Sunday, March 31, 2013

Dissecting Prophecy, Part 2

Last week, my list of complaints about prophecy in fantasy included:

1. Prophecy so specific it gave the story away.
2. Ambiguously worded prophecy with an easily-guessed second meaning.
3. No reason given for why people choose to believe or disbelieve a prophecy.
4. No explanation given for how the prophecy came into existence.

Now I can go complaint by complaint and give my solution to each, but they basically boil down to Don't Do It, Don't Do It, Think of a Reason, Think of an Explanation.  Which really isn't that interesting to me.  Instead, I'm going to start with a clean slate.  If you must include a prophecy in your story, here are some things you should consider:

1. Why Does This Story Need a Prophecy?

Prophecies have the power to warp the space-time continuum.  Such a vast power should not be taken up lightly, so if you don't need a prophecy, DON'T USE ONE.    If all you need to do is foreshadow the coming doom, find another way.  Burning a village is effective.  Some bad guy inner monologuing works.

If it is necessary, why?  Does it create a situation that absolutely would not happen if not for this prophecy?  (In the novel I'm writing, The Changelings, a prophecy is only reason the title characters exist in human form.)  Does the prophecy point out who the Chosen One is?  Does it create a moral dilemma?  (For example, the Chosen One will save the world, but lose what he most values.)  Does it manipulate someone into a specific action or state of mind? (Think of MacBeth killing the king.)

A prophecy must have a purpose and the writer should know what that purpose is before idly writing one in.

2. What Does Prophecy Tell Us About the Universe?

Now it gets tricky.

From a writing stand point, prophecy is a plot device and a damn good one, too.  But it can also transcend that role and make us think about the universe.  On a very basic level, the author needs to know what's the role of destiny and what's the role of free will.  If people know the future, are they able to change it?  Or will it come to pass no matter what?  Is there a single future or many?  Are the words of the prophecy absolute or is there wiggle room?  From what source does prophecy actually spring?

Heavy stuff.

Getting through that, it's wise to consider how the society and the individual regard prophecy.  Is it regulated to certain religious ceremonies?  Does it just flow into certain individuals?  How can you test if the prophecy is real?  What happens if a prophecy is shown to be false?  Does the prophet become disgraced, does the system collapse?  Do the prophets receive certain power and prestige?  Is it possible for them to be corrupt?

I like this part better.  I can think of half a dozen stories right here based on human weakness.

The point is not to have answers for all these questions, but just to consider how the prophecy fits into the world you're creating, both on the spiritual and political realms.

3. Who Delivers the Prophecy?

Fun!  And the exclamation point isn't sarcastic.

Prophecies need a prophet to deliver them.  (I suppose lightning could carve the words into stone, but I've never seen that happen.)  Stereotypical prophets are vague, flighty weirdos who go into trances, channel the prophecy, and fade into the background before they can develop a personality.  Why?  Why not a fierce, pushy, practical prophet?  Or have a vague, flighty weirdo, but develop him.  Give him a role in the group.

One of my favorite prophets is the rabbit Fiver from the novel Watership Down by Richard Adams.  (Watership Down is basically about rabbits building a new warren and it's one of the most awesome books in existence.)  Fiver is a small, frail-looking rabbit who gets hit by great swells of terror and sees visions of blood.  He can't control or explain his visions, but his sheer intensity convinces the others to leave their old home and set out on their adventure.  This moody slip of a thing has also bawled out his entire group on their stupidity and frightened an enemy twice his size with a few gentle words.

Fiver doesn't disappear.  He practically makes the book.

What interests me about prophets is that they're the only source of information on the prophecy, but how much do they know?  Do they see visions?  Do words just come into their brains?  Do they remember what they said?  Do they intentionally hold information back?  Are they honest?  Are they moral?  Are they corrupt?  Are they liars?  Will they promote their own prophecy?  Will they just get depressed and wish this power away?

Knowledge of the future is such an awesome superpower, yet for some reason it gets pushed aside so we can focus on the guy that can throw fireballs or hit really hard.  Big whoop.

4. Who Knows the Prophecy?

Once the prophet delivers the prophecy, someone has to receive it.  Does it fall into the good guys' hands or the bad guys' hands or both?  Does one person know about it or is the entire world aware?  And most important of all, how does the awareness of the prophecy affect their choices?

Most obviously, if the bad guy knows that the completion of this prophecy means his death, what does he do to try and stop it?  Pharaoh tried to kill Moses by having all the Jewish babies killed.  If your villain can't at least rise to those levels, he's not much good.

On the other hand, if a prophecy says that the hero is destined to destroy the evil one, I imagine it would cause him some relief.  Maybe he'd even get cocky.  But what if the prophecy also requires great sacrifice.  He will kill the bad guy but lose what he loves the most.  Does he try to protect his love?  Does he abandon the quest?

What if he doesn't know this little caveat?  What if his mentor knows, but decides not to tell him?  Then, right as Mr. Hero's facing the Big Bad, Lord Evil tells him that the prophecy says, if he dies, True Love dies, too.  Now what happens?

Prophecy, when it comes down to it, is information, and knowledge is most definitely power.  So the author should consider who knows what and how it affects the plot.  Knowing, after all, is half the battle.

5. What Happens if the Prophecy Fails?

Last week, I complained about how the prophecy in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland tells our heroine exactly which day to slay the dreaded Jabberwocky.  Why, I raged, couldn't the Queen of Hearts wait one day to release her beast?  What would happen if Frabjous Day passed and no Jabberwocky was released?

What indeed?

Can a prophecy fail?  Can it go horribly wrong?  Can it work against our heroes?  This rarely happens.  Prophecy is rarely fallible, possibly because it has a strong religious connotation.  However, the prophet can fail.  The prophecy could be a complete fraud.  The bad guys might have fabricated it.

Prophecy conveys a level of certainty.  But the readers want doubt.  A small failure, an unforeseen event.  This can twist the story entirely and tumble reader expectations like the cart of a roller coaster.

No comments:

Post a Comment