The Downside of Destiny:

Why your fantasy hero shouldn’t have one

I name fantasy heroes in my title, because you seldom see “destined” heroes in other genres. And in fairness, I have to admit that giving your fantasy protagonist a destiny is a major trope that’s been done in many novels…but it always handicaps those novels, even if other elements of the story make it successful in the end.

I understand why giving your protagonist a destiny can seem inviting. If your young pickpocket deliberately sets out to become a king, he has to be almost insanely ambitious—and insane ambition isn’t a very sympathetic trait. You want to make a nice boy king, and he can be very upset when he discovers his destiny, and reluctant to fulfill it. Oh, the angst he can suffer at the idea of his own unworthiness.

But the problem with giving your nice young protagonist a destiny is that it promptly cripples several major structural elements that all stories need. For instance…

Suspense: The moment you tell readers that your protagonist is (or even might be) the destined king (or destined to slay the dragon of doom, or wield the sword of woe, or any other clichéd thing) the reader immediately knows how the story is going to end. They may go on reading to see how this young pickpocket ends up king—but your pickpocket’s story would be much more suspenseful if the reader didn’t know the ending.

An active protagonist: Note the phrase in the proceeding sentence “ends up” king. Protagonists who’ve been given a destiny don’t have to do anything to make themselves great—greatness has been conferred on them by the author. So all they do is wander around the pages, and the story will sweep them up and make them king, no matter how passive, lazy and reluctant they might be.

Causal action (instead of the convenient coincidence): One of the most important aspects of convincing storytelling is that major events in the story need to arise from the characters’ well-motivated actions, instead of a series of convenient coincidences created by the writer. A reluctant hero won’t want to do what’s necessary to make himself king…which means the author has to do it for him. Enemies, allies, magical swords, great injustices he has to set right, and anything else the story needs, will conveniently pop up, exactly when your protagonist needs them. And the more modestly reluctant your protagonist is, the more convenient coincidences the author must produce to make his story happen.

Let me contrast the “destined” scenario with the story of the young pickpocket who becomes king, told properly—because you don’t need a destiny to make someone king, you just need to give your protagonist a strong, convincing motive.

Let’s say this young pickpocket has a sister, who fences his goods for him. (Both orphans. It’s a bit clichéd, but why not?) Sister is caught fencing stolen goods, and the corrupt mayor (who plays cards with the vengeful merchant every week) agrees to turn her punishment over to the vengeful merchant. So instead of the six lashes she should have received, she gets a flogging that kills her. Stricken with grief and guilt, the young pickpocket starts a rebellion to overthrow the whole corrupt city government—and he succeeds, but in the process he ends up a rebel leader, with a price on his head. He soon becomes aware that his city, his story, is not unique—there are a lot of people who want to rebel, not just against their local lords, but against the evil king. Since our ex-pickpocket is already under a death sentence, he hasn’t got a lot to lose by trying. He raids some tax convoys for funds, raises a rebel army, and with considerable difficulty, overthrows the crown. And then his army turns to him and says, “Well, somebody’s got to be king. And since you overthrew the old one, tradition says you’re it.”

I grant you this story is a bit dark, but aren’t this plot and this protagonist more interesting, more active, and more suspenseful than: He suddenly learns that he’s the destined king, and then lots of stuff happens and he ends up on the throne?

Mind you, destiny can work for your story if you play against the trope>, making destiny your antagonist. Give your protagonist a destiny that he really doesn’t want, and let him spend the whole story struggling to duck the magical swords and boon companions popping up in his path. And finally, with heroic effort, he finds a way out of the fate he didn’t want. (You can also be destined to die in battle, saving the realm. Just saying.)

Or you might have destiny choose someone completely unsuitable to be king—a careless, petty, womanizing, alcoholic wastrel. And your protagonist is the guy who has to make sure he doesn’t become king, no matter what it takes. (There also has to be a good reason he can’t just arrange an accident for the poor sot, and hope that destiny chooses better next time.)

But if you’re not playing against the trope, then abandon destiny and try giving your protagonist a motive instead. That motive will be the primary of mover of your plot, along with the motives of the antagonists, and even the minor characters. If you do that, you’ll have an active character, an absence of convenient coincidence, and a story that can keep the reader guessing about what’s going to happen until your climax has ended.

No novel is ever destined to be published…so, like an active protagonist, you need to do all you can to improve its chances yourself.

Spring 2016

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