Posts Tagged ‘Prophecies’

After all this talk about fates and futures, I just have to share my own thoughts.

That’s it. Nobody else is responsible for your happiness. Go write your own story. And stuff.

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I’ve talked about prophecies that are a Fake-Out — that is, a prophecy is given and does come true but in an unexpected way. But let’s not pretend, there can also be stories where the prediction is just outright False.

Maybe the “seer” is a con-artist, issuing prophecies that get clients to give them money somehow. Maybe the “oracle” is more interested in pleasures of the flesh, and will tell a succession of lovers that they are “destined” for each other.

False Prophets, unfortunately, have lots of usefulness for governments and institutions. A regime facing unrest might receive a “prophecy” of war if the Beloved Leader is questioned. Or a televangelist might proclaim that “God will take him home” unless a certain amount of donations are received. Someone might even (shudder) foretell that the world is ending and persuade their followers to drink poison.

A mistaken oracle doesn’t have to be wicked, though. The “seer” might mean well and believe that they are foretelling truly (whether by a vision or some method of divination) but there’s no actual magic there. Meanwhile, in the comedic fantasy movie Willow, a village priest declares he must consult the Bones, but then whispers “the Bones tell me nothing” and asks the title character what he wants to do. Once the character decides, he proclaims, “The Bones have spoken!”

As writers, we have rich ground to explore with a False Prophet. The evil seer who predicts the death of a rival — and then hires assassins. The wealthy merchant who always receives the best prophecies money can buy. Or the person of good heart who fudges their prediction in order to help someone out.

My prediction: fantasy authors will continue to write about Destiny and those who tell it for many years to come!

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It’s all well and good to debate the chances that a particular oracle’s words will come true or not, but I suspect the real unknown is not the relative skill of the prophet. It’s in the one who receives the prophecy.

In many legends, the prophecy only begins to come true when somebody believes it, and acts upon it. In my novel, Too Many Princes, King Unferth of Crutham receives a prophecy that if he doesn’t have more than 20 sons, no son of his will succeed him on the throne. Everything about Unferth’s life changes as he scrambles to have children with as many women as possible — and much to the disgust of his queen.

Merlyn receives a vision of a great king uniting Britain in an era of peace. He then begins manipulating the events that lead to King Arthur’s conception, his training in secret, and his eventual coronation.

Gandalf knows of a prophecy that the sword Narsil will one day be re-forged and re-named Anduril. Then the lost heir of Gondor will be restored to his throne. Gandalf makes it a point to befriend Aragorn and make sure he follows the steps necessary to claim his destiny.

In perhaps the greatest prophecy tale from Greek legend, King Acrisius of Argo receives a prophecy that his daughter’s son will one day kill him and seize his throne. He decides to lock Danae up in a tower, but she is still impregnated by the god Zeus. So Acrisius shuts mother and son up in a chest and throws it into the sea. The chest comes to land, and the boy grows up to, indeed, overthrow his grandfather.

The Perseus story, in particular, shows how acting on the prophecy can create its own outcome. After all, most kings hope to have an heir of their own bloodline. Like, say, a grandson. What if, instead of trying to slay Danae and her child, Acrisius had welcomed Perseus as his future heir? Perseus would still have followed Acrisius to the throne, but without the necessity of killing him first.

I predict: There will be one more post to this thread!

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I really enjoyed my last blog about futures: Fixed, Flexible or Fractured, but I’ve realized that I left one out. The future in your story can also be a Fake-Out! This happens when a prediction is made, usually something dramatic, which does come true but in an unexpected way.

Perhaps a battle is coming and the king is told he will “fall while defending the realm.” This makes it sound like he will die, right? But maybe this is a comedic fantasy. The king literally trips and falls during the battle. A blow that would have taken his head off misses, instead.

Perhaps a spoiled princess is assured by the oracle that she will “marry a prince and reign for forty years.” But this is a hard fantasy. Her fated prince is a horrible person, and she ends up imprisoned in a tower all that time.

Using this technique, the author sets up a prophecy that drives tension: the king is destined to fall in battle. This will shadow the tale and keep the reader worried for the king. Or if the reader is annoyed by the spoiled princess, her unjustified success will turn to despair — and the schadenfreude reigns supreme.

There is a risk, of course, that a prophetic Fake-Out will alienate readers who feel manipulated by the writer. Yet, if it’s well done, a Fake-Out maintains the consistency of the foretelling while providing a fun surprise. It can be a great ending for a fantastic tale.

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Prophecies and those who deliver them are a time-honored tradition in mythology, and hence in our modern fantasy genre. From the Oracle at Delphi to Merlyn the Magician to Dream Girl (Legion of Superheroes comic book), characters are shown to predict the future.

Naturally people are tantalized by the possibility of knowing their future. Some hope to spot a red thread and find their future spouse. Some want to know if their car is about to break down or will keep running a little longer. All of us wish that we had some control over what comes next in our lives.

As writers, we can draw on this longing. But when using prophecy (and its near-twin, time travel) there is a key decision to make: is the future Fixed, Flexible, or Fractured?

If the future is Fixed, then it is possible to make predictions with 100% accuracy. In this setting, prophets would enjoy great prestige. People would pay great sums to find out if their merchant ship will reach port with a cargo that makes them rich — or sink, leaving them penniless. On the other hand, unscrupulous individuals and governments would make every effort to control a reliable oracle. In Aditi Khorana’s novel The Library of Fates, a young girl with prophetic powers is enslaved by a cruel despot.

If the future is Flexible, then what is foreseen may or may not come true. No prophet would be able to establish a record as 100% accurate, even with the best intentions. Oracles might be respected, but people would rely as much on other sources of information to make decisions about their lives. For storytellers, this is a great way to create tension. Neither the reader nor the other characters can know if the oracle is correct about what is to come.

In many stories, the future can be Fractured by important decisions. One great example is Bradbury’s famous short story, The Sound of Thunder, where a time-traveling hunter steps on a butterfly and returns to find reality altered. If something so small can change the future, then prophets would have enormous difficulty making accurate predictions. Or, the prophecy they make can be true for a while, but have an “expiration date” when some other event fractures the future again. In such a setting, it would not be likely for oracles to have any respect at all. Foretellings might have greater urgency, however, since they must be acted on quickly before something changes.

What do you think? How do you use prophecies in your storytelling?

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