Contrived Destiny: Prophecies in Storytelling

So lately, I’ve been thinking about prophecies.  And I’m not talking about prophecies as in biblical prophecies or any of that Nostradamus stuff.  That’s a story for another time.  What I’m talking about are prophecies in fiction.  You know what I mean: in a story a prophecy will say this or that, and then the characters end up stressing about the prophecy instead of doing anything about it even though they have adequate time to take care of things and then their laziness actually makes the prophecy come true and MY GOD WHY AREN’T YOU PEOPLE DOING ANYTHING?!

No?  Just me?

When I was younger, I didn’t really have an issue with prophecies when it came to fiction.  To me, it was just a thing, especially in fantasy.  You know, some great evil would return to the world and only the chosen hero or heroes could defeat it, that sort of thing.  But more and more, I’ve come to the realization that prophecies can be really lazy.  And indeed it seems like some stories rely on them heavily, like a sort of crutch.

This is kind of an oblique example, but here goes:

You’ve probably heard of the reboot Star Trek movies directed by J.J. Abrams.  Now, I don’t really have an issue with them.  They’re mindless, action movies that kind of miss the point of what Star Trek was about, but they’re still fun to watch.  However, once I had this particular thing pointed out to me, I couldn’t un-see it.

In the first reboot movie, time is re-written when the villain is sucked through a black hole type thing and ends up in the past.  He attacks a Federation ship and destroys it, which kills Kirk’s father.  Fast-forward into the future, and Kirk is an edgy, dark young man who gets into bar fights and has a problem with authority.  Later on in the movie, he ends up marooned on an ice planet after he pisses off Spock.  Being chased by what might as well be a Yeti, Kirk finds himself in an ice cave.  And there he meets…Old Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy (rest in peace).  Old Spock tells him that in the timeline he comes from, Spock and Kirk are best friends.  Therefore, because of that, they are sort of destined to work together.  With that knowledge, Kirk and Spock inevitably put aside their differences and work together.

But that’s kind of lazy storytelling when you think about it, isn’t it?

Instead of Kirk and Spock naturally becoming friends, they end up as friends because they’re supposed to to be friends.  History has been changed.  Events occurred differently, shaping Kirk and Spock into different people than they would have been originally.  But instead of figuring out a clever way to use Kirk’s brashness and Spock’s logical thinking to save the day, they just force the two together because Old Spock said it was meant to be.

Their characters don’t really develop.  They’re just fated to be together…apparently.

 

Old Spock (Leonard Nimoy)

 

And this is something you can see in a lot of stories with prophecies in them.  Why does the hero become the hero?  Does he work hard?  Is he of admirable character?  Does he train and get stronger over time?  Or does he become the hero because some obscure, ancient writing said he was going to be the hero?

Now, prophecies can be used in interesting ways.  Take the video game “Final Fantasy X” for example.  In the game, there is this giant monster that returns to devastate the world and only a summoner can defeat it.  But to do so, they must sacrifice themselves to summon a being powerful enough to defeat it.  Later on, the main characters come to the realization that this is all a bunch of nonsense, because the monster will just keep coming back over and over again.  It’s at that point where the heroes basically say “screw prophecies” and forge their own path.  In that way, it uses prophecy to expose the flawed nature of the religion that the game’s world is based on.

So you see, you could do that.  Or you could do what “Snow White and the Huntsman” did: kill off Kristen Stewart, only to have her magically come back to life and suddenly be a badass warrior.

Why?  Because prophecy baby!

By insisting that a character be a hero according to prophecy, a writer can get past all sorts of pesky things like character growth, development, training, and so on.  The hero can just have god damn magical powers if they want.  And why not?  It’s a prophecy!  Anything goes!  Even “The Matrix” pulled something like that, although in that case it actually worked because it served to highlight the movie’s theme of rebirth.

 

Wait…Neo is an anagram for “one”? My god it’s ALL COMING TOGETHER!

 

Like I said, prophecy isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  It’s just too easy to use as a lazy crutch.  Why bother coming up with experiences for the character to justify their growth into a hero when you can just predestine that from the very beginning?  No one’s going to question it, because it has to be so if the prophecy said it.

The problem with prophecies is that they often become too binding.  They force things to play out in a certain way, whether it fits in line with the prophecy or not.  There are two basic outcomes to a prophecy in fiction:

  1. The prophecy comes true.  Heroes deal with the fallout and try to fix things.
  2. The prophecy doesn’t come true.  Cue preachy message about the future not being written in stone.

As you can see, there’s not a lot of wiggle room between these two outcomes.  At best, prophecies are usually a convenient way to foreshadow a major, future event.

At worst, they’re just lazy writing.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for my next short story, and as always, have a wonderful week!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

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