Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Problem with Prophecy

There's no way around it. Prophecy is a pet peeve of mine, and of many Fantasy readers. Chosen Ones and preordained destinies crop up everywhere, and few things kill my interest faster. Reading the words It was foretold in regards to a character, to me, reduces the impact of every decision that character has made within the narrative up to that point.

The primary issue is that once prophecy is introduced in a story, all but three resolutions are typically eliminated.

1) The Chosen One strives to fulfill the prophecy
2) The Chosen One strives to break from the prophecy, but fulfills it unwittingly
3) The Chosen One breaks from the path of the prophecy.

In any case, the prophecy is problematic. It subverts the character agency of the Chosen One, reducing the impact of his/her personal goals and values, motivation, and aspects of the self-concept that typically drive character development. In essence, the prophecy becomes the main character and the Chosen One becomes a vessel for the prophecy to effect its change on the world. In the case of numbers 2 and 3, the character's motivation becomes breaking from the prophecy. And then he either does or doesn't, but it becomes the focus of the story. Usually a story we've all heard before.

In the Wheel of Time, Rand initially rejects his part in the prophecy, then later embraces it and begins to strive to complete it. His fate is never in question, nor is he ever in real danger because of his part in the prophecy of the final battle. Some characters literally cannot die and lose the fear of death because other other characters foresee them living through certain events. It is the ultimate plot armor. The story suffers for it.

Occasionally this trope gets subverted to good effect. In the Discworld we have Carrot, possibly the last king of Ankh Morpork. To him the prophecy of which he is the chosen one is little more than a passing thought to him, one fulcrum upon which the weight of one decision swings, and he makes his choice with an abrupt finality.

Mistborn spoilers ahead:

Another example of excellent subversion is the Mistborn Trilogy. In Mistborn, prophecy and history are one and the same as the main characters attempt to recreate the circumstances leading to the Hero of Ages. The chosen one is thought to be no less than 3 different characters, and a final, fantastically maneuvered twist reveals that it was a fourth all along. I am, unfortunately, the Hero of Ages. In this case the characters still have the faculty of driving the prophecy, and in fact the trope is subverted further by the big bad actively changing the prophecy in an attempt to manipulate the text of the prophecy to suit his needs.


Any other thoughts on prophecy? Feel free to post them here or email me with them.


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