Heraclitus believed that a person’s character is their fate. Character — the sum total of a person’s traits — influences the choices a person makes, and the consequences of those choices ultimately become that person’s destiny. Or not. Much of life is luck, happenstance, and totally out of our control, though we tend to believe we have much more control over our lives than we really do. But that’s not an issue here because this is a writing discussion, and in our story worlds everything is under our control, and what our characters do determine their own fate.
This is most obvious in a tragedy — a character comes to an unhappy end because of a flaw in his or her own character, though in today’s stories, because readers like a more optimistic ending, that fatal flaw is often balanced by a special strength. But character/fate works for other types of stories, such as a thriller where a character becomes obsessed with finding the truth, and that obsession leads to both the character’s fate and the end of the story.
For example, In Daughter Am I, a young woman is determined to find out the truth of who her grandparents were and why someone wanted them dead. That determination overrides her usual placidity and takes her on a journey that eventually leads her home again, changed forever. She really did find her destiny because of her character.
I wonder if the opposite is more true (if truth has degrees), that destiny is character. Does what happens to us, both the actions under our control and those beyond our control, determine who we are? Determine who our characters are? This was a theme I explored in More Deaths Than One. So much happened to my poor hero Bob that was not under his control, yet what was under his control — how he handled his fate — made him the man he became.
Any discussion about fate and writing would also have to include the question: does the writer’s fate affect the character’s fate? None of my books have totally happy endings. There is always a pinprick of unease in the background, but the book I am now contemplating — the story of a woman going through grief — is going to have even less of a happy ending. Perhaps because I know the ending of my own love story? Not my story, obviously, since I’m still here, but the story I shared with another. Except for my work in progress (the one that’s been stalled all these years) the stories I’m thinking about writing now all end up with the characters alone.
When I wrote the first draft of my novel More Deaths Than One (and the second draft and the third) I had the hero Bob meandering around his world trying to unravel his past all by himself, and it was boring. Did I say boring? It was moribund. The story went nowhere because there was no one for Bob to butt heads with.
In the fourth draft of More Deaths Than One, I gave Bob a love interest, a waitress he met at a coffee shop. (Hey, so it’s been done before. The poor guy spent eighteen years in Southeast Asia, and didn’t know anybody stateside. How else was he supposed to meet someone?) That’s when the story took off. He had someone to butt heads with, someone to ooh and aah over his achievements, someone to be horrified at what had been done to him.
From that, I learned the importance of writing scenes with more than one character. And yet here I am, once more falling into the black hole of writing characters alone because I can’t visualize them ending up with anyone.
Which leads me to my final question: could the fate of the character also influence the writer’s fate? If so, maybe I should decide where I want to go from here, and write my destiny. Or I could just wing it and see where destiny takes me and my characters.
Pat Bertram is the author of the conspiracy novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+
October 20, 2012 at 10:19 pm
I try to make my own destiny, so I try not to worry about the big philosophical questions.like that and trust in the deity I chose to believe in. I also don’t think the characters I write have their lives influenced by their personalities, at least not 100%. One story I plan to write involves a very timid girl and normally she wouldn’t involve herself in anything dangerous. But then an old man gives her a look of appreciation and a dying message, and then things just roll from there in a direction she doesn’t want to go down!
October 21, 2012 at 2:43 pm
Those are always the best stories — some sort of force taking our characters in a direction they don’t want to go. If they wanted to go, where’s the conflict?
October 21, 2012 at 2:57 pm
yeah, the hobbit might be a little boring if bilbo was too eager to face a dragon.
October 21, 2012 at 7:15 am
Interesting question. I was never able to influence my destiny nor was I able to help my children achieve the destinies they deserved and it has been depressing. I’ve heard the definition of LUCK is when all your honest hard work and talent and good intentions are rewarded . . . and I’ve seen in this life a good many people who reaped undeserved rewards while more deserving folks finished last (as that saying about “nice guys” goes) which makes the whole thing seem rather random and very unfair. So, I’ve written stories and novels that some readers have considered depressing, no happy endings, I wouldn’t know how to depict such a thing with any authenticity. A small group of readers who are also writers have praised my stories and novels and a few have noticed that often nature itself is a character because that is what has given me solace and so that is the solace I give my characters. A few have noticed what I’ve tried to do with my stories: lead readers to notice the otherwise invisible people in their world. Sometimes just being acknowledged, being heard, getting a response even from a single other person is a wonderful thing (which is why whenever I give a street person a couple bucks I also spend some time in conversation). I can’t pretend to understand this world we live in, don’t even hope anymore for anything resembling a “destiny” . . . just try to do the right thing in any encounter and try to find some little thing to be grateful for every day.
October 21, 2012 at 2:41 pm
I struggle with the ideas of fairness and luck. People with luck always say that they earned their good fortune with hard work, and that could be true, but the corollary doesn’t always hold true. As you say, just because you work hard, you don’t always get the rewards you deserve. It’s why I temper the sort of happy endings of my books with a twist of unease. Even in fiction, I can’t lie and pretend to believe in happy-ever-after. It’s also why books with happy endings depress me. They make a mockery of the truth.
And yes, being noticed is important. In the movie Shall We Dance, Beverly Clark says: “We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet… I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things… all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness’.” Made a big impact on me, especially after J. died. Maybe it’s why I blog — so that now that I am mostly alone I will not go unnoticed.
I like your philosophy, just trying to do the right thing in any encounter and trying to find some little thing to be grateful for every day. Maybe it’s the best we can ever hope fo.
October 21, 2012 at 8:35 am
I would say it is a mixture – you influence your characters and they are a reflection of your own perception about yourself. Therefore, in some peculiar way, your characters are influencing your destiny, but more accurately, they are reflecting your own conceptions and beliefs, which in turn will form your destiny.
I’m 28 and although that may sound young, I have come to a possible conclusion that I might not have the relationship that I dreamed due to my own idealistic disposition; however, I do not allow it kill my optimism or deprive my characters of the happiness I want for them.
October 21, 2012 at 2:29 pm
I wonder if some day I will do the same — give my characters happiness despite what I feel. But I tend to think I’ll always add a bit of unease toward the end — it rescues the books from a sappy happily-ever-after ending.
November 4, 2012 at 3:11 pm
At the cliff edge I have freewill and I live in potentiality; I make the choice of stepping off the cliff edge, I have lost an element of freewill and I am now kinetic; crashing to my death on the rocks at the cliff bottom is my karma, the result of my choice.
November 4, 2012 at 6:55 pm
Well put! And perhaps our character determines if we step off the cliff?