Recently, I have found myself perturbed by the use of fate in literature and popular culture. Personally, I tend to find questions of fate in life fairly unproductive, but in the case of literature and popular culture, ‘fate’ usually does and always should have a purpose. In film, television, and novels, fate should function to develop one or more characters, or, to a lesser extent, the narrative. However, I have recently been wondering how much our characters’ fate is worth. How much do we gain by the use of the fate-function in a narrative, and just how much do we lose? This is my attempt to write out my concerns.
In Romance, the purpose of the fate-function is obviously to magnify the sense and importance of the protagonists’ love, but is achieved in two different ways. The first is the most basic version and involves the idea that our protagonists’ love was ‘written in the stars’. These are the characters that are ‘meant to be together’, for example, Clare and Henry in The Time Traveller’s Wife. In such stories the fate-function controls the narrative, and the characters are limited to awaiting the occurrences of apparently inevitable events, which are out of their control.
However, possibly the more traditional version is that wherein fate acts to separate the protagonists despite the endurance of their love and their attempts to be together. This is the ‘star-crossed lovers’ version of fate. I’m inclined to prefer this version, despite the often tragic ending, because at least our characters attempt to be proactive. Nevertheless, while they fight to defy their destiny, they are traditionally unsuccessful and ultimately fate wins out, rendering their actions meaningless except as futile declarations of love. After all, what are we to gain from the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe’s attempts, other than an explanation for the colour of berries?!
In more recent popular culture these two versions of the fate-function have been strangely combined such that, despite fate apparently acting as an obstacle to keep the protagonists apart, it also brings them together. For example, Twilight’s Bella declares, “I squared my shoulders and walked forward to meet my fate, with my destiny solidly at my side.” Despite initially seeming somewhat incoherent, this sentence quite simply outlines this recently popular version of fate. Here, fate/destiny is both a potential impediment and a description of her fated lover. In the film Adjustment Bureau, (very) loosely based on a Philip K Dick story, the protagonists, David and Elise, successfully defy their fate to be together. However, it is revealed by members of the Adjustment Bureau that, by being together, David and Elise are fulfilling an earlier edition of their destiny. The result in such stories is that while the characters appear to actively resist their fate, the feeling remains that they were ‘meant to be together’. The reader or viewer is, therefore, left to question just how much choice the characters had over their actions.
It is, of course, in speculative fiction that fate plays its most explicit role, and where it is able to have greater cause than the glorification of love. As in most of my examples above, fate in speculative fiction can have a romantic directive, but it is also possible for the fate-function to provide additional and alternative plot effects. In speculative fiction, fate can be more than just something people say, more than an attribution of superstition; fate can be an understood truth and can even be personified. Yet, I still have doubts as to whether the potential additions granted by the fate-function are worth the losses to character action and development.
Arguably, the most traditional role of fate as bringer, or at least determiner of death, is particularly popular in all genres, but can be especially explicit in Spec Fic. In the television series Supernatural
, for example, fate becomes explicit as it is personified a number of times by characters such as Death (of the four horsemen of the apocalypse) and Atropos (of the three Fates – in Supernatural
style depicted as a sexy librarian). Despite the ostensible theme that our characters “don’t have to be ruled by fate” (Castiel), the additions of Death and Atropos to the storyline act to reassert the inevitability of death and the inexorable nature of fate, as they are always successful. Of course, in speculative fiction, when one is fated to die, it doesn’t necessarily mean they remain dead, but, it limits the possibilities open to our characters’ actions. Equally, when a character is fated to die, it is not always made clear which character the fates have chosen. For example, in Percy Jackson and the Olympians
, Percy witnesses the cutting of a thread of life by Atropos, and mistakenly believes it to signal his imminent death.
The prophecy version of the fate-function also often produces such a mislead. Such prophecies are extremely common in much of Spec Fic, for example in Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, The Matrix, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc. Often prophecy narratives combine fated deaths with the suggestion of a hero destiny, and while the prophecies do not always play out as expected, the prophecy leads the character to act based on an assumption of the meaning of their destiny, whether they fight against or follow their understood fate. By the same token, a character’s knowledge of their fate through time travel and precognition similarly affects narratives.
Clearly there are benefits to such uses of fate in speculative fiction. It can be used to set different narratives in motion, but to me this seems like a somewhat cheap device to use. More interestingly, it can contribute to characterisation by orchestrating difficult decisions and making explicit a character’s motivations. It is interesting, for example, to understand the motivations of a character that fights against fate, despite the odds. We can, furthermore, learn much about our protagonist when they move towards their fate despite knowing it likely holds a negative outcome. This is usually the way of the hero with a destiny, moving towards the outcome of a prophecy, in order to save others, while likely risking their own lives. In both cases there is a strong sense of agency. In this way, the fate-function can serve to assert agency rather than deny it.
Yet, there remains a strong sense that fate has driven the decisions of the character and the movement of the narrative. I can’t help but wonder whether we would gain more without any semblance of the fate-function. When, for example, Buffy (the Vampire Slayer) battles “the Master” despite a prophecy suggesting that this will lead to her death, we understand that Buffy would sacrifice her life to protect others. However, it is not as though we did not already know this from every other episode, in which she endangers her life for everyone else. Equally, while we understand this purpose of the prophecy, its result is also to effectively undermine her choice to save others. In this episode, we can’t know for certain that Buffy would have chosen to sacrifice herself without the prophecy, as we simply know that she had to sacrifice herself because that was her fate. There are a bazillion other and better examples of this, and other problems with the fate-function, but I won’t go on much longer.
Essentially, I feel like despite what the fate-function might contribute to plot and characterisation, it does more to undermine the agency of our characters. Moreover, the depicted infallibility of fate results in its ultimate veneration over all else, including plot and characterisation, and any other potential themes within these. Certainly, there are stories in which a discussion of fate versus self-determinism is the key theme, most notably a number of Philip K Dick stories (The Minority Report film did a good job of adapting this idea), and I really enjoy these. However, the absence of a self-deterministic attitude and potential for lack of any true agency in the characters of other fate directed stories continues to trouble me.