For when you just want to toss those crystal balls down the stairs and watch them shatter into their component parts.
1) Introduce some alternative methods of fortune-telling beyond crystal balls, tea leaves, and Tarot cards.
I am so sick and tired of these. They appear without rhyme or reason, without any attempt to fit them into the culture, and sometimes in defiance of common sense. (When the writer has mentioned that the gypsy caravan is very bouncy and uncomfortable to ride in, I wonder why this gypsy is transporting a crystal ball instead of some sturdier method of fortune-telling. This is right after I wonder why they haven’t tried to make the caravan that’s supposed to be their home more comfortable). And when authors try to insist that they’re mystical and unique, in such convoluted prose that I can practically hear the Twilight Zone music playing in the background, I simply get sicker and more tired. You are not the first to use them, authors. Stop pretending that you are.
There are dozens and dozens of other methods of fortune-telling—which, surprisingly, seem to appear only to get discredited. Of course you can’t trust the crazy old man who reads the flight of birds! Instead, you should trust the woman who reads a crystal ball! And those people who sacrifice a chicken to read the entrails are so gross. Obviously they can’t be learning anything of value.
If you look at historical fortune-telling, you’ll find that there’s not much people weren’t willing to try to get a glimpse of their futures and a handle on their lives. Yes, chicken sacrifice may be gross, but it may also fit the culture that you’re talking about. If they don’t drink tea, and crystal balls and Tarot cards are too expensive to afford or non-existent, then you should come up with something else.
Really, the same advice applies here as across the board: Don’t turn to the first methods of magic which spring to your mind without asking questions like, “Do I need them? Do they fit my world? Am I really using them because they can benefit my story, or just because they’re there when I close my eyes?”
2) DO NOT use the fortune-telling session as an info-dumping session.
Extensive fortune-telling sessions have the same problems as extensive prophecies. (Hello, Sara Douglass’s prophecy in The Wayfarer Redemption, which is more than a page long). They’ll give too much of the game away if you’re not careful. More, they’ll turn the story into a Plot Coupon quest, where the characters trundle around the map picking up their assigned mystical artifacts, revelations, betrayals, and deaths.
Maybe there are some people who find fantasies like this comforting; I don’t know. I find it tiring. It’s one thing to know, from previous experience, that X and Y and Z are likely to happen. It’s another thing altogether to know for damn sure and certain that they will, thanks to the author having a gypsy or witch or priest babble away at the characters. “Ah, and here is the Emperor of the Sun card. That means that you will ascend to greater glory. Oh, but the Stranger of Swords is reversed, which means that you will experience betrayal from one of your own…”
Author? Hey, author! AUTHOR, OVER HERE! Yes, thank you, please put down the Tarot deck.
I want to know that the character is going to ascend to greater glory because he shows that he belongs there, or earns it in some other fashion. I want to be stunned and yet gratified by the betrayal because I can spot the clues, on a second rereading or in a sudden epiphany when the betrayal happens, that something was Not Right with this character. I don’t want to read the story and just check things off a list as they happen. “Why, there’s the greater glory bit, and there’s the betrayal—it seems the Tarot cards were right all along!” (Because of course they are. They aren’t wrong. That would be more interesting. See point 5).
This is, in essence, a cheat sheet for the author. She gets to introduce information about the world, she gets to predict the future course of the plot—and thus cover her ass, no matter how illogical or senseless the plot developments may seem, by squealing “I told you it was coming!”—and she gets to do the oh so mysteeeeerious fortune-telling session.
Never mind, of course, that there are better ways to work information into your story. Never mind that revealing all the plot developments too soon results in absolutely zero suspense. Never mind that the author’s gypsies with their painted caravans and Tarot cards and violins are exactly like every other bunch of fantasy gypsies out there.
No cheat sheets. No plot coupons. This story can be rigidly planned from the ground up, but if that rigidity shows in your story, it’s going to feel completely cool and climate-controlled and unnatural.
3) If it’s supposed to be obscure, make sure it really is obscure.
This is the other problem of clarity that fortune-telling sessions share with prophecies. The author sits there and chuckles as she deploys Tarot symbolism, or has the fortune-teller gasp and look directly at one member of the party as she talks about a betrayal, or includes a supposedly obscure and unfathomable vision in the crystal ball. There’s the sense of taunting her readers. “You will feel dread, but you won’t know what’s going to happen up until the moment it does!”
Most fantasy readers are pretty good at working things out, though. There will almost certainly be some members of the audience who know Tarot symbolism. There will be people who obsessively read all the descriptions of gestures and facial expressions, looking for a clue to what happens next. And that unfathomable scene may become fathomable the moment the author introduces a character to the party. It certainly will if the author says, “Her face reminded him of someone he had seen before, but he couldn’t remember who.” The character doesn’t have the luxury of stopping his story to figure it out, but the reader can flip back a hundred pages, nod at the silver-haired woman in the crystal ball vision, and say, “That’s her.” And from there, the course of the story is too smooth.
So keep an especially sharp eye on your fortune-telling mysteries. You have to strike the balance between so obscure that the reader doesn’t stand a chance in hell of deciphering it without information from outside the story, and so clear that the reader might as well put the book down now, you’ve told the entire story. Have other people read over it. Curb your impulse to put in really obvious clues like the gasp and stare under the impression that no one will notice. And if your first feeling on finishing is that you’ve tricked your readers completely, read again, because that is the first sign that you’re entirely blind.
4) Give the characters a motivation for seeking out the fortune-telling, and for performing it.
I am currently reading the debut novel of an author whom I’ve never tried before—Jennifer Fallon—and am bothered at the way she keeps merrily contradicting her own statements, or giving her characters motives that clash with who she’s earlier said these people are. (A rant on sensible character motivation will be coming up). This is to move the plot, I know. That’s not a good enough reason. If it’s done correctly, plot and character will intertwine so seamlessly that one cannot part them, and it’s useless to try.
I am persisting in the Fallon book, but I would prefer that it not come up. And I would especially prefer that it not come up in fortune-telling sessions, which authors shroud in mystical shit that fucks up character dynamics but good.
Let’s start with the heroes seeking out the fortune-telling. Here we have a hero who’s been presented as someone so pure he would never do something even slightly shady. And yet he associates with the gypsies we’ve been told are nasty and thieves. Um, okay. Possibly the author is getting ready for a reversal that will show the gypsies are really good and kind, but then where did their reputation come from? Why did the hero try to befriend them in the first place, when he grew up in the town and would have believed they were evil? Answers, please. But the answers aren’t forthcoming, because the author is too busy describing the designs on the Tarot cards.
Here is another hero who’s presented as independent and stubborn and liable to go off on his own no matter what anyone else says. Yet he seeks out the advice of the fortune-teller, listens to her meekly, and believes every word she says. Why? Why, when he doesn’t take the advice of his best friend, does he believe this? I would expect, at best, a shrug and an uneasy laugh; he might half-believe, but he has no reason to embrace it until something happens to prove its worth to him. The author wants me to believe that the fortune-telling is so Speshul that anyone would value it.
Here, author. Here is a giant raspberry for you.
It may make even less sense from the POV of the people doing the fortune-telling. Once again, the mystical shit kicks into high gear. Fortune-telling is a sacred art, something that isn’t done for just everyone, a gift that appears in only a few people of a certain race or gender, etc. Its possessors are shown as being cautious of it and unlikely to offer it to anyone walking by. So why can the heroes walk up, ask for a fortune-telling session, and always get one?
The real answer is, well, the author wants them to. That answer won’t do for the reader. That answer can’t do, or it’s a sign that the story is metafictional (which should be done only on purpose). Inside the story, give an answer that makes sense. If the hero really does need help from everybody in the world because the prophecy says so—yawn, snore—then this may be the only help the fortune-teller has to offer. If the hero is a friend, it may not be a big deal, although I would still expect an explanation for why long-held taboos can fall for a friend. If the fortune-teller gets seized by an ecstatic trance, she might not have any choice about revealing her magic.
Point being, show why this is happening, and do it in a way that stays true to what you have of the story thus far.
5) Where are the clever charlatans?
Looking over the history of pseudo-science and occultism will probably sicken you with the ingenuity of people willing to prey on the grief-stricken, the credulous, and the mystically obsessed. However, that ingenuity should also impress you. Fantastic things can be done with fairly simple props like levers, lighting, gloves, and marked cards. And the motivations are obvious—money, enhanced reputation, a measure of protection if people believe it’s bad luck to harm you, and fairly little work.
Somehow, these people miss being born into fantasy worlds, where the often wide-spread ignorance and low technology level would make their job even easier. The only things you get there are the true blue fortune-tellers and a very few fakes that the hero sees through immediately, without a reason given as to how they managed to fool people for years.
This is the part where Limyaael whines, so scroll down past it if it offends your eyes.
But I want some clever charlatans, I want some clever enemies, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna!!!
Fakes are as likely to appear in this profession as anywhere else. If they’re not that ambitious and magic-users aren’t randomly persecuted as they are in so many fantasy worlds, then they could live quite a good life in a small village. If they understand some basic psychology and there’s no test or guild for people using their particular brand of “magic,” they can rise to high status in a town. And if they have a lot of good tricks and nerves of steel, there’s no reason they shouldn’t convince a ruler to hire them, and even go toe-to-toe with experienced mages. After all, they’ve managed to survive this long, while the mages may have a special kind of naiveté, say from spending their lives in academe. A charlatan who’s fooled everybody else and knows his fakery is not going to panic just because a mage squints at him, unless they have truth-telling spells. And if that’s the case, he should have been unmasked long beforehand, so the author’s plot is a house of cards anyway.
Watch out for these things. And give me clever fakers. I want them.
Next poll will be up in a little while.