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Your opinions on “The Prophecy” in Fantasy?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Darkfantasy, Apr 16, 2019.

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  1. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Sage

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    I was thinking of doing one but I know they are so cliche – even I get annoyed with them. Especially when someone is getting hailed as a saviour but they haven't even done anything yet. I've seen so many people say “the Prophecy” cliche will make them stop reading instantly because it's used so much.

    But I like the theme of “fate vs free will”

    My plan was to show the damage a false prophecy can do. How someone who feels helpless with very little purpose is suddenly given one (and hope) by someone else and that believe spurs them to revolt against his/her oppresses. Maybe in the end it's their belief that gets them success, not fate. But I'd like to leave it open to my readers. If they want to believe it was fate they can, or if they want to believe it was simply conviction they can. I know most may say “I don't mind the prophecy cliche as long as it's done well.”

    It's only a very lose idea so far but one I've had for a while.
     
  2. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I don't have a problem with it--just put your own spin on things and make it fresh. I think examining the problems associated with a false prophecy and misplaced belief is a good idea.
     
  3. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    By the time you throw in all the things you've got in your story, you'll end up with your own work, your own take, and even the worst possible sounding idea can come through really well by that point. It's all about quality. So, take this next comment with a grain of salt, because we're isolating this one little thing without context to analyze, and context is everything.

    But the way you've worded it raises a couple of red flags for me personally. In particular, you're hoping to subvert the prophecy idea by using a false prophecy, but then still leave it up to the readers to decide if it was real? But then how was it a false prophecy if the hero still stumbles onto success? And won't it still feel like a regular prophecy when the readers first come across it?

    It reminds me of the prophecy in the Lego Movie, which leaned heavy on the parody in order to make it work.

    If it were me I absolutely would not mention any kind of a prophecy in a serious story until I'd given it a hundred pages or so to buy good will from the readers, and even then I would need a really good reason to take that route.

    The problem isn't that prophecy is cliche. Lots of tropes feel cliche at times. The problem is two fold. First it takes away a character's agency. And the second is that it spoils the tension because, of course, the prophecy is going to play out one way or another.

    Now consider for a second the prophecy in Harry Potter. Neither can live while the other survives. It doesn't spoil anything. And JK Rowling went to great lengths to make it clear to Harry that the prophecy didn't need to mean anything to him, while for Voldemort caring about the prophecy was a weakness holding him back. But even that, if you want to take a cynical view of the story (a story I absolutely love), \at times felt like an excuse to explain why nobody just killed the MC when they have the chance. "The Dark Lord wants to do it himself."

    Now take all of this in and consider, are you going to bring anything fresh to your take on a prophecy?

    For the sake of full disclosure, in the various stories I've mapped out I do have one about a prophecy. it's a parody told from the POV of the bumbling mentor. The character would know all about the prophecy from the beginning and try to act on it, but the readers wouldn't hear it in full until much later, when they're in for a surprise.
     
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  4. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Sage

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    This I agree with. Like in the Matrix. There's this whole is Neo "The One" or isn't he when it's pretty obvious he is. They wouldn't make a movie centered around one person fated to save mankind from slavery to have the main character not involved in the center conflict. But most novels are predictable aren't they? Even without the whole "meant to be" thing. In a thriller we know the serial killer will get caught or/and killed. Sometimes the focus is whodunnit at other times we just want to see how the guy/girl will get caught. In romance, there's that whole back and forth, but we know the characters will get together in the end. I've read very few books and watched very few movies where the ending was not what I had predicted. We often read/watch to see how the events will play out.
    Just a thought. Thanks for the advice and for raising some questions for me to think about
     
  5. Rkcapps

    Rkcapps Sage

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    Give your character agency (after the Break into 2) and I'll follow anywhere. The word prophecy doesn't scare me off. As Steerpike said, make it fresh :)
     
  6. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I also agree: make it fresh.

    This probably is easier said than done, heh.

    Since reading your post, I've been trying to think of something "fresh" relating to prophecies. I put the word in scare quotes because I'm not precisely sure what or whether something will truly be novel. I.e., anything I could imagine has probably been done before. So then, maybe something that is simply off the beaten path would work, even if it's been used. The done-to-death variety is what makes coming up with something "fresh" so hard. So I've been imagining a scenario in which the MC receives a prophecy about himself, this builds great hope and confidence, and he goes about his business more or less successfully, with exuberance—only, at the end, he learns that the prophecy giver was a charlatan. I'm sure it's been done (I vaguely remember encountering something like this more than once), but it might be fun. To keep the reader in the clear, I'd probably seed the story with none-too-hard-to-see clues that the prophecy-giver was probably a charlatan; i.e., I'd have an unreliable narrator in the MC or else simply make the MC unreliable but fun to watch if he's not a narrator.

    This isn't showing the damage that a false prophecy can do, but instead it's an exploration (perhaps even comedic) about the absurdity of prophecies and the minds of humans that are so easily led by a false idea. Perhaps it'd have a Don Quixote vibe. I'd probably need to put some negative consequences of this juxtaposition; but I'd want things to turn out well in the end. And maybe at the end, I'd leave the reader wondering if, despite all evidence to the contrary throughout the story, maybe the prophecy-giver wasn't a charlatan after all. This could turn slightly tragic with another twist: just before that end, the MC falls into a pit of self-doubt and also comes to believe that maybe he'd been fooled by a charlatan—the final twist after all is said and done would be that this epiphany, also, is overruled by some strong final hint (after the climax) that maybe the prophecy was real after all, leaving the MC with massive existential pain and mental confusion. But I'd probably want the lighter touch, not this tragic one.

    In general, I do think you can make a prophecy ambiguous enough, unclear enough, to allow for all sorts of twists at the end. Like, it comes true, but it was about someone else after all. Or whatever it says must happen ... really must happen, but it's not what the MC has been thinking. Like the way a genie twists the wording of the three wishes to catch the wisher in traps. Handled right, this might help to give the prophecy a fresh feeling.

    If this is what you want to do, there are other ways to do it that don't involve prophecy.

    Numerous stories about clones, AI robots, etc., have approached the subject. "Am I my own person, or am I just programmed/designed this way?"

    You could have gods or other magical beings in the mix, powerful forces able to manipulate perceptions in ways that leave the MC doubting his free will.
     
    Last edited: Apr 17, 2019
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  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Mine is another voice saying anything can be made fresh or stale. The idea will never sound fresh--it's the characters and the presentation that will sell it.

    So, who is your character? We can leave the idea simmering for now. Is our MC a loser, always getting things wrong, forever botching relationships, someone who keeps letting other people down?

    For one take on--not someone of destiny, exactly, but someone who nevertheless winds up with inordinate influence, take a look at Being There.
     
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  8. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    What is with the assumption that prophecy is destiny? heh heh. History is full of prophecy and visions... how’d that Children’s Crusade work out? Ooops. The tales are embellished, of course, but what good stories aren’t? Hindsight is destiny.

    A world set in an antiquity which doesn’t have prophecy (even if it’s 100% BS) feels false. Heck, even today we have prophecy we just dress it up in fancy clothes and put it on tv to tell us the weather, heh heh.

    Prophecy is a (political) tool to create the desired future, and hence is sometimes correct, but mostly wrong... but the more people you have convinced of an ending, the more apt it is to be true if its within the power of popularity to dictate. In my world and books, bits of the future can be glimpsed but they’re fluid.
     
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  9. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Sage

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    Wow, some great replies. Thank you! I think I will put away all expectation of this being a novel for a while and just explore the themes I'm interested in and the idea and see what I come up with. I was thinking last night of an unreliable narrator. There are lots of tools out there to help us writers achieve what we want. Thanks again guys x
     
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  10. Vaporo

    Vaporo Sage

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    Well, I've had an idea sort of like this for a while in which the prophesy is completely, blatantly false. At first, it looks as though it may be true, but as the story progresses it diverges wildly from the prophesy. The characters keep trying to reinterpret the prophesy and guide their reality to match, but it always goes wrong. Eventually, when they finally conclude that the prophesy is totally false and that there is actually no way to defeat the Big Bad, they discover that it actually can be beaten, but in a totally different way from what the prophesy predicted and that they never would have discovered if they had successfully followed the prophesy. At the end, it's revealed that the prophet really did see the future, but intentionally gave a false prophesy since if they gave a real prophesy the Big Bad would have acted on it to cover their weakness.
     
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  11. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    After commenting here earlier, I did have kind of a thought about a prophecy. The Norns, or other gods of fate, come to a child of 6. They tell him or her that they're special, and that as a gift, he or she can write their own life's prophecy. So a 6 year old tells a semi-ridiculous, semi-fantasy prophecy and is stuck living it out.
     
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  12. Futhark

    Futhark Sage

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    This is how I feel about prophecies as well. Some books I’ve picked up; well, it feels like the author put all the effort into a ‘clever’ prophecy, promptly reveals said prophecy, and then the character (caricature?) just goes through the motions. There is no agency, or even reasonable doubt that the character has the agency to make choices. However, two examples of prophecies that did work for me were Tom Lloyd’s The Twilight Reign series, and Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. In the first example, there are so many entities trying to influence destiny that they essentially break the prophecy. This leaves the MC with agency, but also provides legacies he must contend with, along with his prophesied enemies. The second example has a more ambiguous prophecy about the Dragon Reborn. There are false claimants, different organisations trying to harness his power, and others trying to tempt him to give it up. There is tension added with the fact that the MC is going insane. Also, he is ta’veren, meaning that he affects the destiny of others almost as much as destiny affects him.

    Essentially, these authors have used/allowed prophecy to provide agency and increase mystery, which (IMO) equals tension.
     
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  13. Futhark

    Futhark Sage

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    I like this theme too. I was playing with the idea of a prophecy where a powerful group, like a secret society or something, were trying to groom a chosen one. Essentially, they would try to show that their chosen one was the next king of kings or whatever by fulfilling their interpretation of the prophetic signs. So, they were exerting their free will to subvert fate. The actual chosen one has little free will due to their social position, and has no idea that they are the chosen one. Fate keeps putting him in situations where he is unwittingly fulfilling the prophecy. That’s about as far as I got. It may be an idea I revisit in the future.
     
  14. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Sage

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    I'm always interested in characters with very firm beliefs, but I didn't really want to focus that belief on religion. I thought about a father, who was a warrior, and he would go to an Oracle before each battle. He then went to her about his future children and she told him his second son would be special. Her statements were very Barnum, but the father fit it into what he wanted to believe.
    His son grew up feeling "special" and that his fate to save the recently enslaved humans would play out. He believes he can't die until then. He uses events like getting shot with an arrow but the arrow hitting his medallion necklace instead as a sign the Fates are protecting him until his job is for filled. This makes him reckless. But he simply fits events into this belief and becomes quite myopic, he doesn't see how his actions hurt people.

    I was thinking, he may not be my main character - more of a side character. That way I still get to explore the themes I like but give my main character agency. He believes my main character fits into his prophecy. He expects her to take risks.

    I also like the idea of something being put into someone's head. They can make something come true just by believing in themselves.
    This story is still very much in the earlier days but what do you think?
     
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  15. Futhark

    Futhark Sage

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    Certainly self-fulfilling prophecies are a thing, and the more convinced the character is, the more likely they will twist facts to fit what they believe. It can also give them the confidence to do it in the first place. I read somewhere that brave men are just the fools that survive, or something to that effect. I think you’re on the right track, leaving it up to the reader to decide if the prophecy is real or not. Personally I think it would be worthwhile having advocates for and against the authenticity of the prophecy in the story, and end it with a question mark.
     
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  16. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Sage

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    Thanks Futhark, that was what I was thinking. And if he's not the main character it still gives my character some uncertainty. Is she really a part of the prophecy or has he just fitted her in? I think about it some more.
     
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  17. Ned Marcus

    Ned Marcus Minstrel

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    As others have said, it can work if done well. I still enjoy prophecies in fantasy, and can even take the farm boy meme as well (if done well). Fate versus free will sounds interesting, too.
     
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  18. Helen

    Helen Sage

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    It's [the Prophecy] is actually quite a detailed thing - what it is, archetypes who deliver it etc. Quite often it's there but goes unnoticed, for example, it covers hope [the return of] and so many other things.
     
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  19. MythicMirror

    MythicMirror Dreamer

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    Nope. I'm good with prophecy. It's an overused cliché. And as long as you don’t use it in a creative (or unique) way it’s totally annoying. Since it was used in Harry Potter, YA novels glutted with them. (And you wonder why your books don’t sell?) I hate it if there is a prophecy. They didn’t get fitted in often. Often the characters are like, "Yeah! We have a prophecy but we ignore it the whole story. Ok? OK."
     
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  20. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    In 'Empire: Country,' I had a 'prophecy' that none of the main characters knew about - though one deduced its existence after the fact.

    A barely mentioned priestess separated the components of a potent artifact, placing one with a fellow priest and the other with an artisan. Split, the artifact (a ritual dagger) was devoid of magic, thus escaping the bad guys intention. But, having a bit of precognitive ability, the priestess knew the pieces would come together in the right hands at the right time. But the principle characters were only barely aware of the priestess at all, and it wasn't until the aftermath that one deduced the 'why' of the priestesses actions.
     
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