Sunday, 15 May 2011

D, E & F for Destiny and Epic Fantasy

Do you see what I did there? Three letters in one fell swoop! ;D

Destiny is such a powerful force, particularly in fantasy where it has a pull equal to gravity, a pressure greater than the deepest ocean trench... It is often almost a quantifiable force, there is no denying it.

It doesn't have a place in most science fiction because SF deals with mechanisms, with an advanced reality, whereas fantasy allows for mysticism and forces greater than us. (I speak in generalisations, of course) If there were destiny in SF, it would be our lives pushed and pulled by an alien race, the earth as a giant stage, our lives merely parts... ;)

Most SF, I say, because there is the glaring exception of Star Wars... it is your destiny.... But then Star Wars, in many respects, bears as many traits of epic fantasy as it does of science fiction... See my previous post though, there is nothing wrong with shuffling traits around between genres.

Destiny drives fantasy plots. And it sits particularly well in epic fantasy because that allows destiny the space it needs to properly develop. The farm boy who is destined to be the hero. The king's lost son, determined to deny his destiny and live a humble life. The orphan destined to discover his lost heritage and save the kingdom. The seventh son destined to slay the evil emperor (where the emperor, of course, has every seventh son killed, but forgets to count his own bastard children).

It can be destiny fulfilled, or destiny denied, or an attempt to thwart prophesied destiny.

Prophecy just being a way to tap into destiny, like hooking into somebody's satellite feed. You end up with a scratchy, flickery image open to interpretation, and misinterpretation, leaving you with a headache...

There is something compelling about destiny. Even when you know that a character is destined to be the hero, you read on. You know he wins, but the journey there, finding out just how he triumphs against impossible odds is something we need to know.

Maybe it's a reflection of the belief we have that in our own lives we will 'win', we just aren't sure exactly how we're going to get there. It's reassuring seeing someone weak and ordinary go up against absolute evil and triumph; surely then, we think, in our own struggles against mere everyday life we too can triumph. ;) Although that may be more relevant to heroes as a whole than destiny specifically.

Of course, subversion of destiny also has its part in epic fantasy. The prophets lead the hero on, they know he will triumph, they have read the entrails and he is the one, all the signs are right but... (usually at the end of book 2)... the hero is killed! Drama! Shock! How can this be!? Well... they got it wrong, didn't they? Because the hero's unassuming squire, born in the hovel next door, on the same night, is actually the hero.

Destiny is a marvellous tool for a writer. And there is no wrong way to use it. If you play it against insurmountable odds and win, it's awesome; if you subvert it and someone else has to save the day, it's awesome; if the bad guy wipes out an entire race and misses only a single one (or two*) who manage to struggle through and save the world, it's awesome.

Epic fantasy doesn't have to have destiny as a driving force, of course. It can just be a retrospective destiny... We were obviously -meant- to meet each other seemingly randomly in order defeat the Dark Lord.

Epic can be a span of time or space, of races or factions, or all of these. It is grand, it is mighty, but it must be the backdrop. Again, it must be the people, the real lives that play out on this backdrop that take first place amongst your priorities, because stories, ultimately, have to be about people. In flash you can get away with a sketch of an idea, but if you begin to stretch it, it is the characters that will keep people reading, it is the characters they will get attached to.

Epic allows for a greater evil. Epic lets the sorcerer conquer whole kingdoms, it lets the alien empire conquer whole worlds and the warlord subjugate entire peoples for generations. Children can be born knowing nothing but the evil world, or they can be born into a world where the evil is so distant it has been all but forgotten. But somewhere, far away, evil has been recovering, it has regained its strength and it will walk the land once more, casting its shadow far and wide before anyone steps up, before a new hero can rise...

The Renegade A to Z. Or follow #RenegadeAtoZ on Twitter.

*The Dark Crystal, for example... What do you mean, two Gelflings survived!?


  1. Like most devices that have been used a million times, I think destiny has to be portrayed brilliantly for me to be able to read without a tiny groan.

    The kid in me loves it - no - the core being who loves archetypal stories loves it, but it has been done so many times I am really careful about using it in any of my work.

    Incidentally, did you watch the re-make of Battlestar Galactica? They played with destiny in a way I really enjoyed.

  2. Ah, no, I don't actually watch TV (gasp!), and I haven't got around to borrowing the series off anyone yet...

    It's difficult to do anything nowadays that hasn't been done before. I think the trick is in realising it's the characters that are the meat of the story, all the devices are herbs and spices... you have to find the right blend of gods and genre and destiny and background and so on. Too much and you'll spoil it, too little and it turns out bland. You have to be the Colonel... ;)