One of the most commonly discussed concepts in writing is that of fate, the idea that an individual’s destiny is pre-ordained, that their actions are bound to lead to a particular outcome or set of outcomes.
Naturally, this suggestion produces a strong, often visceral, response in readers. The idea that we lack free will, that our choices are merely illusory, is extremely disconcerting. There are at least two reasons for this. The first is that phenomenologically speaking, we feel as though we have free will. Our everyday experience is that we are able to choose our actions, whether it is something as simple as selecting what to have with our toast each morning or as complex as deciding which company to invest in. The second reason relates to agency, the idea that we are responsible for our actions. If free will does not exist, then do we have agency? Can we hold a criminal responsible for their crimes if rather than choosing to commit them, they were destined to commit them?
Because the concept of fate can inspire such a strong reaction, it is ideally suited for evoking emotions from readers. It is not a coincidence that the concept of fate drives so many of the great classical tragedies and heroic tales. There is something horribly fascinating about watching a hero fall and wondering if they could possibly have done anything to avert their doom or if they were doomed from the start but never knew it.
But this is where things get tricky. A story can operate on at least two levels: the level of the reader and the level of the characters. The reader has the benefit of seeing the big picture, of understanding that the story is a story. The characters within that story do not generally have this same privilege. This distinction has implications when it comes to writing about fate.
Let us assume for a moment that fate is completely real, that a person’s destiny is completely decided. On a reader level, we can appreciate the tragedy of this. Indeed, we can either recoil from it in horror or be drawn to it in fascination. But the characters will almost never perceive things in this way. To the characters, there exists the illusion of choice. The characters can believe that they are in command of their own destiny, that their choices change their fate even if that isn’t the case.
Consider a story about a man who is told that one day he will save the life of the person who eventually kills him. One possible response from such a man will be to simply refuse to help anyone thereby avoiding their fate. A canny reader will, of course, expect some twist and so will read the story with an eye to that outcome.
Imagine then that the man encounters a drowning mother and child. The man wants to walk away because he remembers the warning. But he is not callous enough to walk away from this. He jumps in and tries to save the mother and child. The mother dies, and filled with guilt, the man raises the child. After all, what harm could the child do to him?
At this point, the reader is curious to know what happens next. And the man, the character, is confident that he can continue to avoid his fate by continuing to not save people. Sure, he saved a baby, but what harm can come of that?
Fast forward eighteen years. The man is teaching the baby, now a young man himself, how to drive. Through some unlucky (or perhaps destined) confluence of circumstances, the young man panics while taking a particularly treacherous turn. The car crashes, killing them both. The man’s fate is fulfilled.
A reader reading this story has no doubt, or very little doubt, that the man’s fate is sealed. That is, after all, the whole point of such stories. But the character, the man himself, has the opposite experience. The character believes that he can avoid fate, that he can be master of his own destiny. Yet in doing so, he creates the very sequence of events that leads to his demise.
What makes such stories compelling, and many a story has travelled a similar road, is the illusion of choice that the man experiences. The man believes he has a choice, and certainly it seems like he does from his point of view. But the reader knows better, and that is what draws the reader in, that is what creates the tragedy.
A more recent example of this is the unfortunate demise of Ned Stark in A Game of Thrones. A rational person would have pointed out that Ned was at least partially responsible for his own death by choosing to warn his enemies in what could only be termed an act of mercy. Yet did Ned ever have a choice or was his fate determined right from the start? I would argue that Ned never had a choice at all. If we examine his character (i.e., his system of morals and beliefs), he could not have done otherwise and still been who he was. As a result, there was only the illusion of choice. He was always going to approach Cersei, and he was always going to get killed for it. And that is part of what enthrals readers. They long for Ned to make a different choice but understand that he was never going to make a different choice because of who he was.
So much of tragedy comes from understand that the choices people make that lead to their downfall were the only ones they could make given who they are. But are such choices really even choices? It is quite arguable that they are not.
Stories are often cast as a series of choices that characters make, but one could take the opposite view: stories are a series of choices that characters don’t make. In other words, a story consists of a series of events that push or otherwise force characters into a particular sequence of decisions. Their choices are illusory because the events they encounter force them along a certain path.
Consider the typical coming of age heroic story in which a stout-hearted young man finds his homeland besieged and imperilled, his comrades at arms routed and betrayed. In such stories the young man typically embarks on adventure, gathering sufficient power and forces to take back his homeland and free his people. Such stories are often quite obvious about the role of fate. Indeed, they often include suggestions of prophecy regarding the emergence of a hero in troubled times. But, in something of a contradiction, they also often describe the young man as embarking on adventure or going on a quest. Such descriptions imply a level of choice, which you could argue does not exist.
If we look at the typical characteristics of such heroes, they are often young, highly loyal, brave, patriotic, and family- and honour-oriented. Given these qualities, could they ever do anything but seek to become heroes? Their choice, the decision to embark on a quest, is not a choice at all. It is the only decision they could ever make given who they are. Does this mean they lack free will? It depends on how you look at it.
Nevertheless, the role of fate in such stories is again powerful. The idea of a promised hero coming to provide salvation is one of the oldest in the world. It is present in every single mythological system in the world and continues to resonate with readers today. Part of what resonates with readers is the suggestion that the hero is not someone who seeks power or glory for their own sake, but for some greater good. They are not seeking fame. They are destined for greatness. Yet, despite this, part of what makes such stories so interesting is seeing the hero struggle to make the choices we all know they will make anyway (e.g., choosing to suffer to save others or choosing to fight against hopeless odds when they know the end result is death).
The illusion of choice is a powerful thing in writing. It relates to the idea that a character can completely believe they have free will and agency, indeed that is the experience they have, yet still be bound up in some larger fate because who they are dictates, perhaps even preordains, the choices they will make. As a reader, this tension is easily appreciated. In fact, it can be one of the major reasons that a story resonates with readers.
If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.
I also write original fiction, which you can find here.