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Ruminations on Destiny and Peril

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So I’ve been thinking a lot about content recently. Not the whole process of writing, but about what is actually written. This has been spurred by a number of things, different influences and so fourth, but it did give me some serious thought about the role of destiny in your story.

Specifically, how it fits into…

The Standard Fantasy Setting

We are all familiar with this, yes? Elves, wizards, magic swords. Seemingly small person hears the call, makes the hero’s journey, fulfils his destiny to overthrow the vile evil that corrupts the land, and everyone lives happily ever after. 

Not to disparage anyone who writes this style of fiction, but it’s bland bland bland, right? Well, ok, maybe that’s harsh. Overdone then. What I have an issue with is that there is never any real threat. There is no doubt that the hero of the piece will succeed, and therefore, we remove tension. And without tension, there is very little hope of maintaining reader interest. 

This guy's literally small. And poor Frodo didn't have the comfort of a "destiny".

Granted, this is a very specific problem to the genre of Fantasy, and even its close cousin Sci-Fi doesn’t suffer (that much) from it. They may be bundled together in the back corner of your local bookshop, but there is a huge difference with… 

The Standard Sci-fi Setting

We are familiar with this too, yes? Spaceships, aliens, laser guns. This is my preferred genre to write in, and what I like about it I guess (in terms of Space Opera) is that it is so huge. We have whole planets and galaxies to explore. The protagonist of your tale has the whole cosmos to contend with. 

Yes, if you want to make comparisons, you could say that Fantasy is similar in scope because we deal with huge lands, and the traversal of such can take equally as long as travelling between planets due to the mode of transport. It is slow and takes time, and things can happen along the way.

Back to Sci-fi though, and what I like about it, and looking through my own writing I seem to do this a lot, is that it is about small people in much larger worlds, who seem hopelessly outmatched

Up Against It

Everyone likes an underdog right? That’s why the big bad in Fantasy or Sci-Fi is this big powerful evil and the odds of defeating said evil seem insurmountable. We can root for the little guy. But let’s not forget that we still need tension. We still need threat. We need to believe that anyone can die. 

So lets throw in the obligatory Game of Thrones reference in here. Yes, I am entrenched in this at the moment, ploughing through the books, and what it can teach us about writing. The world exists, and people exist within it, but there is no sense of destiny. It’s all about people and their machinations, their beliefs that they are in the right, and to hell with everyone else. Meanwhile, external threats press in, and there is a palpable sense of impending doom. 

game of thrones

No character is protected by fate in the "A Song of Ice and Fire" series of books. They're not even protected by their status as protagonist - there is no main protagonist!

And I think this is the best kind of fiction to write. There is a permanent sense of threat, but an individual’s actions aren’t necessarily going to change the world.

In my most recent project (which I started long before I developed GoT fever), I’ve attempted to create a similar kind of setting. A fragile civilisation is on the brink of war (and there are those within it who are trying to ignite it) while an external threat is looming over the horizon. The main characters within it are only small players, and no individual is capable of ‘saving the world’. 

Weaving the Threads

And on that note, what I particularly like is characters who collectively possess all the necessary information to resolve things, but are ineffectual individually. Contrast this with the oft-used tool of having characters withhold information (Yes, I’m looking at you Lost) in order to prolong mystery/drama/whatever. This can quickly become cheap and annoying, especially when it becomes nonsensical.

How can you apply this to your own writing though? Well, planning is absolutely key here. If you know what the endgame is (and the possibility that the ‘good guys’ could lose must always seem possible) and how it could be reached, then you can work accordingly.

If you’re brave enough, and have the time to do so, you may even envision multiple paths, the likes of which you could find in choose your own adventure books. In fact what I loved so much about those books (in hindsight) is that it isn’t just the writer creating the story, it’s the reader too. What better way to involve a reader than allowing them some control over the story, including – yes – the possibility of failure. That creates tension, and more so, it allows that story to be read again, with a possibly different outcome. 

So readers, what are your thoughts on the mad ramblings I offer this week? Comment below.