On Chosen Ones–a discussion post except I don’t actually know how to do discussion posts

Ah, the chosen one. Just saying (or typing) the phrase is enough to send a shudder deep through the souls of many out there. There was a time when you could not escape from this character type in fantasy. They were EVERYWHERE. Chosen ones were annoying and numerous, like flies. I have said before that hating on cliches just because they’re cliche can be kind of silly, for lack of a better word; just because a trope is done a lot doesn’t necessarily make it bad, and for the most part, the execution of the trope is what makes a story awful, not the trope being there in the first place. But I will still admit chosen ones can get on my nerves. I’m not saying I actively avoid books with this trope, but I’ve never sought them out. Although–I do kind of miss seeing these types of books in bookstores. There’s a type of nostalgia, not in reading the stories (heavens no), but in reading the bad book blurbs. I’m an early 2000’s kid, you little ones out there don’t understand.

Actually, I’m just really weird.

But I’ve softened on this trope over the years. (Over the course of last year, actually.) Chosen ones and prophecies are bad when they’re lazily used, but the tropes aren’t bad in and of themselves. The issue is that, instead of actually trying to say something about fate vs. free will or the struggle of responsibility, the prophecy is only ever used as a way to push the plot forward. Gotta wrangle that hero in there somehow! Now quick! We’ve got a dark lord to defeat and a poorly-developed love interest to shove in our hero’s path!

Instead of being used to enforce the story’s themes, the trope is just used to remove agency from the main character. A prophecy is not the same thing as a motive, and treating it like one can be story-breaking in some cases. What’s more interesting, a hero who tries to defeat the dark lord with no way of knowing who will win because that’s what the hero wants to do, or a hero who tries to defeat the dark lord because a prophecy says he will? And that’s not even getting into the implications imbedded in the trope of how only special people can accomplish things and if you aren’t special you might as well not even try.

But! I still don’t think this trope is all bad! I’ll admit I DEFINITELY like it better when it’s subverted, but even played straight, I’ve still seen portrayals I like. Weak motivations and vaguely weird undertones can definitely be overcome with the right amount of witty banter and fun dynamics and painful angst. (Okay, I’ll admit that I’m struggling to come up with any examples of the chosen one trope played straight, just because I don’t read a lot of chosen one stories. Was the trope played straight in Kung Fu Panda?)

This trope honestly has SUCH fertile ground for subversions, though. I’ve seen some people say that even subverting the trope is pointless because everyone’s already done everything you can do with the trope already and I’m just **insert confused face here**. People have been writing for a millenium and everyone has already done everything you can do with a LOT of tropes. That doesn’t mean the execution of the tropes can’t still be interesting.

Off the top of my head, I can list several subversions I’ve never read in a story before: A chosen one cracks under the pressure, abandons the prophecy, and doesn’t get pulled back into the plot, leaving his friends to pick up the pieces of the abandoned plot thread, so to speak. A chosen one becomes friends with the villain and fulfilling the prophecy becomes something horrifying to them. An ACTUAL pacifist–not a fake one, sorry Aang–becomes the subject of a prophecy about killing the villain, and does not find it pleasant. Just…there are a ton of subversions that I haven’t seen done before, and even if it were true that all the subversions have already been done, that still doesn’t mean that interesting stories can’t still be made using this trope.

Anakin was the first character that really made me think I could love this trope. He’s the chosen one, supposedly, but it’s all very murky and he ends up killing a bunch of people and was the prophecy even real?? Did he fulfill the prophecy by killing Palpatine, even though Anakin still destroyed the Jedi order? Did he fulfill the prophecy by destroying the Jedi order and killing Palpatine? It’s a very weird subversion of the trope, and I honestly enjoyed it so much.

I LOVE chosen ones with fall arcs, okay? It’s such an interesting subversion. I mean, I love fall arcs in general. But chosen one fall arcs are especially interesting because of the things you can do with it. What’s the intersection between fate and free will? Is the prophecy nonsense or is there some kind of twist? How do you defeat someone with fate on their side, actually? And I love characters who are on the wrong side of the prophecy, too. What would the knowledge that a person is going to turn evil and there’s nothing they can do about it do to a person?

Basically:

Mordred: so i’m destined to destroy a kingdom

Me: you’re doing great sweetie 😍😊😋😍🥰

Anyway, it’s 2020 and I personally think it’s time for chosen ones to make a comeback. The trope has a lot of potential, and just because it got turned into a lazy plot device doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. I’d love to see more authors do original stuff with prophecies and chosen ones! I’ll briefly turn my whump-addict mode on and say that I mostly like prophecies that end horribly like in Greek tragedy, but that’s not a prerequisite for me to like this trope in a story. I like exploring concepts like fate and free will, and I like the idea of being destined for something you aren’t sure if you want at all.

Anyway, tell me your thoughts on this topic! I want to know if there are any subversions of this trope you particularly like or if you like the trope at all. Are there any stories with chosen ones you love? And I’m sorry this article is bad–I’m in college and my brain cells are dying (at least I have an excuse now lmao)

20 thoughts on “On Chosen Ones–a discussion post except I don’t actually know how to do discussion posts

      • Well, if one says “Chosen One” around readers they all start shuddering and ranting…can’t say I’ve encountered that in gaming discussions. xD
        But also even if the character is all special and chosen in story, the player still has to successfully play the game and not die while fighting monsters or whatever. So there’s still tension even though we know ultimately the Dark Lord will be defeated…we just don’t know if it’ll take one try or several.
        I also think a frequent criticism of chosen ones in books is they’re too angsty/whiny, or were absolutely ordinary and SUDDENLY there’s a TRAINING MONTAGE and they’re powerful now? Whereas games you’re developing your skill for real, so it feels normal or natural. And in games, there’s not much stopping for angst. Sidequests, oh all day, but not overdone angst. xD

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oh, that makes sense! Yeah, prophecies can kind of suck the suspense out of the plot if used badly, so it makes sense that they’d work better in video games. And true about the whining. Angst needs to come from the plot, it can’t just be thrown in out of nowhere.
          Anyway, it’s interesting learning about a different storytelling format! Thanks for your comment.

          Liked by 1 person

  1. “I mostly like prophecies that end horribly like in a Greek tragedy” <<< Seriously though. It's SO INTERESTING watching those poor Greek heroes run around trying to avoid their destiny and running smack-dab into it. And ANTIGONE? That girl was the only character in the whole Oedipus Cycle, as I remember, who *embraced* her tragic fate and consequently she was the only one who…owned it. I love her so much. Oedipus (and every Greek hero ever) wastes so much time and energy trying to control the physical outcome/practical details, and Antigone's like, "OK, I know what's happening to me, but that doesn't say ANYTHING about WHO I AM. I still have agency and I'm gonna do the right thing, darn it." I just…I love her. She's fantastic.

    Anyway. I guess that was kind of off topic. But I love everything you say about how just because a trope is a TROPE doesn't mean it has to be a boring cliché. It can be done well.

    I feel like the only Chosen One I ever really cared about as a kid was Luke Skywalker? He works, I think, because no one really…harps on his Chosen-ness to his face. He's special, but he doesn't necessarily know he's special. *shrugs* I guess the Pevensies are technically Chosen Ones, aren't they? And Frodo? But…well, okay, it's like the conversation Frodo and Gandalf have about the Ring-coming-to-me and I-wish-it-hadn't-happened-in-my-time: sometimes people just get saddled with unique circumstances that thrust responsibility on them. In that light, ANYONE can be a Chosen One. There's no guarantee that you'll win, but there are times when you're the only one who CAN win. If that makes any sense at all.

    Fantastic discussion post, my dear. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, you get me! ANTIGONE IS THE BEST. My favorite Sophocles heroine, or at least one of them. She goes right into her tragic fate with full knowledge of what’s going to happen, just because she has to do right by her dead brother, and tbh that’s so inspiring?

      Yeah, just because a trope is cliche doesn’t mean that it makes a story feel cliche every time it’s used. I don’t know if I’m making sense, but some authors have a way of making things FEEL unique even though you may have seen the tropes a bunch of times before.

      Luke Skywalker is great!! He’s a good guy all around without feeling too vanilla? And yeah, there are a lot of characters who could be seen as chosen ones from a certain point of view (I can’t say that phrase without thinking of Obi-Wan now). It’s one more reason why I don’t get people who condemn the trope in every form. It’s often lazily used, but not always.

      Thanks!

      Like

  2. I admit to saddling some of my characters with Chosen One woes.

    My alive-in-modern-times Merry Men (in the third novel of their trilogy) get thrown back into the Middle Ages by a psychotic cult convinced that minstrel Allyn-a-Dale is destined to prevent Robin Hood’s death and save history. And the band is like… “So should we try to fulfill destiny like we’re maybe supposed to? Or should we try to /not/ fulfill destiny, so things can maybe go back to the way their were? Or would trying to fail make us succeed?? Or vice versa?? ARE WE EVEN IN CONTROL OF ANYTHING???” ‘Twas all very brain-bending and stressful, poor chaps.

    Whereas in my Camelot novel set in the same world, we’ve got darling Arthur just sitting there, letting Merlin call all the shots for his entire kingdom (or what’s left of it, after its legendary fall), because the wizard’s basically been telling the king since he was crowned at 15, “My gift of prophecy says you’re destined for greatness, so… standby.” Arthur let prophecy hold him passive for /ages/ before finally realizing that the only way he could be ANY kind of king, let alone a great one, was to start making his own decisions. Fortunately, this epiphany came with the bonus perk of commanding dragons. ^o^

    So yeah. The Chosen One trope. One size will never fit all, but I figure there’s more than enough room to play with it, provided the folks getting chosen are allowed agency of character. As with any story archetype, it should be their actions and reactions that drive the story’s path, whether or not we’re told the destination ahead of time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry I took so long getting back to this! I’ve been busy, lol.

      That sounds really fun! I love psychopathic cults (in fiction, of course). The mindsets and group control that go into keeping them up are interesting. And time travel can be really cool.

      That’s an interesting subversion! Especially because a lot of chosen one characters end up kind of passive and they never get called out.

      Yeah, the trope is an easy one to get wrong, it seems, but it’s really not inherently terrible like some people seem to think. It’s honestly kind of a fun trope as long as it doesn’t make the characters passive, like you said.

      Like

  3. This is a very thought-provoking post! I hadn’t really thought all that much of the subversion of a trope idea (not sure why, it seems pretty straightforward, but anyway), and it’s super cool to think about all the ways you can take a common trope and twist it into something unexpected. You made some really great points here, including but not limited to: 1) Prophesy does not equal motivation. (SO TRUE.) 2) The chosen one trope is often used to remove agency from the main character instead of to enforce themes. (for SHAME.) 3) The trope isn’t inherently bad but is often used very badly. (Painfully true- but also hopeful because it CAN be used very well, theoretically.) …Evidently I really geeked out about the beginning of this post.
    Okay, so I admit I am not a huge fan of negative character arcs in general (is that similar to fall arcs?)- so a chosen one turning to the dark side, as it were, is not my jam. Anakin I can handle because that’s not the end of the story. Character arcs that swing down and then up are way more my speed than ones that crash into oblivion of darkness and…stay there. Forever. In horrible depression.
    The tension between fate and free will is a super interesting concept that prophecies and chosen ones really give an opportunity to explore. I haven’t actually seen this done a whole lot but I love the idea.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Why is my mind blanking on any chosen one characters????? WHY????

    I feel like the main pitfall though of the trope is not giving the Chosen One any agency. Prophecy or not they should be still pressed forward by SOMETHING (ok, I finally thought of one. Narnia. And what was cool about the Penvensie’s is that like Edmund was off the rails, and they didn’t stay in Narnia because of the prophecy but to get their brother back, but fulfilled the prophecy anyways) And prophecies also can be really tricky and I think there’s a lot to play with, like prophecies getting misunderstood (which…..even historically that kinda happens all the time.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • The same thing happened to me while writing this article, lol

      Definitely, I agree. Chosen ones need motivation! Luke Skywalker and the Pevensies work because it doesn’t feel like they’re only involved in the plot because they HAVE to because…prophecy I guess? Getting involved solely because ‘the prophecy said so lol’ and never having any commentary or subversion on that is so boring. Misunderstood prophecies can be FUN, I really like them.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Also, though I find it terribly aggravating, I kind of like the whole self-fulfilling prophecy idea- a trope very often seen in Greek mythology. Like you wonder if they had just ignored the prophecy instead of trying so hard to keep it from coming true, maybe everything would have turned out fine. But they let the prophecy control them by obsessing over the fact that they didn’t want to control them…

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s exactly what I love too!! A lot of prophecies, it’s very open-ended whether it was fate or just self-fulfilling, but a lot of authors just. don’t explore that. The prophecy is really just a plot device instead of something to expand the plot and themes, and it’s annoying. I like prophecies! I want people to go more in depth with them!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. What a great discussion post! I’ve definitely softened on the chosen one trope too, and while it won’t necessarily make me pick up a book, it certainly won’t immediately turn me away. I think there are a lot of really interesting ways that a chosen one narrative can be written, but it is frustrating when it’s just used as a lazy way to get the plot moving, like you said.

    Oh man, I’d love to read more books with an “evil chosen one.” And yes, I really love when stories explore themes of free will, so I definitely want that to be in all the chosen one books! The best chosen one narratives, in my opinion, are the ones that really get into how the weight of responsibility affects the character, and I think it’s impossible to do a well-written chosen one narrative without touching on that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I’m the same way. The trope isn’t inherently bad, but also…a lot of authors do NOT use it well, lmao.

      Me too!! I wish I could find more evil chosen ones. I haven’t seen that take a lot but when I do come across it I really like it? Yeah, free will and responsibility are both really interesting themes and are really important when developing a chosen one plotline, but a lot of times I feel like the trope is just thrown in there so the author doesn’t have to develop the plot. Which is a shame, because I really like stories that deal with free will and fate and things like that!

      Like

  7. THIS IS JUST SO WELL-WRITTEN AND THOUGHT-PROVOKING, AND AHHHHH!
    Okay, I know I’m late, but this post is just so good.
    And, yessss. Tropes themselves aren’t bad. It’s just that they become way overused, and if they’re badly written…., well, I can see why people dislike them.
    Subversions are awesome. I love reading them.
    Really, I’d like to see some more well-written chosen one stories. Where can I find some?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! Don’t apologize for being late, I love late comments. Tropes are honestly amazing, and I love dissecting them. But it’s really annoying when someone does a trope badly and then everyone else copies that instead of making it better 🥺 Why, authors. I love subversions too!
      Honestly, I haven’t read a TON of chosen one stories, but Percy Jackson had a fun twist on the trope. Anything with King Arthur is probably going to have a chosen one plotline, unless it’s focusing on one of the (many, many) side characters instead. I’m kind of struggling to think of more at the moment.

      Like

  8. This is a fantastic post and I love everything you said. I especially love some of your ideas for subversions! (Aang is not a pacifist, lol. I think a story with a pacifist protagonist – like, the kind of pacifist who doesn’t believe in self-defense – chosen one prophecy or not, would be SO INTERESTING. It’s a mindset that I can understand the root principles of, but not taking the principles in that direction? It’d be hard to write a character like that, I think, for someone like me whose mindset is so wholly different, but it would be so interesting to read and I want it.)

    Also, free will and self-fulfilling prophecies. That is one of my absolute favorite things and I wish more stories explored it. The fantasy I’m working on now is actually kind of a similar take on the chosen one? The main character is sort of the chosen one – but is she really??? Or do the bad guys just think she is because they’re misinterpreting cryptic prophecies??? And if the bad guys think she’s the chosen one, why do the good guys have no idea about any of that??? And…I don’t know, because I haven’t finished it yet, but so far it seems like the bad guys being like “she is the chosen one. we must kill her!!” is actually pushing her closer and closer to doing what they’re afraid she’ll do, so…if they hadn’t started obsessing over it maybe she wouldn’t have been the chosen one after all?? I don’t know how it will really turn out but it’s shaping up to be a really interesting dynamic and I’m enjoying it a lot.

    I love prophecies that end badly!! That’s way more fun, usually, than prophecies like “oh yeah, you’ll totally save the world!!” What I especially love are prophecies that sound like there’s no way they could end well, but there’s a twist. I very much liked how Percy Jackson did the chosen one prophecy thing. And Mistborn too, although that’s totally different. That’s more like…the chosen one failed to fulfill the prophecy and died, but the prophecy still got fulfilled, but in a totally twisted way that was actually really bad for the world…I loved that concept and how it was executed.

    Anyway!! Long comment to say: yes, chosen ones are kind of cool if done well and I so very much want to see them used to explore themes of free will and choice and self-destruction. But also, from an actual (though unpublished) story:

    Chosen One: *fights villain*
    Villain: Ha-ha, you can’t defeat me!!
    Chosen One: *realizes villain is right* *loses* *starts to die*
    Villain: Ha-ha, I have WON!!! The universe is MIIINE!!!
    Chosen One: *is magically revivified by Chosen-One-ness* *charges at villain*
    Villain: *attempts to kill Chosen One again*
    Chosen One: *cannot be killed because is shielded by magical Chosen-One-ness*
    Villain: What?? No?? Why are you suddenly invulnerable??!!??
    Chosen One: *kills villain*

    Yup. I always think of that when people talk about bad chosen one stories. It makes me laugh.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks a lot! (I don’t know why the show seems to think Aang is a pacifist, because…DUMPING PEOPLE IN ARMOR INTO ICY WATER KILLS PEOPLE, AANG. Yeah, I haven’t come across a lot of characters like that, either? It’d be interesting to see what an author would do with it.)

      IT’S MY FAVORITE THING TOO. Your story sounds interesting! Gotta love bad guys who create most of their problems for themselves. Poor things. I honestly really love murky prophecies where everyone in the story has their own different opinion on them?

      Percy Jackson did have a fun twist! I haven’t read Mistborn, but I’ve heard good things about it. I definitely agree about prophecies about happy endings vs. prophecies about bad endings. Though I’m okay with bad prophecies having some sort of fortunate twist (or, an alternative: “Yay! Fate doesn’t exist in this universe!”) because I have a soft heart.

      Okay, I might die at “is magically revivified by Chosen-One-ness.” A LOT of chosen one stories feel like that, unfortunately

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: October Wrap-Up | pumpkin spice existential dread – Weird Zeal

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s