In Defense of Tropes: The Chosen Many
Here I go again, defending these dad-ratted tropes.
In the previous two installments, I shamelessly sung the praises of love triangles and after that I tried to justify the existence of the bad boy. What’s next? A trope that’s the number one on every book blogger’s top ten worst tropes list — the dreaded Chosen One.
Though not as viciously hated as love triangles or as problematic as bad boys, the Chosen One is not without its detractors. It may well be the most overused trope in all existence, particularly in sci-fi/fantasy fiction. It generally goes like this: An unlikely hero is called to action, usually by some kind of mentor character. He’s cast out of his normal world and into a new adventure where he must clumsily learn the new ways. Fate is on his side as he discovers his special power whether it be magic given to him by the gods or some connection to a McGuffin of some kind. Then, taking all that he’s learned with the help of his companions and his chosen-ness, he saves the day. Pretty standard fare. It’s basically the hero’s journey with destiny.
Now, I have a hard time wrapping my head around why this trope is so lambasted. We live in a society where earth-shatteringly popular franchises like Harry Potter and The Matrix Trilogy are still people’s number one fandom, and I’m supposed to take ‘The Chosen One is tired’ blogs seriously?
The majority of arguments I come across typically circle around the following:
Lack of agency in the character
Lack of creativity in the storyline
The plot is contrived or too convenient
Character motivations are lazy, and frankly;
It’s just plain boring.
Can’t writers come up with anything else? How does a lame nobody become fated to save the world when they’d be useless otherwise? I totally understand the frustration around this, but like with most tired old tropes, it’s not the trope itself that’s the problem, but lazy characterization.
Tropes don’t make a story bad. Bad writing does.
I could probably stop here. There’s nothing much left to argue with this one. Write a better character and you’re golden. Next!
Okay, perhaps I should reiterate more. How about I explain why I believe that not only is there nothing wrong with the Chosen One trope, but that it’s actually crucial for certain stories being good in the first place, and why you might want to consider using it in your own genre fiction.
Disclaimer: This blog is going to discuss reasons why the Chosen One works in fiction, but that’s not to say that stories without a Chosen One arc can’t be good. That would be absurd. There’s still love triangles and bad boys after all…
The Focal Point – Why are they chosen?
Fact: Every story needs to center around someone, otherwise it’s just things happening.
In genre fiction, when there’s complex, expansive worlds to explore, you need a central character to experience that world through. This is why the fish-out-of-water trope is so common. What better way to introduce new concepts, side characters, and themes than through the eyes of a relatable outsider who learns along with the reader?
The Chosen One takes the fish-out-of-water a step further. It not only provides the outsider’s perspective that helps us understand the world, but it centers the entire plot around her, giving her and therefore the reader, a real stake in what happens. Of course, there are numerous ways to accomplish this without having her be handpicked by a divine power. She could have the specific skills the quest requires, be in search of a missing loved one, or just be super-duper curious and conveniently lacking a self-preservation instinct.
So why make her Chosen at all? Cut out the middle-man or middle-higher-being as it were. Though you certainly can do that, Chosen One narratives have the unique ability to focus the plot around a character while also allowing them to remain ignorant and disadvantaged for as long as the plot requires, hence maximizing the stakes.
Think about it. Why would anyone in Hogwarts, let alone Dumbledore invest any extra time or energy in Harry over the other students if it wasn’t for him being marked by the one who’s name we can’t say? He’d have to be special in some other way, like having a privileged upbringing, or having above-average magical talent, and what’s the fun in that? Harry being Chosen puts him at the forefront of the conflict, while also allowing him to learn magic like any other student and provide an incentive for him to uncover the secrets of Hogwarts. To have the story turn out the same way without Harry being Chosen, he’d have to be curious by nature, overly driven, and a little bit stupid to get in all the shenanigans he does without a magical cosmic force at the helm.
The personality of every disadvantaged, low-skilled, fish-out-of-water MC would have to be the same. Being Chosen, however, gives J.K. Rowling the room to give Harry whatever personality traits she desires while avoiding making him a total Gary Stu.
In order to keep the plot focused on the outsider, while avoiding a Mary Sue/Gary Stu situation, the Chosen One is your friend (this doesn’t mean a Chosen One isn’t often a Mary Sue, but see comment about bad writing. Don’t do that. Why would you do that?)
Call to Adventure – Why should they care?
So we know why our hero has been chosen. Now, our normal, relatable, totally not-a-Mary Sue is ready to delve into untold peril.
The hero’s journey cannot get underway without the Call to Adventure. I don’t have to go into detail about what this means. It’s in the name. But why should anyone agree to go on an adventure just because some crazy bearded man smashed down your door and said, “You’re a wizard, Harry.” (It’s been a while since I saw the first movie, but that’s how I remember it going down).
Okay, forget Harry Potter for a second. Wouldn’t you rather just stay home and catch up on those Netflix shows piling up? (Or have second-breakfast if you live in the Shire?) Most people can hardly get their lazy ass off the sofa to greet a food delivery man—just leave it at my contactless delivery location.
Under these circumstances, how can a Chosen One narrative get the ball rolling? There are far better ways to persuade a hero to start his harrowing journey other than just saying ‘You’ve been chosen.’ In fact, if you think about it, it’s kind of a cop out.
Or is it?
That’s what a lot of people think when they harp on the Chosen One being used for character motivation. But I assert, that sometimes, when motivating your MC to take the leap, the Chosen One narrative is the most believable way to do it.
Before Mr. Anderson can challenge the Matrix, he first needs a reason to take the red pill.
I’m an extremely lazy person. When Morpheus presents the pills and says “You take the blue pill, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.” I’m sitting there like “You had me at bed.” Yoink *tosses blue pill in mouth*
But what is it about Neo, the deathly pale hacker who helps his landlady carry out the garbage, that leads him to take the red pill? Simple curiosity? Probably not, Morpheus gave him the lowdown on the Matrix when they first sat down. Was he tricked? Well, he knew things would get weird after Agent Smith made his mouth close over in the interrogation room and put that wormy critter into his belly button. Boredom? The guy’s a hacker, not sure if boredom is a such a big deal for him. Surely there’s more to it than that.
Despite the promise of a warm bed, he took that red pill for one primary reason. The most powerful motivator in history and at the core of the Chosen One narrative…
Yes, you read that right. The most powerful and arguably the only true motivator there is. Nothing is done without faith. It’s not just applicable to religious people. It belongs to every human being on earth. We all have faith in something and that something orients us in our world. We live and die by it. Whether it’s in a supreme being, the monetary system, or just that the next day will be better than the last, faith keeps all of us moving forward, day by day. Let’s call it the Prime Motivator. Are you now beginning to understand why the Chosen One is so ubiquitous?
Speaking of faith and the Matrix, I’m going to mention the unmentionable. Bear with me here.
It’s about time we talk about Jesus.
The GOAT of Chosen Ones.
Love him or hate him, his story was so popular, we’re still talking about it a thousand years later with a worldwide fandom in the billions (let’s see if Harry Potter will beat that). Jesus died on the cross, not simply because God told him to, but because he had faith in his Father’s plan that it would wash away humanity’s sins and they’d get everlasting life.
Chosen One stories often delve into themes of martyrdom and sacrifice, which are required to save the world, but are also near impossible to convince someone to do on their own accord. It’s faith in something that drives normal people to do the impossible. The Matrix is steeped with themes of faith and belief. It’s all Morpheus talks about. “He’s beginning to believe.” And that’s when the real ass-kicking starts. God, I love that movie.
Whether we’re reading ancient myths or watching blockbuster films, we respond favorably to stories of perseverance in the face of impossible odds because in our own way, in our own humdrum lives, we must make similar leaps and sacrifices. It’s not about feeling special, it’s believing you can be better tomorrow than you were yesterday.
Now granted, there are plenty of other motivations to choose from that can work just as well, but to compete with the Prime Motivator, it needs to be something primal, like revenge or protecting a loved one—a damsel in distress perhaps. And God help you if you have to write that.
To conclude, the Chosen One works because of the Prime Motivator. When you need your MC to leave behind all that they hold dear and martyr themselves for the greater good, you gotta have faith.
That’s probably a perfect place to end this blog post, but we’re not done yet. We know why our hero is chosen, we know why he’s answered his Call to Adventure, but why should the rest of us care? Faith may be enough to keep the MC interested in advancing the plot perhaps, but how do you keep the reader turning the pages?
The Support Team – What it’s really about
Forget everything I mentioned before, because if you don’t have this, you don’t have anything.
Whether he’s Neo, Harry Potter, or Jesus Freaking Christ, the Chosen One is nothing without his disciples. (Yes, Christians, I know, Jesus is the Son of God whether he has disciples or not but how would any of us know that if it weren’t for his disciples documenting his life and telling his story, huh? Huuuuuh?)
It is my sincere opinion that we love the Chosen One narrative, not for the Chosen One himself, but the colorful band of characters that surround him. How many among us actually lists Harry Potter as their favourite character? It’s either Hermoine, the Weaslies, or even Severus Snape. Harry’s fine, but I mean… come on.
And let’s not forget the villains. What The Matrix lacks in memorable pals it more than makes up for with Agent Smith. Chosen One stories are not complete without the crucial archetypal figures that keep us invested.
The Sage – A mentor that guides the MC on their quest and must eventually get out of the way either voluntarily or involuntarily.
The Rock – This is the source of emotional support for the MC. Could be someone they knew from before like a parent or meet later on like a love interest.
The Shadow – The antitheses of the MC that he must fight against. Can be in the form of a villain character.
The Foil – A sub antagonist who reflects back what the MC could become and despises in themselves. Could come in the form of a Queen B character.
The Jester – Could be the lovable best friend who’s also a Rock or an annoying third party that makes us laugh and our MC cringe.
The Judas – Not necessary, but makes for a great twist. The friend that betrays the MC often by switching sides in the conflict.
Look no further for examples than the greatest and best Chosen One story of all time and my personal favourite… Buffy the Vampire Slayer (what, did you think I was going to say Jesus?) Buffy’s a great character unto herself, but it’s the whole Scooby Gang that made the show the gem that it was, despite the douchebaggery of its creator.
You can slot everyone into the archetypes easily:
The Sage – Giles
The Rock(s) – Willow, Joyce, and Angel
The Shadow – New one each season
The Foil – Cordelia then Spike
The Jester(s) – Xander and Anya
The Judas – Faith
It’s all there. A great supporting cast can keep a story going forever. A Rock can become a Judas; the Sage can become the Shadow. Your Foil can become a love interest, a Jester your new Sage. Heck, a Shadow can become your Jester. The possibilities are endless.
Though having a memorable cast of characters does not mean you get to make your Chosen One boring. Buffy is anything but that. She’s someone who is flawed, but inspirational. Witty and strong, but also struggles. She’s everything a MC should be. Her being Chosen puts her in the center of the story, but it has little to do with why we like her. It’s the decisions she makes that make us like her, not her slayer abilities.
Like with many tropes, there’s still much that can be done with the Chosen One. She doesn’t have to be the MC at all. Tell her story from the point of view of the Rock like the Witcher to Ciri or the twelve disciples to Jesus. Try subverting expectations. Maybe the Chosen One isn’t really chosen after all, it was actually someone else, or all in her head. Does it need to be one person? Why can’t it be the Chosen Many?
Essentially, that is what it’s all about. It’s not the One that keeps us returning to these stories over and over again, it’s the Many.