Saturday, December 18, 2010

Bad Fate

The idea of a character predestined to do something fascinates many people, but in fantasy there seems to be more Good Fate than Bad Fate.

Good Fate is when you’re the Chosen One, though the writer may make up other names for it. The world saw you coming before you were ever conceived, gave you special powers, a great destiny, a magical sword and maybe a birthmark to show everyone that you deserved all of it.

Bad Fate is when you’re picked or destined to do something which is likely to result in a horrible death. And even if you live, you’re not going to be very happy.

I can see why there’s more of the former, and that’s not entirely sarcastic. If you’re a soothsayer called in to make a pronouncement regarding the newborn heir to a kingdom, it may not be politic to declare that he will die in ignominy. And if there’s anything written from the point of view of such a fortune-teller, someone who sees a terrible fate but doesn’t dare make it public, I’d love to read it.

Characters often try to get around Bad Fate, especially if they have a glimpse of how their lives might have been otherwise. I enjoyed The Last Temptation of Christ for that reason. Ironically, they end up doing whatever it was they were trying to avoid, just as in the “Appointment in Samarra” fable.

A merchant in Baghdad sent his servant to the market. The servant returned, trembling, and said, “I was jostled in the market, turned around, and saw Death. Death made a threatening gesture, and I fled in terror. May I take your horse? I can leave Baghdad and ride to Samarra, where Death will not find me.”

The master lent his horse to the servant, who rode away to Samarra. Later the merchant went to the market, and saw Death in the crowd. “Why did you threaten my servant?” he asked.

Death replied,”I did not threaten your servant. It was merely that I was surprised to see him here in Baghdad. You see, I have an appointment with him tonight, in Samarra.”

Sidney Sheldon’s A Stranger in the Mirror uses this technique very effectively, by beginning with a description of a strange scene on board a luxury liner. A wedding was supposed to take place on board but the bridegroom has just left on a motorboat. The projector in the theatre is warm even though no films were scheduled for that night. And on the tiered cake, someone has twisted off the head of the bride.

Then the story goes back to the beginning and events build up slowly and inevitably to the climax. The heroine struggles fiercely to make a happy and secure life for herself and almost gets it. But everything is shattered at the end, partly as a result of her own actions. The last line of the book is that there is nothing but the sea and the sky “and the stars above, where it had all been written.”

Fate plays a great role in mythology and the classics. I loved stories like Oedipus’s and Perseus’s for that reason; both were fated to kill their fathers, who sent them away after learning of that destiny. Naturally, patricide happened anyway.

It’s almost a given in fiction that the moment a character is given such a Bad Fate, that’s going to happen, since it’s usually an anticlimax for the character to either find an easy way around it or for there to be a mistake in the proclamation. That contributes to the horror, since many modern societies tend to support the right of the individual to choose his or her own lives (insofar as capability allows), rather than being controlled and doomed by some arbitrary pronounciation.

It’s possible to evoke some of the horror while not necessarily having a doomed main character, if the curse is something that can be overcome. In J. V. Jones’s A Cavern of Black Ice, there are powerful and malevolent creatures who were imprisoned thousands of years ago. But someone who can free them has been born. Her name is Ash March, her power is growing and it will consume her unless it’s released – which will, of course, doom the world.

Special abilities that people wish they never had are always fun.

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Loren said...

That's something that Lord Raglan had neglected to mention in his famous mythic-hero profile. As you pointed out, heroes often have Good Fate, Bad Fate, or both associated with them. You can even see that in the biographies of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. His birth stories feature Good Fate for him and Bad Fate for King Herod, and he and his followers get some Bad Fate late in his career (Matt 26).

It's hard to find anyone in recent centuries with such fate, but the biographers of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il claim that a little bird foretold his birth, and that when he was born, there was a new star in the sky and a double rainbow over a nearby mountain.

kim said...

Only time i've read about the fortune seer talking about how hard it was to see the bad, specifically to have foreseen all of his friends deaths, was Vishous in JR Ward's Lover Unbound. However that was a very small part of the story maybe two or three pages total out of the entire book.

Anonymous said...

Of course all these stories (especially the Greek tragedies) also play with Fate vs. Free Will. Many times the acts done to avoid a given fate seal it. Oedipus father sent him away, which meant he never knew who his father was (and his mother did not recognize him). What would have happened if he did not, or had not Oedipus given in to his anger?

Seems to me that Fate is more the flow of foreseen/unforeseen consequences flowing from our decisions and the decisions of others.

Marian Perera said...

Loren - Seriously, biographers claimed there was a new star in the sky?

Probably a falling star.

Kim - Thanks for mentioning that book. Even if it's only a couple of pages, it's better than nothing.

ralfast - That raises an interest point. Did Oedipus's father think Fate was so unstoppable that even if he raised Oedipus, treated him well, was the best father to him, etc. Oedipus would kill him anyway? And therefore he had no choice but to strike first?

If I were in that situation... I'd like to believe that my child would be less likely to kill a parent they knew than a stranger. But then again, obviously Oedipus's father never meant him to survive. It's complicated, that's for sure.

Loren said...

It's Kim Jong-Il's official biographers who claim that about him: BBC News - Profile: Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong Il Biography -, Personality Cult in North Korea, etc.