Greetings and salutations, readers! We’re back with another Monday installment of Being a Better Writer! Which by now is so regular it’s almost not worth making the fanfare over, but hey, if there’s one positive thing I can bring to the world on a Monday, it’s at least being upbeat with how my posts start out. You know, aside from the inevitable beneficial knowledge all these posts provide.
So, what are we talking about today? Chosen ones, actually, a topic I felt was fitting for today’s dual status as a holiday (if you’re reading this post another day, February 14th was Valentine’s Day), if in an amusing way.
But, really quick, before I get into that, I do have some news to share. Well, more of a reminder. This week is LTUE! That’s right, Life, The Universe, and Everything, the Fantasy and Sci-Fi writing convention, is happening Thursday through Saturday, 17-19th. I really hope you can make it, because it is always a blast.
Speaking of which, if you can make it (and I really hope you can), here’s a quick list and breakdown of what panels I’ll be on this year!
- 3 PM – A Space Opera Starter Kit
- 4 PM – No Mirrors: Character Description in First Person
- 7 PM – My Genre Wish List
- 7 PM – Book Signing!
- 5 PM – Science Fiction Faux Pas
- 7 PM – Fanfiction: Having Fun
Of course, I’ll be around during the rest of the con as well, attending other panels, chatting, and of course signing books. Oh, and handing out some awesome bookmarks! Take a look at this:
I know it’s not the best picture, but that on the left? That is a full stack of awesome Axtara bookmarks which I’ll be giving out at the con. They’re pretty cute, and double-sided, the front saying “Banking shouldn’t be a drag …” and the back offering “Bank with Axtara – Banking and Finance Instead!” Yup, like those bank ads you’d see.
I feel Axtara would approve.
Okay, and with that, that’s all the news we’re going to talk about today. No more LTUE or Axtara talk. Let’s talk instead about that giant title above. Let’s talk about “The Chosen One” trope.
I actually picked this topic largely because I’ve heard it discussed in multiple places recently as a very negative thing. Sort of a—and by sort of I mean this is almost a direct quote—”all chosen one stories are bad” concept.
I’m not joking. I’ve seen a lot of “unrest” over the concept lately, from people automatically attacking any story they assume has a “chosen one” in it, to even declaring it a lone conceit of “European” or even “white” stories—something that’s laughable if you know anything about mythology from, oh, any culture out there in the world.
But this negativity, often aggressive and dismissive, is why I wanted to talk about the trope. Because here’s the thing: It’s an ancient trope. You can find examples of it in the mythology of every culture across the world. It is, in writing terms, as old, if not older, than dirt. The idea of a “chosen one,” be they small or large, has been with mankind since stories were first told.
So then … what’s with the sudden animosity toward it?
Well, two things I can think of being at fault here. The first is that a lot of the people complaining about it—and you may have already guessed it—classically don’t actually know much about what they’re complaining about. Which is kind of obvious from some of the accusations leveled against the trope, like it being primarily “white” or “European.” Look, if I actually wanted to spend the time and the hundreds of words it could take, I could relate “chosen one” myths from every culture and continent out there. This trope really is ubiquitous across mankind. It doesn’t matter where you go, or how far back you dig, you will find tales, be they bar stories or grand myths, involving a chosen one.
So yes, the first problem is that the people doing all the complaining just quite frankly don’t know what they’re talking about. They see the “chosen one” as something it isn’t, and have decided it comes from only one place, which is currently trendy to see as “bad.” So they knee-jerk against it.
That reason we can pretty much ignore. Again, the idea of the “chosen one” trope being beholden to one geopolitical climate or ethnicity is ludicrous. But with that said, the other reason so many people have been hostile to this trope lately (and, in a way, I think why some are trying to frame it as a matter of race or culture), is pretty valid.
That reason is that a lot of modern chosen one stories … Well, they just kind of suck. But in order to get into why, we’re going to have to talk a little bit about what a chosen one actually is. So get your boots on, because we’re about to dive into a pretty big trope, one of the oldest of them all.
So, what is a “chosen one?” What makes a character fall under this trope, rather than simply, say, a character who gets things done? Where is the line? Sands, what is the line? And here is where things get a little nebulous.
See, a character who is, for example, the “only one competent” at a thing or in a group isn’t by default a “chosen one.” No more than any other person who happens to be competent at what they do—even if it’s a lot—compared to everyone else. Simple competence as a character and ability does not make one a chosen one.
What does is when some higher force chooses that individual and puts them on a pedestal of “YOU are the one that will do this.”
Why is this nebulous? Because audiences have gotten a bit more aware and savvy in the last few generations, and what once wouldn’t have been considered a chosen one because no force in the story picked them is now notable as being a situation where the writers/plot forced a character to be a “chosen one.”
Problem is, people can agree or disagree on this. At the risk of inviting the fire down on things, the character of Rey from the most recent Star Wars movies can be a hotly contested example of this being a bit nebulous. There are a lot of people that feel she fits the “chosen one” trope, the only character that can save the day, with the force (pun unavoidable) that “chose” her being writers/studio execs. But at the same time, there are people that feel that she wasn’t a chosen one, and that the story and plot just forced her character into the position.
Like I said: Nebulous. Because we’ve reached the point where audiences are bringing meta-knowledge to bear on these types of stories and characters. Which can make things messy, especially if, as with a lot of books, stories, etc, we don’t have the words of the creator on whether or not a character was supposed to be a chosen one or not … and worse still, once we throw poorly done stories into the mix, it becomes a valid question whether or not the narrative forced a character to be a chosen one by design, or if the narrative wasn’t intending that but was simply poor enough to make people think that.
Oof. Messy stuff. So let’s back up for a moment then, and go back to our definition, and settle with this: a chosen one is a character that has been chosen by a higher power (often in story, but sometimes by an external force like the writer) to be the protagonist for some objective.
Note that in this definition, we’re not specifying what the objective is. It can be anything, largely dependent on the type of story you want to tell. If it’s a story about a crack soldier being sent by a government as the “one person” who can disarm a nuclear bomb held by terrorists? Well … they’re a chosen one (higher power, lone individual, goal).
But a chosen one can accomplish all sorts of other goals too. For example, what about a romance? How about a character who has been chosen by a god of love because they are the one person that can crack the cold heart of another? That’s a chosen one. Sands, you can go all out with this: A financial thriller where a genius accountant is pitted by his superiors in a game of cash cat-and-mouse with an embezzler? That’s still a chosen one story.
The thrust of this then, and what we should take away, is that a “chosen one” setup is incredibly straightforward and minimalistic in its requirements. Hence, then why every nation and culture on earth has almost uncountable versions of the story in their culture (and why one of the big “beefs” with it I’ve seen is such bunk.
This is why I said “get your boots on.” A chosen one isn’t really complicated: Character who can do thing being chosen by higher power to do thing. That’s it. But the details that come in after that and flesh this all out? Well … they can encompass just about anything. And so this trope is a bit of an iceberg, with a straightforward setup … and then a lot of depth buried beneath it as a result.
Okay then, so now that we know what the trope is, let’s go back to that negativity. Specifically, the second reason that I feel a lot of people are starting to have gripes with this trope, that being that there are a lot of these stories that just … aren’t well done.
See, the thing with the chosen one trope is it has a lot of wiggle room. If your chosen one fails? That’s still a chosen one trope … you’ve just subverted the expectation that the chosen one would succeed (and opened things to a bevy of questions like “was the higher power wrong, or was it all a setup?” If your chosen one picks up a team along they way? That doesn’t devalue them as the chosen one (in fact, some chosen ones just exist to assemble the team that will kick whatever butt needs to be kicked).
But with all of these options available—and what I’m about to say may ruffle a few feathers here—too many stories these days, particularly in the YA market, don’t make use of the versatility and push the blandest, most straightforward form of the chosen one onto readers. And that is causing animosity.
Why? Well … a lot of these stories end up feeling cheap. One of the issues that arises from playing the chosen one trope straight—and then poorly—is a feeling for the audience that the character is “winning” or overcoming the challenges in their way not because of who they are, but because they are “the chosen one.” Either they’re too good at everything because they were chosen to be such, or they always succeed because again, they were chosen to be such. And when that angle gets overworked … people get tired of it fast.
In other words, playing up the trope of “the chosen one” in a very straightforward fashion, rather than subverting it or working to explore that iceberg of options gets tiresome and quite often can become bland. When a character can’t lose because they’re the chosen one, or goes on and on about how “tough” being the chosen one is (‘woe is me despite how much I win and how awesome my life actually is’ is pretty common) … or any other of myriad issues that use of this trope can run afoul of, which we do not have the time to fully explore here, the story just gets … bland. Or even annoying.
Personally, I think that’s what’s really driving the animosity I’ve seen toward the trope. A limited reading pool, limited knowledge of the true breadth and depth of the trope, combined with the history, and stories that don’t do a good job of using the trope in unique, interesting, or even fun ways. Because quite often when a chosen one is done well, a lot of the times we don’t even notice. Or enough of the iceberg beneath it is explored that we don’t mind that the character is a chosen one … and they may not even feel like they are one.
But a book where it’s obvious, and the story doesn’t do much with it except, for example, complain about how awesome they are they’ll never fit in? Bland. Boring. Mush.
Even worse when the “chosen one” is just by virtue of narration. Look, a force in the story picking out a character and saying “You are the special one” is one thing, but there are a lot of books out there where it’s not even a force in the story … it’s just the author. Which makes the trope only stand out more as a narrative force putting a character on a pedestal is just … Well, it’s attention getting, but combines that with the “chosen one” often being pretty unsubstantiated, usually a case of author fiat, which most readers tend not to enjoy.
So yeah, even looking at some of the lighter examples I’ve run across of poorly done “chosen one” plots, I can see why some may have developed an aversion to them, especially if they only remember the negative exposure.
But what about us? What about using this trope, and using it well? How can we put this trope to use in our stories but not find our book used as an example when readers decry anything with a “chosen one” in it?
Well, here are some things to keep in mind if you do decide to use the trope:
First, explore it! A large problem with a lot of chosen one stories that aren’t enjoyed or remembered fondly is that they’re not taking advantage of the iceberg of opportunity available by the trope. This isn’t saying that you have to do a deep dive into every possible way to play with this trope, from subverting it to pulling last second reveals, but that you can explore what the trope offers in your story. Don’t let the end-all be “Well, they’re the chosen one, so they’re the chosen one.” You can do a lot with this simple setup, from having the chosen one question the calling, to having others question it, to misinterpreting the calling, to deliberately countering it. Among a million other things. Remember, the only core requirement of this trope is someone being called by a higher power for some reason … and that reason doesn’t even have to be correct. The higher power can be wrong … Basically, there are a million ways to use this setup, so do so! Even if you’re playing the core concepts straight as most people see them, you can still do so in ways that keep an audience invested and interested outside of simply dropping the basic core on a reader and saying “good enough?”
Second, balance it! One issue I’ve seen that is a rightful critique of chosen one stories is that they let all other tropes and plot elements play second fiddle to the “chosen one” element … and that’s not a requirement at all. Better put, while it is a trope that’s old as dirt, unless you’re writing a story that’s equally straightforward to the short campfire tales and myths it was based on, you should probably include more than just this one trope. Sands, letting this trope interact and bounce off of other characters and tropes can be a lot of fun, but also deliver the reader a little variety. Mix things up! Your core can be the “chosen one” trope but still leave room for a lot of other tropes, setups, concepts, whatever. In other words, don’t rely on just single trope.
Third, and in relation to the last point, don’t let the chosen one dominate. This has to do with balancing our plot and the other elements of the story, but also with how much narrative power we give our chosen one. In other words, don’t just balance the chosen one trope with other elements, but also keep in mind whether or not you want the fact that your chosen one is a chosen one to dominate the narrative, the plot, etc etc. How much of your plot should revolve around their status as a chosen one, as say, opposed to their other attributes? There are stories out there that have let the narrative, IE the plot and what happens, be driven a bit too much by the chosen one aspect of a character, to the point where it takes over. Not just from the standpoint of character and development, but of the directions the plot takes, with subplots, etc, being overrun by the chosen one’s narrative force. It’s fine to have a chosen one, but don’t let that aspect rule everything else. Narratively or otherwise.
Fourth and last of all, have fun with it. There is a lot of room to play with the chosen one trope, as mentioned above with the iceberg. The options are nigh limitless thanks to its simple setup, which means YOU have a lot of choices for taking it in very fun, interesting, or wild explorative directions. Don’t shun it or fear the trope, instead enjoy it. Like many other things, it’s a tool. Learn to use it and use it well, but also don’t use it with trepidation. Use it for fun, be that in imperiling your characters, setting them up for wild, wacky adventures, serious drama … whatever you want to do. You don’t have to use the chosen one trope … but if you’re going to use it, enjoy that you used it.
All right. Let’s wrap up and recap. A lot of people have begun expressing displeasure at any story that uses the “chosen one” trope, but it’s not because that trope is bad or shouldn’t be used. In fact, it’s old as dirt, and a core component of myth, folklore, and legend the world over.
What people really don’t like is when it’s used poorly in some fashion, from taking over the story to not bothering to make full use of all the opportunities it provides—even while in some cases taking away other fun avenues and letting them get bogged down in the chosen one trope.
But because other stories have used it poorly doesn’t mean that our stories have to. We can still pull this trope out of the toolbox and put it to good use, as long as we remember a few things. First, explore the trope, don’t just drop it in and call it good. Second, balance it against other tropes and story elements. Third, don’t let it take over narratively, or if that’s the core idea, make sure you’ve explored it deeply and in a way that will satisfy your audience.
And lastly, have fun. Because this trope truly can be a spectacular tool when used properly.
So good luck. Now get writing.
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