It’s one of the most popular tropes in romance: fated mates. Sometimes, it’s called soulmates or maybe “destiny” plays a role. Any which way, these star-crossed lovers are going to fall back into each other’s arms time and again.
But is this romance trope really all it’s cracked up to be? Turns out that being bound to someone by fate might have a darker side.
Why Do We Love the Fated Mates Trope?
Let’s face it: love is hard! While falling in love is easy, staying in love is a lot harder. Most of us form crushes with relatively little difficulty. But, over time, those “crushes” tend to burn out.
Don’t believe me? You can look at marriage statistics. Most people say “until death do us part” in their vows. Despite that, around half of first marriages in the United States end in divorce.
You can also look at people in abusive relationships or relationships where at least one partner is cheating. And there are, of course, plenty of relationships that are just “sour.” The people in them aren’t necessarily in love with each other any more. Yet, for any given reason, they just don’t break up. Sometimes, the considerations are children or finances. In other cases, it seems scary to be single. It’s easier to stay in the relationship, even if it’s an unhappy one.
Most people have more than one relationship before they tie the knot. In addition, plenty of people—even high school sweethearts—end up having more than one marriage.
We can draw a lot of conclusions from this. One is that maybe humans aren’t meant to be strictly monogamous for their entire lives. Another is that, well, we kinda suck at picking romantic partners.
That’s why something like the fated mates trope appeals to us. Embedded in this trope is the idea that there is someone out there who is perfect for you. Whether fate bound you together or some god made you as two halves of a whole, your perfect partner is somewhere out there. All you have to do is find them.
Fate Sounds Like Grand Romance
The idea of the “perfect partner” being out there appeals because people end up in the wrong relationships. Whether you’re chronically single, chronically going on bad dates, or bouncing from partner to partner, you might feel like there’s nobody in the world who is quite right for you.
People who are in unhappy relationships feel that way too. They might be in a relationship, but they may feel their partner doesn’t understand or appreciate them. Or maybe “the romance” is simply dead. The couple is stuck in a rut. It’s same old, same old. The flame’s flickering if it hasn’t gone out, so to speak.
That’s why the idea of a partner crafted just for us is so appealing. When we see the fated mates trope in fiction, a lot of times, the worldbuilding will have the idea of finding your “soulmate” built right in. We can sympathize with a character who struggles to meet their soulmate. Likewise, we can take comfort when they finally do meet them. Their struggles mirror our own, as we struggle in the real world. When they do finally meet their match, it gives us hope that we too will one day meet the person we’re destined to be with.
Fate Has a Darker Side
All too often, though, romance authors and readers tend to forget that fate has a darker side to it. Plenty of literary works explore this theme: someone might be “fated” to die or their fate has similarly dark consequences.
Almost never do we see the “darker” side of the fated mates trope. Fate is, for many authors and readers, completely inescapable. If you’re destined to die for some noble cause, there’s usually no way around it.
A great example of this appears in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The Weird Sisters tell Macbeth he will be king—that is fate—but fate comes with a much more sinister side. Macbeth might become king, but becoming king will seal his doom.
He heeds only the first part of the prophecy, egged on by Lady Macbeth. Macbeth does become king, but the path he took to become king eventually drives him (and Lady Macbeth) mad. The two weave an ever denser web of murder and lies as they try to escape their ultimate fate, until they are (rightfully) deposed by death.
Prophecy often functions in a similar way in Greek myth. If one knows their fate, they usually end themselves by taking evasive manueveres. Thus, the implication is that fate is inescapable. The harder you try to avoid it, the more likely it is to come true.
Romance and Horror Are Often Thinly Divided
Horror and romance are really only a few degrees apart. Plenty of romance novels feature possessive “alpha male” type men as the love interests. Yet where is the line between “possessive” and “abusive”?
Plenty of romance “heroes” do cross the line, sometimes on a regular basis. A good example of this is November 9, where the “hero” stalks the female protagonist after (accidentally) harming her. When they eventually break up, he stalks her again, going so far as to corner her in a nightclub. When she rejects him again, he delivers his manuscript, revealing why she should get back together with him.
None of that behavior is normal or healthy. Yet the heroine rewards the hero with her pity and her love.
Twilight is another story where some pretty creepy behavior is played off as “romantic.” Edward essentially stalks Bella, but it’s “romantic,” because she’s into him. Abuse also plays a role in the first ACOTAR book. The love interest there is eventually written off as an abusive fuckhead—yet his replacement isn’t much better.
What this means is it often doesn’t take much for a “love story” to turn into a horror story. We might initially think someone’s obsession with us is flattering. But it can quickly turn horrifying as that person invades our privacy and refuses to leave us alone. At some points in a summary of November 9, I was thinking the “happy ending” of this story would be the heroine getting away from this creep.
Given that, it’s surprising the more “sinister” side of the fated mates trope doesn’t crop up more often in romance.
Questions Raised by the Fated Mates Trope
The idea of having a “soulmate” or a “fated mate” raises some necessary questions. What happens if you or that person are incompatible? Or what happens if you grow apart? Love and hate, after all, are said to be two sides of the same coin, separated only by a thin line.
What happens in that scenario? Most stories wave it off by saying the fated couple is actually completely compatible. They might need to work through initial fears or misgivings, but there’s no way they could be incompatible.
It also handwaves the idea that fated mates might fall out of love, grow apart, or come to hate each other. After all, they’re soulmates, so they must be compatible. That means their love will never change.
That, in some ways, is a bit horrifying in and of itself: does that mean these two never change? Are they just … stuck the way they are? Growing apart as a couple may be sad, but it’s also often a sign of people maturing.
The idea is that soulmates will simply return to each other, which echoes the idea that fate is inescapable. That then knocks on yet another somewhat horrifying question: the question of free will.
Fated Mates Doesn’t Give Us a Choice
Fated mates have no choice in who their fated mate is; it simply is. That means they cannot choose their partner, even if their partner is someone they hate. It also suggests that they’re bound to “fall in love” anyway.
There is no choice, which can have romantic appeal in a world where we often make the wrong ones. Yet it also suggests that everything you do to exercise free will and autonomy is futile. You will end right back in the arms of this person, whether you want to or not.
That can also make “fated mates” somewhat abusive. Possessive jealousy is often one trait of fated mates. What happens if one person strays? Does the other one simply have to forgive them? Or do they harbor mistrust and uncertainty, which could poison the relationship, even though they’re “bound” to stay together? What happens when one person is ready for the next level of commitment but the other isn’t? What if one person wants children and the other doesn’t—or is incapable of having them?
Fated mates narratives often neatly sidestep these questions. If we dig a little deeper, then it’s easy to see that fated mates might not be the stuff of dreams—it might easily be a literal waking nightmare.
Exploring the Darker Side of Fated Mates in Rare Flower
One of the things I wanted to do with Rare Flower was explore this more “horrific” side of the trope. What happens when one of the partners is not ready to commit? What happens when one of them wants children and the other isn’t ready? And what happens when one of them wants out of a relationship they feel suffocated in?
Yet, in Rare Flower, being with one’s “fated mate” is also the only path to happiness. There are questions around that then too: is it really happiness if one can’t freely choose? Does one really feel happiness, and is the “love” they’re feeling really love? It’s impossible to tell, because the feeling is simply “fate” telling you what to feel, what to think. In that case, the love—and the relationship—might not be real.
So, what happens then? Does one or both partners simply suffer in silence? Do they go on for years—perhaps their entire lives—wondering if the love they feel is real or some illusion spun by “fate”?
Fated Mates Encounters a Deep Philosophical Issue
This is obviously a sticky web—the questions of free will has forever plagued philosophers and theologians. If there’s a god—or “fate”—then we can’t possibly have free will. If we truly have free will, then nothing can be pre-programmed. Fate cannot and does not exist. Thus, if fate exists, then this love is predetermined. There is nothing you can do to avoid it.
That … does sound a little less romantic than most of our romance novels might make it out to be.
Rare Flower certainly doesn’t resolve all these tensions—I don’t think it’s possible to do so. And, at the end of the day, the book is meant to be a romance, not a horror story. There’s only so far we can explore these themes before we must return to the idea that fated love—with all its flaws—might be at least kind of romantic.