work for your story.  Just putting in a trope like this as a kind of sub-plot is death.  It’s like throwing a morality play in the middle of everything and stopping the story cold.  You have to find a few characters who would work for this trope and make it work within the story so it flows naturally.  Don’t throw it in for the sake of throwing it in.

3) It’s not just villains.  Plenty of heroes get away with wrongs that a normal society would punish.  Feel free to explore the complexities of having heroes who always seem to get away with sometimes quite serious wrongdoing purely because they’re the heroes.

Think of Frank Grimes in The Simpsons; he spends his one and only episode flummoxed by the fact that the Simpson family (namely Homer) has been permitted to exist for so long without serious consequences for their serial failures and wrongs.  What happens to him for questioning the show’s willingness to glorify people who should have serious problems with the law (I mean how many people has Homer nearly killed with his workplace negligence)?  Grimes dies, of course.  It’s delicious.

Who are your favorite “Karma Houdinis”?

Previous Tropes:

  1. Mr. Exposition
  2. Cassandra Truth
  3. Bad Dreams
  4. One Dialogue, Two Conversations
  5. As You Know
  6. Laymen’s Terms
  7. Even Evil Has Standards
  8. Iconic Item
  9. The Unreveal
  10. Hero Worshipper
  11. Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything
  12. Berserk Button
  13. The Faceless


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  1. Kaninchenzero’s comment rlleay hit close to home. A lot of it is a privacy issue, and some of it is rolled into (internalized and projected) fatphobia, I think, because if I’m limping, or leaning, or need one of the reserved seats on the bus, or otherwise demonstrate that I’m having trouble getting around, then it must be because I’m too fat in the eyes of other people. If I need to get to a bathroom RIGHT NOW, then the fatty must have eaten too much bacon in her lard sandwich. If I start having trouble breathing in public, especially when I’m near someone smoking outside, it’s probably because I can’t carry around my own weight, rather than actually being asthmatic. On the other hand, at the risk of wallowing in my privilege, I sometimes wish my disabilities were more visible so that I don’t have to explain myself when using the disabled line at the DMV because I can’t possibly stand for 20 minutes in the general line.I guess I need to learn and accept that NO disability is an easy disability, and it’s okay to be a gimpy fat chick, no matter how any of those labels applies to me..-= Jennifermfb4s last blog .. =-.

  2. That’s a great point, romham; the vbilise/invisible binary is REALLY problematic. I’ve noticed that some people seem to think that unless you have a conventional marker of disability (ie: cane, guide dog), you’re not really disabled. Baloney sandwiches to that.I should probably mention that I also have mild CP and a limp because of it, but have learned how to walk so it’s not immediately noticeable (and I *still* get questions from strangers like Why are you limping? Is something wrong with your foot? and on and on). That’s for another post, though..-= annahamb4s last blog .. =-.

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