The celestial, “afterlife bureaucracy” setting of The Good Place gives its storytelling a degree of elasticity you wouldn’t find in a non-fantasy series—as of the recently-completed third season, I’ve lost count of the number of times the story-world has been reset, rewound, rebooted, or generally bamboozled. And hey, if you’re writing in the realm of the ethereal, why wouldn’t you take every opportunity to play with spacetime? It turns out, you can get some very interesting character writing done within that cosmic framework and all the divergent paths and “what if?” narratives you can play with as you stretch and squish the Universe. So today let’s sit back with a tub of frozen yoghurt and look at how The Good Place, with all its timeline reboots, raises questions of nature and nurture, of fate and destiny, and even of soulmates, all while giving its writers a smart exercise in consistent characterisation and its audiences an endless parade of alternate versions of the same story—in many ways tapping into the methods, and the appeal, of the good ol’ Alternate Universe fanfiction. (Spoilers ahead!)
Most, if not all, fanfic stems from “what if”s. Sometimes, obviously, those what ifs are more major than others: sometimes it’s as simple as “what if the plot had slowed down here and given Character A some breathing space to have a chat about their backstory and their feelings?”, or “what if this story was instead told from this sidelined character’s perspective—what’s going on in their head?” and of course sometimes it’s “what if Character A and Character B smooched?” (And there’s nothing wrong with that.)
The realm of the most major “what ifs” is the Alternate Universe (AU) genre, wherein the writer diverges from the canon material in such a way that a whole new story is created. Sometimes this divergence is something like “what if Character A hadn’t died at this point in the plot?” where a whole new timeline and new story outcome shoots off from the canon narrative; and sometimes—maybe most famously—this divergence involves moving the established cast and themes to a whole new setting, following a query like “what if Character A existed in contemporary realism and worked in a café?”
These AUs can be a lot of fun, but (and this is something they often don’t get credit for) they can also be an intriguing place to explore things like characterisation. After all, to transplant your favourites into a setting (and often a genre) that they don’t normally find themselves in, some changes ought to be made to maintain suspension of disbelief. If Character A was raised in a sci-fi military facility and trained all their life to be a space assassin, surely this upbringing has affected their worldview in some significant ways that, well, probably won’t be present if they had instead grown up in a city on Earth and gotten themselves a steady barista job. The things that people experience, especially while growing up, tend to have a big sway in forging who they are as a person. And, of course, new things a character experiences within the genre-shifted AU story will give them development they might not have come across in their original story. Will they even be recognisable as the same character if their experiences are that significantly different?
Maybe exploring that wild difference is part of the fun of the “what if”. But fans of a character, generally speaking, come to a fanwork looking for depictions of that character they can still recognise and connect to the canon version. So the question then is: how does a writer maintain a sense of the “canon” characteristics of this character—enough to have them be recognisable as themselves—while also playing with those “what if”s of circumstance and character development? Choosing what aspects of their personality to keep and which to discard or modify involves a deep look into which of the character’s traits could be intrinsic to them, and which have been shaped by their circumstances and experiences. What parts of the character do you keep at their core when the situation around them changes? And what aspects of that character’s relationships with others would be affected by the change in circumstance, and which are part of the core of their dynamic?
The Good Place has so far bounced its core cast through near to a thousand versions of its own story. Firstly this comes in the form of Michael—the demon tasked with tormenting the four main humans—resetting the world every time one of them, usually Eleanor, figures out that they’re actually in The Bad Place. With a click of Michael’s fingers, another alternate timeline—alternate universe, you could say—is created, and with it an alternate version of the main cast’s personal journeys and interactions with each other. Across the start of season two, Michal reboots his personal Hell hundreds of times, becoming increasingly frustrated how the main cast seem to keep finding each other, bonding, and helping each other be better people, no matter what he does. Is this doomed to happen in every iteration of the story? Is it Fate, or is this human nature, and the intrinsic nature of these particular humans? (The Good Place is fond of getting philosophical)
When Michael joins the side of the humans, he helps orchestrate another big “what if” scenario: at the end of season two he creates a new timeline in which none of them died in the first place, and are still living out their lives on Earth. Having been saved from the accidents that originally killed them, all four of the main characters take a new outlook on life and try to be better people. Ultimately, however, they end up falling back into the unhealthy patterns and traits that sent them to The Bad Place originally. The personal development they achieved in Michael’s celestial domain doesn’t happen, because of a factor that’s been removed in this new telling: their relationships with the other humans. The timeline reboot that sends Team Cockroach back to Earth could be seen as, at least to start with, an AU spurred by “what if the gang never met?”. It is not a particularly happy AU, and it raises that question of how personality is forged and maintained by environment, experiences, and relationships.
Because of its otherworldly setting, The Good Place (like many of the sci-fi tales that these tropes grew from) has the power to play out the sort of divergent “what if” scenarios that would usually be the realm of fanworks—the writers embrace the concept of the AU and all its elasticity, and weave it into the canon of their story. The “what if”s they play with range from small and playful ones like “what if everyone had been assigned different fake soulmates?” or “what if Eleanor had been put into the mansion instead of Tahani?” to more major, plot-driving and emotionally resonant ones like “what if they didn’t die and the events of the first two seasons, for all intents and purposes, didn’t take place?” What do these changes reveal about the characters—what about them changes with the changing scenario, and what about them stays the same? In this playful writing space, we have the power to ask these questions and see their answers.
The same question goes for the relationships in the series: in differing circumstances, do the dynamics between the characters change too? Or are they—and this is a big romantic question that can often be found at the heart of AU fanworks—destined, somehow, to find and bond with each other no matter what timeline they’re in? Soulmates are supposedly a fake concept Michael made up for the original Bad Place run, but it seems like Eleanor and Chidi have an uncanny tendency to connect and fall for each other no matter what reboot scenario they find themselves in, with some fun variations to their dynamic along the way.
When you write your characters into a thousand different timelines (which can be rebooted without consequence to the overall narrative except for how the audience sees it), you can stretch and play with their relationship in ways you can’t in a static, linear storyline—and you can quite literally have them meet and fall in love thousands of times as well. And, if their dynamic is good enough, the audience will embrace this. After all, that’s what reading fanworks can be: watching two characters meet and fall in love a thousand times in a thousand slightly different alternate universes, without getting sick of it. The Good Place understands and taps into this appeal, and folds it into its canon.
The cosmic rebooting needed to achieve these “what if” storylines does rob the human characters of some of their agency, of course, since they don’t remember anything that came before and essentially lose their development and motivation. The lack of narrative consequences can be playful, but it can also be frustrating, and it tends to lead to a few of the show’s clunkier episodes as the characters navigate their clean-slate setting and regather their knowledge of what exactly is going on. But the divergent pathways are also intriguing fun to watch: we get funny little moments (and the implication of them) that wouldn’t have been able to be part of the story without the reboot function, and across the collective narrative, as we watch these characters react to different scenarios thrown at them, we can also build a sense of who these characters (and their relationships) are at their core. It raises those questions of nature and nurture by placing the characters in different scenarios where they can grow and change in differing ways, embracing the concept of the AU and the “what if” in their celestial setting, and going bonkers with it to create a fun and intriguing exercise in characterisation.