Now, I know: prophecies can be horribly cliched, especially when they just assume it. When the whole “in times distant past, an ancient monk had a dream on dragonmount summit” bit is missing and they kinda just assume that the prophecy is known by all (like they do in the Narnia movies), then we have a problem. However, used correctly and non-cringily (if that’s even a word), this cliché can be put to incredible use.
The thing I like best about the addition of a prophetic element is the themes you can explore. Will the main hero be able to change his fate, or is there no escape? Is fate changeable, or is it just chance? The idea of absolute authority is an idea you can toy with until the end of time.
But how to create a quality prophecy? There a few main criteria, but the most important is the prophet himself (or herself). Crafting a good prophet is essential to the creation of a good prophecy. The first prophets ever recorded hail from Genesis, in the Bible: Moses, Abraham, Joseph. Later, you get much more prophet-type fire-and-brimstone guys like Elijah, Elisha, Jeramiah, and others.
Farther on, into the realm of popular culture, we get characters like Gandalf from Lord of the Rings and Zeratul from the popular real-time strategy StarCraft. These are the bearers of unwelcome tidings from the future, yet, if they are rejected, severe damage is inflicted on those who do not listen.
Let’s take some cues: to start off, the prophet is disliked wherever he/she walks. Since he/she is constantly and unwaveringly the bearer of bad new, he/she is bound to be disliked. Since they are constantly advertising, they are known throughout the land. So if you plan to make a good prophecy, first make a prophet who is infamous. Make it believable.
Or, for a change, you could make the prophet revered. In a more ritualistic or spiritual society the prophet would be more likely to be accepted, so think on your feet for this one. Decide whether the prophet is honored or dishonored. Either way, he/she should have a reputation.
Next, make the prophet a traveler. This is an essential must. They have to be nomadic wanderers; constantly looking for the next piece of their puzzle. Always on the hunt. Always seeking out new ways to protect the people. The prophet is almost always a hero: an unthanked, behind-the-scenes, scored hero. So try always to make your prophet a wanderer: not an aimless wanderer or an idle busybody, just an urgently-driven, mysterious bird of passage.
Now that you’ve got the person down, let’s focus on the prophecy itself: it’s always wise to reveal your prophecy in fragments, seeing exactly as the prophet sees the whole way. This avoids the awkward “WHAT prophecy?” that may arise. Leverage this to make the story mysterious and suspenseful, and the reader begins piecing together all of the fragments into THE COMING DOOM (or whatever happens).
And, whatever you, do, make the prophecy relevant for heaven’s sakes. Relevant as in, relevant to those who the reader has sympathies for. You don’t want to spawn a prophecy that the prophet tracks down like a hound only to find out that it has almost nothing to do with the main characters.
Once it’s got relevancy and is revealed bit-by-bit, you have to make an explanation for it. Without the “why” it falls on its face. Even an only kinda-good-“why” will wreck the prophecy. Who made the prophet enlightened to these things, and why has no one else had these visions? Does the prophet have a certain ritual that they recant to allow them to see the future? Is it revealed to them by spirits or gods? These are very important questions that need answering.
Those are the basic criteria for developing both the prophecy and the prophet. Once you have both, they slot into a story quite nicely. It’s hard to fit it into a story that lacks the supernatural, so stay away from that. But other than that, it’s a very useful tool. I really like how the prophet can so easily be the Wise Councilor from the 5 Archetypes of an Award Winning Story.
Creation Challenge: Try inventing a short, 50-word summary of a prophecy in the comments below. Then, detail your prophet (who he/she is, what they look like, where they’re from, etc.) and tell us how the prophet comes to know about the prophecy, and why.
Good luck, and happy writing!
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!