Storytelling Tropes: The Chosen One

A series looking at common tropes in storytelling. This essay looks at The Chosen One and how to use, avoid, or subvert it.

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© 2017 Epytome / Used With Permission

Storytelling is, admittedly, like music. There are only so many chord progressions. Some themes are just there, no matter how hard you try to escape them. Take ‘The Chosen One’ for example, a trope that has been apparent since the dawn of spoken word.

The Chosen One is easily explainable. We as humans would love for someone to turn up one day and say, “Yes, you are special. Your struggles are worth it.” Then be led towards people who seem to genuinely care about you and praise you, and have no interest in hurting you. You are the emergent tree from a canopy, and it is great because your rising above the rest somehow betters others. Who doesn’t want to be the Messianic Archetype?

Of course that’s not going to happen, but why can’t it happen to your protagonist? Well, it’s not that it can’t, it’s that it is such an overdone (and often poorly overdone) trope that maybe it shouldn’t. The Chosen One protagonists end up alienating readers quite quickly, because in order for them to seemingly deserve their titles authors slip into writing Mary Sues or Gary Stus—the perfect people. They’re often thrown in as inexperienced characters, often wide-eyed and confused by the world around them—yet they can kick more arse than even the professional side-characters around them, because, you know, chosen.

Let’s say, by default, all protagonists are The Chosen One. They were chosen by you as the author to spearhead this story and ultimately achieve the end goal (unless you’re trying to subvert that idea). You don’t need to ostracise your own character by stamping them on the forehead with a prophecy, you’ve already done that by marking them out as the main character. They are destined, by your hands, for great things.

The best way to use The Chosen One trope is to have them fleshed out first, before any Chosen One natter starts swimming across your pages. They need—like every main character—hopes, dreams and fears, some skills and weaknesses, and it can be these things that help push your character out onto the righteous path of kicking arse. These skills can then be used to explain how they get the upper hand, and the weaknesses can be used to utilise supporting characters better—because if they’re not supporting, why are they there? Every character needs to drive the plot, not just The Chosen One.

The easiest and simplest way to subvert The Chosen One trait is to a) reveal that the main character isn’t, in fact, The Chosen One, or b) show that the prophecy is a lie. The ending could be the same, and end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it won’t be of detriment to the reader. They’ll have discovered the character has grown from the beginning; they’re stronger now, more determined. It isn’t fate that is going to slay this dragon, it is the main character, because he or she worked for it. Earned it.

There could be a mistranslation somewhere on the prophecy text, or word of mouth from generation to generation has warped it. An old crone could have gone senile and said something, but because she’s an old woman people could have misconstrued her for an all-wise Oracle. The real Chosen One could have been so close to home that no one thought, hey wait, maybe it’s the twin?

The villain has been trying for so long to slay The (not) Chosen One that they’ve essentially made an enemy out of thin air, and that is their downfall.

If one definitely must go with The Chosen One trope (but has no desire to mock it or subvert it), then it should be noted that it needs to be essential that this is explained. Why can’t the masses rise up and take down the government? Or that one guy at the top of his tower? What is stopping them? Due to the nature of The Chosen One stories it is getting harder and harder to justify, especially in a world that constantly screams, “What makes you so special?!”

It’s not necessarily a bad trope; there’s a reason it is still popular. It is just a trope that is easily written poorly, and as with other tropes and unfavourable writing techniques, many readers just have no patience for it. The trope might suit the story you’re writing, and don’t let this deter you from writing it, just remember the nature of the beast and keep your writing in check.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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