The Use of Prophecy in Fiction

prophecy2Happy Halloween, everyone! A while back I mentioned that the use of prophecy was one of the reasons that I didn’t like James Patterson’s Witch and Wizard. Admittedly, this was only one of a host of problems with the novel, but it was a significant issue. I claimed that there was a ‘right’ way and a ‘wrong’ way of presenting prophecy in fiction. I may have overstated this somewhat, there are likely several right ways and several wrong ways of presenting prophecy, but there are things that you certainly should and should not do. Someone asked about this in a comment and, since it is far too complicated for a comment response, I thought I’d dedicate a post or two to the subject. There are a few key factors in how prophecies are historically presented, and we all know that I emphasize attention to real world details in fiction. While speculative fiction does not deal with the real world, it must still be believable, and examining and using real world details can help to achieve this end. So:

1) Prophecies are Usually General in Nature: Most historical prophecies are non-specific and could have multiple possible outcomes. This is one of the major problems that I had with Patterson’s use of prophecy. The statement: John Smith will invade New York City with an army of giant roaches on December 12, 2027 is not a claim that would ever appear as a prophecy. There are some biblical prophecies that are quite specific, and a few of the prophecies of Nostradamus and the Prophets of the LDS Church are fairly specific. However, even the claim: A child of the line of David will be born in Bethlehem, is incredibly specific for a prophecy. In fact, there are several Old Testament scholars who argue that the book of Daniel was not written until circa 200 BCE (about the time it was accepted into the Hebrew canon) predominantly because the book has very specific prophecies that serve as strong evidence of supernatural inspiration if it was written before the rise of Rome. A much more common prophecy might be: A great disaster will befall the mighty people. This kind of general terminology is very common in actual prophecies.

delphi-oracle2) Prophecies are Often Written in Metaphoric or Symbolic Language: While it is certainly not unheard of for prophecies to use straightforward language (as in the prophecy about Bethlehem above), they often do not. Prophecies generally require some degree of interpretation precisely because they use symbolic language. In the prophecies of Nostradamus and the prophecies of the Greek oracles this was quite common. It is also seen frequently in biblical prophecy. For instance, Isaiah 17 speaks of a ‘tall, smooth people’ who have been interpreted as Nubians, Assyrians, and Egyptians by different scholars. Similarly, the prophecies of Daniel often use animals to represent world powers, and the prophecies of Revelation use strongly figurative language to present world events.

3) Prophecies are Generally False: Biblical prophecy stands out because it is a great exception to this rule. A large portion of Old Testament prophecy, and some New Testament prophecy, is arguably factual. Again, this is why many scholars argue for late dates for Daniel and some of the minor prophets, and one of the reasons (though not the primary reason) that some scholars argue for two or more authors for the book of Isaiah, one Preexilic and the rest Postexilic. Outside of scripture, Nostradamus is probably the most accurate prophet in world history and his prophecies are only about 50% (I think) accurate.

4) Prophecies are Always Given in a Context: Prophecies don’t speak of nothing. Consider the Greek Oracles or Frank Herbert’s use of prophecy in Dune. Prophecies, even those that are false, are generally significant to the culture and exist in the context of a body of religious or occult lore with which the culture is familiar. Prophecies don’t stand alone. Even the prophecies of Nostradamus, probably the closest major prophecies to ‘standing alone’ exist in the context of the prophet’s life, occult beliefs and practices, and his body of work.

cover-of-dune-book-by-frank-herbert-artwork-by-henrik-sahlstrom5) Prophecies are Often Misinterpreted: Because they are given in vague, symbolic, or metaphorical language, and because they speak of events to come, prophecies are very easy to misinterpret. Consider the prophecies surrounding the Jewish messiah. Several scholars have shown that Jesus of Nazareth, at least in the recorded gospels, fulfills over a hundred different Old Testament prophecies (a ridiculous feat in and of itself). However, the Jews never expected a messiah that would be crucified by the Romans. The oracle in Oedipus Rex is another good example of this. The prophecy is self-fulfilling because it was misinterpreted by Oedipus’ father as a warning to be rid of the child.

6) Prophecies Come from a ‘Reliable’ Source: In Witch and Wizard Patterson has his ‘prophecies’ appearing randomly on what sounds like an electronic display board in an abandoned department store. He even mentions that most of the ‘prophecies’ have to do with upcoming sales. Historically speaking, whether the prophecies are true or false, they come from a source that is fundamentally trustworthy to the people to whom the prophecy is give. The Greek’s believed in the oracles, the Jews believed in the prophets, many occultists believe in Nostradamus, and members of the LDS church believe in the Prophet of the LDS church. The source must be fundamentally trustworthy to the prophecies recipients.

Nostradamus7) Prophecies Rarely Give the Whole Story: Consider again the Greek Oracles and biblical prophecies. Both generally gave either a very general overview of events (i.e. Daniels prophecies), or a partial story (i.e. Oedipus Rex and Messianic prophecies). While Messianic prophecies do give us a fair picture overall, this picture only becomes clear when the hundreds… let me be clear here hundreds… of messianic prophecies in the Old Testament are compiled, analyzed, and pieced together. No particular messianic prophecy gives a clear picture of what to expect. Instead, each provides a small piece of the greater puzzle.

So, if you are thinking about using prophecy in a story, consider these basic principles before you give it a whirl. I’m not against the use of prophecy, especially in fantasy stories. Honestly, I think that when prophecy is done well it can provide an exciting and interesting element to the story. Frank Herbert’s use of prophecy in Dune is an excellent example of this. However, be careful that you don’t make simple mistakes that lead to ‘prophecies’ that are 1) too easy, 2) pointless, or 3) unbelievable. Instead, make the prophecies a real and living part of your world.

Balance in Writing

NarrativeControlProse is a delicate balance of dialogue, action, description, and narrative. Too much or too little of any of these, and you lose the balance and your reader gets board or frustrated and walks away. Thing is, every author creates his or her own balance. For instance, Frank Herbert has a massive amount of description in his writing, and comparatively little dialogue. However, Herbert’s description is fascinating. I’ve been told a number of times, and I have to agree, that while reading Herbert’s descriptions of the desert in Dune your mouth dries out and you start feeling hot. Compare this to Glen Cook, who has a lot of dialogue and action with relatively little description, or Clive Cussler, who has a lot of action and less description and dialogue, and it’s easy to feel more than a little confused about how writing actually works. Here’s the thing: the balance is your own, but the balance is still important.

balanceFirst of all, remember that you can’t please everyone. Every reader is going to like or dislike something different about your writing. Sometimes one reader will be bored with something another reader finds intriguing. Sometimes one reader will be put off by something another reader enjoys. I think I’ve said this before, but remember that while there are plenty of things that everyone agrees is bad writing, there is almost nothing that everyone agrees is good writing. I know people who scoff at Stephen King, look down their noses at Tolkien, and have nothing positive to say about Twain.

(Photo Credit)
(Photo Credit)

Second, remember that over-doing one thing is generally bad. Herbert can get away with massive amounts of description because Herbert’s description makes your mouth dry out and your eyes water. Chances are that you are not Frank Herbert, so don’t try to be. This doesn’t mean that you can’t write is a way that is comfortable to you. If you like description, be descriptive, but be aware of what is enough, and what is too much. Listen to people who read your work and give feedback instead of arguing with them (this is one of my biggest problems as a writer). However, as Kipling’s poem says ‘If all men count with you, but none too much’. You are not writing to an audience of one editor. I generally try to get multiple people to read what I write, and if one person brings up an issue I log it. If two people bring up the same issue, I listen. If three or more people bring up the same issue, then I know its something that needs to change.

Third, remember that none of the above should be non-existent in your writing. All the action and dialogue don’t matter if I have no idea where anyone is or what they look like. Beautiful descriptions are kind of pointless if no-one ever does anything. There are a few specific pieced that focus entirely on one or the other, but they tend to be both short and rare. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of skill to write even a short story that only includes one of the important components, and even these tend to include some form of the other components, just not a direct form.

Lastly, remember to vary your use of all of these components. If you only use still descriptions, people will get bored. If you only use living descriptions, people will get confused. Similarly, if your characters all talk the same, or if specific actions are always described in the same way, then your readers will get frustrated.

The key to writing well is to write. Write as much as you can, as often as you can, and don’t be afraid of writing badly. If you don’t like it, no one else has to read it, and if you show it to a few people and they don’t like it, then you can keep it to yourself. There are very few author’s whose first books are incredible, or even published for that matter. We have to practice, and we all start out writing badly. Instead of being afraid of that, use it.

Heroes are Hard

This picture was found here. I know that this comes from a comic, but I don't remember who the artist was.
This picture was found here. I know that this comes from a comic, but I don’t remember who the artist was.

Well, Selayna has exams this week, and so she’s taking a break from posting to focus on studying. However, she’s had a pretty good series going on how she writes and what she struggles with, and I wanted to add in my two cents. So, here is my confession: I really struggle to write heroes. I think anyone who reads my fiction can attest that I major in the darker side of fiction. The world of Avnul especially is not a happy place. It is a place where the strong prey on the weak, where ancient gods care little for their followers, and where good people die young more often than not. In Avnul heroes are lucky if they make it through a story alive and intact, and ‘winning’ generally means surviving to fight another day. I’m not going to go into the reasons for this, but I get dark fiction. If I do say so myself I can write some pretty great villains, and I’m pretty descent at writing anti-heroes and redeemed heroes. However, a hero that’s really just a genuinely good person… this is something I struggle with.

I think the only genuinely good hero I’ve written is Amet (from The Rise of the Neshelim being published as a serial by Lantern Hollow Press). Amet is far from perfect, but he is honestly a good person who wants to do what is right. He’s courageous, kind, compassionate, and strong, and he struggles under the burden of leadership. However, much as I love Amet, and understand him, I haven’t been able to replicate the character without… you know, replicating the character. Every other genuine hero that I’ve tried to write either comes out as Amet, or as some wonky walking cliche with a sword.

Don’t get me wrong, I love writing villains, and writing dark fiction, and I really love writing redemption stories, but every now and then I’d like to throw a clear hero into the mix. I know that for a lot of people heroes are hard to write, and right now flawed heroes and anti-heroes are very in, but some of my favorite characters in fiction are true heroes. David Eddings’ Sparhawk, comics Superman and Captain America, and Frank Herbert’s Leto Atreides, among other are character’s that I look at and honestly admire. They are simply virtuous. They aren’t boring, aren’t cliched or hackneyed, and they certainly are perfect, but they are faced with hard choices, and every time they take the high road. They decide, over and over, to do the right thing, even when it hurts them, and even when it’s hard, and I love this about them. I’ve heard too many times that good guys are boring, and I disagree! Cliches are boring, hackneyed perfection is boring, heroes who never really struggle are boring, but good guys, true heroes are anything but boring. They are, however, hard to write and hard to come by, but a genuinely good hero inspires and motivates us to be better than we are, to choose the right thing, and to inspire other’s with our example as they have inspired us with theirs. I’d really like to be able to write this someday, and maybe someday I will be.

Anyway, who else struggles with heroes? Does anyone have an easy time writing them? Anyone have any suggestions?

Must Reads

Enter here to tales of yore,

Everyone has their list of books that they think are amazing.  We tend to tell people that they must read these books, thus the title, must reads.  However, while there are a lot of great books out there, and a lot of books that are beneficial to read, there are relatively few books or authors that one ‘must read’.  Books/authors that one ‘must read’ are books/authors that have become foundational to a particular genre, or that have significantly changed that genre in some way.  So, I have compiled a list of ‘must reads’ for Science Fiction and Fantasy fans.  You will not that this list is relatively short (comparatively speaking) and at least a few books that you think should be on it, aren’t.  Again, these are books/authors that founded or significantly altered the genre.

Isaac Asimov: Asimov wrote numerous short stories and a number of novels.  However, he is best known for his Foundation Trilogy.  Asimov effectively founded the Science Fiction genre, and thus is definitely a must read.

J.R.R. Tolkien:  Tolkien was a prolific author, so prolific that books of his short stories and still be found and newly published by his descendants.  Best know for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien is to fantasy what Asimov is to Science Fiction.

C.S. Lewis: While not as prolific a fiction author, nor as influential to the genre as Tolkien, Lewis’s work and relationship with Tolkien are both significant to the genre.

Edgar Allan Poe: Poe is not the first person to come to mind when one thinks of sci-fi/fantasy.  His work primarily belongs to the genres of horror and mystery, but the influence of Poe’s writing is felt throughout the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror genres and thus he is a must read for any fan.

H.P. Lovecraft: Like Poe, Lovecraft’s writing belongs primarily in the realm of horror.  However, Lovecraft’s influence is also felt throughout all three genres, and to truly understand any of them, one must be familiar with his work.

Frank Herbert: Dune, Dune Messiah, and Children of Dune are all profoundly influential novels that have helped to shape the sci-fi genre in its entirety.  It is difficult to find a good sci-fi author (or film maker) who has not been influenced by Herbert’s work.

Of many man and dragons score,

Robert Heinlein: Like Herbert, Heinlein is a name that should be familiar to all sci-fi fans.  While Herbert dealt more with the philosophical, Heinlein’s fiction deals with practical and political concerns.  Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers are suggested.

George Orwell: While there are many great dystopian authors, Orwell is arguably the most prolific and influential (thought both Ray Bradbury and Aldous Huxley rank only slightly lower).  Animal Farm and 1984 are suggested.

Sir Thomas More:  More’s novel Utopia (1516) is responsible for the great flood of dystopian fiction of the 20th century.  While the novel itself is not a must read, familiarity with its ideas is important.

George Macdonald: Macdonald was a significant influence on the work of both Tolkien and Lewis, and many consider Macdonald’s writing to be the first true fantasy written for adults.  Phantastes is recommended (although my favorites have always been The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdy, though these are written for children).

Robert E. Howard: Best known for Conan The Barbarian, and his many short stories involving this character.  It is argued that Howard introduced the first protagonist with a significantly different moral structure in fantasy.

Ursula K. Leguin: The Earthsea series is almost as foundational to the development of modern fantasy as Tolkien’s work.

Terry Brooks: While his work is often as maligned as it is loved among fans of the fantasy genre, the Shannara series led a major change in the way that fantasy was published (if not the way that it was written) and opened doors for many other fantasy authors.

And of the living lands all covered in war.

Stephen R. Donaldson: Donaldson’s work in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: The Unbeliever stood side by side with Brooks’ Shannara novels in reintroducing the fantasy genre to the American public.

Glen Cook:  While Brooks and Donaldson changed the way that fantasy was published, Cook changed the way that fantasy was written.  Before Cook the fantasy genre was dominated by stories about kings, princes, and maidens.  The tales tended to revolve around men and women of significant power and influence, who changed the world.  Cook’s The Black Company changed this focus.  Cook’s series looks at fantasy through the eyes of the soldier, the mercenary, and the peasant.  Instead of great heroes, Cook’s protagonists are men and women who’s primary goal is to stay alive, and to get home with all their parts intact.

Should You Avoid Cliches?

Why do you think no one writes about Hobbits?

The short answer to this question is, yes.  You should always do your best to avoid cliches.  I mentioned in an earlier post that you should think long and hard before allowing a cliche into your work.  Generally, even when you do it intentionally, a cliche is going to come off as just that, a cliche.  It will seem trite, silly, and obvious and will bring the entirety of your work down a level.

Now I know you’re thinking, ‘but what about so and so? He had such and such?’  Yes, most of your favorite authors probably have cliches in their work.  They can get away with this for two reasons, 1)When they were writing, those cliches weren’t cliches (it is often the best authors that actually create a cliche, because everyone copies them) and 2) They are better writers than you.  Unless you really, honestly think that you are the next J.R.R. Tolkien, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, or Steven Erikson (and have outside, professional corroboration of this opinion) then you can’t judge what you can do by what they can do.

Think of it this way: You’re trying to lose weight.  Your best friend, however, is the kind of person that never puts on a pound and runs five miles a day.  Your friend can get away with eating two cheeseburgers and three jelly donuts for lunch.  You, on the other hand, probably need to stick with a salad.  Right now, stick with the salad.  You’ll get better, you’ll get published, you’ll find an audience that loves you.  Then, if you still want to, you can start writing those stories about farm boy heros, timid princesses, and fearless knights.

I mean really! Tolkien is responsible for a lot of the cliches in the fantasy genre!

The other thing you need to realize, and I’ve mentioned this before, is that everyone sees different cliches.  Personally I tend to think that the entire Medieval Fantasy genre is cliche.  I’ll only read the best of the best of the best when it comes to Medieval Fantasy, because I don’t like it.  Give me Oriental fantasy, ancient fantasy, South American fantasy…actually I’d love to see some South American or African Fantasy.  I can only think of one South American fantasy novel that I’ve seen (and it didn’t look very good), and no fantasy in a strictly native African setting.

Personally most of what I’ve written has been fantasy with either a Middle Eastern or Oriental setting, a little in a Native American styled setting.

I say this so that you realize that, at least for some people, entire genres can be considered cliche.  This is not to say that any specific genre is entirely horrible (there are many people that love Medieval Fantasy), but that people define cliche differently on a regular basis.  There are even some people that love cliches, and seek them out (though these people are generally not publishers).

So, to sum up all of my posts on this topic in one sentence: Avoid cliches, but don’t be afraid of them.