Saturday, 22 October 2011


Do your characters have destinies? It seems to be fairly common in fantasy fiction, and indeed almost anything where someone has taken the Hero’s Journey a bit literally. Characters come complete with the lingering sense that they are special, the chosen one, the one true pizza delivery boy. Whatever. Is it something worth doing, though? Well, there are arguments both ways, which I will now horribly mangle.

In favour is that it lends a sense of epic scope to the adventure. It tells us quite clearly that this is being played for high stakes, and that not just anybody could do it. It’s a classic trope of fantasy, so you can put in a nod to that by including it, or make fun of it marvellously. It also gives the character the chance to run away from that destiny, only to be led back to it in the classic HJ structure style.

For me, the issue with it is that a grand destiny destroys the idea of the character succeeding through their own efforts. They succeed because they can’t really do otherwise. And because they can’t really fail, there is less of a real feeling of peril that they might. Yes, I know this is fiction, and the promise of a happy ending already does that, but this does it on a level that includes the character rather than just the author and reader. I’ve also blogged before about the kind of message that ‘special’ characters put out, and why I’m not such a fan.

One final worry is what I feel it does to character motivation. A great destiny works fine as a motivation for some characters (everymen out of their depth trying to avoid it and heroes struggling to live up to it both) but what if that isn’t the story you’re telling? Isn’t there a danger that too much destiny will get in the way by telling us who the character ought to be before we know who they are?


Amie McCracken said...

The thing is it's almost that you can't have epic fantasy without a destiny (like you said). But maybe if the characters changed the destiny just enough that it proved they were still in control of their lives, they still have will. Maybe then the story wouldn't be so cookie-cutter.

stu said...

For me, epic fantasy is just about the scale of events, rather than necessarily predetermined things. I quite like what Joe Ambercrombie has done in a couple of places, though, by setting up apparent destinies that then turn out to be either total nonsense, or actively made up as a kind of manipulation.

Kristen Pelfrey said...

Hi Stu! I'm still Paying it Forward from last week's blog hop. So happy to come across a fencing, writing medievalist!

Julie Daines said...

That's something interesting to think about.

I just think the important thing is that no matter what the hero's destiny is, they have to do it because of personal reasons. Readers don't care about saving the whole world, they care about the hero saving the heroine. When destiny plays out on a personal level parallel to the epic level, it's so much more powerful.

In Lord of the Rings, we're on the edge of our seat worrying if Frodo will destroy the ring in time. Not in time to save Gondor or Middle Earth--who cares about all those people? But in time to save Aragorn and the rest of the Fellowship-those are the guys we love.

Thanks for stopping by my blog!

VR Barkowski said...

For me, the idea of destiny is nearly as limiting as a happily ever after. I've never considered destiny to be an integral part of epic fantasy, but maybe that's because I read rather than write the genre.

I always want to be surprised. I don't mind being manipulated or mislead as long as the author plays fair. No matter how well written, I find the expected to be a bore.