Writing Tips

Fantasy Cliche: Prophecy

Many fantasy books have some type of prophecy. The Lord of the Rings boasts a prophecy about how the King of Gondor will return with healing in his hands. Harry Potter speaks of the “chosen one.” Star Wars has the one who will balance the Force. Most fantasy (and some science fiction) includes a vague prophecy about a future hero who will help good or evil triumph in the world. But why is this? And are prophecies now clichéd and too old-fashion for modern fantasy?

Fantasy Cliche Prophecy: Its purpose and 6 practical tips

Some History of Fantasy Prophecies

Historically fantasy was wrought with prophecies, and this tradition of prophecies probably translated into the modern cliché. Before Tolkien published The Hobbit and launched the genre into modern times and popular view, he drew from Old Norse and other ancient cultures’ myths. From Anglo-Saxon and Norse myths, such as Beowulf and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, to Greek epics like the Odyssey, prophecies have helped drive the plot. Notably, all of these prophecies were directly tied into religion and dealt with the relationship between gods and humans. Later myths such as the Legends of King Arthur drew inspiration from the prophecies of the Judeo-Christian Bible in addition to Anglo-Saxon myths. J. R. R. Tolkien, who truly popularized fantasy in the modern world, also included a many prophecies and the tradition continued as he led the way for modern fantasy.

But are prophecies now cliché?

Most bloggers, authors, agents, and publishing companies certainly think so, and in most cases, I have to agree. There are countless fantasy novels that contain mediocre to bad poetry that tells some vague and useless prophecy which either we see right through or it makes no sense and is completely useless. When a bland and boring prophecy is used to move the plot along, many readers don’t even notice the lazy writing. But now, readers and publishers are getting more picky. Do we really need a doomsday prophecy to motivate our hero?

But are we just misunderstanding of the purpose of prophecies?

Historically in fantasy and religiously, prophecy has a very specific purpose. In the Bible, the prophets were neither primarily focused on the future nor sent to perform miraculous signs. The prophets were sent to reveal sin and encourage repentance at the present time. Threats of judgement (prophecy) and demonstrations of divine authority (miracles) were the methods to bring about repentance. The biblical purpose of prophecy is to call the people to repentance or to make the way for the Savior.

Interestingly enough, most fantasy throughout history has the same purpose for prophecy. The prophecies in Homer’s Odyssey warn of dire consequences to Odysseus’ actions and set the path for Odysseus to take back his home. The prophecies in the legends of King Arthur make the path for Arthur to become king and warn of the consequences of sin. Lewis’ prophecy in The Silver Chair deals with warning against disobedience, and his prophecy in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe tells of the coming of Aslan. Tolkien’s prophecies in The Silmarillion are simple: don’t do that or you will die/suffer something much worse. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien uses prophecies to encourage the people of Middle Earth to support Aragorn and Frodo.

So Here are Six Rules for Writing Proper Prophecy:

1. Your prophecy must primarily serve as a call to repentance or as a way of preparing the people for a savior

As covered before, this is the purpose of prophecy. If you want to write a “prophecy” that does neither of these two things, then you have the wrong narrative technique. You may be looking for foreshadowing instead….

2. Don’t use prophecy as foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is a fantastic literary technique, but it does not belong in prophecies. Prophecies are supposed to serve a purpose. If your prophecy does not clearly call the people to repentance and clearly warn of the consequences, then it is useless. If the prophecy does not clearly identify and pave the way for the savior, then it is also useless (Note: Not all may recognize the savior, but it must be clear to at least some of the characters and your rational readers.) Prophecy is just too obvious and crude for foreshadowing– try symbols or dialogue if you want to foreshadow.

3. The initial prophecy should not be vague and hard to understand

Note how I used the word “initial.” If a prophecy has be distorted over thousands of years, then it might be hard to understand (especially if a god has not intervened to preserve the prophecy.) But since prophecy is given for a reason to communicate something to your characters, then rational, educated characters need to understand the message. And above all, the reader should understand the message. Characters may be blinded by emotions, but you don’t want to insult your readers by tricking them with something impossible to understand until afterward.

4. Prophecies can have hidden meaning but should have immediate value for the characters

Again, prophecies are communication. It is great to have prophecies with hidden meanings that are discovered afterwards, in fact, many of the best do, but have there be a practical and understandable message as well.

5. Prophecies should involve the divine

Biblical prophecy and prophecy in historical fantasy has always come from God or gods as communication to man. If you don’t make this explicit, then the prophecy will feel like a cheap plot motivator. Now, this doesn’t mean that only religious fantasy can have prophecies. A lot of fantasy deals with gods without messing (much) with religion: think The Odyssey and The Lord of the Rings. You can even just barely mention the god that inspired the prophecy and leave it there. Though, I mean, why not address some fun questions about divine and human relationships? But that is up to you.

6. If you are not a master of poetry, then write your prophecy in a different format

Not much is worse than a having bad poetry shoved down your throat. It doesn’t matter the purpose of your prophecy if you put it in a terrible poem. There is no shame in having a prophecy written without meter and rhyme. If it seems to dull, then carve it in stone or put it in a sealed scroll. But if you can’t write poetry, then please don’t. Spare us all.

So what do you think about fictional prophecies? What did I get wrong? Any revisions that you are thinking about for your fictional prophecy? I know that I will be rewriting mine in the next few months. Also do you have any other cliches you would like me to tackle?

God bless,

Gabrielle

Writing Tips

Five Ways to Twist the Chosen One Cliche

Many, many popular books use the “Chosen One” storyline. The basic idea is that some unsuspecting, ordinary character is actually a hero (often, but not always, a prophesied hero) and is the only one who can save the world. Lord of the Rings (Aragorn), Harry Potter (Harry Potter), Divergent (Tris), Ender’s Game (Ender), and many other famous stories use this storyline with great effect.

But readers do not like clichés, and the Chosen One has become a cliché.

So, as writers, we have three options: to abandon, to copy, or to twist the cliché. There is nothing wrong with any of the three options (Tolkien, himself, copied the storyline from Medieval stories), but here are five suggestions if you are looking to twist the Chosen One cliché and use the reader’s familiarity with the storyline to your advantage.

(Please note that I am not guaranteeing that these twists have never been used—in fact, I have read a couple books, myself, that use a some of these twist. I am just saying that these twists are ways to deepen the cliché and are not used as often.)

Five Ways to Twist the Chosen One Cliche

  1. The prophecy was false/faked. For this twist, the basic set up is the same: a prophecy declaring that there would be a hero who would rescue the world from some oppression. But what if the prophecy was either a false prophecy, or the very evil/oppression, itself, invented the prophecy to use for their advantage? They could raise up a man accord to the prophecy, their puppet pretending to be good, and then control him—effectively putting down all rebellion or really chances for good to rise from the people. They could even stage a rebellion with this puppet chosen one, give the appearance of the old evil being destroyed, but really be controlling the new power.
  2. The chosen one is evil/abandons the calling. This twist can be seen, a little bit, in the prequel Star War trilogy, but I would love to see this twist done with actually interesting characters (who aren’t whinny brats. Looking at you, Anakin.) What if the chosen one does not want to save the world? What if he decides to farm instead? Or what if he likes the power a bit too much? How can you oppose someone prophesied to win and save the world? Enter the real main character.
  3. The chosen one is not the obvious character. In most stories that have a chosen one, it is very clear who it is. But what if, for most of your novel, your characters (and reader) believe that someone else is the chosen one. To do this, you would most likely have to make the real chosen one a supporting character and not the main character, or the reader would see through the ruse. What if the chosen one is only revealed at the very end—right before they die? That could be fun, especially for your readers when they reader your novel a second time and see all of the hints that they missed!
  4. The popular prophecy is not the true prophecy. History tends to be muddled and get messed up over time. So what if the prophecy was not passed down properly over generations? Or what is some secret part of the prophecy is deliberately hidden from the chosen one? If so, what was the motivation for hiding part of the prophecy? Manipulation, protection, or something else?
  5. There are multiple prophecies, spanning multiple cultures. If the chosen one is supposed to save the whole world, then why does only one culture have a prophecy about them? Maybe multiple cultures have multiple versions of the prophecy, each with a different twist and each missing information. Maybe they even appear to contradict each other (do they contradict or do they just appear to contradict?). I am currently reading a book series, The Wheel of Time, that does this, and it is very effective and interesting.

Do you like to use the Chosen One cliché? Did you put a twist on it or have an idea for twisting it that I forgot to mention? Or perhaps, you would like to recommend a book that twists the chosen one cliché in an interesting way (I love book recommendations!)

God bless,

Gabrielle

Writing Tips

10 Fantasy Clichés and Ideas to Change Them

Walk into any book store, and you will find shelves and shelves of fantasy books. But the same clichés run through most of them, and many are so predictable that you only have to read the back cover to guess the entire plot. Now, while I don’t suggest getting rid of every fantasy clichés in your novel (if you do, your novel might not be considered fantasy any more 😉 ), maybe you can have fun putting your own twist on a couple of these age old clichés. So here is a list of 10 of the most popular fantasy clichés and suggestions to inspire you to change or twist the clichés to make unique, interesting novel ideas.

And while, of course, not all fantasy books include these clichés, many of them do. Now there is nothing wrong with a classic fantasy story, sometimes it is fun to let your imagination take over and do something different. If there are any fantasy clichés that really bother you and I forgot or if you know of any good fantasy books which break out from the basic fantasy mold, let us know in the comments!

10 Fantasy Cliches and Ideas to Change Them

  1. The Prophecy of the Chosen One

You know this one had to be on here, right? Plenty of fantasy books have some sort of prophecy revolving around a reluctant hero who appears to be no one and their journey of saving the world. Some examples are Aragorn (The Lord of the Rings), Harry Potter (Harry Potter), Aidan (The Door Within), Eragon (The Inheritance Cycle), and many, many others.

A couple of ways to change this: Instead of a prophecy about the hero, could you have a prophecy about a rising villain? What if the heir to the prophecy is a spoiled rich brat who has known about the prophecy all of his life instead of a humble farm boy? Or you could just cut the prophecy and *gasp* have the character motivate himself to save the world! This cliché is actually so popular that I had to write an entirely different blog post about how to twist this one fantasy cliché.

  1. A Medieval European World

There are very few fantasy worlds that are not based on Medieval Europe. Most fantasy novels, if you get rid of all the magic and magical creatures, you are left with Medieval Europe; the clothing, the social order (knights, lords, kings, and serfs), the castles, the weapons, and everything else is based on this one time period. This is almost a defining feature of fantasy, but it could be very interesting to twist this.

A couple of ways to change this: What is you had an Arab nomadic based fantasy culture in a desert? Or perhaps you could base your world on tribes in the Amazon rainforest? Wouldn’t that be really interesting?

  1. Names must be Finnish/Welsh/Celtic/Norse Based 

This cliché almost falls under the previous category, but I wanted to give it is own section. Eragon, Caspian, Moraine, Gandalf (literally “staff elf” taken from an old poem about dwarves), etc. are all from one of the languages above (or some closely related language). I’d challenge you to look up your favorite fantasy character’s name and just try to prove this wrong.

A couple of ways to change this: Why not have Spanish, Arabic, or Native American based fantasy names? If you are in school, you could even use your foreign language class to provide inspiration. Moreover, wouldn’t it be cool to mix cultures? We could have Arabic based names in a Native American based fantasy world?

  1. The Main Character Wields a Sword

On the rare occasion, we get the treat of an archer main character, but it is rare. Most heroes (or even mentors and main villains) are swordsmen. Why? I really don’t know or care, but we need to add some variety.

A couple of ways to change this: Archers are totally and completely awesome and main character material (Check out this cool video.) But bows and arrow are not the only other fantasy weapons out there. Of course, we could have an ax wielding main character, but what about quarterstaves (huge sticks that are pretty fearsome to see in action)? These weapons are not just for side characters– let your main characters have some fun, too.

  1. Only Bows, Axes, and Swords Allowed for Other Characters

There are other Medieval weapons, you know 😉 But we rarely see them in fantasy novels. While the occasional bad buy might have a mace, no other weapons are really seen.

A couple of ways to change this: I mentioned quarterstaves above because they are one of my favorites, but there are so many other fun weapons for both side and main characters. Why not add in some javelins, lances, quivers of spears, morning stars, halberds, fighting knives, or even blow darts? Research and find some obscure weapons, or go invent your own! There are plenty of other ways to kill people. Muhahaha!

  1. Governments must be Monarchies

Again, this cliché goes back to fantasies being based in Medieval Europe which– guess what?– mostly had monarchies. So let’s change that.

A couple of ways to change this: Can you have a republic or democracy in a fantasy world? Or perhaps a totalitarian government or a plutocracy? If you are writing religious fantasy, you could even have a theocracy. Or go a step farther and have different nations have different types of governments in your fantasy world. Not sure about what these governments are? You can do some quick research on Google or check out my blog post on types of governments here.

  1. Only Mythological Creatures are Elves, Dragons, Dwarves, Humans or a Variant Thereof

While a fantasy book will contain the occasional dryad or other creature and some authors will make up their own creatures, elves, humans, and dragons almost always get the spot light. Some fantasy books do make up their own creatures, but most of the time, those creatures seem a bit underdeveloped.

A couple of ways to change this: Why not center your fantasy world around selkies, centaurs, dryads, naiads, or some other mythical creature? There are even some lesser known ones! And don’t just include them, why not center your story around them? Also I’d highly suggest that you use an already established mythological creature— not only are there literally thousands of creatures but there is a lot of really cool history and inspiration. Here are two great links for researching underused fantasy creatures:

Epic, Underused Mythological Creatures for Fantasy Stories (Hannah Heath)

A Giant List of Legendary Creatures by Type (Wikipedia)

  1. A Complete Lack of Science

Most fantasy worlds completely or almost completely lack a scientific development past the Medieval age. (Are we beginning to see a pattern here?) I suppose authors assume that magic just replaces science, but what if you worked with both science and magic?

A couple of ways to change this: What if the scientists and magicians were in conflict, or your world combined the two “studies”? Maybe your world does not see science and magic as opposing force? Perhaps you could scientifically explain your magic?

  1. Medieval Technology

With the notable exception of the Urban Fantasy genre, fantasy worlds tend to be less technologically developed that ours. We’ve got air planes, internet, and cars, but what technology can a fantasy world have? Does magic necessarily have to replace technology?

A couple of ways to change this: Think about the basic ideas of your fantasy world, and then imagine that people worked on making these ideas and harnessing the magical energies better for a couple of hundred years. Could your fantasy world have unique technology instead of being stuck in its Dark Ages? This cliché ties closely into scientific development and scientific communities. Maybe figure out how science and technology might work with magic.

  1. There must be some Quest

Don’t get me wrong: I love a good quest. But does every fantasy books have to center around one? Must there always be a character/a group of characters who journey to complete some heroic action? Must the world always be in danger? And must that threat always be solved with a quest?

A couple of ways to change this: Why not center your fantasy books around a war between two nations and their battle strategies (with a “fair” win and not some magical item destroying the other side)? Perhaps your characters could be trying to unite a nation or trying to lead a rebellion in order to form a new fantasy nation? Or maybe after your character chases down the lost sword and defeats the evil overlord suddenly, they must not face the problem of actually ruling and saving a people who have been oppressed for generations?

But before you start changing all the fantasy cliches in your novel, I am throwing in a twist:

It is okay to have clichés in your novel.

In the modern world, uniqueness and individuality are heavily emphasized. This pressure to be unique is immense and oppressive, especially as authors, and is probably why you are reading this post in the first place. However, some clichés (even a couple of the ones mentioned above) actually point to truths about our world, and sometimes by twisting clichés, we can end up writing unrealistic fiction. In fact, Tolkien himself has some interesting thoughts on clichés that might surprise you. I don’t have the space here to get into a detailed discussion of what Truth and Tolkien have to do with fantasy clichés, but if you have the time, I’d highly suggest reading this post on Why it’s Okay to have Clichés in your Fantasy Novel.

Phew. So fantasy clichés. What do you think?

God bless,

Gabrielle