Sunday, February 21, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Destiny Sucks!

We went to see the movie adaptation of The Lightning Thief last Sunday, forewarned by a report that the director had based the movie on his reading of the back of the paperback. This is standard for movies made from books, so I tried to suppress my irritation at the aging of the characters and the omission of all clues to the metaplot for the series, all the politics and most of the cool details of life at Camp Half-Blood, and two-thirds of the characters. (That's a rough guesstimate; I have not in fact done the math.) My husband, despite my assurances that this is less of a problem in the books, made no attempt whatsoever to suppress his irritation at yet another fantasy about a Chosen One.

He keeps watching and reading fantasy, but that particular cliché gets on his nerves something awful. The Chosen One doesn't get any choices, but he also doesn't have to do The Work. Not the big prestigious work of whatever destiny he's Chosen for, but the drudge work, the daily grind of training, learning, getting experience, and earning respect. You're the Chosen One so you're stronger, faster, better and everybody acknowledges this. You win dominance fights with folks who have trained their whole lives, 24 hours after you first manifest your Special Snowflake Powers, and they become your loyal sidekicks. The Good Guys give you respect on a silver platter and the Bad Guys are jealous. Prophecies that reference you come true regardless of what you do. The Big Bad End Guy never makes any progress against you, either because he's too stupid to recognize you or because you're so darn special you defeat all his cat's paws. He always sends cat's paws instead of trying to squash you like a bug himself, even when there's no overwhelming plot reason for him not to do so.

And who Chose this guy, anyway? I'm an agnostic and believe that stuff happens because of the complex interactions of contingency, chemistry, biology, physics, and free will. My husband is a Christian and believes that God set up the world, gave us free will, and sent us forth to do the best we can - or not, as we choose. We both know from experience how badly bad choices can mess things up for everybody, how powerful good choices can be, and how often "good" and "bad" aren't moral decisions, but practical ones. There is no place in either worldview for some mysterious background power that gets to decide for us what we will and will not do.

When he complains about this stuff I always assure him that someday I will write a story in which the Chosen One gets annihilated in the first chapter, and the Mighty Essential Quest has to be carried out by somebody, or a team of somebodies, who steps up to the plate and defeats the BBEG because hey, it's better to go down fighting impossible odds than to give up. The prophecies go unfulfilled or are turned on their heads. People you root for die horribly, the Unchosen Hero makes meaningful sacrifices, bad choices have bad consequences, every inch of ground is sweated over, and in the end the survivors are faced with a mess to clean up rather than a sunrise; but the BBEG is gone, the apocalypse or whatever is averted, and everything that is, is so because people exercised their free will.

The trouble is, I seldom feel like writing high fantasy these days, and I haven't had any specific sparks for situations or characters that make me want to get past the abstract concept. And it strikes me that as many high fantasy stories as use the Chosen One trope, there should be lots of room for stories that subvert it. I can even think of one, though it doesn't structure itself in direct opposition to the cliché in the way I'm contemplating: The Bartimaeus Trilogy, by Jonathan Stroud. Dear God, that third book has a killer ending! And in Lois McMaster Bujold's theological thrillers set in the country of Chalion, she sets up the interaction of divine will and free will with a masterful hand. Even in the Percy Jackson books, it's made clear that more than one person can fulfill the prophecy. The more people look for the possibilities in the trope, rather than blindly following the path it lays down, the better.

It'd make a good campaign concept, too - the adventuring party is at best the second-string backup to the original Chosen One, alive now because they sneaked out to attend a kegger at the Rolling Pig Tavern on the night the BBEG launched a full-out attack on Chosen One HQ and wiped out the Chosen One, his sidekicks, and his mentors.

Inside every cliché lurks a good story. Part of our job is to turn it inside out, and look.

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