Destiny is Overrated

Scott SummersOn Writing, Tips & Learns

I hate destiny. Not heroes. Not villains. Destiny. That unseen, guiding force of the universe that dictates the way of things.

Why, you ask? Because so many of our modern heroes are tragically afflicted by a case of predetermination.

The Divine Decree

Modern day heroes are often young, sometimes foolish, luckily clumsy, or just plain whiney (looking at you, Skywalker). If we’re following the classic hero’s journey, they’re children or young adults who leave home at the call of adventure. They’re going to grow into a mighty or leader or king or whatever. All well and good. Points for character development. I don’t have a problem with that.

I have a problem with why they do it.

Whether guided by some sense of higher morality or greater calling, the mix of qualifications that define a hero are often reduced to a matter of bloodline or destiny in modern fiction. It’s not that a character is intrinsically smart, gifted, or possesses a certain drive. All of those qualities are overshadowed by a selection process entirely removed from the character’s ability to develop. And the moment a hero is labeled “The Chosen One”, or selected by some prophecy, I want to throw a book at the wall.

When I encounter new main characters, I always ask myself two questions:

1. What makes this character special?

Is there an intrinsic gift, power, or ability that makes this character unique? Does the story hinge on the workings of fate, blood, or destiny?

2. Could the average Joe have been the hero here?

All things aside, could our Chosen One have been any other guy? What are the specific circumstances involved that make this character the only one capable of performing this specific task.

Otherworldly Intervention

Utilizing destiny as a plot device, while maddening, has its place in fiction — especially fantasy fiction. It’s true that some of my favorite characters are sons of kings, heirs to the throne, or those called by divinity to act out a singular purpose. But the best basis for destiny in a story is to have a character run from it.

If played straight, fate often stunts character development. The moment destiny intervenes, so many options for development are narrowed. When the divine decree is announced, it looms over the story with an air of inevitability. All characters are doomed to embrace fate, at some point, whether it’s heroes or their villainous victims.

That same assuredness is turned on its head the moment a character resists fate. When Aragorn avoids his birthright or Harry all but fails to singlehanded fulfill his prophecy without the help of his friends, destiny turns from a surefire thing to a device in question.

In this aspect, it gains gains merit. I think most readers would agree that the future isn’t set in stone. Fate hasn’t decided our lots in the real world, and see the Big Questions determined for our characters (without appropriate development and dramatic tension) can be a real turnoff.

By Blood Betrayed

The one that gets me the most is a question of royalty. I understand if we’ve decided up front that the story is a brawl between princes or that the hope of a kingdom hinges on the second princeling who escaped the castle before it was overrun by a vampire sorcerer. In the cases where the setup is sound, it works.

But when everybody seems to be a prince or a princess, I usually put the book (or the series) down.

There is a cost to blood and birthright in relationship to relatability. Blood doesn’t have to be an issue, but it often is where princes are concerned. And why is destiny so obsessed with the son or daughter of whomever? It sounds like easy pickings, considering that destiny can do whatever it wants.

It disheartening, because the idea of a scrappy little nobody fighting his way up the ranks is far more appealing than a newly discovered princeling watching the world give way to his blood and title.

We’re All Average, Anyway

As a reader, I like my characters to be down to earth or — at the very least — unmistakably human. I think there are stories to be had from all walks of life (even in fantasy), whether it’s the farm boy destined to save the world or the bastard son of the most chivalrous of princes trying to find his way.

When destiny intervenes and isn’t isn’t played with, no matter how the plot develops, the tension and suspense vanish for a linear resolution and the casual death of my interest, as a reader.

But hey, that was probably destined to happen anyway.