20 March 2013

The Mark of Destiny as a Fantasy Trope

Allen Walker from D. Gray Man
Image (cc) by Sorahkaton
For graduate school I'm enrolled in a Readings in the Genre course that focuses on Fantasy Classics--the books of renown that have made and shaped the genre.

This course is more than just reading and analyzing  literature; we are in fact viewing the texts from a writer's standpoint. Which means a lot of the writing prompts we get are a little bit different from a standard lit course's. 

I recently finished reading Patricia McKillip's The Riddlemaster of Hed for my Fantasy Classics course. I enjoyed that book and strongly recommend it. But my writing prompt was less a critical review of the book and more about a specific detail: Morgon, Prince of Hed, has a birthmark of three stars on his forehead, which signifies him as The Starbearer--he's been chosen to be something greater than himself since his birth.  My task was to analyze the necessity of this common fantasy trope and try to find ways to work with or without it. 

I had a lot of other topics to choose from, but the Mark of Destiny felt significant to me because my character Lily from The Name and the Key also bears a unique marking. It's not a symbol of destiny, but a mark she got at age 13 when she was thrown from a horse and smacked into a tree. Her scar becomes emblematic of a terrible curse from which she suffers--the curse begins right after the accident. She's not Marked as a chosen one from a prophecy, but she does carry a Mark of Distinction. A cousin of the Mark of Destiny.  

I personally hadn't encountered a birthmark of destiny in fiction until I read The Riddlemaster ofHed. However, I am familiar with scars (Harry Potter) and tattoos (used widely in urban fantasy as well as anime and manga) of great significance.  All of these body markings are a way to visually show that the person who bears them is of a different make and purpose than other characters in the story.

The birthmark indicates destiny more so than any other mark on a character, precisely because it is present at the birth (and likewise in the womb, so there's the idea of predestination as well). That's why it's commonly associated with the idea of The Chosen One.  The rule of the Chosen One is that he or she comes from a prophesy or preordination, and their existence is designed to fulfill a grand promise of some kind--reunite a broken land, save a world from the ultimate evil, or, on the other end of the spectrum, bring about an age of darkness and destruction.

When I researched the Mark of Destiny trope, it indicated to me that readers aren't so much fed up with the "birthmark" aspect of the cliché; rather, readers are tired of The Chosen One trope altogether (Read about it here and here). When I gave my teaching module (Rise Above Cliché!) two residencies ago, we dissected the Chosen One fantasy trope briefly in class. It appeals to readers because generally, people want to discover that they are somehow worth more than they imagined themselves to be, and meant for something greater than what they are now.  It's easier to be "picked" to do this as opposed to working for the outcome. Not to say that accomplishing a great task is easy for anyone, but being a Chosen One sets clearer boundaries--you'll know your enemies and your allies, to start with. You'll know what you need to do. You may even have confidence in the task knowing that you're the one meant to achieve it. The title bears some weight.

Lily Camlo's Mark from The Name and the Key
Art (c) Valsharea via her tumblr
But I think reader interests change over time, along with attitudes. Not only is the Chosen One now a hated fantasy cliché because of its repetitive use, but I think people can't identify with it so much anymore. It's one thing to aspire to greatness, but not many people can achieve it. People can identify and admire characters who make their own destiny and choices, because that's what we do every day. And on top of that, the conflict of a "Chosen One versus an Evil One" makes everything pretty black and white, when the world the readers know are variations and blends of the two.

So to combat the Chosen One trope, you can simply not use it. You can have your characters reflect more of the attitudes and experiences of your readers and have your characters' greatness be something they choose and work for themselves (Read The Chosen One vs The One Who Chooses) Or, you can have the character be Chosen, but not in the sense of preordination--they can prove to other characters and readers their mettle first, and then become picked by those peers to complete the deed (something simple as being elected or nominated). The point is to show the character work for it, in the sense that they make their own destiny themselves through their decisions and actions.

Basically, a cliché is a symbol--a stand-in for something of greater meaning.  Since the birthmark of destiny is a cliché that indicates that the character  is Meant For Something Great, or is Different Than Everyone in An Obvious Way, what are other ways we can demonstrate this? If a character is meant for something great, let their actions in the story prove this. Let the character dream that they are meant for greatness, and have him perform actions so he can prove to himself and others that this is true.   If the birthmark is used to show readers that the character is unique and different (on an entirely different level than other characters), there are numerous ways to reveal this to a reader--through actions, dialogue, personality quirks, mannerisms, etc.  

Another way to work around the Mark of Destiny is for the character to have one, but somehow, you pull the rug out from underneath the readers' feet when it comes to expectations. The author can play with the trope--maybe as satire, or with at least a bit of self-awareness in the text acknowledging the trope.  If the birthmark is included to mean that the character is Meant For Something Great…well, simply make it not true. Maybe the birthmark is misinterpreted and means something else. Maybe the birthmark is on someone who is NOT the chosen one. Or maybe the birthmark can just be a birthmark.  Or just a scar. Or a cool-looking tattoo.

As for the idea of using the cliché as is, without changing it or subverting it, this I know--readers are more apt to forgive the author for playing with tropes if the writing is excellent, period.  That means nailing the basics--good plot and characterization are key. If the story (and quality of writing) is good, the author can get away with almost anything.


If you'd like to read more about the birthmark of destiny cliché, TV Tropes is an awesome website that breaks this and several other clichés down. I love this site and it's easy to blow hours away looking through your favorite forms of media. Some relevant topics:

·         The Birthmark of Destiny (trope definition with examples)
·         Playing with the Birthmark of Destiny (examples of subversion, aversion, and experimentation with the trope)
·         Scar Tropes
·         Tattoo tropes
·         The Chosen One

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