Tuesday, 12 September 2017

this was all foretold

My current to-read list has steadily increased to the point where it's not so much a list as a teetering pile, threatening to topple and crush me at any moment. But having a physical, obvious pile is important (even if I trip over it at least once a day) because it lets me work my way steadily through it, from top to bottom. New stuff gets added at the top, natch, and if something's been in it for more than, say, a year, it's clear it's less of a must-read and more a vital piece of structure holding up the rest of the load.

Occasionally things get shuffled to the top and I remember why I put them in the pile to begin with.

Other things guilt me into reading them simply because they've been sitting there so damn long.

One book that's found itself nearing the top has reminded me of a trope I've seen once too often (and which, in fact, I'm guilty of using myself, more than once, because it's really convenient). Essentially, everything that happens - everything, from running a red light to being menaced by Bigfoot - happens because it's part of some huge, overarching purpose which the characters can only begin to fathom. Greater powers are controlling their fates. They are being guided for a reason.

I've a few problems with this. For starters, it allows all sorts of randomness and coincidence to be hand-waved through. The main character stumbles across a perfect weapon? She was meant to find it. The person she's just met knows the one path through the deadly, deadly swamp ahead? That person was destined to be at this place at this time, specifically to help our hero.

Not that I'm adverse to blatant coincidence, of course. Like I say, I've used it myself more times than I can conveniently count, as a way to dig myself out of a big stupid plot-hole. Or when I wanted aliens to suddenly appear. But:

It also allows the characters to make really bloody stupid decisions, and again it's hand-waved past because they're not responsible for their own choices. Ms Main Character has the option of either walking into the obvious spikey-death trap or carrying on blithely on her way, and decides on the spikey-death route because she senses there's something important hidden in there. And, turns out, there is indeed some unique artefact within, which she'll definitely need later on in her quest (although of course she doesn't know how or why it'll be useful) so it's a good thing she listened to that internal guiding voice of fate.

This is so, so handy as a writer, because it lets us excuse our characters when they're doing anything stupid or irrational. We need them to get hold of that artefact but there's no obvious or compelling reason why they would walk into almost certain doom to retrieve it. To be honest, there's no good reason why our character would be on this quest at all. She's got better things to do; things that don't involve doom and decapitation and so much angst. But if she stays at home and drinks wine, we've got no story, so we wheel out the hand of fate, the forces beyond our ken, and hope our character doesn't suddenly get wise and dig her heels in.

And then there's the question of motivations. Someone who wants to scale Mount Dreadful and defeat the Evil Lord Bumscratch will always be more interesting that someone who is led inescapably for some nebulous reason to do the same. There are always exceptions, of course, of course. Bilbo Baggins wasn't exactly a willing participant. But in general, people like a hero who does things for definite tangible reasons - it doesn't have to be a particularly noble reason (money, honour, revenge, boredom etc. are all understandable excuses) so long as it's more substantial than "there was a reason why I was doing these things, in this order, to this end, while these random occurrences randomly occurred, but I couldn't yet decipher the hidden meaning that fate blah blah blah."

It is, of course, an acceptable way of looking at life, since life is a horrid confusing tangle of events and interactions, and it's no wonder we try to impose some meaning over the top of it. But if it's in a story, the hand of fate better have a flipping good reason for acting like this, or we'll all find a reason to stop reading.

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