It’s said that age breeds wisdom. If we had this wisdom when we were growing up, would it help us? If we knew what we know now when we were younger, would we make the same mistakes? Probably not, but then again, if we didn’t make those mistakes, our younger selves would not become our older selves. It’s a slightly confusing time travel paradox, one that has perplexed all forms of narrative storytelling. More often than not, it seems that characters that seek to change the past are inevitably fated to end up on the same track. Any attempt to change their fate only makes things worse and brings them closer to the inevitable.
The conflict of fate is a tried and true storytelling method that goes back to Greek tragedies. Aristotle, in his storytelling-bible, Poetics, stated that plot is used to elicit an emotional response from an audience. Tragedies occur because heroes unknowingly sabotage themselves. They either seek their destiny only to the detriment of those around them, or take extreme measures to prevent what they see may be their future, ultimately playing into what has been foretold. The tales of Oedipus Rex, Theseus and Ariadne, Jason and Medea, Perseus, Achilles, Heracles, Odysseus and Agamemnon are fated to tragedy and glory at their outset. Yet thousand of years later, their narrative and thematic structures are as a popular as the deeds of their heroes.
Narrative storytelling refuses to let these characters escape. Hubris must be defeated, the will of the gods fulfilled. Man is flawed, and our stories remind us that, no matter how far we reach, no matter how sure our footing, we can always fall. There are lessons to be learned. Stories, in the inevitably of their conclusions, impart us with knowledge. As readers and viewers, we see characters set upon these paths, knowing the mechanics of storytelling but following all the just same. And hopefully, we learn something from the mistakes of our fictional counterparts.
The emotional fatalism perpetuated by myths is the foundation of contemporary storytelling, specifically with regards to science fiction and time travel. In the unofficial Bruce Willis time-travel trilogy of 12 Monkeys, The Kid, and Looper, Willis’ characters are both inhibited and assisted by their past selves. The lingering memory of a man dying in an airport terminal in 12 Monkeys haunts Willis’ Cole every time he closes his eyes. When Cole is sent to the past, it is inevitable that his past, present and future will tie together in that fatal moment. In The Kid, Willis’ Russ comes face to face with his eight-year old self. Reinvigorated by his younger self, Old Russ learns to enjoy what he has now, even if he can’t change what he has lost in the past.
The concept of fatalism is even more striking in Looper. Willis’ Old Joe is sent to the past to be terminated by a younger version of his self, played by Joseph-Gordon Levitt. Old Joe has survived his reckless youth. He knows what he has lost, and his goal in traveling back in time is to escape his imminent death and save the woman he loves. Not having the experience of loss like his older, balder self, Young Joe has his own youthful dreams and desires that he wishes to fulfill. It’s his life, not his future self’s. Their battle over self can either set off a never-ending loop of selfishness, or end in the inevitable destruction of self.
The heart of all of this is that characters who know their future cannot escape it. The past may haunt us, with regret, but we are capable of learning from it, and moving on. But there is something even more frightening: a predestined future, an oracle foretelling that certain events will transpire, a time loop in which we see the calamity we will be subject to. Imagine that there is nothing you can do, no ejector seat, no escape hatch. Despite what they may think, these characters have no control.
Time travel offers the hope that you may have a chance to right a past wrong and change the future. However, time seems to be resistant to change; one small fix can just as quickly lead to a worse future. Back to the Future has become the contemporary benchmark for this type of time travel fatalism. A simple mistake by Marty could eliminate him from existence. What’s worse, trying to fix things in the past continuously causes a butterfly effect that will benefit the future of some and ruin it for others. Throughout the film there is an attempt to maintain a state of normalcy, to return to what we know, as if there is only one correct, predetermined path. Time is fated. It is resistant to change and anything that disrupts its flow will only result in tragedy or chaos.
Characters who are aware of their fate inevitably try to escape it. Like a theme park ride, there’s a predetermined course that can’t be escaped. Their attempts to set a seemingly more beneficial course may muddle things even worse. In Greek tragedy, characters’ vain attempts to surmount the laws of fate only exacerbate their problem and bring about that which they so heartily tried avoid. In any case, there is no escape—characters understand the inevitability of fate, and either must accept it or destroy the world around them trying to avoid it.
Any attempt to control fate by doing the logical thing is disrupted by emotion. The lasting effects of personal decisions have impacts on both the future and the past. Logic sets a planned straight and narrow, a set of rules that is disrupted by emotional experiences: love, anger, regret, responsibility, grief, desire, and despair. These intimate designs put us on and remove us from our chosen path.
Free will and fate are intertwined to raise questions of control in Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel The Sandman. Despite the fact that we may we think we are following our own path, are we truly just on the road to some inevitable conclusion? The main characters incorporate the forces that control our lives, Dream and his siblings Desire, Despair, Delight/Delirium, Destruction, Destiny and the ultimate inevitability of Death. While Dream and Destiny may seem at times competing for control of a character’s life, they eventually tie together due to a path laid with desire, delight, delirium, despair and destruction that can only end in a feeling apropos to the final stage. Emotion and catharsis both dictate and hinder the pursuit of dreams.
Dreams give us hope, that something will change, that perhaps we have control. That is what our tragic heroes want to believe—that they can, with the help of dreams, escape their destiny.
Again, it is the nature of storytelling that they cannot escape. Those affronts to the gods must be punished, order must be maintained, dreams are only a diversion from destiny, and human emotion is the cause of tragedy. The lesson here is clear: we are fallible, we are not divine, and we cannot disrupt the laws of nature. Yet it is a parable we are willing to hear time and time again.
As audience members removed from the situation, we are able to take a step back and see how the pieces fit together. We cringe when an obviously logical decision is foiled by an emotional response. Love keeps Cole from ignoring the warning that lives in his dreams. Arrogance hinders both Old and Young Joe from realizing the future they have set in motion. Things would be fine if Joe or Marty or Oedipus just took a step back, realized what they were doing, and listened to reason.
Our own understanding of the situation, our ability to see beyond a character’s limited point of view, our affect for the story and characters creates an emotional connection. It’s same reason we yell at characters that run upstairs in a horror movie (instead of running outside to safety). Affect is the principle that makes stories successful. It overcomes our own logic as viewers and ties us to the characters’ fates. We get frustrated with their illogical choices, but we still hope they can escape. Why would we get frustrated if we too weren’t emotionally involved?
We see what is coming and there is no escape for us, either. Heroes fall to the same traps again and again. Our brain tells us to act one way, our heart another. What logic dictates, emotion disrupts. And sometimes what we think is right, what we think will make everything better will only make things worse. Knowing the future only leads to the inevitable. Escaping the past only dooms one to repeat it.