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12 November 2011 @ 03:56 am
Precognition Tropes  
At Arisia 2012, there will be a panel entitled "Parapsychology in Genre Fiction." I had nothing to do with the proposal of this panel, nor with the naming of it.

The panel description reads,

"Telepathy, remote viewing, and pyrokinesis make for interesting stories, but how can writers make them believable? How can a character have precognition and not ruin the upcoming plot twists? Is someone who talks to ghosts magical, or just psychologically "gifted?" Where does psych-fi belong among the sci-fi, urban fantasy, or paranormal subgenres?"

I had nothing to do with this, either. I do intend to moderate the panel (if I can), to keep this conversation from Failing Hard, and hopefully to make this conversation productive and educational.

I think a basic ground rule that "psi people exist, so even though psi as portrayed in fiction is often far from realistic, please do not talk about us like we do not exist" is an important first step.

As for the other questions asked, I'm going to start with the one on precognition. Precognition only has the potential to "ruin important plot twists" if you have altered and distorted this thing which is actual precognition and awareness of time as non-linear, and turned it into something very artificial, that you've also tied up with the "plot" to begin with. You want to see an example of precognition not "ruining important plot twists"? Try observing the life of a really precognitive person. You will probably notice that "plot twists" are never ruined in that person's own narrative of him/herself. You will probably also notice that real precognition usually doesn't involve Important World Events, and it probably also Doesn't Involve You. And even if it does involve you, it's probably pretty random, and involves random minor day to day things. If it does involve something Significant, that person almost certainly has no way to affect the outcome of those things. So "saving the world" from the consequences of his or her "predictions" does not become a part of the "plot" of that person's life, though being precognitive is always a part of who he or she is.

These people's stories are just as valid as the made up ones where precognition is part of the plot -- actually, I'd say they're more valid because they're told by people who really live it, who are writing about their real experiences. I think it's completely valid to demand realistic fiction about psi people in addition to the unrealistic stuff which, sadly, dominates.

What place do these people have in any of those subgenres? Any place they want -- just like if you asked me "what place do bisexual people have in sci-fi, urban fantasy, and paranormal subgenres?". Anywhere they want -- of course. Just like psi people's narratives should be included in general, not omitted from all genres except certain speculative ones. That is the more interesting question, after all -- "Why are psi characters only included in these speculative genres, and omitted from most 'realistic' fiction? What message does that send real life psi people about the validity, worth and 'place' of their own personal narratives?" (Maybe I'll pitch that panel for Wiscon. Stay tuned.)

Each type of psi experience has its own set of tropes in spec fic. Here are the Major Tropes (that I have found) for precognitive characters. These are all on the bingo cards that I will post eventually.

Most stories with a precognitive character have all or most of these:

1) MY FREE WILL, OH NOES! (If there is a precognitive character, the story Must Include Discussion of Fate/Free Will.)
2) The character predicts an Important Plot Event (or several), and has predictions/wisdom that are Useful To The Protagonist
3) The character must be dead or removed from society/the story by the end

Most stories with a precognitive character have one or several of these:

1) Precognition is only of negative, bleak, or catastrophic events (from Cassandra)
2) Precognition = "doomed predestination" (from Cassandra)
3) Character has a vision of someone's death -- but can "trade fates" and die in their place
4) Predicts important plot event, spends rest of story trying to stop it
5) Psi person makes prediction -- is then blamed/blames self for events happening
6) Character has a vision of the future -- can change it, but will die in the process
7) Character gives the protagonist helpful info about the future, then dies


1) The "blind seer" stereotype (from Tiresias)
2) The "Gypsy fortuneteller" stereotype
3) Precognition is "caused" by something which narratively links psi with disability
4) The character is unmarried/single/not in a relationship/never has been in a relationship (seers never marry)

Because precognition is tied to "the plot", the author then has to make up how come the character only knows certain plot events -- enough that it sets the plot in motion or contributes to the hero's development, but not enough that it "spoils the plot" and makes things too easy for him or her. This is usually solved by some hand-waving involving free will. "I can only see vaguely into your future, but I cannot see what path you will choose..." In darker stories, the precognitive character is "cursed" and has to die for things to be set right in the world, and even in lighter stories, the precognitive character will sometimes die in the process of Epic Shit Happening (also from Cassandra).

What we see too little of:

1) Stories with precognition which take place in a cultural/religious/spiritual framework that doesn't have the "free will" debate at all, for example, stories where precognition is seen as a conscious (though intermittent) non-duality with respect to time, all events in the universe actually occurring simultaneously. Some people have moments where the illusion of linear time (forwards, backwards, or both) doesn't exit. This doesn't have to be a comment on anything, and it certainly doesn't have to place this person in a "supporting character" role in someone else's narrative.

2) Stories in which precognition is a character trait and not something that is relevant to the advancement of the "plot".

3) Precognitive characters who are in stable, happy romantic relationships (as the protagonist, with the protagonist, or with someone else).

4) Precognitive characters who are still alive at the end of the story, still a part of their communities, and included in the "happily ever after".

5) Realistic fiction with precognitive characters as the protagonists, centering their experiences and identities as whole people in the narrative -- not others' reactions toward their precognition, or how they can be "useful" to others in their lives/with their problems.

Examples of precognition done well: Nope, sorry, I don't have any. I'm looking for it, trust me.
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