Sunday, March 24, 2013

Dissecting Prophecy, Part 1

Fate features heavily in fantasy, as well it should.  It's hard to write about humble farm boys saving the world and not at least consider the role of luck, destiny, God, or whatever higher power there may be.  Playing off this spiritual theme, prophecy often winds its way into fantasy novels, asking the reader to consider how static or fluid the future may be.  They're great fun... if used correctly.  But a poorly written prophecy can easily sour the entire story.

What's My Problem with Prophecy?

I have a love-hate relationship with prophecy.  On the one hand, it can be an incredibly powerful tool.  A good prophecy is like a spur to the character's side.  It starts quests.  It creates villains.  It clearly enunciates what's at stake.  It creates suspense.  If we know from the start that 5 companions will go on a quest and only 4 will return, suddenly we want to know who will be the unlucky person to die.

On the other hand, poorly written prophecy can destroy suspense and surprise alike.  If destiny is used as a justification for every plot point, you can end up with a deus  ex machina.  Dynamic characters become puppets of fate.  Poor decisions are hand-waved.  The ending is given away.  The world is sapped of free will.

Pitfall #1: Too Specific

One of my main problems with Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland is that the prophecy around which the story revolves reads like a birthday invitation.

Who: Alice
What: Slaying the Jabberwocky
Where: Underland (aka Wonderland)
When: Frabjous Day
Why: To Restore the White Queen to Power

All the Queen of Hearts has to do is release the Jabberwocky one day early or one day late and the whole prophecy falls apart.  But she doesn't.  And so the party goes off without a hitch.  Meanwhile, I beat my head with my fists for the stupidity of the Queen and the complete lack of surprise.

There is no way you can have a villain know exactly what will happen and do nothing to stop it without her looking like an idiot.  Likewise, if your protagonists go around proclaiming their plans, they're idiots, too.  A prophecy is like having top secret military information.  If one side has it, they shouldn't announce it.  If the other side then gets it, they shouldn't fall right into the trap.

And even if the prophecy never falls into the enemy hands, the reader knows.  If the climax is basically a culmination of those very events, why bother to read?  When I read fantasy, I generally assume good will conquer evil (unless I'm reading George R. R. Martin or Joe Abercrombie).  The interest lies in the how the good guy will triumph.  If the prophecy tells me, why bother reading?

Moreover, 9 times out of 10, these particular stories end up devolving into everyone gathering around The Chosen One, to boost her perpetually self-doubting ego long enough to defeat the Big Bad.  And since I don't enjoy The Chosen One trope, I'm not all that interested in those kinds of stories.

Pitfall #2: Ambiguous Wording

On the other hand, an overly vague prophecy is nothing to get excited about.  These kinds of prophecies descend into the kind of "Doom is coming, a Black Shadow falls across the land" babble which tells the audience roughly nothing and provides no useful information to the poor farm boy who has to defeat said Doom.  I find these kinds of prophecies annoying, but basically harmless, and if I'd have to go with overly specific or overly vague, I'd choose vague.

But then we come to the vaguely-worded prophecies which opens a whole new can of worms.  These prophecies are intentionally written to be misleading and usually rely on an ambiguous phrase or even a bad pun to create confusion.  For example, if you tell the audience five will set out on a quest and four will return... only to reveal that Person #5 is having too much fun in the new land to go home.  (Thank you, Brian Jacques.)

These sort of prophecies act like a riddle.  If done well, they work fine.  The problem is that the author has to set his or her wits against not only the characters, but the audience as well.  The writer must assumes that she is smarter than her readers.  Don't do this.  It will likely end in sad disillusionment.

Fantasy readers nowadays know that literal and obvious meanings in vaguely-worded prophecies are usually wrong.  They can eliminate whatever conclusion the hero/ villain comes to and start working out their own theories.  This can work fine and even involve readers, if only one or two characters hear the ambiguous-prophecy.  After all, individuals have their blind spots.  But if the whole world knows the prophecy, the riddle starts to lose potency.  Are you telling me no one can figure out what took the reader ten minutes to guess?  The world starts to look lame now.

Bottom line: ambiguously-worded prophecies can be tricky, awesome, and fun if done properly, but they are very hard to do properly.  And if they misfire, they can take the whole story down with them.

Pitfall #3: Everyone Believes or No One Does

It seems I've stumbled upon a pattern here.  The more people know about a prophecy, the better it functions.  Therefore, let only one or two people know, and the prophecy will do its job beautifully.  Let the whole world know and you're headed for disaster.

Nevertheless, prophecy is very hard to keep under wraps.  It makes sense.  If you have important information regarding the end of the world, you'd better act.  One person can do little on their own, so more and more people must be rallied.  They won't help unless they understands what's at stake, so the prophecy must be shared.  A blabbermouth here, a traitor there, and pretty soon the whole world knows.

But how does the whole world react?  That's a different question altogether.

In certain stories, the populace either blindly believes in the prophecy or blindly disbelieves it.  I find blind skepticism more credible.  The burden of proof should be on the prophet.  Why should people believe every idiot with a wild tale?  But the fact remains that people are varied and multi-faceted.  Some will always believe, some will always disbelieve, most people will look at the facts and judge as best they can.

Proof is the problem.  Why do people believe or disbelieve?  Maybe people believe because this prophet's other predictions have come true, maybe there's a long tradition of prophecy in their religion, maybe they're in such a miserable state that they're willing to cling to whatever hope they can find.  Maybe people disbelieve because they've been deceived before, maybe the prophet does not command respect, maybe they're all material rationalists who denounce the existence of prophecies at all.

The point is that belief (or disbelief) requires some reason.  It's so easy for the writer to have people believe or disbelieve as the plot requires it.  But that creates a shallow world and one-dimensional characters.  Belief is hard.  Let the people grapple with it.

Pitfall #4: It Floats in the Background

How many times, have you read something like this:

The old mentor leaned toward the farm boy. "There is a prophecy that speaks of a boy bearing magic not seen since the old days, and he shall face an army of demons and emerge victorious.  But the dark one's curse will linger on him, or so the prophecy says...

Etc., etc.  All well and good for drumming up suspense and pointing out The Chosen One.  But though this prophecy is clearly important to the story, we never hear where it comes from.  It's just sort of there.  Floating.  Like a very old saying.  A hero will rise.  An empire will fall.  An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

This isn't a problem for everyone, but it's a problem for me, in part because of the whole belief issue I discussed earlier.  If no one even knows where this prophecy came from, why do they believe it?

I suppose, on a deeper level, I want to believe that the prophecy exists as more than just a plot device.  That it is fundamentally tied into the world somehow, whether through a vast cultural tradition or the personal revelations of a single character.  

* * *

As with all my "Dissecting Fantasy" series, I like to spend the first week complaining about cliches I see and the second week spitballing suggestions for how to make them a little more thoughtful.  Be sure to tune in for Part 2.

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