Opinion: Thoughts on “Destiny” in Fiction

In preparation for my own novel, I’ve been reading quite a lot of fantasy novels to get me in the right headspace. As such, I’ve been exposed to the normal trappings of fantasy lit i.e, magical creatures as racial allegories, repurposing of traditional folk-lore stories and, of course, the concept of “destiny.”

Destiny gets a pretty bad rap these days and it’s not hard to see why. It’s frigging everywhere and not just in fantasy either.

In fact, it’s used so much it’s veering dangerously close to cliché territory.

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What’s worse is it’s often used as a cheap plot devise when a character’s motivations don’t align with what the plot requires, and as a way of saying “oh, this happens this way because some mumbo jumbo magic thingey!”

In spite of all this, it isn’t the concept of destiny that has become so grating over time. It’s the flagrant overuse and abuse of the word in general that gets under my skin.

You can call me a semantics snob if you want, but it always irks me whenever a character says they will “create their own destiny” or when a side-character tells an MC they can “make their own destiny.”

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Every time I hear this phrase, or some variation of it, it makes me want to pull my hair out.

Destiny––as defined by Webster’s dictionary––is a “predetermined course of events often held to be an irresistible power or agency.”

The key word in this definition being “predetermined.” 

Following this train of logic to its natural conclusion, you cannot change your destiny.

The whole point of destiny is that certain events will transpire with or without the subject’s willingness to participate.

It’s like when people in movies/books/TV shows say —

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Luck is “success or failure brought by chance rather than one’s own actions.”

By the literal definition of the word, you cannot make your own luck.

Why are people so determined to make words mean things they don’t?

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I know language evolves over time, but by making “destiny” a stand-in for “future,” you take so much away from destiny’s philosophical implications.

Take the story of Oedipus for example. It’s such a tragic tale because the hero had no chance of escaping his fate. In spite of his and other’s best efforts, things transpired exactly as they were prophesied.

The concept of destiny broaches many intriguing questions: Are we actually in control of our own lives, or are there forces at work that govern our futures, giving us a false sense of agency? Are we, ourselves, to blame for how events unfold?

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Oftentimes it’s portrayed as a good thing, but it could just as easily mean the inevitability of death and despair as in Oedipus’ case. It could mean the loss of our autonomy and our significance as a people. After all, how important are we really when we are just being used as chess pieces on the board game of destiny?

It’s such a cool idea to debate and discuss over copious amounts of alcohol, but we’ve made it lame with our constant misuse.

And in my mind, that is unforgivable.

You can make things stupid, you can make things aggravating, but you should never make them boring.

Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

12 thoughts on “Opinion: Thoughts on “Destiny” in Fiction

  1. Ha ha, great rant!
    My favorite use of the word ‘destiny’ is in Back to the Future, where George says to Lorraine, “You are my density.”

    I agree with you that strict determinism is boring. I think when people say things like “You make your own luck” or “You make your own destiny,” they are articulating that. They are saying, “There is this concept of destiny out there, but I disagree with it because I believe that human choices change things.”

    I have encountered this problem is my own writing. I know where I want the characters to end up (at least geographically), but it has to happen by happenstance and as a consequence of their choices. It’s very tempting to shove in a destiny. 🙂

    And, slightly related to your topic, I’m just finishing up the German TV series Dark, which points out (rightly, I think) that if time travel is possible, this implies that everything is predetermined.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!

      Yeah, you are probably right that they are saying destiny isn’t a real thing, but I really wish they would just say that instead of saying something dumb like “I will make my own destiny” in lieu of “I don’t believe in destiny, I make my own path.” That phrase would inevitably turn into a cliche´ as well but at least it would make sense.

      It’s especially tempting to add-in destiny when characters develop a mind of their own and don’t want to follow the plot lol. For me, I enjoy the concept of destiny not fulfilling itself in the way you expect it to. For instance, thinking the chosen one is one person when in reality it is someone else altogether.

      Stephen King’s 11/22/63 did something similar in that time was a sentient being that lashed out at anyone if they attempted to change the course of events. To me this is fascinating and a good excuse to use destiny. Unfortunately, this is not something that is explored all the well in most mediums. They say it can’t be changed, but we never get a real reason why.

      Like

  2. Thank you for this TED talk!

    I too loathe it when people try to make words mean what they don’t (though the last incorrectly used word I ranted about was “smirk,” which has less philosophical implications than “destiny” does).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome lol.

      How did someone manage to mess up smirk? xD It’s pretty straight forward. I have encountered people misusing the words “leer” or “sneer” though. The dictionary is right there, people. Lol

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Love this discussion! I do think destiny can veer close to cliché and I really don’t like it as a cheap plot device, but it’s not all bad to incorporate the idea (and I agree, veering too far in the other direction and say “making your own destiny” can be equally dull). I especially like your point that in so many myths destiny isn’t supposed to be a good thing (a lot of modern fantasy has lost sight of that)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think in itself it is an interesting concept. It’s just squandered in most forms of media (although I believe TV and movies are the worst offenders). It’s one of those things were it CAN work, but as a result of poor writing it’s become old hat.

      Liked by 1 person

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