Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Inherent Weakness of "The Chosen One" Trope

Harry Potter. Neo. Aladdin. Anakin Skywalker. All of these characters, and a thousand others besides, have the dubious honor of being the chosen one. No I'm not capitalizing it. Because, despite how common this trope is in our stories and myths, the idea of a chosen one has a serious flaw in it. A flaw that tends to make it ring a little hollow, and which has to be ignored like a sour note at a piano recital.

In short, of all the tropes out there, this one is perhaps the most passive way to fold your protagonist into the story.

Don't worry guys, I've got this... for reasons!

Characters Need To Act, Not Be Acted Upon

The trope of being the one, special person decreed to be the protagonist is functional, and it's been around since the days of ancient Greece. We wouldn't have been using it for so long if it didn't get the job done. However, the idea of being the one means that at best your protagonists are the ones being acted upon, instead of acting. At worst, you end up stripping them of their agency, and making them feel like all their actions are pre-ordained. That can be a rough story to keep interesting if you aren't Sophocles.

The guy who wrote Oedipus Rex, for those who were wondering.
The issue you run into is character investment, and development. If you've been bumbling along in your life as a med student/farmer/pot boy, and suddenly someone comes along to inform you that you have been chosen (named by a seer, described in a prophecy, etc., etc.) you aren't actually invested in the thing you were supposedly chosen to do. You literally just found out about this honor you were named to, and now you have to scramble to gear up for the challenge. In a lot of cases, you weren't even aware of the world that you now have to save (again, Harry Potter, The Matrix, etc.).

What you should do, instead, is to make characters who are invested in the tasks they're set, and the story they're a part of. Characters who want to defend their homeland, avenge fallen friends, score that big pay day, or just do the right thing want to achieve their goals for reasons we can sympathize with (or at least understand). We never question their motivations, or wonder why they don't just pack it in and walk away (a problem we often have with chosen ones who have nothing aside from their chosen status actually driving them toward the end game). And it saves a lot of time.

More on this at "The Chosen One" Vs. The One Who Chooses for those who are interested.

But If You're Going To Do It Anyway...

If you really like the idea of this trope, though, I can only recommend that you bend, twist, or outright invert it in some way.

As a for-instance, you have a protagonist that's mentioned in prophecy. Their status gets them access to resources, trainers, and confidence no one else would have had. Then, once they've done the thing they were supposed to do (even if it resulted in their glorious death), you reveal that the prophecy was hogwash. It was created, spread, and spoken of specifically to become self-fulfilling. It was all a cynical way to motivate someone to step up, and be the hero.

You don't have to go full inversion, though. For example, you could make it so that those who are chosen are not chosen for the purpose they think. Perhaps they're a sacrifice to sate an ancient god, their entire destiny of saving the world being true... from a certain perspective. You could even actively attempt to undermine the prophecy, with the character doing everything in their power to fight against their role, but their actions only bring them to the end that was pre-determined (Oedipus, if you're feeling tragic, or Inspector Clouseau if you want it to be amusing). Or you could make it so that the protagonist we have is a fake-out, and it's actually someone else who is the chosen one who steps up in the ultimate moment.

Again, I would recommend steering clear of this trope whenever you can. But if you feel it's integral to making your story work, at least do your best to make sure it doesn't rob your protagonists of their agency, or your tale of its tension. Otherwise readers are very likely to put it down, and walk away.

For more on character agency, check out What Is Character Agency (And Why Do You Need It)?

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing update. For those who'd like to check out more of my work, take a look at my Vocal archive. Follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to stay on top of all my latest releases. If you'd like to help support me, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page or consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi. Either way, there's a free book in it for you!

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