“One girl in all the world…”

June 9th, 2010 • Kate

KanjiDestinyI tweeted this the other day: “I think I’m completely over DESTINY as a plot device.” I expanded it a little more to say, “Destiny, Fate, Birthright… all are too often used as a crutch for legitimate character development.” But what do I mean?

Well, in looking at another hundred or so queries today with Intern Jenny, I’ve come up with a bit more on the subject.

I’ve seen too many novels with a character who’s the only one in the world who can stop the war between the vampires and the werewolves, or the good and bad angels, or some random other two disparate groups. Or maybe they’re the prophesied one who can bring their world back from the brink of ruin, destruction, or war. Too often, though, it seems like a giving a character a special destiny, a birthright, is a short cut for otherwise making them interesting.

So you’ve written a YA novel about an ordinary girl? So what? Thousands of people have. Oh, but yours is about a girl with a destiny? Well, maybe you’ve cut your competition down to the mere hundreds. But just THINK if you could tell me about an ordinary girl who turns out to be special because of the way she thinks, or the way she acts, or what she believes — and not because she’s been told by some prophecy that she has to be special.

Am I making sense? Rexroth admitted yesterday in conversation about this subject that this was one of the reasons he had some problems with the character of Buffy, in what is one of both of our favorite TV shows. What I think Joss Whedon did, though, was take that (already very common in 1997) trope and turn our expectations upside down. Buffy herself remarked upon the prophecies about her in Season One’s episode “Phophecy Girl,” in this exchange with The Master:

Master: You were destined to die! It was written!
Buffy: What can I say? I flunked the written.

That’s character development right there.

Now, this isn’t a diatribe against all paranormal manuscripts in favor of realism, but I ask you to be aware that for every book you might read and think has a neat idea about a predestined love or action, agents and editors have seen 200. Do you want to be the 201st? Unlikely.

We’re looking for characters that do something unexpected and interesting, not something we saw coming across the room. Questions? Comments? Favorite Buffy episodes?

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33 Responses to ““One girl in all the world…””

  1. Maya J Says:

    I feel the same way. I had a character in a story I was writing once who was "destined" to do something and after a while it just seemed lame. So I made him find out that there were at least a hundred other people just like him.

    The thing about destiny is after you start believing in it, it's like you have no control over your life. No matter what you do, it wasn't your decision. It was destiny's.

  2. Michelle Sussman Says:

    I sent you a query yesterday based on your destiny Tweet because my MC is told she's destined to free her people, but she doesn't buy it. I wondered if my premise might intrigue you. Time will tell…

    My favorite Buffy episode? When Willow's vampire self from an alternate universe makes an appearance. I think Alyson Hannigan is the best (and we're both natural redheads). πŸ™‚

  3. Lili Says:

    I don't like destiny either. It opens up too many questions – namely who wrote that prophecy in the first place? How did s/he know it would happen? And ending a story with "Oh, well it was fore-ordained" (aka "God did it") is about as satisfying as "And it was all a dream."

    Plus prophecies and destinies take away some of the stakes of a story – if things are "destined" to happen, then our characters don't have as much control, so we invest less in their actions and the story.

    I think it can be done, and it can be done well. But so often it's just used as an easy-way-out plot device.

  4. Sandy Shin Says:

    Prophecies and destinies can be done well (the Harry Potter series remains a personal favorite), but I wholly agree that they are unoriginal. The ordinary girl or guy who makes a difference not because they're destined to, but because they work for it is much more interesting.

  5. Amy Says:

    Obviously "Hush" or "The Body" even though those are HUGE CLICHES.

  6. allreb Says:

    One of my favorite details about HP is that the prophecy could just as easily have applied to Neville (and that Neville developed and became awesome in the background of the series, without a prophecy saying he should). I don't think destinies necessarily lower the stakes — a lot of protagonists don't want to do what they're destined to, or are terrified of it, and so coming to terms with it is part of their journey, and destinies don't always say someone will *win*, just that something will *happen*.

    But that said, there's no shortcut to characterization. I just read a scifi YA that featured a protag with no official destiny, but everyone kept saying how uber-special he was and he easily defeated obstacles no one else had even come near. But I never got a sense of personality, or why I was supposed to root for him. He was super special because… he was super special. Dull.

  7. Peter Dudley Says:

    Being super special by virtue of being super special? Ha ha! That's a lot like Paris Hilton being a media magnet because of her status as a media magnet.

    The original Star Wars movies were pretty good about the whole destiny thing. Vader kept telling Luke it was his destiny to join the bad guys, but Vader had seen the destiny backwards–it was HIS destiny to revert to the good guys.

    Anyway, I think you are talking here about "destiny" as cheap cover for plot holes and flat characters. Blech. But "destiny" in the sense of "some have greatness thrust upon them"–that can be the basis of deep and dramatic conflict. Like Aragorn in LOTR–he has the birthright, he has the skills, and he even has the supporting cast. But everything still hinges on his reluctance to rise to that birthright, his victories and mistakes, and his own choices.

  8. Jami G. Says:

    I completely agree with this. In fact, my story has a big fate vs. free will theme. My MC is told that she has a destiny (a bad one) and she refuses to go along with it. πŸ™‚

  9. Stephanie Perkins Says:

    Any episode where Buffy and Spike have steamy hothothot sex.

    Yeah. I said it.

  10. Rebecca Says:

    My only comments are YES and THANK YOU. And LOL.

  11. Becky Mahoney Says:

    I agree with the person who said "Hush" and "The Body" up there. Fabulously written episodes, even though one had almost no dialogue!

    And I agree with this post as well! This is why I love books that turn the 'destiny' trope on its head. For one, I liked the implication in the Harry Potter books that the Big Prophecy could have easily been about Neville had things gone differently – I really wanted JKR to go into that more.

  12. Becky Mahoney Says:

    Oh hey, allreb already mentioned that aspect of the HP books. Clearly I am super-redundant tonight.

    (tap-dances off stage)

  13. Rissa Watkins Says:

    Yes, "Hush" and "The Body" were awesome- am I the only one who liked the musical one? I also loved the Thanksgiving one where Spike was tied up at Giles' house. When he talks about Americans whining about conquering the Indians. "We came, we conquered, we feel really bad about it." (I may have messed that quote up but it was close)

    As for fate/destiny thing. I had to think about this one. I do have something like it in my book, however it is not what makes the MC special. She is unique on her own merit. If I took that plot point out, I think the book would still be good. With it in, it tweaks the story in a different way.

  14. Creepy Query Girl Says:

    I suppose I'm kind of wishy washy on the subject. On one hand, yes- it is overdone. On the other, I think everyone likes the idea of 'specialness'. Something about this character makes them special from birth. They don't have to strive for it like we do and I think there's something really appealing there. Also- sometimes instead of a 'prophesy' specialness, there are a million factors that make the main character 'one of a kind'.- their parents, heritage, past life, rare talent, etc… Personality and way of thinking does get pushed aside I think (maybe because everyone has their own personality and way of thinking and you know how it goes: saying 'everyone is special' is another way of saying no one is. Good post!

  15. Mandy Says:

    I can say nothing about Buffy because I haven't watched it, but I read a lot of Fantasy, which deals with prophecy time and time again. I've always loved the Wheel of Time, where everything is prophesied and yet no one knows how it will apply to anything. It's not until after the fact that we realize an event fulfilled prophecy.

    I think the best example of destiny done well, however, is Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn Trilogy. Brandon Sanderson dazzled me with how he turned the old destiny/prophecy trope on its head. Those books are simply phenomenal and even though they are "high fantasy", they break all the rules and tropes Fantasy readers have come to know. Nothing turned out like I expected. Usually when I start a book, I can pretty well predict how it will end – in general. We know who the person with the destiny is – we know everything will turn out all right somehow for them. That was not the case at all with the Mistborn Trilogy. I recommend them for anyone who has the slightest love of Fantasy books at all. They're fantastic.

  16. jFosberry Says:

    I'll say it. I loved the musical episode. Still sometimes hum, "where do we go from here."

    The destiny/chosen card when played right results in really memorable stuff: Harry Potter, Star Wars, Matrix, Lord of the Rings, and of course Buffy. Or maybe that is just my personal preference. But I can see that if it is overdone, and some one is in a position to see it keep being overdone. Well, dreadful.

    Buffy really played with the destiny theme throughout the whole series. I particularly liked the gathering of all the "chosens" at Buffy's house in the last season and that in the last fight it became clear (spoiler ahead) that every girl was a chosen one, with strength and power.

    Part of the reason I admire Whedon.

    And my favorites include the Buffy-Spike dynamic.

  17. Rissa Watkins Says:

    Mandy that sound you are hearing is me screaming in horror! No Buffy? You must watch Buffy, you must!

  18. Amy Says:

    Yes, I LOVE "Once More with Feeling". Oh, and "Tabula Rasa", even though s6 is not one of my faves. Oh oh oh and "Band Candy" if only for Giles.

  19. Melissa Gill Says:

    Prophesies of destiny are as old as humanity and some of the most influential people of all time (Moses and Jesus) were the objects of prophesy and the instruments of destiny. No matter what your religious convictions, you have to admit, these guys changed the world. So it's no wonder that these stories attract writers and make dramatic tales through the ages. I think Harry Potter was the last prophetic/destiny story I've read that was really excellent. But when a story has success like that series I think it's natural for people to say, hmm I could do that. I'll make my character a girl who's a necromancer, and set it in a girls school in Chicago… Trouble is these plots get stale just like everything else after a while.

    Just like shoes, platform shoes were OUT OUT OUT for a long time, now they're back. Twenty years from now agents might be saying, someone please send me a great story about a kid who's destiny to save humanity has been foretold. And then if it's fresh and well written, it will be a big hit.

  20. Jamie Says:

    Hey! That's my twitter name there! πŸ™‚

    I feel like destiny, fate and birthright could be done well, I just don't think they need to be in place of character development.

  21. Picardyrose Says:

    Fire bad. Tree pretty.

    (Sorry. Couldn't help myself.)

  22. Mandy Says:

    Rissa, I have several friends who scream in horror as well. And I'm a huge Joss Whedon fan – so that makes it all the more crazy (Firefly is awesome. Doctor Horrible is probably the greatest thing ever). However, my anti-vampire ways are a long, long story that no one on this blog needs to be bored with. πŸ™‚

    I do feel myself caving a little every day though. Just finished reading the Dresden Files, which has vampires and mentions Buffy. (I had no idea vampires would be so involved when I first started reading it. I claim ignorance.) Maybe one day – I'll ask my friend to borrow season one…maybe.

  23. Miss_Tammy Says:

    While the theme of destiny may be a bit overdone (and using it as a substitute for character development obviously not cool), I don't think it is an absolute bad. I think the idea of destiny works well in YA because teens are struggling to find a place where they belong and feel special. The fantasy of finding out that you are not, in fact, a ginormous loser and instead are intended for great things is as common as the wish that you're a prince/princess adopted by the idiots that call themselves your parents. As a YA librarian, I see teens devouring books with a destiny theme on a regular basis. In fact, I would venture to say that it is the most popular type of book checked out by teens in my library system.

    As for Buffy, Once More With Feeling and The Zeppo are among my favorites.

  24. Claire Gittens Says:

    I don't mind destiny with a twist. Look at Harry Potter, he was predestined (kinda) to be the thorn in Voldemort's side, and he ended up being that. But in the end it was the strength of his friendships that always saved him.

  25. celsie Says:

    "But just THINK if you could tell me about an ordinary girl who turns out to be special because of the way she thinks, or the way she acts, or what she believes…"

    Thank you for posting this! I know this wasn't your intent, but this really helped me get past inventing pre-existing motivations for a character, and just have her personality and identity be what drives the conflict and action. And once I read this post, I realized that would be way more interesting for me to write, and likely other people to read than inventing a reason why she's joined a certain group. Choosing to establish a group in spite of prejudice will be a lot more challenging than simply belonging to an already established group.

  26. Ann Elise Says:

    I'm in the midst of writing a novel that I plan to be part of a series, and I intend to have a prophecy included in a later book. That's somewhat similar to Harry Potter's prophecy, since he only found out at a later date even though it was made before he was born. I think that's a good way of doing it because it gives your 'special' character time to develop on his own so the prophecy is not his only redeeming quality.

  27. Donna Gambale Says:

    I'm late catching up on this, but I have to mention "What's My Line?" parts 1 and 2! I can watch those over and over, and they're completely quotable. The episodes touch on so much – the development of Buffy & Angel's relationship AND Buffy's anxiety over her future in the "real world" vs her "destiny," plus a great Spike & Drusilla evil plan, solid Scooby Gang subplots, and KENDRA!

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