Wednesday, 30 September 2009

prophecy, or: how to rob your protagonist of agency

Prophecy: I hate it.

Hero’s Journey fantasies love this trope. The young protagonist discovers he’s prophesied to bring down the Dark Lord. Unfortunately, the Dark Lord now knows about him too, and unleashes his +2 Storm of Wrath on our luckless protagonist. Standing in the smouldering ruins of his home village, ideally on the graves of his parents, the protagonist vows vengeance. He’ll take down that dastardly Dark Lord or die trying!

This is also the reason why half the Hero’s Journey fantasies on my shelf have dented corners -- I threw them against the wall.

Here are my problems with the traditional use of prophecy in fantasy:
  1. Prophecy makes the story predictable. If it’s prophesied that the protagonist will overcome the Dark Lord, we know that’s exactly what will happen. No suspense, no surprise, no excitement.
  2. Since we’ve been told how the story will go, we’re ahead of the plot and waiting impatiently while the reluctant hero tries to refuse the call. It’s obvious to everyone except the protagonist that that’s not going to happen. He’s going to be railroaded into his prophesied role whether he likes it or not.
  3. It’s a not-very-veiled form of authorial intrusion. Consider where prophecy comes from: the gods, fate or destiny -- ie. authorial intent.
  4. We read fiction for compelling characters who must take drastic action to overcome conflict. If their actions are dictated by prophecy, not choices that they themselves make, they’re just a puppet.
Soon: uses of prophecy I’ve enjoyed reading; things I’d like to see done with prophecy.


  1. I'm with you. The only fantasy novel I've ever attempted, I made it a point to have the antagonist believe in a prophecy that turned out to be bunk.

  2. I agree. Prophecies only work if you wait until the fourth or fifth book to introduce it. ie: harry potter... well, it was sorta a prophecy....

    I prefer the fantasies where there are no prophecies. They're more fun.

  3. Oooopsie! My failed attempt at a fantasy novel, was precisely that. Female protag prophesied to bring down Evil warlock dictator. Bugger me, she did and all and it was, without a doubt, the worse dramatic climax evah.

  4. Yup, good post. Prophesy only works if there's some twist to it. One reason that I'm wary of so much epic/traditional fantasy.

  5. But...but...I *like* prophecies. Josh Whedon is rolling in his grave at this! Or he would be, if he were actually dead. I think I saw a new epi of Dollhouse on last week, though, so I'm pretty sure he's still out there. :)

    Seriously, though, I get your point--but I really do think prophecies can add a whole *larger than life*, exciting dimension to things if done well. While not a book either, The Matrix comes to mind. (although, maybe the prophecy is why number 3 sucked so badly. Nah--it sucked for a multitude of reasons). Plus--as Melia mentioned--loved the whole prophecy aspect of HP, and I actually thought it was there from novel one.

    Now I have to go ponder why some work for me and others don't. Curse you for making me think! :)

  6. I have no problem with a prophecy being uttered, as long as the call to the journey is short and sweet, and the task seems impossible.

    It's like a romance. We already know the outcome from the first pages. Yet some writers manage to make the journey so peril-fraught, emotional, or fun, that we stick around just see how they carry it off.

  7. I object to Hound's post! I am NOT Melia :p

    seriously, though, this is a great topic and post. great job!

  8. I love the title of this blog! :)

    Great topic. I admit, I enjoy a good prophecy, so long as it's not just an easy-way-out for an author who doesn't want to think too hard about plot and/or character motivation. Prophecies can definitely end up as crutches, and do more often than not. But, handled well, they can also be a great framework. People didn't watch Titanic because the were hoping for the surprise ending (at least, well, I hope the hell not(-:). We all knew the ship was going down, the interesting parts were what people did between "It's unsinkable!" and "Um, so the Carpathia's 58 miles away and we're out of lifeboats."

    I admit it: I've got a prophecy in my book on sub. I tried to make it not-a-crutch primarily by making it fairly vague; what I find most fascinating about biblical and biblical-based prophecies is how easily they're shoved onto random days, events, and what-have-yous by people who are sure they've decoded them. Used that way, as a sort of wheel-of-fate scavenger hunt, a prophecy can be great fun. I don't know if I pulled it off, of course. but I enjoyed trying. :-)

  9. I agree with you entirely. There's plenty of realistic things to drive a plot, such as politics, social issues, coming of age, revenge, or even a villain's desire for power. It's astounding that with all of those, some authors are lazy enough to use prophecy.

  10. I'm more likely to be bothered by everybody refusing to tell the MC a pertinent prophecy than by prophecy itself—like sunna said, it's only a problem if it's a crutch. I'm a bit offended by Jeff Cocking's dismissal of prophecy as a "lazy" technique by definition. The Bible contains prophecy.

    I have a novel where it's been prophesied that the narrator will be the one who frees a particular enslaved group. The narrator knows and believes the prophecy—but she also believes that fulfilling it will require her death. Not that she or anybody else knows how, exactly, the prophecy will take place.

    …I guess that would count as a non-traditional use?