When Your Character Creates their World: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

There’s an old Russian story about a prince that ruled back in the tenth century – Prince Oleg. It was prophesised by the pagan priests that Prince Oleg would die as a result of his stallion. Deciding that’s not how he wanted to go, Prince Oleg sent the horse away. Years later, when he heard of its death he asked to be taken to where the bones lay. When Oleg touched the horse’s skull with his boot a snake slithered out and bit him, and yes…he died.

Hundreds of years later teachers in an American elementary school were told that certain students in their classroom were tested and found to be on the verge of an intellectual growth spurt. Eight months later the students were tested again, and found that indeed, their IQ had spiked far more than their peers. Interestingly, those random children chosen by the researchers were also evaluated more favourably by the same teachers.

What do these two stories have in common? Yep, they’re both self-fulfilling prophecies – the phenomenon when a when a person unknowingly causes a prediction to come true, due to the simple fact that he or she expects it to come true. They’ve everywhere. Think about it, we’ve all been there. We wake up after a bad night’s sleep, just knowing it’s going to be a bad day. We stub our toe on the way to the car, our boss seems snappier than usual, our kids whinier than yesterday, and why are there so many people lining up at the bank! You get home, exhausted, frustrated, but feeling a little vindicated that the world is exactly the way you expected it would be.

Self-fulfilling prophecy was first labelled by a guy called Robert Morton when he observed the downfall of the Last National Bank during the Depression. A rumour had begun to spread that the bank was floundering. Within hours, hundreds of customers lined up to withdraw their savings. It turned out the rumour was false…but the bank still went under. Self-fulfilling prophecies have been observed in sport – where a coach’s belief influences a team’s score, in education – where beliefs of underachievement or overachievement predict student’s outcomes, and in stereotypes – where racial prejudice influences our perceptions of people and their behaviour (and inadvertently makes them act the way we expected!). Fascinating, huh?

And if it exists in life, then you’ll find it in art. Take Darth Vader in the Star Wars films, or Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter franchise – each attempted to take steps to prevent action against them which had been predicted could cause their downfall, but instead (just like our poor Prince Oleg) created the conditions leading to it.

What I love about a self-fulfilling prophecy is that it can have the proverbial ripple effect that can drive a scene or a whole book. Actually, in the Harry Potter series, it drives seven books. You just need a belief – a fear, maybe a hope – and then a series of events powered by that belief that make it come true. The more complex, seemingly unrelated those series of events, the more riveting your plot will be and the more surprising – but oh so fitting – your outcome will feel. A self-fulfilling prophecy can be a scene demonstrating the power of positive thinking, or the heart-breaking outcome of our limiting beliefs. It can be the inadvertent culmination of a centuries old prophecy, or the downfall of your villain (seven books later).

Told you it was fascinating. Which means it would be in your book too. Actually, as I was writing this I decided to use this powerful psychological tool in one of my upcoming sequels that’s waiting to be written. A self-fulfilling prophecy speaks to the power we have over our own destiny, even when it’s totally unconscious, and that appeals to me. And seeing as I’m a reader as well as a writer, I predict it will appeal to other readers too.

What about you? Do you already have a self-fulfilling prophecy powering your plot, or have you thought of a way to incorporate one? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Have a wonderful week,

Tamar

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