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Assume the prophecy says that The Chosen One will defeat the DARK OVERLORD. The spell of the prophecy is always accurate and has a 100% chance of being true. This has been mathematically proven and is consistent with all the observed outcomes of prophecies. So now The Wise Wizard Mentor has found himself a Poor Farm Hand or Traveler From Our World who turns out to be the victim of the prophecy. Obviously, they should receive training from the finest warrior and mages The Good Guys have. But is any of this, including The Wise Wizard Mentors intervention really necessary? After all, it is known that The Chosen One will defeat the DARK OVERLORD. So anything that happens is supposed to happen.

So what if the Evil Legions slaughter The Chosen One's village. So what if they don't train. So what if they show up to the Final Battle in stained underpants, stoned out of their mind, and utterly wasted. The prophecy is true and this is known. They will win no matter what they do because they don't really have the option of losing. Anything they do was foreseen and it turned out to lead to their victory.

Or am I missing something here? Is there a way to have accurate prophecies involving no uncertainties which come true no matter what if their preconditions are met and still get the opinion of an actually meaningful story?

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Jun 22 at 15:24
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    $\begingroup$ I read this question and my mind underlines some terms, turning them to TVTropes links. $\endgroup$
    – Mindwin
    Jun 22 at 16:17

32 Answers 32

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The Prophesy is Assured, but the Identity of the Chosen One is Not

The Prophesy does not tell you who the chosen one is, but it does tell you about the nature of the chosen one. If a man has fulfilled 47 of the Prophesized qualities of the chosen one, but there are 48 qualities he is supposed to fulfil, then the man you have is not the chosen one, and therefore can not defeat the Dark Lord.

If you were to follow a false chosen one into battle, then your failure is assured; so, you must be certain that you have the real chosen one.

The training of the chosen one is not about the hero being trained to beat the Dark Lord, but to make sure that he meets all 48 prophesized qualities before he goes off to face his fate. Maybe your mages have found a man who was born in the right town and can cure the sick and raise the dead and do many of the things the Prophesy says the chosen one can do... but it also says he will be brave, self-sacrificing, and in the greatest hour of need, he will choose to give up his life to save the world.

So, if the guy you found is selfish and cowardly, then the only way this man COULD be the chosen one is if you teach him to be brave and put others first. Otherwise, you are stuck waiting years or even centuries for the next guy to come along who might meet all the qualities you are waiting for.

Then there is the Dark Lord's motivation. If the Dark Lord knows a guy has fulfilled 47 of the 48 prophesized qualities of the chosen one, then his only hope for success is to off this guy before he can fulfill the 48th quality. After all, if the hero dies before he's fulfilled all the qualities foretold in the prophesy, then the Dark Lord is not actually beating the Chosen One, it just means the Chosen One has not come yet.

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    $\begingroup$ "We give the hand of God to Chosen One." "But what if he's not the Chosen One?" "Then it kills him. We bury them." $\endgroup$
    – EvilSnack
    Jun 21 at 15:20
  • $\begingroup$ +1 If they don't prepare, train etc then clearly they're not the chosen one :-) $\endgroup$
    – deep64blue
    Jun 22 at 11:44
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Victory, but at what cost?

It is only the victory that is prophesized. But a victory can be a good or a bad one. Maybe the chosen one dies. Maybe he's left crippled, mentally or physically. People might die, maybe 90% of the population, maybe the Wise Wizard Mentors. There is a big difference between a pyrrhic victory and an "actual" victory.

An example, if you ignore the story's prophecy: In Star Wars, Anakin Skywalker was victorous over the Sith - in a way. He killed Emperor Palpatine... ignoring sequels. A prophecy wouldn't care that he became a Sith himself and only turned back to the light side minutes before his own death, and after causing billions of deaths.

The better the training, the higher the odds for a better outcome.

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    $\begingroup$ Anakin wasn't even prophesized to defeat the Sith. He was predicted to bring balance to the Force. Which he did excellently by arranging the death of all but two Jedi. $\endgroup$
    – Neinstein
    Jun 21 at 7:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Neinstein Yeah that is what I meant by "if you ignore the story's prophecy", because it was different. I still liked the example of him kinda defeating the sith in... pretty much the worst way possible. $\endgroup$
    – Infrisios
    Jun 21 at 8:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Neinstein Well, nobody knows what bringing "balance to the Force" means... I think that is free interpretation space. And to me, it seems kind of weird that it would involve reducing the Jedi to the same count as the Sith. (It's not the Jedi (and Sith) that create the Force, it's the Force that creates the Jedi) $\endgroup$
    – skywalker
    Jun 21 at 21:26
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IS IT DETERMINISM?

Your question hinges on free will and determinism. There are two possibilities:

Deterministic Universe

In this prickly scenario the universe is deterministic. Not only is the chosen one's fate predetermined. But so is everyone's fate. We don't get to see our own prophecies but are nevertheless powerless to influence our own destiny.

So should we train the chosen one to achieve their great destiny? Or should we not bother and eat potato crisps all day? You will be happy to know that in a deterministic universe the question of should is meaningless. So don't worry about it.

Semi-Deterministic Universe

In this scenario some things are preset. The Chosen One will always defeat the DARK OVERLORD. But the rest of us can decide our own destiny, subject to all the prophesied stuff happening.

Importantly we can determine the manner in which the DARK OVERLORD is toppled. We can marshal our armies and train the chosen one in the Secret Arts. In that case we can defeat the DARK OVERLORD in a Final battle on the slopes of Mount Doom. Then we establish a republic and give out free motorboats.

enter image description here

Or we can eat potato chips all day. In this case the DARK OVERLORD is still toppled. You see after 60 years of tyranny, the DARK OVERLORD boards a public bus as part of a PR campaign. The chosen one was on the same bus and unwittingly sneezes on a safety rail. The DARK OVERLORD touches this safety rail and contracts influenza. Due to extreme age this ultimately leads to the DARK OVERLORD passing away. His heir takes up the job and is twice as tyrannical.

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    $\begingroup$ Think on the side of the DARK OVERLORD. He is destined to be toppled by the Chosen One no matter what he does. May be he doesn't want to be the DARK OVERLORD any more. But he is still destined to do the things the DARK OVERLORD is prophesied to do, willingly or not. They call him the DARK OVERLORD, but that poor creature is really the EMO OVERLORD. $\endgroup$
    – KC Wong
    Jun 21 at 1:43
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    $\begingroup$ Deterministic or not, people will still think and make decisions based on what they know. If you've reading a book, the ending has already been written (it's deterministic), but the characters still have agency within the story. Determinism is largely inconsequential, and the question of whether free will exists is little more than a tautology and/or semantics. $\endgroup$
    – NotThatGuy
    Jun 21 at 8:48
  • $\begingroup$ @NotThatGuy Agreed on the question of determinism being mostly semantics. But it changes the semantics of "should". $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Jun 21 at 11:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Daron Perhaps. In the context of the story (as I understand the question), the characters would know about the prophecy and would then decide whether or not to do anything to realise their victory (based on whether or not they think there's a reason they "should bother" if the outcome is already guaranteed). They would do so regardless of determinism. $\endgroup$
    – NotThatGuy
    Jun 21 at 11:22
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It is possible that this prophecy is accurate because it chooses somebody that is going to make decisions and choose things no matter what. Their destiny compels them to do so.

They may not even believe in prophecy, they are going to train anyway.

Just like, if my prophecy is that the Sun will rise tomorrow at 7 AM, and it does, it is because this is in the Sun's nature, my prophecy is based on that nature. It does not force the Sun to rise at 7AM, it just knows that it will.

So goes prophecy. Now the fact that it is made may prompt the wizard to find this individual and offer them training and magic; and the nature of the individual is to accept this training and defeat the evil, thus fulfilling the prophecy. Such prophecies are called "self-fulfilling" prophecies; it is the fact that people (like the wizard) believed in them that makes them come to pass.

Like somebody telling a child they are far too stupid to attend college; and the child believes them, so doesn't even bother to pursue academics, and thus cannot even graduate high school, much less attend college.

Either way, in fiction you can make both the prophecy of something that was bound to happen anyway (like the sun rising at 7 AM) or the self-fulfilling prophecy work out, without breaking any logic.

I'd say let the wizard and the hero contemplate this within the story. The wizard can explain.

"Perhaps it was destiny for both of us; for me to heed the prophecy and for you to fulfill it. Or perhaps you were always destined to prevail against the Overlord, and my resources only hastened your victory. Perhaps we both had a choice. I could have ignored the prophecy, but chose to pursue it. And you could have stayed home, but with the offer of my aid, you chose to pursue justice. We cannot know. The fact that the prophecy was made and fulfilled tells us nothing."

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    $\begingroup$ This is the true nature of a prophecy in reality. A prophecy does not 'create' an individual with the required attributes; rather, it provides notice to others that such an individual will exist and do stuff. Thus if the 'chosen one' is a deadbeat that does nothing, then they won't be the chosen one, or the prophecy is false. $\endgroup$ Jun 21 at 8:49
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You're prophesying wrong

This is a classic question, but it fundamentally misunderstands the role of future-telling in narrative fiction, which means that following this thread will never lead you to good or interesting narratives.

The role of prophecy is not to resolve your major story conflict

The reason your audience needs a prophecy is not because the prophecy is what guarantees that the heroes win and the villains lose. That guarantee is actually provided by genre conventions: in some (many) genres, the good people ultimately defeat the bad people and justice prevails. (Other genres exist where the good people lose, or achieve a Pyrrhic victory, or nothing is resolved, etc.) People generally know what to expect on this score before they read page 1 of your work.

No, the role of prophecy is usually one of:

  • propel a nobody into greatness

    In the real world, it is extremely rare for a person of initially low station to decide the fate of the world. Social and power structures being what they are, people at the top tend to make all the decisions, and those decisions usually include making sure they and their children stay at the top. Fate/prophecy is a tool that lets an author escort their homegrown nobody to the top tiers of the ladder. It is the diegetic manifestation of the author's choice of protagonist.

  • create a mystery for audiences

    Prophecy is usually expressed in natural language: it's a written text or a specific utterance, generally very brief and thus necessarily rife with ambiguity. The mystery then is: what final, complete state of affairs will obtain which is consistent with this fragmentary description? Even if the prophecy appears to be bald and unequivocal: "The hero Jerry Farmhand will slay the villain Murdero Slaughterton on Thursday at 5:17pm," there is actually still plenty of wiggle room regarding other facts that the audience will care about. Does Jerry survive the battle? What happens to Murdero's beautiful captives? How will we feel about the death of Murdero when we know more about him? Etc. The importance of the prophecy is not that it is "proven" to "100%" of reliability, but that it provokes a specific kind of playful game between the author and the reader: the author promises the reader that story events will ultimately be consistent with the prophecy, but by implication essentially warns the reader that she will care less about the specific facts revealed in the prophecy than about the other "peripheral" facts and the sequence of events leading to that state. The prophecy about Jerry Farmhand is practically a notice from the author saying: "you may think the most important story arc here is about whether Jerry can ever defeat Murdero, but I'm telling you you're wrong, and to show you how serious I am about that, I'm going to tell you right now: Jerry does kill Murdero. Now hold my beer."

  • sometimes, it's part of a lesson about language itself

    I think this is less common, but one thing prophecy stories have in common with the genie and wish-fulfillment genres is that they very crucially hinge on the characters' ability to articulate themselves. One of the minor lessons of stories like The Monkey's Paw (and other evil genie stories) is that achieving one's goals requires that (1) one actually be fully cognizant of all the facts about which they have preferences, and (2) find a way to express their whole intent concisely in their natural language -- to fully express their will. That maybe seems silly, but bear in mind that law is literally a kind of technology that humans invented, no less so than flat-panel televisions and pacemakers and solar panels, and so every generation needs to give their kids the tools that are needed to get by in a society of laws. That means you have to be more articulate than is required by ordering food at a restaurant: you must anticipate and preemptively defeat the ways your interlocutor might wish to defy your will. Prophecy stories invert the sequence of cause and effect, essentially challenging the reader to work backward.

All of these concerns transcend Jerry Farmhand's decisions and the question of predestination, because fictional narrative's interest in prophecy is very different than it would be if prophecy were real. Prophesy is ambiguous in every story you've ever read, but not because nobody has yet had the audacity to publish a completely explicit, totally locked-down prophecy, but because doing so typically leads to really lame narrative results.

Would anybody bother reading a story about Jerry Farmhand drinking, smoking, and refusing to do laundry or prepare for his epic battle because he has a cosmic guarantee of success? No, they would not. But you can write one if you like.

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    $\begingroup$ A great answer, but I challenge the assumption in the last paragraph. If done well, that story could be an interesting twist/parody of the genre: Jerry learns of the prophecy in his early years and uses it to become a douché, because everyone will need him anyway. I've seen worse anime plots... There's countless twists to work with here too. Maybe EVIL OVERLORD changes his ways due to other circumstances and Jerry ends up stopping him (accidentially) as he's trying to achieve the greater good, or whoever told Jerry of the prophecy was trolling him, or... $\endgroup$
    – Mookuh
    Jun 21 at 9:30
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    $\begingroup$ Or maybe it turns out that Jerry just thought that the EVIL OVERLORD owed him some money $\endgroup$
    – Lause
    Jun 21 at 13:16
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Does it say what happens after the victory?

If not, then the Dark Lord may simply be replaced by the second in command. Your prophecy is come true, but everyone is boned nonetheless.

But here's the thing: you have the one guy (or girl) that is certain to live up to the moment the Dark Lord is defeated, so he's the best candidate for any and all dangerous missions. Maybe send him out to kill the subordinates of the Dark Lord to sow chaos in their forces and lure him out before you fulfill your prophecy? That would not only support the prophecy but also the wider world. Additionally the chance of the hero surviving increases, which they'll appreciate.

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Same thing as time paradox.

  • based on your axiom - The spell of the prophecy is always accurate and has a 100% chance of being true.

Mages do not need to bother to train the guy, maybe the guy slips on a babana peel and accidentally kills the ultimate bad guy

But on the other hand, they may choose to help the guy for their own benefits, assuming it helps the CO to achieve his goal faster, and for him not to be a last guy on the planet, who kills the ultimate bad guy when no one actually cares anymore.

They (mages) may choose to help, but it does not mean their choice will matter, it still may be a banana peel accident, or 1000's different ways with or without help of the others. (That's why that CO is so good, write whatever, no need to think so much on a plan)

If the good guy is killed right at the start, it was just a wrong guy (but that a bit murky territory depending on your setting in which way they identify that CO, how do they find it, but also not a big problem in 1000's ways - they do not have full knowledge about universe, nor control - if they teleport one they can teleport few accidentally, or split bodies, or whatever)

So you can (in your fantasy world) have ultimately true prophecy, but same way as in the reality the same event may be achieved as result of unmeasurable number of consequence chains, connections, coincidences.

That stoned good guy on battle field, it even fails to create a slight disturbance in reasoning, because of not having full information about the ultimate bad guy - maybe they will find each other and smoke bong together for long an happy life, and once drunk accident happens again, damn banana.

So even if I said it similar to time paradox, but in fact it is quite far from it, and examples you had in mind(wrote down) do not do even a ripple as paradox does - it is just two points with unrestricted paths between them.

To have a paradox here it needs to have 2 ultimates/absolutes here, at least.

Prediction in general

Being able to predict something with absolute certainty for all the cases - not likely, but predicting itself as for some events it is more common that it may feels at a first glance - if I drop a stone from a plane, there is very slim chance it does not land on the surface of the planet(if I did it in the way it does not end up in a plane engine).

Difference from 100% is negligible, and similarly we do rely on predicting of consequences of events in our technologies, it basically all about getting expected results for most of the time for expected set of consequential and parallel events - start a car, fly a plane, make cpu crunch numbers, etc. Those are predictable, because they have some robustness against external events - potential barrier which has to be crossed to change it, so a movement of a random atom next/near the observable setting/system has a very slim chance to change expected outcome. (Slim means so close to 0 that you can't have seen such a number - so small it is)

So there are predictable events, and in a sense with certain power and ability to have/collect data - outcome of CO vs UBG also can be(maybe) predicted close to 100%. And how close to 100% your guys do not really know, as they are not source of that estimation, but are just users, and they not necessarily have stats to judge(a billion predictions is good stats, but without knowing how it works it gets us to just 99.9999999%, way worse than dropping stone from air plane).

So robustness of prediction depends on bifurcation points, some we do know some we do not(we are quite good, usually, identifying them in our tech stuff), but better the ability to collect information, and better prediction algorithms better the results of outcome(there are fundamental limits, it has to be some macro level events, human brains is something in between, murky territory, but it reflects in events on macro level). And when there are few or none bifurcation points - prediction can have certain probability(a bit more complex than just that, but for simplicity).

  • in a sense CO is not necessarily the only guy who has capacity of killing UBG, others may have lesser chances to do so, but they are capable to do so, but they have more bifurcation points which if they cross them in a right way they may have that 100% as well, but they do have bifurcation points which makes their chances uncertain or less than 100%

In that sense CO is just one of with a set of development path's(which he has many as anyone) where each of those path's has no bifurcation points.

It basically about all that:

  • If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. - @Sun Tzu, The Art of War - (probably)

In that sense a valid prediction, it less likely rely on some accidental event as path to success, or events, and it makes more sense for mages to put efforts in helping the guy.

PS - Free will

Can't avoid to add few point to that big topic, as some of the answers dive in extremes - determinism or free will.

Free will does not mean there is only unpredictable outcomes when it hits a human. Yes, a hundred years ago, or earlier it could be philosophical conundrum, enigma. But today we all can observe that behavioral patterns do exists - the whole advertisement model is build around that, focus groups, recommendation algorithms etc.

So some of them are one offer to many, some are many offers to one - and it works, sometimes better some times worse - but prediction works.

What creates complexity, is interaction in the society between agents, not only people vs people, but people vs environment, which diminishes the importance of freewill or not.

And as an example it possible to predict that most of viewers of the question will eat tomorrow, also as result of some will, as they can choose not to, same as the guy who wants to prove me wrong(write a comment btw, you are awesome, outstanding warrior of "someone is wrong on internet"). If we knew all the people, who will read it, could we determine if there is a guy who may make such a choice - choose to not eat - yes, we can try do so based on his behavioral patters. (Fbi joins the chat). Our predictions are not perfect, and ways are not mature, but still. It harder to predict who will actually read it - as it is a result of pvp and pve - but does not mean it impossible at all, or that presence of freewill stops us. There are strategies, habits people use, and in a sense we less free, aren't that fluid to render any possibility of prediction impossible.

Sure we have uncertainties, but the whole theory of ideal gas is build around random/chaotic movements of molecules(agents) and we have certain outcomes, our prediction works - not any set of chaotic events can make us helpless to predict at least something, and in some cases it can be CO vs UBG, in some cases we even do not need much to make such conclusion and prediction (wunderr waffe and genetic code to activate it, as an example)

So to have certain predictability there is no need to plunge in deterministic world, and we do have good results with chaotic not deterministic systems, predicting them, so as there is fuzzy logic approaches etc all kinds of things to deal with chaos.

So there is certain map of expectations of probabilities with certain uncertainties in them, and this map may have some unique guy whos network of probabilities ends up in slashing UBG, with or without other forces involved. Such events are probably rare, but it may exist, and may be visible for something which has sufficient strength to crunch numbers. Does not mean he is only one, but just one who can be seen.

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In ancient Greek and Roman myths men are not allowed to know their fate and even many gods don't know what was decided by Fate. Oracle and prophecies were vague and incomprehensible. The most common thread even in modern stories is that not even the most powerful of the wizards can really be sure that they have really found the chosen one until the very end.

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Don't make the prophecy subject your main character.

The Chosen One follows a predetermined path to the letter, overthrows the Dark Overlord and brings peace to the universe. There's no uncertainty so no suspense: so, don't make him the protagonist.

Have your actual protagonist(s) ride the tide of the war and meet personal challenges along the way. The central conflict of your story won't be the world war, it will be the struggles faced by individuals fighting in the periphery. The people trying to make their ends meet as the Chosen One under his halo tramples on their livelihoods, perhaps doing them just as much bad as the Dark Overlord himself. You can make a compelling story involving an inevitable prophecy, if the story doesn't revolve around it.

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  • $\begingroup$ I should also add that I personally prefer branching prophecies. Either/or-predictions with each path leading to alternate futures; a million paths of which all but one rendered irrelevant in time. Sword of Truth used this to great effect. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Jun 20 at 13:02
  • $\begingroup$ Makes me think of the prophesy from the Disney Hercules movie: "Should Hercules fight, you will fail". $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jun 20 at 14:51
  • $\begingroup$ This does not answer the question asked, which is how to motivate the Chosen One. $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Jun 20 at 20:32
  • $\begingroup$ @SRM I have been answering this question: "Is there a way to have accurate prophecies involving no uncertainties which come true no matter what if their preconditions are met and still get the opinion of an actually meaningful story?" $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Jun 21 at 8:07
  • $\begingroup$ The rest of the text (including the main title question) makes it clear (I think) that “meaningful story” is one where the Chosen One has a reason to act. Shifting the viewpoint still doesn’t provide that. $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Jun 21 at 13:49
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Historical example...

... of winning a great victory without bothering to do anything.

In August 1914, in the Second Battle of Tannenberg, a German army of 150,000 men led by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg destroyed a Russian army of 240,000 men led by General Alexander Samsonov.

The battle was fought near the city of Allenstein (which nowadays speaks Polish and is called Olsztyn), some 30 km (20 miles) east of the village of Tannenberg (which has also adopted the Polish language as is now called Stębark). The Germans, masters of propaganda as always, named in the Battle of Tannenberg in order for it to be seen as revenge of the terrible and decisive defeat of the Teutonic Knights by Władysław Jagiełło, Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland, in the First Battle of Tannenberg back in 1410.

What did the glorious victor, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, who was 67 at the time, do to win this glorious victory? Nothing much. Basically, he showed up in his splendid uniform and let his Chief of Staff, Major General Erich Ludendorff, do the work without interference. As Major General Max Hoffmann, who was then in the General Staff of Hindenburg and later became Chief of Staff of the German Eighth Army, used to explain to visitors to the battlefield later in the war:

"This is where the Field Marshal slept before the battle; here is where he slept after the battle; here is where he slept during the battle." (As quoted by Barbara W. Tuchman in her book The Guns of August, 1962.)

Being asleep while in command was apparently a lifelong habit for Hindenburg, whose fame comes mostly from being the President of the German Republic who appointed a certain Mr. A. H., leader of the National-Socialist German Workers' Party, to the post of head of government in 1933. As a consequence, the battlefield where Hindenburg won his crushing victory is now in Poland, together with almost the entire province of East Prussia. (The part which is not in Poland is in Russia.)

The point being that sometimes Being There is all that is needed, as amply illustrated in the famous American film Forrest Gump (1994):

"The story depicts several decades in the life of Forrest Gump, a slow-witted and kindhearted man from Alabama who witnesses and unwittingly influences several defining historical events in the 20th century United States." (Wikipedia)

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The chosen one wouldn't do this :

  • How do you know he is the real chosen one ? If he sits on his ass, he'll get himself killed and it will be revealed that another one was actually the chosen one.

  • Imagine, if you are told you are the chosen one, would you drink a big glass of cyanide before jumping 20m in a pool of acid while stabbing yourself with a knife, just to see what would happen ("i'm the C.O., i can't die before killing the bad guy, so i will survive somehow") ? If yes, you would actually die, because you wouldn't be the chosen one, because the chosen one can't be an idiot like that.

So the chosen one would be someone who either wouldn't think of it, or would realize there's many flaw to it and will put on the work. It can be helped with some self-interest, like the prophecy says he will kill the bad guy, but nothing on his survival, so he better train if he want some chance to live.

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  • $\begingroup$ Or the prophesy might still work -- the DARK OVERLORD, seeing how mindbogglingly stupid are even the best heroes of people like Chosen One to do such idiotic acts, decides there is no joy nor fun anymore in wielding terrible power over such hopeless and mindless sheep-people (it feels more like stomping on ants, than being terrifying ruler), and abdicates to go permanent vacation elsewhere. Thus was the Dark Overlord defeated by stupid psychological (but effective) warfare of the Chosen One, and prophecy was still fulfilled (even though Chosen One would not have planned / envisioned it). $\endgroup$ Jun 22 at 11:41
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Whatever they're doing, it leads to the prophesy being rendered true.

There's no element of choice or free-will here.
What they do is always going to be part of how they defeat the dark overlord.
They will eventually defeat the overlord.
This is a fact.

The path they choose through their life ultimately WILL lead them to this outcome, no matter what they do. If a certain course of action would make it impossible to do that, it cannot be what they'll choose to do.
They don't opt to sit on their laurels.
They don't choose suicide in the face of the philosophical conundrum about their personal agency.
They don't fail to rise to the challenge.

The path is set. The outcome is certain. It's not a question of whether they can or can't be lazy about it.
Cause and effect are effectively reversed.
Effect dictates cause.
The Hero will eventually do what is necessary.

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We can lean into science fiction here.

Time travel stories with a singular, unchanging consistent flow of time exist. They deal with this problem in a few ways.

One of them is that the most likely way for the information you gain to be true occurs. If you make it nearly impossible for the plausible ways for the information you gain to be true, then implausible results happen.

For example, suppose you have a prophesy machine. It shows you a picture of what a die will roll in 6 seconds in a box.

What happens if you take the die you see in the box, and you mark it?

In 6 seconds, a die looking just like this without the mark will be in the box. An implausible or improbable series of events happens and the result always happens.

If you aren't scared, you should be. Because some of those implausible events aren't going to be very friendly for you living through the next 6 seconds. The harder you force it to be impossible for the picture you see in your perfect prophesy machine to occur, the more insane the scope of the things that happen beyond your control in the next 6 seconds will happen.

This device is basically a temporal bomb; generate a picture of a future, block that future, and insane amounts of force will occur to force that pictured event to happen.

Blocking a prophesy basically has the same effect. It will happen. If you are blocking it from happening, the way in which it happens has to render your ability to block it from happening ineffective.

So suppose you find the chosen one, and get them to avoid training. Well, an easy thing to happen that would make this reduction in the likelihood the chosen one defeats the dark one would be you dropping dead of a stroke. Or, someone stabbing you. Or you tripping and breaking your back. Or a the chosen one deciding you are evil and killing you first.

There are many, many things that are less unlikely than "chosen one never trains and defeats the dark one" that would block your plan of "chosen one never trains". By actively or passively getting in the way of a prophesy, you are not dooming the prophesy -- you are dooming yourself.

And the larger a barrier you are to the prophesy being fulfilled, the greater the doom.

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Gods are cruel master sure, you have been chosen and the prophecy tell that you will win, the god made sure of that... that is if you do your part. god will have no shame internviening to smite downa prick that tought he could not do the work and get to be teh chosen one.

Maybe they will straight up kill him , change the prophecy or create another prophecy that is more important than the precedent one, or all kind of divine intervention, but one thing is sure, the great force of nature don't take too kindly those that ridicule them. do the work or go home

prophecy kind of suck

language is a tricky thing, especially for a young oracle high out of her mind on her local divinatory mushroom. so they will be able to spell something that barely make sens and need to be interpreted broadly... And ono top of that, fate is not fixed in stone so thing can significantly vary from what was seen.

All of this combined make that if you don't try your best you might

prophecy are just to damn good if fate is unmovable then you staying in the castle to enjoy wine will have no bearing on the result, because the fate knew you were going to do that and expect that it's how you will defeat teh evil lord. don't ask me how, that's just that everything was already written and somehow you will defeat the dark lord by being.

and beside the last case on top of nothing being guranteeed, a lot of chosen just happen to be overdramatic asshole who like making the whole thing as spectacular as possible

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The infallibility of prophecies (and what it means for prophecies to be fallible) is completely up to the competency and creativity of the author - and free will tends to hit every step on the way down regardless.

If you specifically want to focus on a prophecy which guarantees the Dark Lord will be killed in 10 years, focus on what the actual "heros" are going to do to stop the dark legions from pillaging the land for the next nine years and how everyone is going to stop the Dark Lord from detonating his superweapon before it happens (to inflict maximum damage, not kill himself). Plus there is the issue of the diplomacy were different factions may not want to pull their weight if they think other factions are going to be the ones to take the brunt of the suffering in the next 9 years.

As a real(ish) world example, assume it was confirmed that Putin had terminal cancer with 3 years to live and that Ukraine would without a doubt (somehow) conquer Russia in 3 years time. How would you prevent Russia from launching its nukes and what would be the politics between the different nations who could be in the fall-out zones of the explosions and the other countries that had been supplying Ukraine with weapons. What is the perspective of a Ukrainian soldier on the field. What is the perspective of a Russian soldier on the field. What is the list of objectives of a swedish diplomat at the UN during this period? ect.

The important thing to remember is that prophecies tend to guarantee exactly one thing. One death, one defeat, one event. The state of everything else in your world is utterly unspecified by that prophecy however and still has to be fought over to ensure.

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Here are some solutions:

  • Do not make the prophecy their destiny; while it tells the future, it does not have to certain it will happen, depending on the conditions.
  • Have a terrible cost; while the hero may not do anything, he will eventually defeat the Dark Lord, but at the cost of the destruction and death that happens because he did not do anything.
  • What if the chosen one becomes the villain himself; after the defeat, they may like the fame and money, leading to a god complex, and you can guess what happens next...
  • There may be multiple chosen ones, and the protagonist may want to keep his title.
  • He may somehow benefit from the villain, and will worry about the consequences.
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You could lean in on the apparent paradox.

Suppose it's been prophesised that a promising young warrior will defeat the evil overlord. Everyone knows about this prophecy and how it is guaranteed to come true.

And as a result the Chosen One decides he doesn't need to train any more. He doesn't need to wear uncomfortable armor or carry an awkward weapon. He doesn't need to take care of his health. After all, it is indisputable that he will save the day, no matter what.

Everyone who is counting on him regards this development with horror, but they can't talk him out of it.

Even the Evil Overlord hears about it, and changes his plans as a result...

Well, I won't write the whole story, but I think the reader would at least be curious as to what would happen next. Maybe the hero's laziness somehow saves the world?

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Malicious compliance

Who's to decide who is the dark one and who is the chosen one?

Come the fateful day, if the guy everyone assumes to be the hero hasn't done their homework... The fates will just decide that the guy doing all the killing is the actual chosen one. They may pick an even worse guy to be the actual dark one later.

The prophecy is still fulfillable, the new chosen one is a properly prepared person and the auditors of reality are satisfied. Bonus if the guy who was previously considered the dark one has a backstory similar to the wimpy one, so more checkboxes can be checked.

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There are multiple prophecies about the Chosen One - and not all the things they're prophesized to do generally are considered good things.

The prophecy does say that they'll defeat the Dark One, but it itself doesn't say how.

Other prophecies do, and some of the steps seem...worrying. The type of stuff you generally want to prepare for, or prepare them for doing, so that they can be done well, and safely, and...not causing unexpected problems.

For example:

"The Chosen One shall break a reservoir to flood a city to thwart the Dark One." Okay, fine, it's guaranteed and it'll thwart the Dark One...but which city> Is it the City the Dark One uses exclusively, like Isengard? Or is it some peasant city south like if this had gotten out of control south of Rivendell? The current city? Or the "Old City" version of the city that's been moved away from? Are we dealing with a man-made reservoir or a natural one?

Do we just keep the Chosen One away from all reservoirs and cities with water sources, or do we let them integrate into society and just keep a close eye on them until we discover "Okay, this city needs to evacuate all its civilians." moments before they come to realization they have to fulfill that prophecy? Oh, and I guess we should help them a bit by getting them to know all the blueprints of any reservoirs they happen to be nearby, maybe with some safety valves and open/close doors that can be re-used, such that when the Chosen One breaks the reservoir, they do it in a minimal way that reduces the amount of infrastructure work to fix it.

Add a few more of these, and it becomes more of a matter of determining "Okay, these are all 100% going to happen - let's work out where the rest of us can wriggle in this prophecy to avoid un-prophesized losses.".

Since you're going to keeping a close eye on them and working around whatever they do that fits the prophecies, you'll probably want to get to know them a bit more, so you might as well mentor them as well.

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Let me answer by providing analogy.

It has been prophesied many times that if you learn 10 new words a day, you will will have learned 3650 words before the year ends.

Why hasn't it been fulfilled? Well, it was—for some. Why is it so hard to complete? Well, human condition. I believe fiction leverages that exact feature of reality: to motivate us to fulfill our destiny, promising great things if you do X. No fantasy is ever to be taken literally.

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If a prophecy is a view of the future come back through time then that event would always happen, accidentally or on purpose. Then no training matters for the event to happen. It will happen.

John gets a text message and pulls out his phone, and trips over a mop bucket rolling from the side hall way. John, gets up and reads the text message, “I saw in a dream you fall down in the hall at school.”

If the prophecy is a self fulfilling prophecy then the chosen one(s) are people who train and make it happen. Is indiscriminate mostly.

“One day someone will fix this dam!” The few villagers get together on the weekend and fix the dam.

If the prophecy is conditional it would have tests. The prophecy is that John will be a leader of a company then that person going to business school and studying and inventing things is a trial to see their effort and that project will be granted. “If you are faithful in little you will be faithful in much.” But it’s not really a project but more like a goal with rewards. In that case reading makes a difference.

King Saul didn’t want to be king or couldn’t handle it so it was given to King David.

Most people say to, “Keep moving. Don’t give up. Keep going” because the destiny is unseen and moving forward reveals more of it. Gandalf couldn’t see all end but felt that certain characters had a role to play.

Prophecy could also be wishful thinking by people or the gods. Tell the prophecy that a savior will rise up and see what happens. It could also be useful for getting everyone to concentrate their resources on requiring one person to do a job.

I personally believe you should train for the position you want and be ready for it. Or that sometimes life trains you. And without training it may happen but there may be more struggle.

There may be a time where the protagonist train but nothing happens and then later an opportunity presents itself and that fulfills the prophecy. This is college degree for many people.

“I dreamed I would be a scientist and got a degree but I work at Starbucks as a barista.” - then one day years later they discover a cure for something.

If you can’t change the future then doesn’t matter what you do concerning the prophecy. It will happen. Training might even interfere with it. John heard the prophecy and is always worried about it and his life sucks instead of enjoying life.

In Botw, they know that the villain is returning and prepare for it. But for all those preparations it doesn’t matter. Some of the preparations are redeemed but mostly they are a nuisance.

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Is there a way to have accurate prophecies involving no uncertainties

No, this is not possible due to the inherent limitations of language. In your example, many things are unspecified, such as when and how the dark lord is defeated, the identity of the dark lord, what defeat constitutes. At the furthest extreme, which applies to every prophecy, it is always possible that the prophecy is in some other language that, by pure coincidence, sounds like an English statement about defeating dark lord, but actually means something entirely different.

come true no matter what if their preconditions are met and still get the opinion of an actually meaningful story?

I think trying to over-specify the prophecy is the wrong way to do it. Prophecies are by nature ambiguous and open to interpretation. They shift dramatic tension from "will he defeat the dark lord?" to "did I correctly guess how he will defeat him?". Meaning comes from appropriate choice of which interpretation to entertain. For example, a serious heroic epic will probably not benefit from revealing that the prophecy is about Sir John Quincy Tennyson, Lord of D'Arque County and a fellow member of the checkers club frequented by the hero.

With the paradox, I think there are three ways to approach it.

  1. Do not have characters actively oppose the prophecy. The hero, like the rest of the world, is not exempt from the prophecy nor its implication. If you are destined to defeat a great and powerful dark lord, it is arguably implied that you will do so by training and preparing thoroughly, rather than getting a guaranteed +9999 DMG buff for that one battle. When people in your world defeat powerful dark lords without the influence of prophecy, how do they do it? The prophecy should probably be interpreted in relation to that.
  2. Lean on the ambiguities in the prophecy. For example, since it is not said when the defeat will take place, there is no guarantee that the hero will defeat him until he finishes the requisite training and preparation. If he tries to challenge the dark lord while unprepared, the result will be a non-fatal failure. The dark lord is of course free to do evil until defeated, so the longer the hero takes, the worse things get.
  3. Motivate the hero with things outside the prophecy. For example, while the hero may be destined to defeat the dark lord regardless of training and preparation, what happens after? Perhaps the dark lord's second in command may want to have revenge, or to become the new dark lord, or both - and there will be no prophecy to bail you out of that fight.
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  • $\begingroup$ Good advice. Welcome Jessica, please take our tour, read the help center etc., I'm sure you know the drill. Enjoy worldbuilding. $\endgroup$ Jun 21 at 21:03
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If that's your universe, then the real question is what happens after he defeats the DO. Will he become another DO? Will he be bitter, angry, and vengeful? Will he be a weak leader, and let the empire fall into a hundred squabbling duchies?

If a person is truly "the chosen one," then whatever system chooses him probably won't choose an unambitious slacker who is peeved at the time all of this empire building takes away from his video game playing.

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Your prophesy might be a paradox

If you prophesy "this prophesy is false", you are clearly going to have some problems. If your prophesy says "the chosen one will defeat the dark lord", but when the chosen one hears that decides there is no point fighting, your prophesy could be self defeating.

Fortunately, the powers that be aren't stupid

Whatever dictates the whims of prophesy, doesn't choose a chosen one who lets prophesy do all the work. Perhaps they know that the prophesy is true - but they don't trust it (everyone knows that the horror movie monster can't hurt them, but does that stop them being scared?).

Perhaps the prophesy has some ambiguity - sure, it's basically impossible that there will ever be another seventh born of a seventh born on mount important during a blood moon while the planets align etc - but if this "chosen one" fails to do the bare minimum, perhaps in a thousand years the actual chosen one shows up.

The tides of fate might also provide motivation for the chosen one. Their love interest has been captured by the dark lord, and while defeating the dark lord is certain the happily ever after is not. So they walk the path that prophesy has set for them, because doing so sooner raises their chances of rescuing their true love.

But ultimately the answer is in the name - they are the chosen one, someone/something choose them for a reason. They aren't going to choose some lazy selfish non-hero. They are going to choose someone who fits the prophesy that they are making certain.

What makes a meaningful story?

Your question seems to imply that because the ending is certain, there can't be a meaningful story. But if you pick up any fantasy book, you know the farmhand is going to defeat the big bad at the end of the book (or at least at the end of the 15th 1000 page book). If you watch a rom com, you know the girl is going to get the guy in the end.

The value of a story isn't the unexpected ending - if your book isn't any good until the last chapter, no one is going to read your book. The interesting parts are the journey - what challenges they face and overcome, the friends they gain (or lose), the scars they obtain and heal from, and the emotional growth of the characters on the way.

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The prophecy only says that he will defeat the dark lord not how long it will take or how many lives it will cost. A better trained chosen one may defeat the dark lord earlier with less cost of life.

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"Will"? "Will"? What kind of poxy prophecy says that The Chosen One will defeat the DARK OVERLORD?

"Can" is proper prophecy speak. The prophecy helps you winnow out people who have a 0% chance of success, letting you save your resources for training The Chosen One.


Caveat: there is a chance that a prophecy might say that The Chosen One will defeat the DARK OVERLORD, but that's always in the part of the prophecy to identify The Chosen One, not the part with instructions for what to do when you've found them. "Whosoever doth slay yonder OVERLORD most DARK shall be the King of this Burg", and so forth.

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There isn't anything in the prophecy saying the Chosen One will survive, they will definitely defeat the dark lord but the how, why and what happens after are all a mystery.

In an effort to motivate the character you could have another character explain this to them, and that by training they might actually be able to survive.

Alternatively, you could have this de-motivate the character so that they will try and avoid their fate. In their attempts to escape and hide from the "Good Guys", they could be forced to learn skills that eventually help in the fated encounter.

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There's always some degree of epistemic uncertainty

It's prophesied that HERO'S NAME will defeat DARK OVERLORD. That prophecy is definitely true. There's no ontological uncertainty; what will be will be.

OK, but: How do we know?

  1. Is HERO'S NAME from HERO'S VILLAGE actually the correct HERO'S NAME that was referred to?
  2. Did the Wise Wizard Mentors actually transcribe the prophecy correctly? Did they cook up a fake one and lie about the maths in this case?
  3. Is there some sort of fishhook sentence appended to the prophecy, like '....but DARK OVERLORD'S overthrow will be merely the seed for his rebirth'?

At some point, the epistemic uncertainty may become negligible, and be reduced to: 'Is this all a dream?', or even: 'Is this all an illusion, created by a Cartesian Demon?'.

Regardless of how large the epistemic uncertainty is, it is likely to loom large in the mind of all involved.

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I'm going to lean on Wheel of Time for my answer to this: 2 parts. Victory/Loss and Why.

Prophecy depends on Victory.

In the Wheel of Time, prophecy exists. The world is woven of the lives of individuals. The "lace" of ages is woven. Those with "prophecy" can "read" the pattern of various degrees. Firm prophecy (This person will be reborn and these signs will show he's the one). Deterministic (These two people will marry). Questionable (If you stay near this person? You live. Otherwise, you die). Some prophecy is easy to read and easy to interpret. Most is questionable. Just because it's said you'll marry that person? It's prophesied that you'll be attacked? That's not when. Not attacked by who. etc.

But there's a catch... that prophecy is a reading of the current "pattern". The current and future of the weave being woven.

If the "Dark One" wins? He rewrites the playbook.

So all the prophecies of next year? You're going to be crowned king and you're going to marry the princess? Your kids will be legends?

If the Dark One wins? Those above prophecies are useless because the DO will then control the lace and his plans are going to be different.

Why?

Part 2 is why. Why fight? I'm a soldier. You're a soldier. we both fight for the Queen. I fight for money. You fight to protect your family and loved ones. We are both sworn. We both die. Is there a difference?

Absolutely.

The why makes all the difference. Fate controls us. We go where the Queen says and we die at her command. But we do so for different reasons and, as humans, that reason makes all the difference.

You can go to the "Last Battle" with the "Dark One" and fight... and win. But if your reasons are dark? What will the result be? If you use dark methods, will your victory be any different from the DOs? Will it be a victory of the light? or simply a victory of a different kind of evil?

The WHY of why you fight is massive and shouldn't be discounted. That why determines everything before, during and after - and discovery of the importance of fighting for love instead of money is its own battle, fight and victory.

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Change the prophecy just a little

Instead of:

The Chosen One will defeat the DARK OVERLORD

Say:

The Chosen One will be able to defeat the DARK OVERLORD

Or:

Whether the DARK OVERLORD will rule or be defeated will depend on The Chosen One

Or something like that.

Then the Chosen One will have to try. Otherwise the DARK OVERLORD prevails and it will be because of the inaction of the Chosen One.

It could make the story a bit more interesting because now the Dark Overlord, knowing about the prophecy, may try to bargain with the Chosen One, may try to convince the Chosen One to abandon the quest to overthrow the DARK OVERLORD. Because convincing and/or manipulating the Chosen One will be the only, although quite realistic chance for the Dark Overlord to not be defeated.

Alternatively

If you keep the prophecy at it's current form (that is, "the Chosen One will defeat the DARK OVERLORD") then, effectively, you end up with the concept of Fate.

This leads to the realm of Greek tragedies. Read, for example, the history of Oedipus. Everyone was doing their best to avert the prophecy but, instead, it was fulfilled anyway.

So it could be an interesting twist to your story: The Chosen One worships the DARK OVERLORD, accepts the tyrannical rule of the DARK OVERLORD, fights for the cause of the DARK OVERLORD but ends up defeating the DARK OVERLORD anyway.

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