I don’t know about you, reader, but during quarantine I have tried my best to stay busy and productive. I volunteer, I read, I write. My wife and I work on the house and yard and have officially worn out all of our board games. Despite all that, with a minimized social calendar I’m still watching too much tv, and I love me some fantasy and science fiction. For better or worse, certain archetypes recycle often in fantasy and sci fi shows. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these plot elements, if we want to write for genre-savvy readers, we owe it to our audience to consider different options when the old idea-machine spits out something that we’ve read or watched or role-played two dozen times before.
Welcome to the Twists on Tropes series. This week, we’re breaking down Chosen Ones.
Just so we can start from a shared understanding, let’s define the basic Chosen One plot arc: An unlikely hero is thrust into cosmic conflict by forces outside their power, usually either a prophecy or a unique supernatural gift. Harry Potter. Rand Al’Thor. Anakin Skywalker. Frodo Baggins. Neo. The Chosen One archetype has flexible narrative utility that draws writers in time and time again:
There is strong wish fulfillment appeal in watching a regular person, not unlike the reader, realize an exciting purpose. There is an easy motivation for engaging in the adventure: if the hero does not answer the call, there are often no other options.
The downside to the default Chosen One narrative is a loss of agency. No matter what objections the character may have, the plot demands that the hero engage. The Call is an outside force that could be seen to override the protagonist’s free will. No choice means no real conflict which means a weak hook.
Let’s look at some variations on the basic theme:
Savvy readers know that the Chosen One must fulfill their destiny to avoid disastrous consequences. What happens if the child of prophecy walks away? Perhaps they don’t believe the Supernatural Forces that call them. Perhaps they believe but let fear and doubt overwhelm them. Perhaps they answer the call for a while, but walk away when the challenges of their new life are greater than they could have imagined. This option has been played with repeatedly. It is the spoon that stirs the pot of most sequels. So, while it does increase tension around the initial call, it may seem played-out to well-read readers.
The Uniquely Qualified Hero
Insert “I have a particular set of skills…” joke here. The default Chosen One usually did not earn their special role or powers (although they often must learn to control or maximize them). This can make the protagonist less relatable, and therefore less compelling. In the real world, we have to sweat to earn our skills. Why should our heroes be any different? If The One is the only qualified answer because they have scrapped and fought for their powers, we see ourselves in that struggle, and more readily cheer them on.
This setup initially mimics the default plot, with a reversal towards the end. What if there never was any power behind the prophecy? Let’s be honest, most foretellings in literature are pretty vague. What if it was designed specifically to call motivated heroes to a worthy cause? How does the hero react when they are at hell’s gates before they realize victory depends on their skills and willpower, not a cosmic failsafe? How do they respond if along their supposedly unique journey, they encounter other “Chosen Ones” on the same quest? This variation has great potential for internal and interpersonal conflict.
It’s Not Who You Think
A hero is only as good as his or her support system. Most Chosen Ones roll through their gauntlet with a cadre of lovable sidekicks, rivals, and mentors. What if the most common reading of the prophecy is wrong? What if in the darkest moment, the supposed champion’s powers seem to fail, opening the door for an overlooked or undervalued character to shine?
This variation is similar to the Self-Fulfilling prophecy in that it springs a twist towards the end, but in INWYT the mystical power behind the call is very real, just misunderstood. Speaking of conflicting interpretations….
Dueling Chosen Ones
Our final twisted trope takes the surprise ending from INWYT and bakes it into the plot from the beginning. What if rival factions interpret the prophecy differently, and each calls their own Chosen One? What is the relationship between those factions? How then do the Chosen Ones interact with one another, and do their relationships mirror or break with party orthodoxy? Even if everybody shares the same goal, they likely disagree significantly on the best way to accomplish it. Layer on top of that the strength of conviction that comes from prophetic mandate, and you’ve got a literary powder keg on your hands.
What makes your hero unique, not only on the page, but on the landscape of literature? In the end, these are just suggestions, but I hope they encourage you, reader/writer, to dig deeper the next time you pen a prophecy and set the wheels of fate turning.
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