Why Prophecy is the laziest literary device

I’ll never forget waiting three years between releases of the fourth and fifth Harry Potter novels. Rumor had it, we were finally going to find out WHY the evil Lord Voldemort had tried to kill innocent Harry as a baby. That was the crux of the whole series, wasn’t it?

The morning of Order of the Phoenix‘s release, I arrived at the bookstore the hour it opened (this was before they held midnight release parties – I attended those in subsequent years for Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows) and picked up my precious pre-ordered tome. Over the next few days, I did little else but devour Book 5 from cover to cover. And what did I learn between its 766 pages was the reason Voldemort had tried to kill baby Harry? Why would the Dark Lord go after the boy wizard for a whole series of seven books? The giant mystery was finally revealed!

Spoiler Alert:

Because of a prophecy. 

*Crickets*

Oh. That.

At age 12, I’m not even sure I knew what a prophecy was. But I knew at least enough to feel justifiably underwhelmed. So Voldemort believed Harry was a threat to him…because someone predicted Harry would be a threat to him. Not because Harry was particularly skilled. Not because he inherited powerful wizard genes from his family. In fact, it wasn’t because of anything Harry had, did, or was.

It was all because someone else said it would be so.

This circular reasoning is just as confusing as it is anticlimactic. J.K. Rowling even went on to include in the narrative that the “chosen one” could just as easily have been Harry’s hapless classmate, Neville. So what is the moral of the story line? Are prophecies right or can they be wrong? Does believing in or acting on a prophecy make it come true? Can it go unfulfilled if simply ignored, or are all prophecies inevitable? The answers will vary depending on which book you read – if you’re lucky enough to get an answer at all.

Prophecies don’t only appear in Harry Potter, of course. I recall feeling the same flop of disappointment reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to discover the White Witch was only after the Pevensie children because of… (*drumroll, please*) a prophecy. No other reason, really. Someone, somewhere (never mind who and when; you don’t find out) foretold that four human children would usurp the Witch’s throne – thus, the basis of the entire book’s conflict. How convenient, Mr. Lewis.

We also find prophecies in much older stories, of course, from Oedipus to Macbeth. But those works are clever and self-aware enough to play with the question of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Part of the point is the irony in that what was foretold only ended up happening as a result of the respective kings trying to prevent the prophecies about them from coming true. 

Switching back to the modern fantasy novel, though, I’ve come to the point of having read far too many books in which the main character is “chosen,” and the villain is attacking because of – how’d you guess? – a prophecy. This brings me to why I hate prophecies as literary devices. In two words:

Lazy writing.

There, I said it. Using prophecy as a plot device, and especially a motive, is nothing more than lazy writing. Not only are prophecies disappointing to readers, but all they signal is that the author didn’t want to take the time to come up with a real reason – an interesting, original, and authentic reason – for their hero, villain, and conflict to exist in the first place; or worse, they simply don’t care. As writers, it’s our job to make our work make sense. Prophecies are arbitrary, self-referencing, and they don’t make sense. Why are they there in the first place? Who knows?

But to a higher purpose, if we’re going to tell a story – and expect some people to read or even pay for it – then we’d better have something to say. When I read a book only to discover that the big “secret,” or indeed catalyst to the entire plot, is a “prophecy,” it tells me the author really had nothing to say, that he or she just wanted to write a story for the sake of writing a story.

Prophecies are cop outs. They’re the equivalent to the author tossing up her hands and deciding, “I don’t know why this needs to happen, but I know I need conflict and a reason for my protagonist to be the one to overcome it, and I can’t think of anything else.” As literary tropes go, it ought to be banned along with deus ex machina. Think about it: all it tells the reader is, This has to happen because I say so, or, perhaps more insulting, Just go with it

As writers, we’ve got to do better than that. Please, please, provide genuine reasons, explanation, and thoughtful world-building to explain your plot instead of resorting to a predestined fate that ‘must be fulfilled’. We owe our readers not only satisfying stories, but characters who rise and grow and overcome the odds, not because it was their destiny, but because they earned and fought for it through the virtues of hard work, love, courage, etc.

If your book features prophecy, I apologize if my opinionated rant here offended. My goal is never to tear down other writers, but to encourage us all to think more deeply about our craft and strive to create better books. I wrote this blog because this topic is probably my biggest pet peeve in literature – next to the evil sentence. At any rate, now you know why, as cool-sounding or popular of a keyword as it might be, you’ll never find the word ‘Prophecy’ in any of my titles. 😉

What do you think about prophecies in novels? Do you have any literary pet peeves? Post a comment!

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