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Learn the "bones" of story

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Testing Fate: A Closer Look at Person vs. Fate Conflict

Conflict is key to writing great stories. And while writers may categorize conflict differently, I categorize conflict into eight types:

Person vs. Self 

Person vs. Person 

Person vs. Nature 

Person vs. Society 

Person vs. God 

Person vs. Fate 

Person vs. the Supernatural 

Person vs. Technology 

In today’s modern times, the Person vs. God conflict often gets left off lists or is combined with or even replaced by the Person vs. Fate conflict. But because fate conflicts don’t necessarily have gods, and god conflicts don’t necessarily include fate, I put them in separate categories.

Out of all the conflict types, Person vs. Fate is often the most misunderstood.

Many of us were introduced to the concept of Person vs. Fate through classic tragedies where the protagonist was foretold a future that led him to a dreadful end (like in Oedipus Rex or Macbeth). This has led some to proclaim that the Person vs. Fate conflict is unpopular or even outdated, and has also led some writers to shortchange this conflict type (if they even give it much thought). In reality, a fate conflict happens whenever a character is struggling with a destiny–something is predetermined or foreordained, and the character somehow opposes that. What is foretold need not always be tragic or lead to a dreadful end. Arguably, it need not always even be otherworldly.

In fantasy, fate often comes from a prophecy. In Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince, Harry struggles with the prophecy that neither he nor Voldemort can really live while the other survives. In horror, this may be a kind of curse. In Final Destination, the characters are trying to cheat their deaths–they are fated to die. It can even play into the concept of the universe having an order or law that must be upheld or fulfilled. In The Lion King, Simba must embrace his destiny as the one true king to bring order to the Circle of Life. And if we broaden the concept a little more, we can find foretold fates in the normal world; in The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Hazel is fated to die from terminal cancer. 

Person vs. Fate conflicts are very effective because they get the audience to anticipate a future event, which creates convergence. "To converge" means to meet at a point, incline toward each other, or to come to a common conclusion. In crafting our stories, we often want a degree of convergence. Convergence is about getting the audience to look ahead to a specific moment that promises a (potential) outcome. This draws the audience in because they have to keep reading to see if what is expected to happen actually does happen, and they need to see how it happens. Introducing a Person vs. Fate conflict instantly brings that into the story. 

Many fate conflicts are rendered as teasers. Some characters have premonitions in dreams or visions that only reveal a snippet of fate. Prophecies are often worded in ambiguous or metaphorical ways, giving rise to multiple interpretations. Teasers don't tell us a lot about the plot, but they do usually promise an emotion, and they always promise the audience that they'll understand the teaser better if they keep reading, which motivates them to keep turning pages.

If the promised fate and how it is to come about is ambiguous, this can bring in a sense of mystery. Characters, or simply the audience, may try to work out who the "chosen one" is, or what is needed to defeat the villain. Often a fate conflict works as a type of riddle.

Usually Person vs. Fate conflicts explore free will within strict limitations. While some writers choose to ultimately emphasize a lack of free will, others choose to emphasize the power of free will. In Oedipus Rex characters try to change fate and end up bringing it about. In Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince, Harry eventually realizes he has a choice to accept his role or not, and chooses to rise to the occasion. Characters destined to die, may have a moment where they decide how they will face that death.

How the character chooses to deal with the fate is often just as (if not more) interesting than the fate itself. The character may openly fight against fate like Oedipus Rex, or the character may have more of a personal struggle with accepting the fate and its costs, like Simba. The audience may be invited to consider whether it’s worth the cost. In Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, Dr. Faustus sells his soul to the devil to gain all knowledge. Was gaining all knowledge worth a fate in hell?

Commonly characters who fight against fate are punished (and the fate portrayed as inevitable), but it's possible to write a story where that is depicted positively and/or where they succeed in altering fate. With this conflict type, consider whether or not the fate is altered, whether that is a good or bad thing, and whether the character ultimately embraces or rejects fate. Are they punished or rewarded for that? Was the effort worth it?

Typically, people think of fate conflicts coming from some force beyond the character’s power, but sometimes it’s interesting when the character makes a choice that leads to an inevitable fate, such as Dr. Faustus, or even Jack Sparrow, who makes a deal with Davy Jones in exchange for the Black Pearl in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Fate conflicts traditionally come from the supernatural: prophecies, premonitions, curses, fortunes and predictions, a universal law, magical debts, or the will of otherworldly entities. But the concept can be broadened to include real-world fates: terminal illness, death row and other court sentences, forced marriage, being made a scapegoat, or forced labor. Admittedly, some conflict types can overlap with others, but looking at conflicts from a fate angle may open up your stories to new possibilities.

A few more examples of fate conflicts:

Curses, like in The Ring, where a video is promised to kill the viewer in seven days.

Deals, like in Pirates of the Caribbean, where Jack is in debt to Davy Jones and must join The Flying Dutchman or be taken by the Kraken

Fortunes and predictions, like in The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, where Blue is told that if she kisses her true love, he will die

Supernatural entities, like in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, where a ghost tells Scrooge of his coming death

For ideas on possible resolutions and stakes for the Person vs. Fate conflict, check out "The 8 Types of Conflict."

Because this conflict is so often misunderstood, I simply wanted to do a post broadening our perspectives of it. Do you use Person vs. Fate conflicts?


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