Narrative Maladies: Destinitis

As an editor, an author and a reader, I’ve encountered a slew of narrative issues. Some of them are exotic and strange and particular to the manuscript at hand, Most of them are not. Just as grammar problems are fairly systematic, so too are plot problems. There are a stable of misconceptions about writing, insecurities in the authorial psyche and pop culture tropes we’ve been hit in the head with so much that we think this is how fiction should work. The job of both author and editor is to point out these maladies and cut them off before they claim another victim. You (probably) work hard on your manuscripts and you don’t want to see them toetagged.

Today’s narrative malady is a common one. We grew up with it. We loved it and still love it in a certain context. Who doesn’t love a chosen one, the one guy or gal born to be so good at what they do that it will save the world? Heroic destinies remind us of our own unlocked potential, tell us that while we might just be humble vapor farmers now, someday, a tiny green  Muppet will teach us how to unlock the secrets of the universe and be the best us we can be. Harry Potter, Star Wars and Dune all work this magic and take us somewhere where human dignity and potential are the most powerful force in existence.

So, what’s wrong with writing a story about heroic destiny? Nothing, really. These are stories that shape our imaginations and cultural narrative. The problem lies in one important element of storytelling: The element of surprise. When you’re telling stories about heroic destiny, you are in danger of telling a story with a binary outcome: 1.) the person with the heroic destiny uses their inner awesomeness and frees the universe from oppression. Which is good. Oppression is really bad. OR 2.) the hero fails and the universe remains a terrible place. Children stare tearfully at the Happy Meal toy in their hand as if were Charles Foster Kane’s snowglobe. The first ending’s not a bad ending. We all want that ending in our own lives. The second ending can be beautiful and full of pathos. The problem is that more cynical and experienced readers sit down with your book knowing from page 1 how the book’s going to end. Except when done extremely well, this will lead certain readers to put down your book pretty quickly or not even buy it in the first place. Though a lot of crap does rise to the top of the heap, readers are still very much drawn to surprise and originality.

What can you do about this? Well, you have to do what Harry Potter and Star Wars have done: keep a big secret. While the ultimate outcome of the story is obvious from the getgo, the exact nuances might not be. With the twist ending out of your arsenal, your reveals need to be significant and the nature of the person who saves the world must be changed fundamentally by the reveal. Hell, you can even change which character is your world’s savior. Star Wars might have been something else if it was revealed halfway through that Chewbacca exhibited more potential as a Jedi than Luke did or that Dumbledore and Snape have pulled off a fantastic ruse, concealing Voldemort’s true archnemesis, Draco Malfoy from danger.

For keeping the reader interested in the heroic destiny narrative, other elements also help. On the show Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon has a Chosen One front and center. You see worldshattering villains and bloodthirsty vampires attacking a town full of (reasonably) innocent people. You watch a teenage girl become a martial arts killing machine whose destiny it is to wipe out evil. If the martial arts killing machine is going to wipe out evil, then, chances are, some shit’s gonna go down for evil. That doesn’t sound like a very rewarding story arc. Let’s say someone tells you the following story: “this morning, I wanted a cheeseburger. The cheeseburger was open and I had sufficient funds to eat one. Guess what happened?” Part of you is starting to really hope this person fails to get a cheeseburger.

Buffy overcomes this problem by surrounding Buffy with complicated and vulnerable people, her best friend Willow, who has a long and complicated hero’s journey all her own but is not particularly great at impaling the undead on pointy things, Xander, a geeky and supposedly comical sidekick whose support is integral in spite of his feelings of worthlessness not just to the heroic project but the project of his own life and my personal favorite, redeemed demon Anya, who deals with the frustration of living in a world whose ethics are not her own and with the sudden influx of very human feelings. These characters don’t just create tension for Buffy by being more fragile than she is but create tension for the viewer because they have their own worlds to navigate that are less cut and dry than Buffy’s. And they’re also entertaining.. Guardians of the Galaxy is not a movie about a cosmic messiah retrieving a deadly artifact. It’s a movie about a cosmic messiah, a redeemed killer, a vengeful criminal, a wisecracking raccoon and a talking tree retrieving a deadly artifact.

So, when you create a story of heroic destiny, make sure that there’s more going on than heroic destiny. It’s a popular framework for a tale but it takes a lot of gears to keep that engine running. Remember the stories you love when you create new ones, not just to emulate them and imitate them but to understand how they work so you can innovate. Consider your characters, consider your world, consider the secrets that can make it a different place. If you don’t, Destinitis might claim your manuscript’s potential and you certainly don’t want that. Good luck, Chosen Ones.


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