Just because there are storytelling rules, doesn’t mean you have top follow them implicitly. You can always bend them all out of shape.
A devotion to the three-act principle can be a good thing – there are very good reasons why you should tear your protagonist’s world apart at the end of the second act – but it has become part of a formula that has been boring and unintentionally harmful to fiction.
You can now watch a trailer for almost any damn movie, and you’ll be able to tell how the story turns out without bothering to see the film itself. Look, there’s the bit where the heroine is left alone in the rain, before they have that big confrontation at the beach at the end. There might be some tension in not knowing who is left alive at the end credits, or who has become romantically entangled, but that’s it. No wonder people get so upset about spoilers – there is nothing else but the final outcome that remains unknown.
Along with this rigid code of storytelling – which can be found in films, comics, novels or anything with a narrative – there are other demands. There must be relatable characters, they must grow as people during the story, and you can’t kill the dog.
Most of all, the lead character(s) must have motivation, and must have a reason for getting involved in the story. Motivation is everything, but it’s also painfully necessary, so it’s often got out of the way as quickly as possible.
The most common reason for any kind of Hero’s Journey in any kind of medium is vengeance, and some desire for some kind of revenge drives the vast majority of fiction. It’s all over our oldest stories, and still dredged up every week, all over the place. At its worst, this can lead to Women In Refrigerators, where an unimaginative writer uses the death of a loved one, especially a wife or girlfriend, to drive a tale of gritted teeth and tearful dedications, without really given any real emotional thrust.
I like a good bloody romp of rampant revenge as much as the next guy, and there are always interesting things that can be done with a tale of vengeance. But one motivation that could use a goddamn rest is Destiny with a capital D.
It usually starts with a vague prophecy, and while it is often unclear who actually came up with this vision of the future, it’s ancient, so it must be true. It tells of a time when somebody who has movie star hair will rise up and defeat unimaginable evil. And it must happen, because it is written. It is destiny.
The hero might scoff at the prophecy, but will ultimately come to believe it, and become convinced that he is, indeed, The One. It might take a montage of crying children, but he will embrace his destiny and save them all.
This is easily the most tedious ways of creating the motivation, but it also teaches a toxic lesson – that people only do the right thing because that’s their fate. People in those stories don’t stand up to all that is wrong and evil and bad in the world because it’s the right thing to do, they do it because some lunatic had a vague premonition centuries ago.
There are always exceptions, but it’s everywhere. It’s in the obvious places like Clash of the Titans, or Immortals, or Prince of Persia, where heroes can’t just be simple fishermen or farmers standing up against unimaginable odds, they have to be Kings or Gods who must accept their destiny.
It’s also in so many comics, but there is also a weird contradiction. While it feels only right and proper that DC characters are a little bit mythic and a whole lot iconic, Marvel’s attempts to create that kind of Pantheon have actually devalued many of their characters.
Men like Tony Stark or Reed Richards can’t just be brilliant men who stood up and did the right thing when it counted, they have to be part of a long tradition of family destiny and tradition, with their parents doing extraordinary things in Jonathan Hickman’s daftly humourless SHIELD comic.
Even Spider-Man, the ultimate wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time superhero, can’t be somebody who learned his own lesson in power and responsibility, he’s just another in a long line of pre-destined individuals who have been chosen by some ridiculous Spider-Totem.
Hardcore religious types will argue that there can be no morality without conforming to some kind of ideology, but lots of people manage to do the right thing without fearing divine retribution, mainly because it’s the right thing to do. It’s not hard to figure it out.
While Hollywood is often rightly seen as a seething cauldron of sin, this puritanical view that people only do brave and noble acts because of fear of eternal damnation has filtered through to so many movies in so many different forms. It’s in romantic comedies and hardcore horror, it’s in every damn blockbuster and infects independent weepfests.It's in comics and novels and songs. Characters are destined to be great, just because.
It doesn’t need to be this way.
Do it because it’s right, not because it’s your destiny. You write your own fate.