Down with Destiny

While going over my page proofs today (yes, on paper, with a pencil, because we are seriously old school over here), I caught the term “bond-mate” in two consecutive reviews. I took one out and replaced it with an equivalent term, but this got me thinking about how many paranormal romances seem to revolve around the idea of destined partners, much as fantasy epics often revolve around the idea of destined jobs or tasks.

Does anyone else find this idea really disturbing? It’s like all the worst parts of arranged marriage with none of the upsides. It throws us back to a time when women were property and there was no divorce. You can’t even blame your parents; Fate or Destiny or God has made the choice for you, and you don’t get to argue. Initially dislike the other person? Too bad! Fate or Destiny or God has also slipped you a roofie, and you will be so compellingly attracted to your destined mate that your arousal overwhelms your very reasonable concerns. The super-hot compulsive sex will just have to make up for your partner not being someone you otherwise want to be in the same room with.

In anything resembling the real world, this would be a recipe for marital disaster and profound self-loathing. The compulsive arousal/attraction thing particularly makes me cringe. There’s a word for sex you don’t want but are forced to have, and I think that word is applicable even when it’s Fate or Destiny or God forcing two people to behave a certain way rather than one of those people forcing the other. How terrible would it be to be repeatedly compelled to have sex with someone you’re bound to forever, possibly for multiple centuries or lifetimes depending on the paranormal setting, and to have your body aroused by it every single time even when it’s really not what your mind wants, and to know that you can’t escape because Fate or Destiny or God will inexorably draw the two of you back together no matter how far you run? Even if you loved your partner truly and deeply, how could you bring yourself to touch them, knowing that their responses aren’t under their control and that in this setting there is no such thing as consent because neither of you can really say no?

If the destiny is in some way related to race or heritage or gender–all men are fighters, all elves prefer bow-and-arrow to swords, each man gets one woman and each woman gets one man, the prince raised as a woodcutter will be a terrific king because kingliness is inherited, etc.–you get double extra “no” points. Essentialism is bad enough without setting up an entire fictional world that supports and enforces it.

I could be all analytical and muse about why so many readers and writers find these concepts even remotely appealing, but I’m going to keep it personal. The more I encounter destiny tropes, the more they turn me off. Destined love is the opposite of romantic.

Freedom to choose one’s own path in life is such a fundamental necessity that wars have been fought over it and people have marched by the millions demanding it. Let’s stop mining the emotional power of restriction and the quest for freedom by writing endless narratives of people who not only have no choices but whose character arcs begin with defiant struggle and end with giving in. When destined partners fall helplessly in love, it’s no different from “He loved Big Brother”.

Give me protagonists who make choices, even terrible choices, maybe especially terrible choices. Give me all the character development that comes from debating those choices. If Fate or Destiny or God forces them to do certain things, they’re not protagonists anymore; they’re puppets, hollow and voiceless, following their script to its depressingly inevitable conclusion.

38 thoughts on “Down with Destiny

  1. Rachel Olivier

    I think “destiny” or what-have-you is something that a writer can use to compel action, so that’s one of the reasons I think it’s used. But the other has to do with all those other things that make me cringe like – why doesn’t the Beta male get the girl for once instead of the Alpha male? Haven’t we evolved at all?

    I think it’s a primal need some people have that “the one” for them is out there, but if they haven’t found “the one” then they can read about it between these pages.

    Anyway, I agree. You’d think that people growing up reading Rowling (and Lewis and Tolkien for that matter) would get that life, and a good story, is about the choice the protagonist makes – even the smallest decision – along the way that will change things.

    1. Rose Fox Post author

      Maybe part of this is that I was raised pretty agnostic, with no sense that any part of my life was preordained, so I find that whole mindset–including things like thanking God after winning an award or hitting a home run–very difficult to understand. It feels so artificial, the author very obviously playing God.

      I think it’s a primal need some people have that “the one” for them is out there, but if they haven’t found “the one” then they can read about it between these pages.

      I’m definitely more of the “if you’re one in a million, there are eight people in New York just like you” school.

      You’d think that people growing up reading Rowling (and Lewis and Tolkien for that matter) would get that life, and a good story, is about the choice the protagonist makes – even the smallest decision – along the way that will change things.

      It’s interesting that you cite Rowling–isn’t Harry Potter a prime example of the destined hero? He does get to make choices, but at no point can he choose not to be Voldemort’s target, and at no point can he choose not to be The Boy Who Lived.

      1. Saavik

        I have to agree with you that Harry isn’t a good example of choice. Moreover, the entire series downplayed choice in several ways. Yes, Harry choose Gryffindor over Slytherin but after that choice it was over. With the exception of Snape there were no “redeemed” Slytherins. Very flat world. Choice is given a lot of hype but not a lot of actual play.

        I’ve always found Babylon 5 universe more compelling in that regard – granted it’s primarily TV not written, but the story is suitably complex.

        I do have to say, however, that the idea of bondmates can be interesting if done with attention to the emotional fallout it can cause. For example, take the Star Trek universe and the idea of Vulcan bondmates. Less destiny, more arranged marriage, and not perfect. It’s when writers stick to the one-true-love line of thought that it becomes trite.

      2. EB

        Harry Potter the Destined Hero? Not exactly.

        I’ll nerd out and explain it: The only reason Harry Potter was “the Chosen One” was because of Voldemort’s choices. Voldemort chose to go on with what the prophecy about him said and thus created his own worst enemy and fulfilled it himself. Harry himself had the choice not to confront Voldemort and hide and abandon his role as the savior of Wizarkind. He had plenty of choices, but those choice became limited because Voldemort himself believed the prophecy.

        It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, not something that was destined to happen or set in stone.

      3. Chrysoula

        I’m not sure that’s the same thing– the destiny you’re citing is dictating actual behavior, but Harry’s behavior was entirely up to him (and that was pointed out repeatedly throughout the series). It’s not ‘kingliness is inherited’ but ‘being the son of a deposed king makes you a target your entire life’. How you choose to face it is up to you.

  2. Natalie L.

    The only time I really like there to be a Destiny in a book is if the character affected by it is able to twist it to her own ends and make it do her bidding, not the other way around. Which really doesn’t happen that often. But when it does, it makes me really happy (Lackey plays with this idea in her Five Hundred Kingdoms books–which are really quite good, if you haven’t read them).

    I keep wanting to get more familiar with paranormal romances, but I find it very daunting, in part because I’d rather not have to deal with the gender essentialism and destiny-ism that seems to plague the subgenre.

  3. Charlotte Hunter

    Thank you. Your analysis of the destiny so-called romances had me kvelling. Someone had to write what you did, and your blog ought to become required reading in any number of writers’ groups. Recently I was asked to review and edit a first novel, paranormal, the first two chapters of which proved to be beautifully written: Good voice, compelling dialogue, and an enviable ability to create and sustain suspense. I bought it completely . . . up to the point where the female protagonist (human) discovered a former life in which she was the beloved of the male protagonist (human who elected to become vampire), which meant they were destined to come together again – lovers and soul mates – as evidenced by the inescapable, irresistible attraction she felt for him. Right then and there, my “ick” reflexes began twitching. What destiny romances sell, as you analyzed very clearly, is nothing I want to buy. And I wish fewer women were selling it!

    I’m fairly new to your blog, so will do some research to see what, if anything you have written about the other trend that distresses, even enrages, me: the alpha male (vampire, werewolf, fairy, or other critter) to whom women, usually young, become subservient because that’s apparently how the authors believe love is manifested. So much for equity in partnerships. Another wretched message, in my opinion, for men and women.

  4. Georgie

    I always thought it would be interesting if someone explored the downsides of a Fated coupling- the two people can’t get away from each other, even though they make each other miserable. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll be getting that any time soon.

    1. Jennifer

      Oh, I’ve read books like that.

      (a) The “Sholan Alliance” books by Lisanne Norman is a series I quit after a few books because man, it just got weird. Bad enough that we’re having spontaneous bondings of cat-aliens and humans who can suddenly make compatible babies and have to spend 1 of every 4 days mating, but in book 3 (I think?), there was one spontaneous bonding between a human guy who hated the cat-aliens and a cat-alien who already found herself a very nice cat-alien boyfriend. Human guy couldn’t stand her and yet he had to boink her every 4 days and she could only have his babies. Dear god.

      (b) Moira J. Moore’s Heroes series features 2 people bonded together– NOT romantically. Certain people have evolved on the planet to be able to fight the crazy weather forces on the planet– 1 is needed to drain the destructive energy and the other person keeps that one alive so s/he doesn’t die while doing it. Most people don’t get involved with their bonded person and it’s generally not recommended to do, but I did wonder how anyone managed to maintain a romantic relationship long-term under those circumstances of essentially being married to someone else career-wise. The first two books in the series really cover the problems that come from being permanently bonded with someone you can’t get away from, whether you like them or not, whether they commit a crime or not, whether or not they RAPE you. Oh, and if one of you dies, so does the other one. There’s no escape!

      Now, the main lead characters (spoiler) do get together romantically later on, but that isn’t a typical thing in their society to do when you are bonded and it’s considered a bit declasse. And they are actually a compatible/interested in each other pairing– it’s just that in the first few books the lady resents him for being a showboat (or so she thinks, he’s really nicer than that).

      1. amjes

        In a less dramatic/more ‘realistic’ example, try the movie “Timer”. It’s a light sci-fi rom/com about a world where you can get a device implanted that will tell you exactly how long it’ll be before you meet the love of your life, along with the social implications of having too soon a date, too late a date, or choosing to not be privy to this information.

  5. Gloria

    What strikes me about couples who feel “destined” to be together that it seems like it’s reaching out for security — that they’re now happy should mean they will be happy *forever.* That there is no possibility that there could be someone else out there who might be more perfect, or equally perfect, or perfect in a completely different way (yes, this is possible).

    1. Jennifer

      I agree. I think the point of such a relationship is to “guarantee” that they won’t break up decades later when he dumps her for a teenager during his midlife crisis or something. It’s sanctioned by God, so of course it will last till death do us part!

  6. Laurie Gold

    Rose, to me the idea of a bond-mate is incredibly romantic; for all I know, one of those two reviews you edited might have been mine! I’ll tell you why I like the idea of destined romance: When I met my husband, we fell in love at first sight. That was more than thirty years ago, when I was a 17-year-old college freshman and he was a second year law student. For me a bond mate is synonymous with soul mate, and having “been there, done that,” I know it’s true. I don’t actually believe that there’s just “one person” in the world meant for another person, but I can’t discount my own experience either. It’s interesting, though, to read your side of the argument.

    1. Rose Fox Post author

      I’m no stranger to love at first sight, actually; I still remember how stunned I felt the first time I met the magnificent woman who has been my girlfriend for the past seven years. I knew we’d be brilliant for each other based on pretty much no evidence–and I was right. (It took me a little while to convince her, but she eventually came around.) I don’t at all mind that sort of instant connection when it shows up in romance novels, though I get irritated when it’s implied or stated that instant connection means you don’t have to work at the relationship.

      I see the destiny trope as something different. If I chose to, right now, I could sever ties with my partners and walk away to build a single life for myself. That would be a terrible decision for all sorts of reasons, but it’s still an option. They have the same option to break up with me. Our lives are in our own control, and if we want to make terrible decisions, we can. No greater power is going to hunt us down and force us to be together whether we like it or not.

      1. Catana

        There’s a difference between “love at first sight,” even if that includes the idea of the two people being soul mates, and compulsion, which is what the “destined for each other” is all about. Love at first sight doesn’t always work out. Soul mates can part, but “destiny” doesn’t allow those free choices.

        Does anyone write “destined” novels where one or the other breaks the compulsion and frees themself? It would be an interesting challenge.

        1. Erin

          Not a novel, but how about the TV show Roswell? Max is hit over the head pretty hard with a destined relationship, but ultimately chooses the girl he actually loves.

  7. Charlaine Harris

    Rose, I was really interested by your viewpoint. Though I’ve never voiced it to myself so cleverly, I’ve felt uneasy about the “destined for you” scenario, too. It does seem to tie people together before they have a chance to know each other or to make any sort of sound judgment.

    I see the attraction in using this device. The writer can jumpstart a relationship this way, because the couple must forego all the facades people can erect between them. And it can be a very attractive idea in a caveman way: “He’ll die for me because he’s my mate, even though we met last night.” And the couples involved always do seem to fall in love. They also have simultaneous, never-fail orgasms every single encounter, another happy fantasy.

    Maybe the danger in this fictional relationship is that it both raises the bar too high and too low for real, human, interaction.

    1. Rose Fox Post author

      Yes, exactly! I read romance either for escapism or for interesting relationship and communication techniques. This trope falls into neither category for me.

  8. Carolyn Clink

    Thank you for finally showing me why it is that I’m not a huge fantasy fan.

    “Destiny” seems to run so counter to real life. “He was destined to be president of the PTA.” “She was destined to have three children.” Or vice-versa. I don’t think so.

    So, if you have Harry Potter who is destined to battle Voldemort — don’t give me 50,000 words of him sitting in a tent trying to avoid his destiny. That just cheeses me off.

    And welcome back!

    1. Rose Fox Post author

      There’s plenty of fantasy out there that’s not destiny-driven. Don’t give up on it if you like other aspects of it!

  9. Laurie Gold

    Rose, again, your thoughts are interesting to consider. Having read more than a thousand romances all while being a pessimistic soul, I find the idea of bond mates comforting for precisely the opposite reason you find it annoying. Two sides…same coin. But not quite. Most of the books featuring bond mates feature very strong female leads, leaving no doubt in my mind that they control their lives regardless of the bond, which is less a handcuff, metaphorically, than a reminder of the HEA even when it all goes to hell. He may do something, she may do something, something horrible may befall them, but in the end they will maintain their HEA because it was meant to be, or as my mother would say, “beshert.”

  10. Mike Maddin

    Rose,

    Thanks for your clear verbalization what had been just a vague discontent with some stories. I went to college with the romantic ideal of the “one right woman” and was lucky enough to hear (and believe) a lecturer at freshman orientation who said that on the (large public university) campus there were at least 100 women to whom each of us could be happily married.

    It was a very freeing thought and I revisit it occasionally. After 37 happily married years, women that I find intelligent, attractive, and congenial go into that mental category of “another 1 of the 100″. If I believed in the idea of bond-mates, it seems to me that those women might test my conviction that I am married to the right person.

    But then bond-mates in the stories I’ve read don’t seem big on introspection, so perhaps it doesn’t bother them. (Although I think there was a life-bonded pair in one of Lackey’s Valdemar books who didn’t like each other.)

  11. [dave]

    I was thinking about this recently because of Mercedes Lackey … I was telling someone about the first time I read a book with a queer protag. (I still remember the bit in Magic’s Pawn when Tylendal was introduced and reading and re-reading the pronouns involved. The subconscious “WHOA I THINK THIS IS LIKE ME” was a slow burning thing, but still momentous.)

    Anyway, her world has loads of “lifebonded” characters, that at the time seemed very romantic and ideal. Especially since queer characters had them too, which had a legitimizing feel at the time. But today, I think a lot of the disempowering nature of them.

    The 2009 movie TiMER dealt with this in a “real world” sense … it was slightly SFnal in that it introduced tech that would tell you how much time til you met your “soulmate” or whatever. Worth watching to come at this trope in a different context.

    1. LackeyReader

      It can be done well for story purposes but it definitely kills a lot of the romance to it.
      I remember Mercedes Lackey went out of her way in one book to show they’re not always a good thing, and not everybody wants to be lifebonded (from Storm Rising).

      - “I’m not looking for a lifebond,” Silverfox said firmly. “I would much, much rather have someone who loved me out of pure attraction or simple affection than have someone who couldn’t help loving me. So far as I can see, the difference between being in love and being lifebonded is rather like the difference between doing something because you want to and doing it because someone came along and put a geas on you to compel you to do it.”

  12. [dave]

    (incidentally this is the second article of yours I’ve really enjoyed reading in the last couple days, definitely nabbing your RSS feed)

    1. Rose Fox Post author

      Thanks! I have my rant on at the moment; don’t be disappointed if it’s not all like this.

  13. Amanda D.

    I wish this column were more about “science fiction, fantasy, and horror publishing news from around the world” and less about your -isms.

  14. Laura

    I find this idea a bit much as well, not because it pushes non-consent buttons for me but because it excessively highlights the element of pie-in-the-sky wish fulfillment in romance fiction. To me, it just represents a total denial of relationship reality. But I think that’s the point.

    Let’s face it, the rich, handsome, masterful men who are usually the heroes in romance novels are not the type of guy to be monogamous in real life. Sometimes the hero even has a history of bedding a LOT of women, but when he meets the heroine, suddenly she’s it for him. Please.

    I think the paranormal context that allows for the whole mate-bonding spell lets the author create a story where this conversion from womanizing alpha male to faithful husband is magically justified and explained. Because while we all can appreciate that it would be righteous for the beta male to get the heroine once in a while, a LOT of women obviously find the alpha male type more sexy. It’s their romantic fantasy and they want it their way. And they also want to be reassured that he’s not going to be tempted away by some other woman further down the line. What turns people on is notoriously impervious to moralizing and the disapproval of others, let alone to common sense.

    I’m betting most fans of this concept know full well that all of it isn’t very realistic and possibly that they wouldn’t even want to be in that kind of relationship in their actual lives. It’s more just a fantasy they want to indulge in the privacy of their own heads.

  15. Pingback: Why soulmates and knowing some ‘inside and out’ not always a good thing! « Anguished Repose

  16. hestiashearthfire

    I think this critique of the “destined mate” trope is very true. In fact, I trip over this issue in a lot of conventional romance — I feel like the characters are pushed together by the story, not by genuinely felt romance.

  17. P.I. Barrington

    I think that “destiny” is the main driving force in romance altogether. I give my characters the opportunity to make choices and for my paranormal novels I like to give them back story as opposed to “destiny” or “fate” as to why they make those choices and how they can change those choice results as opposed to being lost to a fate they can’t control.

  18. Meredith

    Yes! I hate it too. The only time I ever find it remotely interesting is when it is treated as not necessarily positive — when they have real problems with the person they’re bonded to but can’t get away from, or love people freely chosen outside the bond and have to defend that against a society that only values destiny, etc. My favorite treatment of this theme is probably Katie Waitman’s The Merro Tree — her “serassi” have the intensity which is, I presume, one of the appeals of the trope, but there’s still a lot of free will involved, as well as luck, in what you make of it. But even then I tend to prefer plain old love with all its uncertainties and complications.

    I especially hate the way that they always know who is destined for them. In real life, even people who believe in destiny don’t get outside confirmation that they’ve gotten it right until it’s all over.

    I haven’t read it yet, but apparently there’s a book called Matched that does a technological take on this trope, where The Computer always picks your perfect mate… except something goes wrong and now the heroine has to choose.

  19. Jeff Seymour

    “How terrible would it be to be repeatedly compelled to have sex with someone you’re bound to forever, possibly for multiple centuries or lifetimes depending on the paranormal setting, and to have your body aroused by it every single time even when it’s really not what your mind wants, and to know that you can’t escape because Fate or Destiny or God will inexorably draw the two of you back together no matter how far you run?”

    There’s a story in this. A number of very good stories, probably. If it were the first sentence of a query letter, I’d ask for pages.

Comments are closed.