Sliding Scale of Free Will vs. Fate

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"Clark, you choose your own destiny.

Nobody can decide that for you, son."

How much free will do characters really have?

The relationship between free will and fate is not necessarily constant. It can vary between stories and even inside those stories, although how much this is actual change and how much it is simply the revelation of the true nature of Fate also differs.

The relationship between fate and free will can be classified this way:

  • Neither Fate Nor Free Will Exist
    • This one denies free will stating that our choices are just brain-made "echoes" while also denying any "higher power" that decides fate. In theory you can predict people's actions but you would run up against the same problems as predicting the weather and such predictions are in no way mystical. A Nietzsche Wannabe may insist that we live in such a world.
  • Fighting Fate Is Hard
    • Fate exists but is not the be all and end all. Either only some people can defy fate or defying fate takes a lot of effort or resources, almost as if Fate is reality's path of least resistance. Unless a lot of effort is expended or a hero gets involved at some point the father will act in such a way as to kill his son.
  • Prophecies Are Guides, Not Rules
    • While there is fate it is simply the expression of what will happen if nothing else changes and is predictable, but knowledge of fate allows you to overcome it without extraordinary effort. If the people involved are not warned then at some point the father will act in such a way as to kill his son but as soon as someone involved knows that then it may not end up happening.
  • Prophecies Are Predictions
    • Predicting the future is like predicting the weather. There is no plan but it is possible to make prophecies and identify destinies by extrapolating from now. The father killing the son is simply the most likely outcome given the current situation but it is open to change at any time.
  • Screw Destiny
    • Either there is no such thing as fate or there is no way to find out what is "fated," no way to see into the future and no prophecies, two states that are effectively indistinguishable. If the prophecy exists then it is little more than a portentious guess with no actual power or fate behind it.
Examples of Sliding Scale of Free Will vs. Fate include:


Anime & Manga[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Princess Tutu has themes regarding these. The show's catchphrase is "May all who accept their fate find happiness. May all who defy their fate find glory."
  • Berserk lies somewhere very low on the scale. Causality plays a big role in the Berserk universe. People like Guts are able to struggle against causality, but are unable to completely overcome it and/or maintain their struggle indefinitely.
  • Cardcaptor Sakura is high in the Fate scale.
  • xxxHolic ranks quite high: "There is no such thing as coincidence in this world - there is only inevitability."
  • Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle is considered high in the fate scale.
  • In Mirai Nikki the Future Diaries can be changed almost immediately as they predict.
  • Mawaru Penguindrum is all about working the scale: On one hand, we have a crazed stalker character (Ringo) who firmly believes in fate and sets out to fulfil the fate that's written down on her diary, and on the other, we have the Takakura siblings (Kanba/Shoma) who hate "fate" and wish to take destiny into their own hands. Then we have their sister Himari, who bestows fate according to her own rules.

Film[edit | hide]

  • Kung Fu Panda is high in the fate scale as it can be seen from this quote:

"One often meets his fate on the road he takes to avoid it."

    • The sequel renforces this as when the villian tried to stop his fate, being defeated by a warrior of black and white, he instead sealed it for when he massacered the Panda village and Po escaped, he just simply transferred him to where he would be in prime postion to stop him.
  • In Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence's batman disappears in the desert. The bedouin refuse to try to save him because "it is written" (and because a bedouin would know well enough to be afraid of the desert). Lawrence rides off claiming, "nothing is written" and comes back in a few hours with his batman. However it is ultimately revealed that it really was written, given that Lawrence ultimately has to execute the batman.
  • This was a major theme in the Matrix series, with Smith and Neo becoming the embodiments of fatalism and free will respectively. The climax of the trilogy sums it up nicely with this exchange:

Agent Smith: Why, Mr. Anderson, why? Why do you persist?
Neo: Because I choose to.

  • In Push Watchers see the outcome of decisions, not really fate. But their predictions usually either come true or get worse.
  • The Terminator films absolutely cannot make up their minds about where they stand on this because of the Timey-Wimey Ball. The dominant theme overtly stated in the second film was "No Fate But What We Make," but the film's Screw Destiny finale was offset by film three which just showed it as Delaying The Inevitable, and then there's the fact that none of the series should work if not for the Stable Time Loop.

Literature[edit | hide]

  • Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism in which the men were sent away by Solomon. The story usually ends with Death saying he hadn't meant to frighten the person, it's only that he was so surprised to see them when he had an appointment with them in the town they were fleeing to.
  • The Elric Saga: Elric is quite probably a 2. He could have fought Fate (in his case, by abandoning his sword Stormbringer), but he was unable to do so, despite many bitter soliloquies bemoaning his circumstances.
  • Harry Potter is at least a 3. Because people care a lot about prophecy. However there are prophecies that do not come to pass.
    • Dumbledore also makes it clear to Harry that the prophecy about him and Voldemort fighting to the death will only happen because Voldemort chooses to follow it.
  • This crops up a lot in the Alex Verus series, as you'd expect when the main character's power is to see the future. Alex's magic works on the "Prophecies are Predictions" model - he can see the probable consequences of any action, but it's explicitly stated that people do have free will and he can't see past a choice that hasn't been made. However, a character encountered late in the first book can apparently control fate, and the draconic prophecy seems closer to Because Destiny Says So.
  • Un Lun Dun: Its heroine Deeba is the Trope Namer for The Unchosen One. She fought the Big Bad even though the Book of Prophecies listed her as Plucky Comic Relief.
  • The Belgariad—Both the Belgariad and its sequel, the Malloreon focus on two sides working towards two mutually exclusive prophecies. However, as absolute as these prophecies appear to be, at the same time there is a lot of scrambling by folks such as Belgarath to make certain events go as outlined.
    • It's later stated that they purposefully make sure to follow either of those prophecies, because it limits the world to two predictable outcomes, one of which is desirable. Failure to keep up will cause the emergence of a third prophecy with Unpredictable Results. Oddly, they don't take the third option here, and stick to accomplishing the good prophecy to the end.
  • Modern literature is filled with examples of vague prophecies that are stoppable, twist-able, or just plain wrong since You Can't Fight Fate fell out of favor and was replaced by Screw Destiny.
  • Stationery Voyagers: Minshus has a greater plan that WILL come to pass. But the lesser details can be altered rather freely by other characters. Even so, any one character trying to change too many details of prophecy almost always results in Stuff Blowing Up both figuratively and literally, rather than anything good coming of it. Course-correction is poorly lubicrated and the cosmos is volatile. The Butterfly of Doom and Dandelion Of Doom stand at the ready to punish any would-be offenders of the Big Picture.
  • Discworld: There is definitely a Destiny - the History Books kept by the Monks of Time describe the complete history of the Disc from beginning to end, Death's life timers start off with the appropriate amount of sand, something ensures Carrot arrives in Ankh-Morpork just as it needs a dragon-slaying king, and so on. But the History Monks can change what the books say, life timers can be smashed, turned over, or just mutate to eke out the sand as much as possible, and Carrot can decide Ankh-Morpork doesn't need a king after all. The Companion says "On the Discworld, the future is set. The job of everyone is to fight back."
  • Twilight: Alice's predictions of the future will change if somebody involved in the vision makes a decision that would change the future.
  • In Slaughterhouse-Five the main character jumps through time at random to different points in his life- his honeymoon to his death and back to the war where he was taken prisoner- because all time is happening at once. Even the end of the world "has always happened and will always happen." In fact, according to the aliens that visit Earth, it is the only planet where people believe in free will.
  • Deverry uses the term "Wyrd" and states that the future is shaped as much by chance as wyrd. You may inherit certain traits and tendancies from past lives as your wyrd (such as a talent for magic, a crush on a certain person or a tendency to get in a certain kind of trouble) but this can be influenced at changed by conscious choices or random chance. Occasionally a sorceror can create a true prophecy but these are susceptible to Prophecy Twist (E.g. "He shall not die in battle except by a sword, but no man can kill him with a sword" - was killed by a girl, but he could also have been killed by his chief rival who turned out to be a half-elf.)
  • The Wheel of Time weaves how people live and what they do, and although there are people, ta'veren, around whom the wheel weaves, even they don't have anything to say in their own lives, because You Can't Fight Fate.
    • The entire series is weird in regards to how much power the wheel actually has. On the one hand you have the main character who's constantly struggling with why he fights, a Dragon trying to convert him and only recently finding that motivation, during his attempted destruction of the world, then you have cases like Verrin, who was completely unable to use her magic properly because the wheel wanted her in a specific spot.
  • In The Foundation series, psychohistory makes quite good predictions but it can go off-course - the predictions are not 100% sure as clearly demonstrated by Mule.
  • In Robin Hobb's Realm of the Elderlings the Fool describes fate as like a wagon wheel in a rut, getting deeper entrenched as it continues going back and forth over the same kinds of events until it finally breaks, taking the world with it into unending misery. But a specific person known as a Catalyst, guided by a true prophet, can act as a wedge that jars the wheel of fate out of its rut and on to better things (at least until it begins wearing a new rut). The Catalyst gets treated exactly as harshly as the metaphor implies, even if he succeeds.
  • In Dune the Seers do not prophesy to others but use their prophecies to guide their actions, as the prophetic visions themselves are not absolute inevitabilities but rather one of several possible paths (although the longer you fulfill a particular vision, the harder it is to avert the rest of it).
  • Neuropath is one of the very few works in existence that is squarely Neither Fate Nor Free Will Exist. The brain is a physical organism, therefore it is governed by the same laws of nature as everything around us. People's actions are completely predictable and can be manipulated to an extreme degree.
    • Another book by the same author, Disciple of the Dog, has shades of this as well. The main character has a perfect memory and is able to see the patterns in people's behavior that those people are themselves often unaware of.
  • The Dresden Files: In the short story The Warrior, the archangel Uriel explains that it's possible for beings like himself to look downstream in the "river of time" and make a good estimate of what's going to happen. But he also explains that nothing is set in stone. If someone exercises free will, the effect is like digging out a trench and changing the direction the "river" will "flow". Harry improved peoples' fate this way three times over the course of the story, almost inadvertently.

Live Action TV[edit | hide]

  • The Sarah Connor Chronicles, firmly believes in "No fate but what we make" and the entire series comes down to Sarah and John trying to prevent the events of T3 right up to the end. Then the series throws the whole thing for a loop when John Connor jumps ahead through time past the point of Judgment Day, and it turns out that the resistance is still alive and kicking without him.
  • Merlin: everything the Dragon advices Merlin to do is Because Destiny Says So. The Dragon gives advices to save Arthur. But when it comes to Mordred or Morgana, he advices Merlin to make them die to prevent destiny from happening. But Merlin never follow these advices.
  • Power Rangers: Sometimes, through tremendous effort, fate can be changed... and sometimes it can't, and trying to change things changes only the details. Prophesies tend to be fairly spot-on, and time-travelers usually need several attempts to come even close to changing things, although with one notable exception, they're usually successful if they're Rangers.
  • FlashForward: free will works but fate will take steps to 'correct out' any changes you make (i.e. if you kill yourself to prevent your flash-forward, someone else will end up doing what led up to your flash-forward). Nevertheless, Demetri surviving to the end of the series shows that while it's a severe uphill struggle, fate can be changed.
    • Specifically, Flash Forward's verse is based on the concept 'what would happen if quantum mechanics worked on a macrosopic scale?' - so you can screw destiny on the small scale but not on the large.
  • As indicated by the page quotes, Smallville experiments with this trope quite a bit. While Jor-El pushes Clark to fulfill his destiny (completing tasks that seem to push him towards becoming Superman), Clark manages to defy Jor-El and his own destiny on occasion in character-establishing moments that push him towards... becoming Superman.
    • A season three episode features a character who can see people's deaths by touching them, but Clark manages to prevent one of these deaths, something no one before had been able to do. Clark is speculated to be able to change people's destinies.
  • Supernatural: Starting in Season 4, the angels try really hard to convince the main characters that the world is immutable—for example, sending Dean back in time to save his parents only to inform him he was doomed to fail because You Can't Fight Fate. Undaunted, in Season 5, Team Free Will (Sam, Dean and Castiel) make it their mission to "Screw Destiny. Right in the face!" and they ultimately succeed, though at significant personal cost.
  • Babylon 5: Although averting fate is clearly possible, only Londo, manages to do so over the course of the series, and even then the option of changing his destiny had already been predicted. Other characters have no luck in averting fate. Sheridan tries to avert destiny and actually causes the future to happen, Babylon 5 is blown up at the end of the series, and Lennier betrays the Rangers despite all efforts not to.
  • Charmed: Premonitions usually come true, but it is possible to stop them from happening with such knowledge.

Mythology and Religion[edit | hide]

  • Greek Mythology and Norse Mythology are high up on the fate scale as not even the gods can escape it.
  • The concept of Wyrd in Nordic- and Germanic-derived Neo-Pagan traditions (Heathenry, Asatru) basically states that every choice people make is woven into the web of Wyrd, and that web determines the choices which will be available to be made from there on in.
  • The Bible varies. If God makes a prophecy about something he wants done, it will be done. Prophecies about the future decisions of people tend to be more like suggestions.
  • Islamic doctrine includes the idea of Predestination (essentially synonymous with Fate of Destiny). Interpretations obviously differ, but as generally taught to non-scholars it ties into the concept of Omniscience as possessed by God. God knows everything, so he knows what's going to happen. The popular interpretation is that humankind's actions dictate the map of the future, and not the other way around. God just saw how it would all pan out from the Beginning. So... the future's like the weather, with the assumption that God is the best weatherman ever. If we could see the future, then theoretically its more of a guide, with the assumption that God saw it all coming anyway.

Tabletop Games[edit | hide]

  • Gerrard from Magic: The Gathering is an interesting example. He's a very Screw Destiny Guile Hero kind of person, and when prophecies start turning up calling him The Chosen One, he scoffs at them and tells his friends that destiny isn't real. It gets harder and harder, however, when prediction after prophecy all agree on his being The Hero, and all of his friends and allies begin to view him as such. Still denying fate, he then discovers the truth: his bloodline was genetically engineered for a thousand years by a godlike Chessmaster named Urza as part of a master plan, and his entire life he had been Batman Gambitted into being The Hero. Bitter, he eventually duels a depowered Urza to death in the Big Bad's arena in both an attempt to both bring his friend Hanna back from the dead in a Deal with the Devil and to Screw Destiny. He does kill Urza, but he later escapes the Big Bad as the Big Bad becomes a nightmarish, sentient cloud of murderous death that begins to swallow the world. In the end, Gerrard consigns himself to his fate, sacrificing himself to save the world. It's left open whether it really was his destiny, or whether it was his decision alone.
    • In the novel of Mercadian Masques, he seems to come to a conclusion about the nature of prophecies. He believes that prophecies are not predictions for what will be, but prescriptions for what should be.
  • In Exalted, mortals are bound to fate, but the Exalted and the gods are not, although it can still be a powerful force against them.
    • The contradiction between Fate and free will is actually a relevant source of trouble for the Sidereal Exalted. When you've devised the pattern of history according to one assumption of what somebody will do, and that person just plain doesn't do it (even if they're a mortal), it creates problems with the general fabric of causality that need to be addressed.
    • Of course, then there's Samsara, the pattern that develops from Creation's cosmological foundations (although the setting is vague on how much this is "incontrovertable future" or "unshakable compulsion in the only people wo can observe it").
    • Interestingly, 'fate' only applies to Creation itself. The Wyld, The Underworld, and Malfeas are all outside Fate, and people from those places don't have a destiny.
  • In Scion, Fate can be overcome but is very powerful and some individuals and pantheons have been totally ensnared by it (the Norse for one).
  • Changeling: The Lost is somewhere in the middle (and particularly dark) with fate working for and against the Players as well as being avertable.
  • Genius: The Transgression includes time travel and thus is complicated. The past used to be immutable and you could not change it. However, after the elimination of the Terminals you can change the past but it takes a lot of resources. The setting overall depends on who you ask and what wonder is being used to make the prophecy. It isn't that they disagree, it is that the laws of metaphysics differ depending on what they think they should be. The timeline currently exists in a causality trench, but if it breaks out (which the Guardians of Forever work overtime to prevent) the universe would probably become chaos.
  • In the Eberron Campaign Setting, the Draconic Prophecy tends to give "if A then B" scenarios, with various groups trying to cause or prevent A. It's more of a suggestion than a prophecy, really.
  • Fate is a very strong theme in Legend of the Five Rings, it is said that everyone has their Dharma, their place under Heaven, and that they WILL fullfill their destinies. Of particular importance are the Seven Thunders, the champions of Heaven that define the destiny of the world every 1000 years, when they fight the Champion of Hell, the outcome of the battle, however, is anyone's guess. So, destiny can be changed, only by a few, select, destined individuals...

Video Games[edit | hide]

  • Final Fantasy XIII: It is stated that fate is undefeatable. However, later it is not only revealed that can fate can be fought, but that humans are the only ones with true free will -- something not even the Fal'cie had. Hence the reason Fal´cie create lu'cie, to use their unlimited potential.
  • Whole point and theme of the aptly named Exit Fate. "Fate" merely refers to a non-universal way of pre-determining someone's life. The game is (among other things) about the main character's discovery that his life is fated and his struggle to break the control over him.
  • Chrono Cross is an absolutely free universe that's presented as a deterministic one thanks to an absurdly powerful supercomputer from the future.
  • Legacy of Kain shifts back and forth. Several times You Already Changed the Past is demonstrated, such as in Soul Reaver 2 when Raziel kills his human self in the past. However, history can be changed by creating a temporal paradox powerful enough to distort the timestream, at which point it will restructure itself according to the outcome of the situation that created the paradox, adjusting to the new chain of events in a butterfly effect-like ripple. Raziel has a future version of his own soul bonded to his arm as a sword, so by nature of simply existing Raziel is a walking paradox and has the power to change history with every action he takes. However, even he isn't completely immune to destiny, as Soul Reaver 2 ends with Kain warning Raziel about the Hylden, which means Kain remembers the results of something Raziel hasn't done yet. Defiance clarifies this with Moebius saying that Raziel's free will means his path can't be foreseen, but the results of his actions based on his current path can be seen, though he can still change his mind.
  • Shin Megami Tensei slides between both fate and free will.
  • Shadow of Destiny basically uses this scale like a teeter toter, using both ends at the same time.
  • The House of the Dead has James Taylor - and about every hero - with a Screw Destiny attitude, especially toward any villains he faces, who are always with You Can't Fight Fate.

James Taylor: Only man can change the fate himself! You (the Magician) are nothing!!

  • this trope is a major theme in [KingdomsOfAmaalur:Reckoning\] The game pretty much starts out as "because destiny says so" except for the main character and it's the point of the main questline to put a stop to that.
  • By the end of Asura's Wrath, it is definitely Free Will that wins in the end, via Screw Destiny.

Webcomics[edit | hide]

  • Hitmen for Destiny's backstory states that its world is actively sliding along the scale, and every prophecy that someone manages to break causes destiny to weaken throughout the universe. Both Destiny and Free Will have secret agents actively trying to keep/prevent prophecies coming true.
  • Homestuck: The universe and Sburb seems to be custom-engineered to prevent the characters from using Time Travel to change anything because it automatically crafts a Stable Time Loop so You Already Changed the Past. The Trolls always maintain that the kid protagonists are doomed to fail and mess up their session so badly that it retroactively broke the Trolls' as well. However, none of this stops the kids from continuing to try and Screw Destiny, especially Rose. We probably won't know where for sure the series comes to rest between the two extremes until the story ends, and we find out whether the kids really do manage to succeed in their quest or not.
  • The Water Phoenix King has Tamantha, which is a mix between fate and karma. Rather than being an inherent part of the world, it is instead a metaphysical construct of a powerful god (who is now dead). Because Tamantha operates on a morality that is somewhere between Blue and Orange Morality and Lawful Stupid, the protagonists are out to destroy it altogether.

Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • Avatar: The Last Airbender plays with this often, as seen in The Fortuneteller and Aang's final decision against the Fire Lord.
  • Futurama: Despite all the crazy, time-altering crap Phillip J. Fry has managed to do over the series, he's still managed to be born in order to save the universe from giant evil brains, Mom, nudists, and a tentacle god thing, even though he had to be his own grandfather to do it.
  • Gargoyles puts a You Already Changed the Past clause on time travel, but from the various Word of God statements it appears the universe overall is mutable.

Real Life[edit | hide]

  • It's not known what governs reality, but the main theories among atheists are:
    • Neither Fate Nor Free Will Exist: pessimistic incompatibilism. The future cannot be determined from the past, but that's just due to inherent randomness in the laws of physics, not to any sort of free will.
    • Because Destiny Says So: determinism. This has hard and soft variants, for whether or not free will exists. For example, in the hard variant, the father will kill his son. He has no choice. In the soft variant, he will have a choice. It just so happens that he's going to choose killing his son.
    • Prophecies Are Predictions: libertarianism.
  • Theists run the gamut, as it's largely just a question of to what extent God intervenes. Screw Destiny is probably one of the most debated issues with various schools of thought having different standpoints and justifications for them.