Life is so darn random. Billy Joel may claim that “Only the good die young,” but the truth is that the bad and good die haphazardly, and even more painfully, the very old or sick endure pain and the very young sometimes leave us before we can even name them. If there’s a “divine plan” here, it’s not one we can understand. Readers, however, must not only understand but applaud the moral causality driving your fiction. That comes from fate and free will intersecting instead of competing.
This is a classical concept, tracing back to Greek tragedy, which depicted terrible external forces meeting the protagonist’s own terrible tragic flaw. In Oedipus Rex, for example, he’s no more cursed by the gods than the ugliness of killing his father and marrying his mother, however unknowingly. This may seem irrelevant in our era of Facebook and reality TV. It’s not.
All great stories, regardless of period, begin with external circumstances so dire that protagonists are forced to overcome their personal shortcomings. This doesn’t work if fate controls the whole deal. That defeats suspense. It also defeats a valiant protagonist struggle resulting in change that enlightens not only hero but audience, whether seated in amphitheater or IMax and perusing kindle or book.
Tip: Match external and internal equally.
If the hero is guaranteed triumph or doomed to misery, growth becomes impossible. If the hero can easily vanquish the politician, ex-husband, hurricane, or even asteroid, there’s no story.
Balance is difficult to maintain in every aspect of writing. Once dialogue flows, it’s easy to forget that you need narrative. When you focus on depicting setting, the plot might get away from you. The same syndrome affects plot and theme. But there maintaining equilibrium is more challenging still. Many writers let either internal or external struggle control particular scenes, if not the novel as a whole.
To avoid that, distribute power as equally as possible:
· Give your protagonist—and antagonist—neither too much nor little opportunity.
· Imitate reality. Why wouldn’t both protagonist and antagonist occasionally crave the path of least resistance?
· Use obstacles to “grow” your protagonist. Every setback is an opportunity for change.
· Change your antagonist also, into less “human” or perhaps more so.
· Incorporate the internal during external trouble and—the reverse.
· Seek overall balance between the trouble inside and out.
Whether you believe in fate or not, leave it out of your novel. Keep us guessing.