The pros and cons of fatalism in fiction

The term fatalism is used–both correctly and incorrectly–to mean many different things. Some people use it the sense that a person is ambivalent about death, or pessimistic. Properly used, it refers more to how predetermined our lives are, and whether our actions can change that. This is a term of philosophy, but it applies well to fiction.

How fatalist is your character? Every author has a vastly different writing style. Some will sit down and write an outline, put plot points on index cards, make flowcharts, etc. Others start on a dark and stormy night, and are surprised when their character dies. Stephen King suggests something of a middle ground–and who can argue with the King of making a profit as a writer? He says he does not extensively plot his pieces, but he knows where he wants to start, and where he wants to end up.

I imagine that most authors are closest to the latter. It is necessary to know why you are writing, and what you want to prove or what statement you want to make. Some authors can get lost in proving their point, and take us on a long journey with little payoff. Cloud Atlas tends to get so lost in the final point that it almost seems like the hundreds of pages before were unnecessary. Most importantly, nothing that the characters did could change the outcome.

On the other hand, The Hunger Games trilogy (for all their sentence fragments) was clearly not fatalist. We started with a battle to the death, and ended up with a political upheaval. The characters were not fatalist because only they can bring the changes. If the characters had left events to themselves, they would not have happened.

Should my characters get involved?

Many writes say that they are often surprised at the actions their characters take. Some have said it is like they are simply taking notes while the story plays itself out. This is fatalist by nature, but not necessarily bad. If our characters are so well developed to us that they act differently than we would, this is a good thing. But we know where the story is going, and nothing they can do will change that.

The danger is when we become too fatalist. We have an exact ending we must have at all costs, and we force our characters to act in their fate. Nothing good in history ever came of forcing our worldview on others, and no good fiction comes by forcing our characters to act like we would. A fine balance must be struck between allowing our characters to write their destiny and story, and forcing them into a strictly chosen fate.

NEXT WEEK: The Levels of Story


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