Thursday, March 08, 2007

I Hate Destiny

There's a great scene in Mel Brook's classic parody film "Young Frankenstein." The young Doctor Frankenstein, as played by Gene Wilder, has traveled to his grandfather's castle in Transylvania and is gradually uncovering the secrets of his ancestor's experiments in reanimating the dead. Though he has tried to distance himself from his family history, he is strangely, almost mystically, drawn to it. He lays in his bead, and his slumber is interrupted by a fitful dream. "Destiny," he mumbles in his sleep. Then again. "Destiny!" Then he begin to rock from side to side, falling into to cadence of a cheerleader, "no escaping, that's for me! Destiny! Destiny! No escaping, that's for me!"

Even in 1974, Brooks (and Wilder, who wrote the screenplay as well as starred) knew that destiny was tired and cliched concept worthy primarily of parody. Yet it is the cockroach of story tropes. Not only has it refused to die, it seeming has grown in popularity of use, as I was reminded by episodes this week of two popular TV shows I generally like very much, Heroes and Battlestar Galactica. (Spoilers for recent episodes of both shows follow, so if you haven't caught up your TiVo or live outside the U.S. where episodes are delayed, proceed with caution.)

In fiction, the concept of destiny (and the often closely related, often overlapping, trope of prophecy) takes on many forms, but the most common goes something like this. Our protagonist either learns of or comes to believe in some special destiny ahead of them. Often there are cryptic prophecies here (as I said, overlapping), or visions, or dreams, or perhaps an inscription on some ancient tablet or temple wall to point the way. Perhaps the destiny of the coming hero/leader is already known to our protagonist or others around him/her, and they only later beginning to suspect that he/she is The One.

At that point, our hero will either seek their destiny, or fight hopelessly against, it, but either way, they're headed there on rails. There will be much hand-wringing over what they cryptic-to-the-point-of-uselessness prophecy/inscription means, and the mysteries will be dragged out, often to tiresome lengths. Maybe the villain knows about the prophecy too, and tries to put the whack on our protagonist, but that trick never works. Sacrifices may be made along the way, there may be some twists and turns, a surprise or two, and it may not come out exactly the way you imagined, but destiny will be fulfilled because -- hey -- it's destiny!

And really, it's this most basic use of destiny that bugs me. It's certainly possible to write good stories using the concept, and to apply it in different ways, but there's a recursive, meta-element to the story use of destiny. Once a writer starts to apply it to the story, all too often it lazily falls into the above pattern.

I'm not sure where the concept of destiny first crept into literature, but it is certain that it is very, very old. It's used in the Bible, for instance (look at Moses) and it's the basis of Arthurian legend. Perhaps it's as old as literature itself, and quite possibly older.

My suspicion is that it is closely related to the concept of the divine right of kings, the idea that the had of God (or some similar supernatural force) reaches down on high and delivers greatness onto some individual. By this rule, great heroes and leaders aren't made, or even necessarily born. They are created, by powers beyond humanity.

It comes down, I suppose, to the fundamental question of free will. Free will, may be an illusion, but by golly it's a good illusion, and I like it. I like the idea that I have free will, and I like the idea that my heroes (and villains, for that matter) have it as well. I like them to make choices, and then see the consequences of those choices honestly played out in drama.

Destiny cheats all that. Ultimately it doesn't matter what choices the hero make. Ultimately destiny is going to use its big, intrusive hand to shove him back onto his preordained course. In fact, a convention of these stories is often that fighting destiny is bad. Destiny is a bitch, and it will often smite your girfriend, or your dad, or your favorite dog Carl if you don't immediately let her have her way.

Now that I think of it, there's another ancient story convention closely related to destiny, one that that has more completely condemned to the dust-bin of literary history: deus ex machina, "God out of the machine." It originates in the ancient Greek and Roman theater, where an actor playing a God would be lowered out of the rafters on a lift to extricate the hapless human characters from their hopeless situation.

In modern terms, it's any story where the characters are rescued from their situation by any intrusively external and unexpected device rather than by their own actions. It's seen as a cheat, and most writers are taught early on to avoid its use. But thinking about it, how is the typical destiny story anything by deus ex machina writ large? In a destiny story, the Gods don't even wait till the end of the play to hit the down button on their cosmic elevator. In a destiny story, they've the first ones on stage, yanking and shoving the other players around through the whole show.

Let's get back to those TV shows I was talking about. First, and to me most annoyingly, Battlestar Galactica. Okay, I really like this show, and I have to let a certain amount of destiny and prophecy slip by. It's really fundamental to the series itself, which is built on mythic and religious elements (as was, somewhat more ham-handedly, the original series).

So when a Galactica character says something like, "this has all happened before, and it will all happen again," I'm okay with that. It's all part of a larger mythic structure that, usually, isn't the story itself. It's simply a framework within which more human stories are told.

Sure, there are the ancient clues to Earth, and how we find them. But that isn't destiny, that's just the McGuffin of the week. And certain characters have had prophecies applied to them before, especially President Laura Roslin. But it's only really become intrusive in a plot line involving Kara "Starbuck" Thrace which (seemingly) reached its climax last week the the death of the character.

In this case, both prophecy (as delivered by "oracles") and visions (in the form of a pacticular "eye of God" design that Kara has felt compelled to paint and draw since childhood) come into play. We are told again and again, from by several widely dispersed characters, that Kara has a "great destiny." I'll even allow for some of this. Kara made a great flawed and reluctant hero, fighting destiny every step of the way. For a while, I thought she might even escape it. But no...

If this episode is to be taken at face value, her "great destiny" was to die a stupid, pointless, and self-inflicted death. It's been suggested by the show's creator, Ron Moore (who I greatly respect as a writer, even if I don't always agree with his decisions) that her death will ultimately have some greater meaning for the future of the colonists (and perhaps the Cylons as well, since they were even more interested in her "destiny" than the humans were). A suspicious mind might even suspect that while she may have "crossed over," perhaps she isn't as dead as she appears.

But ignoring all this, it was just an annoying story to watch. The prophecy elements had become intrusive and heavy-handed to the point of giving the character no real purpose other than self-destruction, and the resolution required a character defined by her willfulness and Independence, to blissfully surrender to her stupid end.

Hopefully it will all get better, and in the later context of the show, this will seem like no more than a speed-bump. Hopefully.

A much different (and in fact, more diverse) approach to destiny can be found in Heroes, where the concept takes on many form. First and most literally, there is Hiro's conviction that his has a "destiny" to use his powers over time and space to become a hero. Okay, he calls it destiny, but I call it conviction. I call it character. Hiro is trying to become a hero because he has chosen to do so. The powers don't make him a hero. Others on the show have powers, and have much different paths. Hiro has made a choice to follow his current path (wherever it leads him, and I hope it is to success). Free will applies. This is destiny in name only.

But the show also has several forms of prophecy, more or less supernatural. Artist Isaac Mendez has been shown to be able to paint the future (an ability also used on occasion by human-duplicator Peter Petrelli). A more science-fictional version of prophecy derives from Hiro's time-travel abilities. Twice (most recently in this week's episode) he's traveled forward to see the destruction of New York City by some kind of explosion. A future version of Hiro also returned to present day and delivered the cryptic message, "save the cheerleader, save the world."

From a story standpoint, not much of this bothers me. Why? Well, while both the paintings and the time travel episodes forecast the future, it is yet to be determined that they absolutely define it. In fact, it seems likely that they do not, since we can presume (if not with absolute certainty) that the destruction of New York will somehow be averted. I can also allow for the typically cryptic "prophecy" of "save the cheerleader, save the world," as Hiro explains he is trying not to cause a rift in time. Perhaps saying or doing anything too direct would cause a paradox. But it suggests also that, within limitations, Hiro knows that time can be changed.

Again, while the rules of the Heroes universe have yet to be completely defined, there's no suggestion that free will is violated. The characters have some clues as to what will, or could, happen in the future, but they apparently can change that future. Their action, and their choices, have consequences.

So, lets try to boil this down to a set of rules or guidelines for effective use of destiny/prophecy in fiction.

1. Free will must be preserved. Characters must have choices, and those choices must have honest results and consequences within the context of the story.

2. Prophecy should forecast, not predict. This is an important distinction, as one leaves your characters room to shape the future, and the other does not.

Of course, there is an entire category of story based on the idea of changing the future while maintaining the prophecy, "cheating destiny" so to speak. Perhaps our heroine sees a vision of her lover stabbed to death, but changes events so that it is actually the villain disguised as her lover who is killed. Its a small (but important) part of the movie "Back to the Future," where when Doc Brown learns that he will be shot in the future, wears a bullet-proof-vest to the meeting and thus survives without changing the events as witnessed.

These "cheating destiny" stories aren't inherently bad, but if that's all the story is about, then its just a puzzle or a trick. Entertaining, perhaps (except that you've seen it a hundred times before), but not good storytelling.

I also remind you that a lesser used but interesting device is the prophecy that is patently wrong or false. In particular, I love the tragic villain who, having latched onto such a false prophecy, follows it straight to their own ruin and destruction.

3. A character with a destiny is always less interesting than a hero with choices. Heroes (and villains) aren't born that way. They may have certain gifts and abilities, sure, but they must be able to choose how to use them (or have their choices taken from them by believable circumstances, not simply the blundering hand a fate). There is no greater villain than one who contains the seeds of his own corruption. There is no mightier hero than one forged by his own hand, guided by his own heart, and for whom a lesser (or darker) path is always an option.

4. Destiny is not required. Remember, even in fantasy, there's no law that says you need destiny or prophecy. In fact, I'd venture there are far more stories to tell without them than with them. In an (as yet unpublished) young adult fantasy novel I wrote, I had a kind-of-fortune-teller say to a young character when she asks if she's locked into the role of world-saver, "There is no destiny. There are only -- possibilities." Really, those are my words to live by.

Finally, I am reminded of my old friend, Conan. He lives in a world of magic, gods and seers. Yet he ultimately becomes a king not by divine right, but by his own hand, by living his life as he must and as he will. His god, Crom, almost never interferes or intervenes in the affairs of his followers. His only gift to them is the strength they are born with. The rest is up to them.

That Crom, he would have made a good writer.