Saturday, August 11, 2012


“Fate” is a one-word tautology. Doris Day, that smooth-talker, told us all about it: “Whatever will be, will be.” Fate is the inescapable future, depending on the undeniable present, which is built of the unchangeable past. We can’t change our fate; we can only discover it. We may affect our future, perhaps, by quitting smoking or by driving drunk, by studying hard for the LSAT or by quitting IBM in a huff, but when we do that we’re only acting as an agent for fate.
Whether we bring about our fate by exercising free will, or whether it’s all written in stone, or on the wind, doesn’t really matter. It’s gonna happen. I don’t know if the stars and planets have anything to do with fate, but I’m guessing probably not. Is fate just a sequence of silly accidents that pop and fizzle throughout time and space? I don’t think so. I also don’t believe there’s a Big Dude in the sky charting it all out with a quill pen and papyrus, or may stone tablets, or maybe a golden abacus with pearl buttons, or maybe a giant Excel spreadsheet, spread out all over the firmament. Is fate merely the inevitable result of how a bunch of vulnerable dominos were set up sometime during the Big Bang, so that how we fare and how we die are just the consequences of the laws of chemistry and physics, constant and fair throughout the universe? Who knows? Who, for that matter, has time to care?
Fate is a fact of life, the way of the world, and the human condition. But these definitions are too limiting, because the inevitable and interconnected march we’re all on, plodding or racing into the future, also affects other living beings; other gasses, liquids, and solids that may not contain what we self-importantly call life; and other places in the vast universe, hot spots and cold spots where change may be wildly different phenomena. Fate happens out there, too.
Was fate established by an intelligent designer? Nope. Fate just is, always was, and, chances are, always will be. Whether or not it is propelled by intelligent design is a giant can of wriggling worms that I don’t care to open.
Fate is a matter of fact.

Moving on, fate is also an essential ingredient of the man-made microcosm of existence that we call fiction. We writers have every right to call ourselves the creators of our model-size universes. And we plot our stories using intelligent design. Or if we’re not plotters, we at least hold the reins intelligently. And we get to rewrite and revise, which is something even the mythical Big Dude can’t do.
However we think of fate when we talk about the real world, we can get better handle on it when we make up our stories, based on how we understand the laws of fairness and irony that define the stories in human culture.
The concept of fate is essential to storytelling and fiction writing. And one thing to know, one rule to follow or disobey at your own peril is: Dire predictions come true.
This is true in drama: Chekhov told us that when a rifle is hanging over the fireplace in Act One, that rifle must go off before the final curtain comes down. And when rifles are discharged on stage, someone’s going to get hurt.
The rule works in movies, too. If a character you love starts to cough from some illness, you’d better get out the Kleenex, because chances are that character won’t live long enough to read the credits.
Fate was essential to Greek tragedy. When an oracle tells King Laius that his infant son will one day kill him, he and his wife cripple the child and leave him to die on a mountaintop. Does the infanticide work? No way. The kid grows up, comes back to town, unwittingly kills his dad, and I won’t say what he does to his mom.
In the fairy tale, when the spiteful fairy godmother predicts that the infant princess Briar Rose will, on her sixteenth birthday, prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall asleep for a hundred years, there’s no point in the King’s ordering that all the spinning wheels in town be burned. He’s be better off shopping for a good mattress.
And when the soothsayer advises Julius Caesar to beware the ides of March, he’s not really telling Caesar to call in sick on the fifteenth. What he’s saying is, “Dude. Better get your affairs in order, because come the sixteenth, you’ll no longer be wearing sandals.”

So, in fiction as in fact, it’s pointless to try to outsmart fate. The house always wins. To buck fate is to engage in hubris, and the penalty for hubris is always a most unwelcome irony. The so-called Higher Power named Fate shrugs and thunders, “Told ya so.” Of course in real life we can’t help fighting to survive (as we usually should); and because our fiction is about the human condition, our characters are likely to try to beat the odds, even if all they can hope for is a temporary respite.
There is a big difference, however, between human fate in fiction and human fate fate in fact. The fate of a character in a story ends with the words “The End.” An extension is allowed in the event of a sequel, and of course as long as the story remains in print or remains on shelves or on the Internet, the character’s fate is still accessible and knowable, but that fate is a done deal. The character may rest in peace.
In what we like to call “real life,” a person’s fate does not end with the words “rest in peace.” Death is part of the fate of each of us, but it rarely means the story is over. Because most of us, for better or for worse, are entitled to, or saddled with, an afterlife. No, the afterlife of which I speak has nothing to do with pearly gates and golden slippers, or with brimstone and pitchforks. The afterlife that is part of our lingering fate is made up largely of memories stored by friends and family; of tales told about us if we’re in any sense famous; and of DNA passed along for generations to come, for as long as human beings populate the planet, which may sound like quite a spell but is only a blip in the time span that is eternity. The point is: our lives may end but our presence remains and dwindles for a long time before it fizzles and whimpers into oblivion.
I think what makes us writers write and wish to be read is to keep our fates in progress for a while after we die. And why do we write as beautifully as we can while we are still in partnership with our fates? That’s probably the moral to this discussion: we all, willy-nilly, leave tracks in the sand. We don’t want to be remembered for ugly, obnoxious, lazy, antisocial tracks that stink of plastic litter, broken glass, and shit. No. Let us be remembered for having given the world something of value. If we have any influence over our fate, let it be this.

Note: This essay first appeared in the literary magazine Black Lamb.


  1. Always intriguing to read your view on things--and this was no exception. The Bible says there's a time to live, a time to dance, and a time to die, that pretty much covers it. I like the time to dance best.

  2. Beautifully written. I love the first sentence - fate is a one word tautology. I've never thought about it like that, but it sure makes sense.

  3. I second what Marilyn said, but beyond that, I think your last paragraph was the most telling. I think most of us would like to be remembered for our works. I've been reading some books by Stuart Palmer which were written in the 1930s, and he's being remembered by me.

  4. Thank you, Marilyn, Bill, and Marja. Marja, I'll look into Stuart Palmer. Thanks for the recommendation!

  5. What an excellent think piece, John. I read it carefully -- twice. And I'll probably read it again. Certainly, I'm filing it in my file called "John Daniel." Thank you.