Trope Review: The Chosen One
Updated: May 11, 2020
Perhaps one of the most common and hated tropes in fiction. Across all forms of media, we've all seen the Chosen One. They’re rampant. From the humble “Farmboy of Destiny” to the long-lost heir to the throne, a Chosen One is not a new title or an unheard-of trope. They range from the prophesied slayer of the Dark Lord TM, or the ultimate title of “Chosen One.” Chosen Ones, especially in fantasy and sci-fi, come in many forms. They could have a midichlorian count of over twenty thousand, an ancient lineage of royalty, or sudden weapon prowess the author never fully explains. Sensing a bit of disdain on my part? You’ll see why!
In defence of this trope, there is a legitimate reason for the Chosen One's use and overuse. People need to connect to a protagonist, and in fantasy nobody really wants to connect with the peasants which made up over 90% of the population. That's why we have High Fantasy. It revolves around the power players. The kings and queens, the legendary warriors, the clergy and so on. The people whose decisions impact people. An ordinary peasant would make for an interesting character. But, if this character is a peasant, they must have something that makes them unique, or important enough to the story besides being the protagonist.
There are certain benefits to the Chosen One trope. It is a nice and simple template (at base level) to write. It will guarantee your character is unique (however it doesn’t guarantee them a personality.) Often a character’s powers or Chosen-ness links directly to the plot, and that struggle ties them in to it.
However, a nice, simplistic plot can be a problem. It can come across as too easy. This is worse when combined with poorly designed magic systems. I get this sense with the dwyma in The Sunsurge Quartet. Their magic seems to always do exactly what the plot needs. It is a magic system that is a little too ‘soft’ when stacked up against the previous well-defined gnosis system.
We have characters who learn skills that are “in their blood.” The innocent farm boy who’s never picked up a sword becomes the greatest warrior in the land within a week. He somehow bests the underdeveloped love interest who has been training all her life for this. And then unsurprisingly, he heroically rescues the once-badass heroine-turned-damsel with this week’s worth of training.
Because CHOSEN ONE.
But these are mere trifles compared to the worst problem of all Chosen One tropes. I mentioned Chosen One tropes give your protagonist a plot. But it doesn’t give them a personality. If the only thing that makes them special is their Chosen-ness, then the character will be passive, and unrelatable. This, unfortunately, was something I noticed in the Kingdom of Denall series. Though Mylot of Tran became the prophesied Chosen One to control The Changing, he still came across as a bland character who had plot relevance at the end.
I think it’s pretty clear that the Chosen One trope has fallen into the Mariana Trench of clichés. But I believe everyone, and every trope, has a second chance. So is it possible to make this less of a cliché? Definitely. Here are some tips to avoid some common downfalls of the Chosen One trope:
A character who is only special because of their power can be avoided by giving them a personality. In my opinion, Chosen One tropes should be done character first, Chosen second. If it’s a destiny story, your Chosen should fight tooth and nail to claim the destiny.
A protagonist should be so not because of what they are, but who they are.
Nothing stopping a writer from giving a Chosen One fighting skills as part of their Chosen-ness. Ironically, this is very similar to my discussion on Fantasy Weapons. (If you haven’t read that post yet, check it out!). We like to see characters earn their weapons, rather than have them handed down. In the same way, we like characters who have worked hard to gain their skills the old-fashioned-way. In the medieval Europe that dominates most fantasy, if a child is royalty there is reason for them to have practiced swordplay, though they may not consider it worth their time. Dorian Havilliard in the Throne of Glass series is an excellent example. He doesn’t take it seriously until he suffers his own trauma, and that forces him to train hard.
It isn’t reasonable for a peasant farm child to have learnt such a skill, so the fall-back is to have them learn it from the wise old mentor. But swords aren’t the only weapons out there. Bows, but even other ranged instruments such as slings and atlatls (used in my childhood favourites Ranger’s Apprentice and Brotherband). Far more well-used by the common folk for hunting small game and an active youngster could have reasonably had this experience, or had wielded slings as a kid.
I won’t sit back and say I’m not guilty of writing a Chosen One trope. Torchbearer has at least an implied Chosen One trope. In reflection, I think I kept it that way because of a comment I received from one of my early beta readers. She liked Eli not because he was brave, but because he was a good person who could just do something. And I like to think Eli did what he did with no consideration for his unknown powers. He could just do something. So maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t. If you want to prove me wrong, you can purchase my book here from my website! Have a read and argue with me on social media 😊 everyone loves that.
But it all boils down to the single question every writer should ponder. What makes my protagonist unique? Is it the Chosen One? Or is it them?
I hope your protagonist is unique because they have qualities that readers can connect with. Because as a storyteller should tell the best story they can.
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See you next week!