Writing Discussion

There can be only one

The “chosen one” trope’s been mentioned a few times lately. I touched on it briefly here, but it came up on  Stephen Watkins’ blog and Anthony Lee Collins discusses it here.

What is it? The “Chosen One” is a character that is prophesied/destined to save the world. Sometimes being the chosen one is a blessing, and at other times a curse, but it always ends with fulfillment of destiny. For example, Neo in the Matrix movies, Rand al’Thor in the Wheel of Time books, or even Harry Potter.

This was one of the first tropes to appeal to me when I was younger. I loved those middle grade fantasies about kids my age discovering powers and great destinies along the way. I liked imagining that I could have an important role to play in the world, that I could be special in some way. Also I liked seeing kids having people believe in them, despite their doubts, how afraid they were, and how terrible the evil they face – eventually it led to them believing in themselves.

But it’s been done… and done. I’ve got nothing against the trope, but it’s hard to stop from descending into cliche. So how can you make it fresh and interesting?

As Anthony proposed, why not let characters choose responsibility, rather than let it be forced upon them? Thereby, not use the trope at all.

An alternate idea, is that being marked as the  ‘chosen one’ is truly a misunderstanding. By truly, I mean that the story does not fall in to the related cliche where you reveal “oh but she really was the chosen one” in the end (like Neo in the Matrix).

What if there’s not a chosen one, but chosen ones? What if a destiny was shared by a group working together, or by multiple people whose stories are woven together, and do not start out in the same place?

What if the destiny is something small, tiny, not world changing? Or appears to be nothing spectacular, but has a big impact? Or what if it affects no one but a single family?

My approach was to invert it, so some of the flaws were easier to see. Some of the things I wanted to examine were: how do you know whether you’re savior or the destroyer? and what about free will? Because you know the future, are you doomed to self-fulfill it?

Hmm, I’m sure there are more ways to go about it, but those are just a few I could think of off the top of my head. I think a good writer can always find a way to make a trope fresh. Ironically, here I am, moaning about the chosen one, when two of the best books I’ve read lately (The Inheritance Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin and Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor) make it work.

What do you think about the chosen one? Has it been overused? Or do you still see potential in it?

And an extra dose of geekiness for you today:

If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the Assassins Creed Revelations trailer (Thanks to John Wiswell for the link). I’ve had the music on repeat all day!

And if you picked up the reference in the blog post title, you might like to reminisce a little.

23 Comments to “There can be only one”

  1. Hmm…you gave me a lot to think about, T. In Project Whirlwind, I was going for the Chosen One motiff and you are right, this has been done before three ways to Sunday. Thank you for challenging my thinking. Back to the drawing board! 🙂

    1. There’s always a way to make it fresh! Though sometimes it is easier to just stay away from the cliche. Good luck! PS I’d be interested in hearing more about Project Whirlwind 🙂

  2. I love the idea of playing with tropes like this. Doing the unexpected.

    Much to my dismay, I thought I’d just avoid the Chosen One altogether in my WIP…then one day hints of it just seemed to creep in unwittingly. -_-

    What is it about writing fantasy that just makes you want to do that?!?!

    Anyway, I pretty paranoid about doing things that have been done before, so I do plan to treat this trope in an unconventional way over the course of several books. Could have taken it out, but what’s writing without a challenge?! Guess we’ll see how it turns out, heh. (Can’t wait to see your version!)

    1. hehe, it does seem to creep in there doesn’t it? I suppose that might be because it’s done so much in fantasy, you almost expect it, or perhaps its that deep down appeal of destiny? I’m sure you’ll find a way to make it fresh!

  3. Of course it’s been overused!

    I actually play on this “chosen one” idea in my work. And that different perspective on it is what is one of the main themes of the entire story.

    I think authors should play with overdone ideas like this one. It’s a fun exercise!

  4. (A) Yes, it’s one of my favorite tropes, too.
    (B) Yes, it’s very frequently used (I won’t say “over-used for reasons I’ll go into).
    (C) Yes, I think that makes it difficult to use this trope effectively in new works; it presents a a significant challenge to new writers.

    That said, I think new writers, especially in F&SF, almost have to approach this trope, eventually, in their work.

    See, I have this theory about why so many of us are attracted to this trope, in particular, which in part explains why it’s so often used. It’s sort of related to the whole idea of the Monomyth, in a way, but it’s something I’ve developed on my own: My idea is that this trope, in particular, resonates so strongly because it is a model for how we see ourselves and how we live our lives. To each of us, individually, we are the chosen one. We are the heroes of our own stories. And, in some way, I really do believe that each of us has a destiny – although, as I see it, it’s not so much an irrevocable destiny as a destiny of choice; but I believe each of us is destined to do something great, even if it’s great only a small context, if we make the right choice to be great. Writers, of course, are attracted to the trope because we, in particular, want to be great writers, so we write about people who are destined to be great.

    That said… I do fear the trope is so frequently written about, and so thoroughly explored, that finding a uniquely personal take on the subject can be hard for new writers. But I suspect, it’s just something we may have to do…

    1. That is a very good point! I think you’ve hit on the appeal of the trope. I couldn’t stay away from it in the last novel, and the next one, is shaping up to touch on the idea, albeit in just a small way. Well said!

      There are always a way to make it your own, and I think you can avoid the pitfalls of cliche if you know what has been written before.

  5. Overdone, but so much fun 🙂 Another possible spin on it (which after years of playing with in my head I’m finally trying in my current work in progress) is giving all the characters except your main one a destiny.

      1. Thanks 🙂 Btw, this is my first time commenting on your blog, but I’ve been following for quite a while, and wanted to thank you for all the insight you share on it.

    1. Emma, apparently you have been thinking about it, since your WIP is called “Undestined.” 🙂

      I look forward to reading it.

      Nice solution to the blog fiction sequence problem (that fiction goes first-to-last, but blogs go last-to-first), BTW.

  6. If it is overdone, this is only because it was such a strong appeal, both to writer and reader. I think a lot of that appeal comes from he fact that it captures the feeling everyone has from time to time of being alone and isolated and makes it into something heroic.

  7. Thanks very much for bringing this up. I actually have a trilogy currently in outlining stage that involves a “chosen one” who refuses to accept the responsibility or even believe he’s on a quest until the second half of the third book. Up to that point, he’s bemoaning the fact that “destiny” won’t leave him alone because he just wants to go home, but people keep stumbling into his path needing rescuing… kind of Shrekish I guess. 🙂

  8. It is a totally over used idea. In fact I find it almost akin to the reader asking “but WHY is this character so important?” and the author replying “because I say so”. Major. Cop. Out.
    I totally find your idea of reversing this appealing and looked forward to seeing how it actually plays out. My novel takes a similarly different approach in that the main character is someone of little significance but who becomes an apprentice to a man who sees potential in him. He spends the rest of the story trying to live up to that potential but constantly doubting himself.

    1. It’s nice to see the different approaches people are taking to this. Your way sounds a lot more like the way things pan out in real life. I’m looking forward to reading that too 🙂

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