Worldbuilding 6: The Trouble with Prophecy


I love a good fantasy or space opera that has convoluted plots filled with twists and reversals that all lead up to a satisfying ending.  Invariably such epic tales almost always involve a prophetic book or story about ‘The Chosen One’ or something like that (Dune, Harry Potter, Star Wars, the Matrix, Buffy etc…).

The problem with prophecy is this:

  1. If you have foreordained writings, in order for them to be actually prophetic, they have to come true.
  2. If they don’t come to pass, or the Chosen One somehow prevents Armageddon from happening, then the prophecy is false and that negates the Chosen One.

This all goes back to a long standing debate as to whether the universe is predetermined or if it allows for free will. Now, my world is predetermined, it has prophecy.  The characters know about the prophecy, they act according to what the prophecy says.  Some don’t believe in it, but don’t actively work against it.  Every bit of the prophecy has to come about the way it says it will.  No one can change it.

That can sound very restrictive, but it isn’t.  Some have different interpretations of the prophecy, some believe that it came about already or is many centuries ahead.  No one is absolutely sure and that’s the way prophecy should be seen in fiction, the same way it is seen in reality.

All too often I read or see prophetic stories that use it as decoration.  Everyone in that world believes in the prophecy completely.  The beginning of the prophecy comes about exactly the way it says.  And invariably, the hero gets to change the part of the prophecy that predicts the end of the world.  That doesn’t work for me.  It’s simple and contradictory and frankly unforgivable for a writer.

Quite frankly, prophecy in fiction is cheating.  It gives away the story, it tells the story now show it.

But there are exceptions where this works to the writer’s favor.

Take the recent re-launches of characters shows like Hannibal or Bates Motel.  Everyone knows where Dr. Lecter and Norman Bates end up.  We know they become psychopathic killers.  The fun part is seeing how they got there.

My novel deals with the War in Heaven, the prophecy speaks about one who will try to wrest the throne from God.  No surprises there.  The fun part is how I get a third of the angelic host to turn on a benevolent God and make it seem like a good idea.  My characters have to struggle with accepting or rejecting the prophecies and deal with disappointment when they don’t come to pass the way they think they should.

The real challenge when writing about prophecy has nothing to do with the Chosen One preventing the Thousand Years of Darkness from creeping over the face of the earth but how the Chosen One reacts when he realizes that he is responsible for that darkness and there’s nothing he can do about it.


Worldbuilding 5: Economics

You can’t get something for nothing.  Not in the real world or in a magical one.  A sure sign of a novice fantasy writer is the way they treat their economics in their world.  Everything is traded in gold coin just like in the video games.  That’s because they have borrowed their economy from the same video games.

I had a tough time working out an economy in a utopian society (Heaven before the Fall).  I asked myself how would someone buy an apple in my world?  How would they buy a house?

We use stuff (metal coins and paper) to represent money.  In fantasy worlds it is preferable to use things that have real value to represent currency.  Historically people have used other things in lieu of coin.  Roman soldiers were paid in salt, that’s where we get the word salary.  Spices like pepper, cloves, and cinnamon were more valuable than gold.

And then there’s the economics of writing itself.   Yes, everyone wants to get rich by selling their story.  Only a handful of people actually get rich writing books.  You have a better chance of being a professional athlete than being a professional writer.  So why do it?  I’ll tell you why.

Writing is the hobby of a cheapskate.  It costs nothing to sit for hours pecking away at a keyboard.  Who knows, maybe one day, one of us blind monkeys will tap out the next billion dollar franchise.  No other past time gives so much joy, causes so little physical pain and has better odds at making money than the Lottery.

Even gardening cost more money to grow your own veggies than it does to buy them at the local BigBoxMart.  I confess, I have spent thousands in my garden over the years.  And the seed companies know this.  Here is a single week’s worth of catalogs I’ve received.seed catalogs

Growing fresh fruits and veggies is its own reward.  Writing is just as rewarding, but even if it doesn’t cast much, it ain’t free either.  Your time has an intrinsic value.  The time you take to write could be used to sell crap on Ebay or sell pencils on the street corner.  And even if the chances of making it big are less than it is getting struck by lightning, it’s still worth something to me.      

Worldbuilding 4: Physics and Magic

I screwed up.

The greatest problem I have with my current world is that it defies the laws of physics.  Much of the story takes place inside a giant hollow sphere (aka the Hollow Earth theory or Pellucidar to us Edgar Rice Burroughs fans).  The inside of a hollow sphere has no gravity, or I should say the gravity inside a sphere pulls towards the center.  That means my characters would spend the whole time floating in space and I can’t have that.

Now, I could ignore the laws of physics.  Most people wouldn’t catch onto the gravity bit so long as the story is good (and it is).  The thing is, it disturbed me.  I couldn’t get past it.  So, I made it a part of the story.  And it is a very cool part – at least it is in my head right now.  There is a very specific reason why the laws of physics have been broken and at one point reality reasserts itself and the laws kick in.

Magic systems need rules too.  I tend to see two types of magic in books, free magic and good magic. Free magic is abundant and simple to use.  It requires very little.  A spell, a potion, a magical object, is all that’s needed to perform the act.  Harry Potter is such a magic system, but HP isn’t about magic so much as it is about Harry.

Good magic always has a cost.  The first time I saw this was in the movie ‘The Golden Voyage of Sinbad’.  In it, the sorcerer Koura (played by Dr. Who’s Tom Baker) ages every time he casts a spell. koura By the end of the movie he’s an old man, each spell seems to take ten years off his life.  Koura old

Now that’s a high cost.  And magic should have a cost otherwise everyone would be using it for everything.

In Physics, every action has an opposite and equal reaction.  If your magic follows this rule, you will have a balanced system.  Say you want to heal a mortal wound?  What if that meant transferring the wound to another living being?  Or if you want a mage to throw a fireball, the thrower should suffer from hypothermia.

Whatever world you build, magical or otherwise, keep in mind that you can’t get something from nothing.  Everything costs something and the most important cost should come from the actions of your characters.  If your character oversleeps, there is a cost.  If she gives a bum a dollar, there needs to be reaction to it.  If not, then there’s no reason to write about it.

Worldbuild 3: Maps


Who doesn’t love maps?  I am a self-professed cartophile.  As a teen I had AAA state maps alongside my posters of Frodo, Pam Grier, and Isaac Asimov.  I still have one of those old-world maps in a frame I got as a gift seven years ago.  I really have to hang it up one of these days.

For anyone who has read an epic novel, your first experience is the map at the front of the book.  The little graphic depiction of the world you are about to immerse yourself in sets the stage for all the lands you will travel through.  The same can be said for gardens.  Mapping your beds is key for a productive garden.

This is the time of year that my wife and I pull out a large sketchpad and make out where the seedlings are going.  garden map 2013     We check it against the last few years’ maps to make sure we don’t put the same plant in a bed that had it there recently.  Tomatoes are particularly sensitive to blossom end rot from being planted in the same soil year after year.  You also don’t want incompatible plants growing next to each other like melons and potatoes.   A wise gardener will put a nitrogen hungry plant (corn) where nitrogen fixers (beans) grew the year before.

I’m a pro when it comes to mapping out a garden but I suck at mapping out my worlds.  I draw out a rough sketch and that does it for me.  world sketch 1The big temptation is to download or (bleh) purchase a map making software.  Don’t do it, unless you want to waste an incredible amount of time learning the software only to end up with a crappy map.  Leave it up to the publisher to finish a map.

Garden and author maps are not meant for the general public.  They are messy, often inaccurate things that can confuse those not living in our worlds.  With a map you can (generally) see where you are heading.  Without one, it is very easy to get lost and even easier to give up.