• Phil Parker

Dangers for The Chosen One


The Chosen One is a common trope in speculative fiction. You've got Harry Potter of course, Aragorn in Lord of the Rings and John Connor in the Terminator stories. Characters who will fulfil a destiny, a prophecy of some kind. In Young Adult novels, it's particularly common. Unsurprising really, a kid with an ability to show superiority over the adults, or the bullies. I'm a fan of Jim Butcher's Codex Alera stories, a Roman-esque setting for the boy who overcomes numerous challenges to become lead his people out of danger by the seventh book. In the early stages he's without the powerful abilities to manipulate the elements that others possess, like Harry Potter he goes to an academic institution where he's bullied and secrets prevail. He serves in the army, encounters foreign enemies and defeats them only to find the greatest danger is on his doorstep.

The thing is, we're never left in any doubt that the Chosen One will win, in the end. And isn't that the problem? We're left wondering more about how the protagonist defeats the baddie, rather than if they will win. This trope presents some dangers when it comes to adopting the trope for any story. Let's explore what they might be.


Danger #1: Expositon and the Back Story

I've outlined the danger in my example of Butcher's Codex Alera. The Chosen One often comes out of nowhere, with no relevance to the story and needs to grow into their role. That growth requires a fairly detailed background enabling us to see why the prophecy occurs, why others haven't spotted it, why the majority of people won't accept it. In effect it means establishing two settings at once. The world of the protagonist at the start (often a life of poverty and hardship, isolation, desperation) and the world of the 'Endowed' - those with wealth and power, well established status and a society which depends on it. For some stories, this setting facilitates the story's focus on righting social wrongs. Anakin Skywalker, a kid on some obscure planet, defeats the evil Empire with its corruption, cruelty and inhuman treatment of those who are less fortunate. It becomes a story about revolution.

In this respect, the trope loses some of its significance. The story isn't so much about the protagonist winning in the end, it's more about what changes that victory will bring. It's a story about Change.

But - the danger remains. Balancing the story with the huge quantities of exposition needed to define the two worlds and all the people within it. Both my examples stretch across several novels, as it does with Aragorn's acceptance of his role in Lord of the Rings, likewise Neo in The Matrix films. Book One is invaiably focused on setting up these worlds and delivering a minor challenge of some kind to retain the tension needed to keep us reading. Don't think it will be easy telling such a story in one book!


Danger #2: Righting wrongs and ethical conundrums

The Chosen One is the person who must fight to correct certain evils that have already been committed. This may, or may not, involve a prophecy. In The Last Airbender stories, Aang is led to believe he must kill the villainous Ozai. Having been educated in the ways of peace and harmony, this doesn't come easy for the boy, technically he's expected to commit murder. It's only after meeting the Lion Turtle that he realises defeating his nemesis doesn't need to involve killing him. For YA audiences, this ethical issue is a worthy one for young people to consider, it's a teaching aid as much as its a story. Do wrong-doers always need to die?

The same is true for another classic YA series, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer. Here our Chosen One has subverted the trope by being villainous already. He does bad things, such as kidnapping a fairy to facilitate his goals. Of course, Good comes out of the story as the winner in the end but it offers some wonderful opportunities for ethical conundrums to be explored.

The Inkheart Trilogy by Cornelia Funke is another YA story where you might argue Meggie is a Chosen One. The ethics explored here are interesting, fictional characters escape from their pages into reality and Meggie and her father spend the 3 books getting them back where they belong. Inevitably, with their newly discovered freedom, they don't want to go back. Would you? Where your freedom is taken from you, where the story is really a prison?

My examples may all be from the YA genre but they serve to illustrate how this trope treads a delicate line with morality. What moral issues will the Chosen One need to confront to fulfil their role and reach their goals? Who suffers - and is it right they should? Merely reaching the goal without considering this topic is a danger. In adult stories, there are issues around the levels of suffering that might exist, likewise for various forms of abuse. The danger is to ignore all this, or worse, reduce its importance and relevance.


Danger #3: Medieval settings and modern sensitivities

In some ways, this danger combines the previous two. The world of the Chosen One in speculative fiction has a medieval setting. Magic exists because science doesn't. Like the Middle Ages, Life has little value, survival is everything. It's a popular choice for authors because the threats are many and varied, the likelihood of dying is great. People are treated appalling badly. This is certainly true in Grimdark novels.

The Chosen One trope exists in these stories to put an end to the villainy which takes advantage of this situation.

Jon Snow in George RR Martin's Game of Thrones stories is another Chosen One, set within the grimest of Grimdark settings possible. Here life has little value, violent death is inevitable and women are little more than sex slaves in the majority of cases. Ethical issues abound here and were voiced regularly while the TV series aired, you can read here and here. The ethics focus on the extent to which we should capture the values of the past, when we, as civilised people, know they are wrong.

Kameron Hurley, whose Mirror Empire uses a kind of Chosen One trope, is another nominee for the Grimdark label. I include her here because of something she said in a debate on this topic. The discussion centred on the ethical issues of abuse, rape and violent murder which can occur in some dark fantasy stories. She said, "imitators who come after (the instigators of this style, such as Abercrombie, Morgan, Lawrence et al) start to water down the original ideas behind the backlash, and instead of a nuanced exploration of human frailty and complexity, we end up with nihilistic heroes who kick puppies and murder people on page one and call it deep and serious."

Isn't this the point? There are people who focus on the dark sides of the human psyche in their stories because they aim to imitate the success of such authors. The danger is they risk stepping over the line of what we consider as acceptable. Debates rage on the internet about how inappropriate (or otherwise) these stories are. My point here is to be aware of the decisions taken as a writer, to be aware of the issues you are addressing and to include them only after such considerations have been made.


Danger #4: Lazy solutions thanks to Deux Ex Machina

Yes, I'm talking to you John Connor from the Terminator stories. It doesn't get much easier to deal with the challenges facing a Chosen One than when you use Time as the solution. When people try to kill you before you've even been conceived life is never going to be easy I suppose but it certainly highlights what the future holds for you. As a result, your mother equips you with all the knowledge and skills you'll need to defend yourself. So problem solved. You're in a tight corner so what do you do? You summon knowledge or apply a skill - that has never been mentioned before - to save you. Great!

Hollywood is filled with stories like this. We get carried away by the SFX and get distracted by the lazy scriptwriting. Don't get me started on Jupiter Ascending either - where our plucky Chosen One is rescued by (wait for it) a character who is half super-soldier and half dog - with super-smell. Not surprising it sunk without trace at the box office eh?

It's a dangerous trap some inexperienced writers fall into because they hope it won't get noticed. It's how a maguffin serves as a rescue device (ring, amulet, funny little blue creature etc) or a character appears out of the blue who provides all the answers, secrets hidden for centuries appear at the right moment - all devices that use a Deux Ex Machina solution that leaves the reader rolling their eyes. If such things are going to be used - they need to be established early on and then hidden again by distracting the reader.


Danger #5: Stereotypes and stock characters

The Chosen One as a trope presents the danger of employing other tropes, especially where characters are concerned. Rather than find fault with any books (and their authors!) let me illustrate this danger with the film that defines this topic beautifully, by satirising it. I'm talking about the wonderful The Princess Bride by William Goldman and turned into the cult film by Rob Reiner. The story is filled with stock characters that impede or enhance the Chosen One's journey. Buttercup is, herself, such a character, she's the imperiled princess but we have giants, gangsters, mystical medics and evil viziers.

It's not difficult to modify such characters with a little more detail but the fact remains we will recognise what they are fairly quickly.


Conclusions

The Chosen One, as a trope, has a lot to offer any story. What I hope I've shown here are some of the dangers that come with it, that are easily included if you're not careful. They get caught up in the slipstream of the Chosen One's narrative if you're not looking for them. There are articles on the internet which suggest this trope is tired and over-used. I disagree. I think it continues to offer news alternatives but the writer needs to be aware of those attendant dangers which are actually the real problems here.

It's all about being original, finding new ways to tell the story and to define the character. Once that part is done, the Chosen One can become exciting and fresh again.


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