In this post, we explore techniques of the Faustian story.
Stories about deals with the devil are as old as desire.
From the Synoptic Gospels to the Mississippi delta’s crossroads, Faustian tales are powerful ones.
Let’s take a walk and explore how to write the trickster into fiction.
The Faustian Story
The old German folk tale of Doctor Faustus is the classic example of stories deemed ‘Faustian’. It was dramatised by Christopher Marlowe in the late-1500s as The Tragical Life & Death Of Doctor Faustus.
A dissatisfied intellectual, Faustus summons the devil’s servant, Mephistopheles. He is promised wealth and knowledge, but in exchange for his soul when the deal has ended.
Does it sound familiar?
Similar stories are a staple of blues and rock lore, with the (unrelated) musicians Robert and Tommy Johnson both reported to have cut a devil’s deal.
Trickster Gods like Anansi and Papa Legba are rooted in Voodoo mythology, with something given (and something taken).
Literature explores the theme, too: The Picture Of Dorian Gray, The Bottle Imp, and Needful Things all.
7 Techniques Of The Faustian Story
Desire is a strong element for Faustian stories. The protagonist has to want something, and want it more than anything.
A premise is based on the desire (or greed) that fuels their search for that specific thing.
Original Faustian stories describe Doctor Faustus seeking money, knowledge, or both. That Hell-Bound Train by Robert Bloch describes a criminal about to quit, when he is offered his deal.
Blues legends say that Robert Johnson sold himself for guitar skills. In the 1700s, legends of violinist Paganini said the same.
Writing Tip: Desire, grief, or greed starts the Faustian plot. The protagonist(s) want or pursue something that they just can’t get.
Faustian stories bring a stranger, who offers the protagonist a deal or gift.
The hero can deliberately find or invoke the trickster, with an attempt to gain the objective of their desires.
Meetings can also happen by chance, like the unmarked train carriage in That Hell-Bound Train or the mysterious Leland Gaunt in Needful Things.
The stranger can be a trickster God, but can also be a demon, a lesser demon, or the devil in another form.
Writing Tip: Sometimes by chance, and sometimes sought out, the Faustian stranger offers the protagonist everything they might want.
The next step is the deal, where the most desirable things are offered in return for an ultimate price: most often, the protagonist’s soul.
The Picture Of Dorian Gray presents a painting that ages whilst Gray will not, and absorb his wrongdoings like a sin eater. Needful Things shows Gaunt, the store owner who always has exactly what his customers need (or want) most.
Grimm tale Bearskin offers the protagonist this: a fortune, but only if he doesn’t bathe, pray, or cut his hair and nails for seven years.
Fair deal, right?
Writing Tip: A Faustian deal is entered voluntarily by the protagonist, upon which they accept its terms. Sometimes with a signature, other times with a nod.
The Protagonist’s Life
Faustian protagonists must agree to sign their life away, and enter the bargain. Stories often show their lives after this event.
Dorian Gray lives on for eighteen years. His face shows no signs of the hedonistic lifestyle that ages his portrait. Keawe gains wealth as owner of the Bottle Imp, but only as he inherits from family who die in an accident.
In Needful Things, neighbours eventually buy guns from Gaunt, protecting their needful things at all costs.
The protagonist is often allowed to reap the deal’s benefits, but only until the next step.
Writing Tip: Faustian deals play out over at least some of the plot, where the protagonist gets what they wanted from their deal. It is often not exactly what they wanted, or not exactly as they wanted it.
The Fine Print
Deals that seem ideal will always have conditions in the Faust-like story. All bargains have fine print.
The Bottle Imp has a sales clause, and it can only be sold to its next owner at a monetary loss to the first. The plot complicates, and this makes it progressively harder to get away from.
In Bearskin, the protagonist avoids bathing, and cutting nails or hair for seven years. He is told to wear a bear’s skin, that eventually turns him into a human beast.
Gimmicks Three by Isaac Asimov combined three gimmicks: deals, time travel, and a locked room. The protagonist’s deal is to be locked in with his gifts.
Writing Tip: Fine print is where conflict gets to shine. Faustian fine print is designed to add an element of (usually dark) surprise, and something that the protagonist did not imagine. Summarize a deal’s premise in a sentence, and add ‘…but’ to stipulate yours.
The Bargain’s End
The Faustian deal comes to an end, in which the stranger (whether a demon or devil) returns to collect. Darkness, loss, mortality, and the consequences of blind greed or debauchery are common themes.
In The Tragical Life & Death Of Doctor Faustus, he is dragged to the underworld.
In Bearskin, the protagonist’s love interests commit suicide when they see him (and the devils get a better bargain).
In The Picture Of Dorian Gray, he dies as he stabs his own painting, and is found in the street.
Faustian endings are almost always dark, rooted in tragedy or great loss.
Writing Tip: Traditional Faustian endings are often tragic when the deal expires, sometimes with an added level of tragedy (e.g. Bearskin) where the stranger gets better than their original bargain. Outlines are a writer’s friend.
The Alternate Ending
The stranger doesn’t always succeed. Alternate endings are also possible, where the protagonist finds a way out of the deal, then walks away.
It’s a less common way to end the Faustian story, but it has been done.
- In Gimmicks Three, the protagonist turns back time – to before the deal even happened.
- That Hell-Bound Train also uses time travel, but with darker consequences. He skips through time when he boards the train, and becomes its new Hell-Bound conductor.
- In The Bottle Imp, the incredible answer to the bottle’s last sale is inflation and foreign currency.
Some (rarer) stories beat the deal.
Writing Tip: Outlines are (still) a writer’s friend. Non-traditional endings, twists, or cliffhangers seem like an awful lot of work, but the principle of outlining remains the same as for any other story’s end.
The Faustian Tale: Story Examples
- The Tragical Life & Death Of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
- That Hell-Bound Train by Robert Bloch
- Needful Things by Stephen King
- The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
- The Bottle Imp by Robert Louis Stevenson
- Bearskin Collected by The Brothers Grimm
- Gimmick Three by Isaac Asimov
The Last Word
In this post, Writers Write explored the Faustian story and how to write one. Explore some of the great posts on Writers Write, where you don’t have to sell your soul to become a better writer.
By Alex J. Coyne. Alex is a writer, proofreader, and regular card player. His features about cards, bridge, and card playing have appeared in Great Bridge Links, Gifts for Card Players, Bridge Canada Magazine, and Caribbean Compass. Get in touch at alexcoyneofficial.com.
If you enjoyed this, read other posts by Alex:
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