Saturday, August 16, 2008

Pitfalls of prophecy

On another blog, I read a post about prophecy in fantasy, which made me stop and think. I didn’t have prophecies in Before the Storm, Dracolytes, Redemption or The Mark of Vurth, and I wasn’t planning on having any in the two novels that are still in the idea stage. There’s magic, there are dragons, there are swords and castles… but no prophecies.

Strange, that.

Well, no, not really. You see, back in my salad days I’d tried prophecies. They can be intriguing if they’re done right, and they give me the same sense of portent and foreshadowing that I get from a Shakespearan tragedy. They can offer hope that the heroes cling to in their darkest hour, or they can be a promise of doom, a prediction of inescapable fate. What’s not to love?

1. They can make things too easy.

Even if the point of the story is for the Chosen One to defeat the Dark Lord, a prophecy which proclaims the protagonist the Chosen One may make things too easy for him. It’s much more interesting if the protagonist isn’t welcomed as the fulfillment of a prophecy and has to work for whatever recognition he gets. I’d be very interested in a book where someone else was crowned the Chosen One, but the protagonist ended up doing all the work instead.

2. They can give away spoilers.

Sometimes this may not matter. In a romance novel, for instance, we know the hero and heroine are going to get together at the end – the fun comes from seeing what route they take to reach their destination. Plus, there’s often a suspension of disbelief here – if there’s enough obstacles and conflict between the main characters, you can forget that there’s an assured Happily Ever After. Likewise, a prophecy that gives away the “what” may still intrigue readers with the “how”.

But it’s also easy to go wrong here. If there are three contenders to the throne, and the prophecy at the start of the book states that the one with the crown-shaped birthmark is the One, that could undercut the tension unless the author subverts the prophecy. IMO, this is one of the best things about A Song of Ice and Fire - while Martin does seem to be slipping prophecies into the plot, there was no pronouncement from on high stating that Stannis or Dany or (Seven forbid) Joffrey was the Rightful Heir.

3. They can be too arbitrary.

Here’s where I fell down with a splat. If the prophecy was made a long time ago and is now available only through a crumbling book, then there’s no reason for the reader to expect more prophecies in the story. But I had a character (a fatesayer, I called him) who actually made such prophecies, because he’d been blessed by the goddess of fate.

Which of course raised the question of why he didn’t keep making prophecies. Each time the hero was in trouble, the fatesayer could simply have tapped into the story’s equivalent of the Psychic Hotline and told the hero what lay ahead of him. Naturally, that would have killed any suspense dead. I did have him only receiving such visions sporadically, and sometimes being reluctant to divulge information because that wouldn’t help the hero earn his victory. But it still felt arbitrary, because he was making prophecies when it suited me and keeping silent when I wanted to build suspense.

One way to get around this would be to have such a character make predictions which were vague or difficult to understand, like the visions of the crone in A Clash of Kings. She foretells Sansa’s role in Joffrey’s wedding, but her vision is so symbolic that no one could have interpreted it beforehand. Or the character could be a Cassandra whose predictions are never believed – but then the characters will need a good reason not to listen to her.

(Digression : I’m annoyed that I didn’t see anything of Cassandra in Troy. Of course, the film was messed up in so many other ways)

4. They can give the story an “epic fantasy” feel.

This isn’t a problem at all if the story actually is an epic fantasy, of course. There, even if the prophecy is vague or unhelpful (in the AsoIaF example, Arya couldn’t have done much about the crone’s vision even if she had known exactly what it meant), the prophecy can bring depth and color to the story. It can give an impression of unseen forces moving behind the scenes.

But this wasn’t the impression that I wanted to give readers with my books. I didn’t want any hint of fate being on the protagonists’ sides, much less being a prime mover in the story. And I wanted the readers to see the unfolding events at “ground level”, rather than with the detachment that can come from knowing a prophecy has dictated how events will unfold. So now that I come to think about it, the lack of prophecies in my books works for me, just as the several prophecies of Orson Scott Card’s Hart’s Hope work very well for that book.

Thanks for the inspiration, GunnerJ; that was fun to write.


JH said...

You have made a blog post in response to a blog post of mine... as was foretold in the Tome of the End Days of the Blogosphere...

This also was a good read! Two things:

1) I actually had an idea in my head for a story where "someone else was crowned the Chosen One, but the protagonist ended up doing all the work instead." I think the subject of "chosen ones" in general is due for a smackdown, as well as the last member of this cliche triplet, Good vs. Evil.

2) It would absolutely be the most GRRM thing for Joffery to turn out to be the rightful and best choice to be king, that something was supposed to happen to him later in life that straightened him out and made him a good ruler, but no one finds this this out until after he dies!

Loren said...

Alternatively, some prophets could make prophecies in cryptic, ambiguous, and poetic language, and then claim that the prophecies were misinterpreted whenever they seemingly got falsified.

This is what happened to King Croesus of Lydia (now southwestern Turkey) when he went to fight the Persians. The Oracle of Delphi stated that a great empire would fall, but that great empire was his.

Likewise, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius asked Alexander of Abontichus what to do about the Marcomanni and the Quadi on the north side of the Danube River.

To rolling Ister, swoln with Heaven's rain,
Of Cybelean thralls, those mountain beasts,
Fling ye a pair; therewith all flowers and herbs
Of savor sweet that Indian air doth breed.
Hence victory, and fame, and lovely peace.

Or in plainer language, throw two lions into the Danube and a great victory would result. But it was the Marcomanni and the Quadi who had the great victory. And when he was asked about that, he responded that he never predicted which side would have that great victory.

Alternatively, some prophecies could be so generalized as to have very limited real value, like newspaper horoscopes and Jesus Christ expecting "wars and rumors of wars" (Matt 24:6, Mark 13:7).

Luc2 said...

Ah, prophecies...

I'm really struggling with the prophecy in my story. It mentions a Chosen One, but it has a twist. My problem right now is that most readers will only see the cliche bit when they first read it, and may be put off, since the twists of the prophecy only become clear later in the story.

In my story, many proclaim themselves the True Heir, due to the vagueness off the prophecy, and all the prophecy does is heap trouble on my protag's path.

Fascinating comment, Loren.

Marian Perera said...

I have to say, if I were a tyrannical ruler... well, OK, if I were a ruler... and any fortune-teller made such a vague pronouncement to me, he'd find himself in the dungeon before you could say "crystal ball".

If he provided me with some straight talk (and preferably evidence to back it up), he would then be moved to more palatable and heavily guarded quarters until I could see if the prediction came true or not.

God, I'm ruthless.

I like the prediction in The First Man in Rome for this reason. The fortune-teller Martha tells Gaius Marius (at that time a political nobody) that he will be Consul seven times, and will be known as the Third Founder of Rome. No symbolism, no double meanings. And there was a twist in the prophecy's tale, too - despite all the glory that awaits Marius, Martha tells him that the greatest Roman of all time will not be him; it'll be his wife Julia's nephew instead.

Very well-done prophecy, that one.

Marian Perera said...

GunnerJ :

It would absolutely be the most GRRM thing for Joffery to turn out to be the rightful and best choice to be king, that something was supposed to happen to him later in life that straightened him out and made him a good ruler

Yeah. A lobotomy. With Ice.

I reread A Game of Thrones recently (sigh... no Dance with Dragons yet) and the scene where Joffrey condemns Ned Stark just made my blood boil. Everything was set up so Ned could have lived, but that spoilt little bastard murdered him. Ugh.

I'm going to do my best to make my antagonists as hateable. If that's a word.

Anonymous said...

Ooh, lots of things to think about here, and an excellent post. My current WIP has some prophecy, mostly derived from their religious writings rather than delivered in person. I like to think they introduce conflict to the story, but you've made a few points I need to chew on.

I love GRRM (where's the Dance with Dragons! we wants it now!*) but I think Robin Hobb also did a good job with prophecies from her Fool.

* "Every time you ask about the next book, GRRM kills another Stark." -- from a friend's forum avatar

Marian Perera said...

Thanks, Jennifer, that last line was hilarious. :)