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In Defence of the Chosen One

One of fantasy’s most commonly mocked tropes is the chosen one. This makes sense; it’s also one of fantasy’s most recurring tropes, and there are a lot of very good reasons why it can feel like a clichéd or even lazy feature. However, I don’t think the chosen one narrative is always negative; in fact, when done well, I love it. So here are some of my reasons why I think the chosen one should stick around.

Fatalism and Duty

Ok, Self Evident Truths by S. Ross Brownelet’s get one of the potential negatives out of the way first. The chosen one is a trope that sets one character above the others as special. They are the hero, the one chosen by fate, and so it seems as if we are being told that there is something inherently better about this person. The idea that some people might be born better than others is something we tend to firmly reject today.

This, like many tropes, is only a negative when handled badly. The idea doesn’t have to come hand in hand with all the stereotypes. A person can be special or extremely talented and still be unlikeable or have deep personal problems. A person can be chosen and still rely on others.

The chosen one’s status as ‘more special’ than others actually offers some very interesting directions for a story to take. Imagine having your life and choices laid out for you. On the one hand, you’re special. You’re a hero. On the other, you’re stuck. You never get to choose who you want to be. You never get to find out what you might have done with your life if you hadn’t been chosen. The chosen one story, like a superhero story, is about special people, but ‘special’ is not the important word there. As long as the story is about people, then there are all kinds of fascinating human elements that will meet fate and its whims head on.

Gobs by BrenochAdamsNot only is this a great setup for conflicting emotions, but it is also not unique to the chosen one. There are other characters who should be able to relate. Anyone who is trapped in a particular way of life because of circumstance or duty will have similar issues, whether it is the prince bound by certain expectations, or the poor farmer restricted by practical concerns and responsibilities. In fact, if taking place in a historical setting, every single character is likely to feel this to a certain extent. The chosen one will have to negotiate how they feel and what they should do in relation to other characters who may be trapped on their own paths.

And how might the chosen one react to the fact that they are ‘special’? They have been singled out above others; do they have feelings of inadequacy or feel like a fraud? Or has their position given them a certain arrogance? What about the jealousy, hatred or expectations of others?

Being a chosen one does not have to mean being better. The chosen one is the person who, for whatever reason, will have to carry out a certain task, but how they get there and who they become along the way is down to other people – friends, family, rivals, teachers, lovers, and more. There is no reason why a chosen one shouldn’t lean on friends and family, and in fact some of the best chosen one stories make it clear that the chosen one could not succeed without the help of these allies (Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of my favourite examples).

Of course, the chosen one narrative has a slight difference from that of others who are bound to their duty. The chosen one is not only set on their path by circumstance, but by fate itself. Do they even have an option of defying their destiny? I find stories about fate and those who are caught up by it fascinating – both those who accept it and those who battle against it – and that is exactly what the chosen one story offers.

Puzzle Solving

The Female wizard - 01 by aditya777chosen one trope is commonly combined with a prophecy that sets out the various attributes that will allow the chosen one to be identified, or the conditions that will be met before a major event. You know the kind – the chosen one will be born as summer ends; you will know the chosen one by the mark of a skull; the chosen one will defeat the dark lord when the moon shadows the sun.

Typically these prophecies are ambiguous, with more than one possible interpretation. This means that identifying the chosen one or determining the best strategy is not always as simple as it might seem. Take the above examples. Will the chosen one be born at the end of the month of summer, or to a mother called Summer who will die in childbirth? What is the skull mark – a birthmark, a tattoo, an interesting cloud shape? And will they be defeating the dark lord on the eclipse, or perhaps when the empire whose symbol is a moon rises to become more powerful than the empire whose symbol is a sun?

The chosen one prophecy can create some wonderful puzzles and mysteries, and the reader can have a lot of fun trying to figure things out, picking apart ambiguous wording, finding events or facts that might fit the riddle, and discussing these endlessly online. There is a lot of scope for interesting theories, as well as for tragic mistakes. There’s a reason mysteries and detective stories are so appealing; not only are they a lot of fun, they also allow the readers to feel even more involved in the story.

The Chosen One Prophecy: Fantasy’s Time Travel

Eowyn and the Lord of the Nazgul by Donato GiancolaI think the chosen one prophecy is a little like fantasy’s time travel. It creates similar weird paradoxes, goofy misunderstandings, logical twists, mystery and intrigue. In a time travel story, a character may travel back in time and accidentally become his own great-great-grandfather. Or perhaps the inventor of the time travel machine reads the instructions for its design in a book she finds on her bedside table one morning. Later, she goes back in order to leave the book there, both closing and creating the loop.

So how does the chosen one prophecy compare? When it comes to prophecy, we are once again talking about meddling with the future. We are forced to ask similar questions that time travel stories raise: is the course of history set and unchangeable, or does it branch in many possible paths? Is it possible to prevent the prophecy from taking place? As in many time travel stories, it is a common motif in tales involving prophecy that those who attempt to change their future will only end up sealing it in place. If you go back in time to prevent something, you may end up being the very person who caused it. If you attempt to prevent a prophecy from being fulfilled, you may just speed it on its way. This is something Oedipus’ parents found out to their doom, as did many mythological characters who wanted to avoid their fate.

And Creator by anndrso we come to the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy. By saying that something is going to happen, are you ensuring that it will? If you search for the chosen one until you find someone that meets the criteria, and then train them up and give them an army at their back, and they then succeed in defeating the dark lord, has the prophecy come true or have you made it come true? Was Harry Potter always meant to be the chosen one, or did Voldemort make it so? What would have happened if he hadn’t responded to that prophecy at all?

I love chosen one prophecies because they raise these questions and create these interesting loops and paradoxes. The power of prophecy, and in particular the power of the chosen one, is a little like the power of stories themselves; they create a narrative that people can believe in and fight for. But at the same time, they are only one version of events, and they have been created by a person or people with an agenda. This adds a very intriguing element to the chosen one story.

Twisting the Trope

There are two kinds of bad trope. Negative and harmful tropes, on the one hand, are something that we should work hard to address or eliminate. But the other kind, those that have simply become boring through overuse, do actually still have a lot left to give. There are many ways in which these recurring plot points or elements can be discussed, re-worked, twisted, reinterpreted, or engaged within other clever ways. This not only brings something new to the genre, but also allows readers to question why such popular tropes and clichés have become so fixed in the genre’s mindset.

Doji Seo by Michael KomarckWhen it comes to the chosen one, there are a myriad possible ways to engage with the trope. Many authors deliberately choose to ensure that there are no ‘special’ characters in their stories, no heroes fated to win, and no one elevated above the others by birthright. Others may take the idea of the chosen one prophecy and then have the prophesied events spectacularly fail to happen. What about a destined, chosen villain? Or perhaps the popular narrative of events is deconstructed to show that the chosen one is not that heroic after all, only remembered so after the winners have written the history books.

I believe the chosen one can still be a fun and interesting fantasy trope to explore, whether played straight or twisted in new ways. I love stories about magic and fate, and about characters who have to struggle between conflicting feelings and duties in their lives. I hope the chosen one sticks around for a long time to come!

This article was originally posted on April 17, 2014.

Title image by Michael Komarck.

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11 Comments

  1. Lucy Hounsom says:

    Thanks for this great, well written article. I wholly agree that the chosen one still has much to offer both readers and writers of fantasy. As you say, there are so many ways to subvert or refresh the trope and of course tropes are tropes because they work on one or more fundamental levels. As long as the writing is deft and engages me, I am more than happy to go on travelling with chosen ones- surely they’re part of the true heart of fantasy, whatever personification they take.

  2. Jeff Seymour says:

    I agree; there’s a ton of space left unexplored in the Chosen One idea, and I think you hit on something very important with “The chosen one story, like a superhero story, is about special people, but ‘special’ is not the important word there. As long as the story is about people, then there are all kinds of fascinating human elements that will meet fate and its whims head on.”

    One of the stories that shaped my tastes in fantasy as a kid was that of Cloud in Final Fantasy VII, where the chosen one motif gets subverted. We know he’s special from the beginning, but only midway through the narrative do we learn he’s been chosen (basically) to destroy the world, and he can’t stop himself from doing it. All he can do is wait until he’s already done what he was chosen to do and fate (in the form of Sephiroth) lets him free, and then go back and try to put things right.

    Loved that story. Still love that story. Think it’s amazing and wonderful and fascinating. Tolkien wrote about there being powers in the world other than those of darkness; one of my favorite ideas is that of there being powers in the world other than those of light. In the second book of Soulwoven, when the characters start to feel like they’ve been chosen for something, one of motifs becomes the question “Chosen by whom, and for what?” 🙂

  3. Kennith E Perry says:

    Great article, I’m outlining my first fantasy novel and this article really helped me. Many others have informed me not to use a chosen one or phrophecy but mine isn’t like Harry Potter or Frodo. My idea has him struggle with many issues. He will struggle to learn to use his magic and it doesn’t always go the way he wants it to.

  4. V. Zampieri says:

    Loved the article. I think that nowadays writers and readers of fantasy have embraced the idea of “trope rejection” a little too fast. It’s not always about replacing a trope with inovation, sometimes it’s much better to simply twist a trope or to put it in a new perspective.

  5. Zane says:

    It’s good to know that I’m not the only one who likes this trope. In the wake of Game of Thrones and other gritty fantasy, deconstruction is IN, and the chosen one is one of the tropes that has come under the heaviest fire. I think I’m out of my deconstruction phase, and moving on to reconstruction. It’s now time to rehabilitate the old tropes, not rip them apart or sweep them under the carpet.

    Recently, I decided that, instead of trying to write what is popular in the hopes of making money, I will just write what the heck I want, and if it sells or doesn’t sell, so be it. I’ll give it away free if nobody wants to buy it. Even if I just end up writing a rehash of all the classic fantasy of the last 50 years, it will still be what I wanted to write. Articles like this give me confidence to do that.

    • buck wade says:

      People seem to assume classic fantasy to be the only cliches, but the reality is, everything used in storytelling is cliche, because so many other people already used it before. So in my judgement to make a good story you should be allowed to use any cliche you want.

    • AshKB says:

      “I think I’m out of my deconstruction phase, and moving on to reconstruction.”

      That is an excellent way of putting it, actually. I think I’m with you. I still enjoy unravelling tropes, but I like looking at what makes them exciting and what might make them exciting again. Not deconstructing down to the fridge horror or ‘gritty’ cynicism.

  6. buck wade says:

    Even though I still am not much of a fan of the trope, you gave a new insight for me on the trope. Whenever I tried to write something I try to avoid stuff to do with, ‘the fate of the entire world’ and make it be more on personnel conflicting and emotions against other people.

  7. Telstar says:

    I’m liking the idea of the chosen villain 🙂

  8. Yora says:

    Chosen Ones are fantasy’s time travel? Would explain why I hate it so much.

    The one time I saw a chosen one do in an interesting way is in The Sword of Destiny and Blood of Elves. It’s very obvious that she is a chosen one. But chosen for what? And by whom? She has powers, but what are they good for? That’s an interesting mystery.

  9. Lady Ty says:

    Thank you for that interesting article, Victoria, I shall now be on the look out for unexpected or unlikely Chosen Ones and hope there are many unusual re-births of this trope.. I think we have Prince Jalan shaping up very nicely as such In Mark Lawrence’s Red Queen’s War. We shall see.

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