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.
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.