Fate and causality in fiction: Epics, Curses, God, and the good deed.

“I also will do this unto you; I will even appoint over you terror, consumption, and the burning ague, that shall consume the eyes, and cause sorrow of heart: and ye shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it.” Leviticus 26:16

I have been musing about fate and causality again this week. It is a fascinating topic, particularly as it relates to Fiction.

My first thought is in regard to plotting an epic novel. In many cases authors cannot relate a novel of immense scope and follow all the cause and effect than brings you to the end. Fate can be a very useful device in said cases, where the sense of logic is secondary to the panoramic scope. While fate often falls flat in the face of determined reasoning, it does serve very well to lend a consistent feel to a work of fiction whose scope is beyond the author’s ability to relate in a simple manner: in these cases fate fills in all the little holes that causality cannot be brought forth to cover. It works reasonably well, and some authors have made grand worlds in this way, often mixing a larger sense of fate with causal storylines.

The Malazan series comes to mind here. The cast of characters and the sweep of history is immense, but the hand of fate doles out each character’s ends so impassively that it lends a certain gravitas to the work. It also lends the series a mythic feel: mythology is big on fate and many of the characters, gods, and ascendants in the books of the Fallen resonate with those ancient impulses.

One of the reasons that fate is so compelling to us, is that it has been the dominant form of thought up until recently, when it was supplanted by reason in the enlightenment and even further sundered by science in the atomic age.

Fate: Disease as Punishment & the Curse

One of the more common uses of fate in fiction is the affliction of character with a disease or curse, usually as punishment from some outside agency. This has its roots in the ancient view that diseases were punishment from god/the gods/or brought on by ghosts/demons.

The idea of writing a story about a disease that afflicts people for moral reasons would be seen as rather gauche these days, and rightfully so. The idea of a curse however can still make a great fate-driven narrative. In this case all the really matters is how the character gets the curse, and that they want to get rid of it. Since the curse is a punishment from an outside entity the steps to get rid of the curse don’t have to be reasonable, they just have to satisfy the character of whoever gave the curse, and make for an interesting story.

Curses are also great as random character quirks in fate-driven worlds. Characters cursed to tell the truth for lying or families cursed with Lycanthropy, Madness, or a connection with some dangerous otherworldy power are examples that leap to mind.

Of course in real life, we did not actually start combating disease until we set aside the idea that these afflictions were punishments from the divine. This is an excellent illustration of how the fate based mindset can hinder us. After all if a disease is a just punishment from a moral authority, who are we to gainsay that? Better hope its not contagious though. The curse of the questing beast and several forms of Lycanthropy are among my favorite curses.

Fate: The System Grinds

In modern novels the System often takes the place of the divine. The system can be a state, a corporation, a society, or some other real world entity large enough that it overwhelms a normal man. A good example of this is the early industrial justice system as depicted in Dickens, Hugo, and several modern fantasy novels. A thief who steals a loaf of bread to feed his family is just as guilty as a serial burglar stealing jewelry: despite the obvious unfairness, the brutally impartial justice system punishes these dissimilar crimes with the same end. It is a very modern feeling, since nearly all of us have run into a situation at one point or another in out lives where it seems as if one of these monstrous entities has it out to get us, despite the fact that it usually just the system impartially doing what it is supposed and accidentally stepping on us in the process. Still, that parking ticket can feel like a malign act of fate, especially when you are late to work because your car gets towed and then you lose your job…

As I mentioned in a previous post, I enjoy the idea of the system as a Villain, especially when it has men like Javert doing its bidding: the perfect modern inquisitor hunting down men accused of trivial crimes all in the name of a warped Justice system.

Causality: God as the kind act

Speaking of Hugo’s Les Miserables, that book is an excellent example of a creative use of causality: the idea that god exists in the kind act that gets everything rolling.

In Les Miserables, the main character Jean Valjean, suffers after being released from prison. Despite his relatively minor crimes, committed to survive, he is treated as an outcast. The justice system cares nothing about his reasons for stealing, and neither do most of the people he meets as he tries to make his living. Most of them, like Javert, feel that once a man has shown himself to be a criminal his fate it set. Valjean struggles against this, but in the end starving a desperate he tries to steal from the one man who has a helped him, a kindly priest. When he is caught, the priest claims that he gave Valjean the stolen items and even gives him more. He tells Valjean that he must use the proceeds from selling these to make himself a better man, that they are a gift from God.

This kind act is the only active presence God has in the entire book, but it resonates throughout. Because of the priest’s kindness, Valjean grows great, using his power to help others. He pays this kindness forward when he encounters Fantine after she has been wrongfully dismissed from working in his factory , promising to care for her daughter, Cosette. When Javert tells him that “Jean Valjean” has been captured and is standing trial, he is compelled to point out that he is the real Jean Valjean, not wanting an innocent man to suffer his fate. He carries that good deed forward again and again, leading to acts of selflessness and noble courage. It is one of the most beautiful depictions of God I have ever seen, and it is purely causal, and ultimately does not rely on any outside agency. The resonance of the kind act would also work with humanity, or love.

Causality: The curse as a boon

I wish there was a III

What used to be considered bad is now all that stands between you and tentacle based doom.

As for curses. I find it interesting that the curses of old are giving rise to modern heroes. Vampires, when viewed through the eyes of fate are horrible, doomed creatures tainted by their afflictions. But then again that is the view of any affliction or curse from a fate based viewpoint. In a more rational system the Vampires flaws can be overcome. Thirst for blood? Bloodbank or animal blood, we can deal with that craving. Burn up in the sun? don’t go outside or use an umbrella. These flaws become interesting character quirks, or vulnerabilities, while the rest of the curse such as super strength and resistance to injury become more desirable assets once the negative aspects of their curse are treated. Same thing with werewolves. In pre-modern times the idea of a werewolf or vampire protagonist would be regarded as rather odd, since these were terrible curses from god, or the results of monstrous acts of hubris.

Hellboy is an interesting example of this. He is a character who rejects his fate, and uses his devilish powers for good. There was a time when such an idea would be considered an affront to all that is good and decent, but in the age of reason, we judge people by what they do and Hellboy fights evil, so we like him. Many Fantasy authors are exploring this particular theme, taking the old monstrous races like orcs and turning them into just another member of society or a misunderstood hero.

Interestingly many of these characters have the system bearing down on them, trying to enforce control because of the old stereotypes. There is a bit of this in the Dresden files as well, where Harry is always watched by the Wardens for an act he engaged in long ago. In fact most wizards and witches in pre-modern fantasies were viewed as quite evil. You could probably write a dissertation on how old curses have become the heroes of today…

The idea of curse as a boon is indicative of another more modern idea: adaptability. That we can change to meet our circumstances and face new challenges, so long as we keep our wits about us.

Edit: Ooops I meant Fantine. Durrr.


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