Chosen One Narratives

*rolls up sleeves* Time to get a teeny bit potentially controversial.


What is a chosen one? It's the person who is destined to solve the world's biggest problem for no reason other than because they're the chosen one. They haven't earned it. They haven't won a competition to become it. They simply are the chosen one. The concept instantly removes the idea a character has to work for success. Destiny will provide everything they need. They'll be naturally gifted at something and unbeatable at it, even if other people have spent years training at the same thing. Oh, and the chosen one being useless at things but still somehow saving the day does not make this trope any better.

I should clarify there are plenty of chosen one narratives I adore - His Dark Materials (AKA my favourite book of all time), and the Legend of Zelda series for example. However, I experienced both of those for the first time as a child. As a cynical adult, I have a few issues with the concept.

The whole chosen one thing never bothered me when I was younger. I think the idea that you're chosen to be something amazing when your a child or a teenager is comforting and exciting. It's nice to know that you're going to be okay - destiny has a plan for you at a time when your life is full of massive upheaval and change.

Unfortunately, life isn't that simplistic.

As soon as a chosen one gets involved, we know that no matter how much hardship they experience or what they lose, they'll never actually fail - even if winning means they'll die. That being said, more often that not, it tends to be the people around them who pay the price for whatever trouble the chosen one has to put a stop to. Sure, the chosen one will be upset or traumatised, but they're still going to win. Destiny says they can't fail. In fact, the death of a mentor can be used as a way of forcing the chosen one to accept their destiny.

Which begs the question why does the bad guy even try to do their evil thing in a universe with a chosen one? They've ultimately lost before they've started.

I'd rather my protagonists choose to take on the big bad rather than have it be preordained or whatever. Being the chosen one just makes it all a bit too easy - like in those anime series when the main character is about to be beaten only to conveniently develop a new, unbeatable super power right in the nick of time. It's cool the first time, but it gets boring. Knowing someone can win just because annihilates any conflict and tension.

Making someone a chosen one also removes their options. They have to and will do the thing they're destined to do because, well, it's their destiny. They can try and run away from fate, or they can whinge and whine about how hard it is to be the chosen one, but ultimately, they're going to do what they were born to do.

The other thing that really bothers me is how it removes the importance or even need for other characters. The chosen one, through their newfound powers or hidden past or whatever, is never going to fail, and the entire plot will be about them. The other characters are there simply to support the chosen one and help them on their way. They can't be the one that solves the big problem simply because they aren't the chosen one. They might be stronger, they might have worked harder, they may have sacrificed more, but what does any of that matter when, for whatever reason, they aren't the chosen one?

The side characters in chosen one narratives are more interesting because there's so much opportunity for development when they aren't saddled with destiny. However, even when they're better trained, more experienced, and more well-rounded than the chosen one, the supporting characters are ultimately powerless simply because destiny hasn't chosen them. Take Obi-Wan Kenobi. He is by far a more interesting character than Anakin Skywalker, and we know he's a powerful Jedi. Why can't he bring balance? Eh, it's not his destiny. 


It's a weak reason for a strong person to fail. "Destiny says no." Really? That's it? LAME.

You can do different things with the chosen one trope to change it up a bit. Star Wars does, seeing as Anakin fulfills the prophecy by KILLING EVERYONE and then dying himself. Not quite the heroic win chosen ones usually deliver.


Another variation I adore is Kingdom Hearts. Sora, the main character of the series, isn't a chosen one. His friend Riku is, but he falls short of the mark. Sora is simply in the right place at the right time. That means Sora has to run around fighting the Heartless and saving worlds, not because of destiny but because he feels like he has to. And just when you think he's earned something for himself, the actual chosen one gets himself together and reaps the rewards.

To go any further would spoil the story... and turn this paragraph into an essay because I just have a lot of feelings regarding this franchise, okay? Okay. Self control.

Maybe I'll save a Kingdom Hearts plot analysis for another day... like after the third game's come out...

Are chosen one narratives a thing of the past? Should you avoid them at all costs. No. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for them these days, I understand why a lot of stories continue to use chosen one narratives, especially for younger audiences. Played straight, they're a cosy fantasy. Played not so straight, you can explore the fallout of failed destinies, see how awful it would be to carry the weight of such mammoth expectation, or see what happens when someone else has to do the chosen one's job for them. There are plenty of options. Who knows, maybe someday I'll wind up writing a chosen one story someday. Never say never, right?

How do you feel about having a chosen one in your story? Got a favourite chosen one? Think the trope's had it and we should all move on? Let me know!

Comments

  1. Oh wow, what a fascinating topic! Completely agree that as a kid, I actually really enjoyed Chosen One plots, and they only bother me as an adult. It was nice to imagine an ordinary person could become 'special' out of nowhere.

    When I was young I wouldn't know how to earn that special-ness -- I didn't feel like I had much control over my life, school and parents were the ones in control. Now I'm an adult, working hard to pay the bills and keep a roof over my head, it makes sense that I prefer the idea of having to work hard and earn that right to be special. But as a younger person,who was a bit scared of the realities of a working life, I'd probably have bristled at the idea that you need to 'deserve' something nice happening to you -- why can't good things just happen to good people, y'know? Shouldn't have a good heart or brave soul be enough?

    It strikes me that my fondness of 'earning' your hero status is still a flawed, socialist way of looking at things: very focused on earning good things in your life, when in reality not everyone who works hard gets a good life. Lots of people get the good life by birthright or luck, and vice versa. It's a very different kind of optimism to what I had as a kid: I've shifted from believing good things will just happen to good people, but to thinking that good things will happen to good people *who do their best and work hard*.

    Its definitely something I'll need to keep in mind when writing middle grade and YA.

    I really like the Harry Potter chosen one trope, because you see the downside of being the special (the bullying, the pressure and stress), and you see other characters around him having their own arcs and moments of glory.

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    Replies
    1. Chosen one narratives can lead you (as a child and young adult) to think "well, hang on, I'm being good and brave and working hard, so how come I'm not getting a reward?" Well, because in the real world no one's going to magically reward you - you have to get out there and do it for yourself.

      You could definitely do a political breakdown of chosen one narratives. Hard work doesn't always pay off. It's a hard lesson, but one young people need to learn.

      It's an even tougher lesson to learn you aren't 'special' and that you, like everyone else, are making the best of your life.

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    2. Yeah, this is very, very true!

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    3. We all want to believe we're special, but, ah, reality is a harsh teacher. It is interesting how many special characters there are in recent YA...

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