“The Chosen One” Is a Recipe for Writing Failure

Sabrina ZbasnikGuest Post
by S.E. Zbasnik

In speculative fiction, there’s a trick people rely upon to insure their protagonist is the only one who can preserve the kingdom, save the world, and rescue the galaxy from mechanical centipedes. Unroll some ancient parchment, have blind monks read it in catacombs, and declare your main character the chosen one.

Stop.

To say the chosen one has been done to death is to think hurricanes are a little windy. Not only is it a cliché infesting every genre it touches, it’s also a drama killer. Wrack your brain trying to create believable villains, establish obstacles that no one should survive, place your main character in immediate danger, and it all amounts to nothing. We know he’ll survive; he has to. He’s the chosen one. The spoilers are written right there in an ancient scroll only a wandering transient can read because his order failed to maintain itself before the prophesied times. Maybe they should have hosted more pancake feeds to raise funds.

A way around this lack of drama issue is to make the chosen one incredibly inept. You wonder if he can tie his shoes without accidentally garroting himself kind of inept. This should make him endearing, right? Will our hero learn how to master the skills bestowed upon him by magical birthright in time?

Instead, it leaves the audience wondering, “Why doesn’t the highly skilled warrior training our chosen one just do it herself?”

I picked my pronouns on purpose because, so people can have their “strong female protagonist,” often they will create the bumbling every man character who must be trained by Ms. Competent. She can already do everything our hero will eventually be taught, but because of some archaic writings she is not allowed to actually do it. It has to be left to him, the generally amicable fool who — at first — doesn’t want to be the hero, whines throughout his training, gives in, has some minor breakthrough, and is suddenly the savior. More than likely, he also gets the girl who spent her whole life training to do just what he did. Is she upset at having to bow to him, to let him take what she worked for? Of course not. He’s the chosen one.

Ms. Competent isn’t really a character. She’s just there to be strong, hate the protagonist, then fall in love with him. Her own goals don’t exist; she has no wants or needs outside of training this idiot and keeping him alive. If she did stop to think for even a second, she’d probably drop the chosen one off a cliff and take care of things herself.

The chosen one trope also stretches believability to the breaking point. There’s the grizzled old monk forced by fate to teach some twenty-year-old farm boy everything he knows in a few months. Somehow, that quick training montage is just good enough, the farm boy can now defeat the villain. (Especially now that the grizzled old monk ate it in some reverse deus ex machina fashion.) Unless that villain phoned in his own take-over-the-world plans to a stable of minions, it’s highly unlikely his years of scheming will be taken down by someone who just figured out how to hit things real hard with a stick.

Chosen ones come off less like full characters with a burden placed around their neck and more like a wish fulfillment. What if someone showed up on my doorstep, said I was really important, barely trained me, and — after a bit of work — I got to be Emperor of Pluto? Sign me up! Maybe I can finally get Pluto the respect it deserves.

The chosen one trope can be subverted. What if the monk got the translation wrong and forgot to carry the one? The true savior of the Lumtkins was actually a sentient piece of bread, but no one thought to armor up toast. Or, whoever’s been tasked with training the chosen one just ignored him does it her damn self? Or, on the way to the big battle, the chosen one accidentally falls down a bear trap and dies ignominiously, causing the villain to win. But, in a surprise to everyone, the villain is actually the best thing for the kingdom, leading it to a prosperous future.

Thinking outside the prophesized chosen one box opens up a far better chance to create a character instead of a cliché.


S.E. Zbasnik is the author of the Dwarves in Space series – think Tolkien and Hitchhiker’s merged in a horrific transporter accident – as well as a bunch of other fantasy novels. You can find her on her Dwarves in Space blog and at her Amazon Author Central page and hopefully not standing right behind you.

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20 thoughts on ““The Chosen One” Is a Recipe for Writing Failure”

  1. This trope, like most of them, can be done badly.

    It can also be done VERY WELL. Harry Potter, anyone? Most popular series of books – EVER? 😉

    It’s a trope because when it is done well, it works. If it didn’t work, it wouldn’t be a trope. Like any other story element, it can be done well, or done poorly. The art is in how it is managed, not in whether or not you include a given story element.

    1. And there have been a billion Harry Potter copy cats who try to do the same thing and fall to the bottom of the barrel because it’s the same sh*t over and over and over again.

      There are also many who argue Harry Potter would have had a much better ending had it skipped over the Chosen One plot line or it was revealed Nevile was actually the prophesied one. Even Potter fans were sick of the Chosen One Trope and wanted something else.

      1. The fact is: the chosen one trope WORKS. It worked in Star Wars, in Harry Potter, in Eragon… It worked for David Farland, it’s worked for Kevin Anderson. It worked in the Matrix. It worked in Narnia – repeatedly. It worked in the Arthur legends. It worked for the Belgariad.

        Over and over and over and over again, it works. In fact, look over epic fantasy, and a significant percentage of bestsellers there use some variation on this trope.

        Why?

        Because it works.

        It can be done badly. If it’s done badly, it will fail. If it’s done well, in a well written story, then it will not fail.

        Again, it’s a trope BECAUSE it works, and works so brilliantly that it has worked in thousands of extremely popular stories.

        Just because it fails when used badly doesn’t mean that it isn’t an excellent story structure. It remains one of the best beloved story archetypes, and will likely continue to be so for as long as humanity tells stories.

  2. I’ve quit reading a lot of epic fantasy because so much of it is this sort of thing. It’s yet another re-telling of the Hero’s Journey, but with magic.

    As Kevin says, though, the trope can still be well done. And as you say, S.E., varying the formula can keep the resulting story from being hackneyed.

  3. Interesting thoughts, S.E.

    While Chosen One themes may be overdone in books, they’re done because ultimately, we’re intrigued by the idea of prophecy. Do these prophecies really come true, and if so, how? Ever since Oedipus murdered his father and married his mother (if only his dear old dad hadn’t heard the prophecy and sent him away), prophecies have been fun for writers to incorporate into the script. Chosen One prophecies are particularly fun for writers because it means you get to put your main character through all sorts of drama.

    I agree that you should make it different, and try to keep the reader guessing, but I don’t think it shouldn’t be done any more. I’m OK with more Chosen One tales, so long as they’re good ones. 🙂

  4. Excellent approach. I must say i heaved a bit of a sigh of relief to see that I’m doing something right in my current “chosen one” is a lost young woman who is not at all happy to be in her predicament and has to discover her maturity as she goes.

  5. Done right, ‘the chosen one’ makes for a heck of a story. Having a character serving mainly as a mentor (ObiWan Kanobi, Gandalf) can be a powerful addition to helping the reluctant hero reach the ultimate goal of the story and grow as individual.

    So no, I don’t think it’s overdone. Often not done right, but not overdone at all.

  6. I think that any formula/cliche can be a recipe for writing failure if the author doesn’t do it right. I personally think that zombies have been done to death, but those stories still sell (and I’m still watching “The Walking Dead” – go figure).

  7. I do have a hard time suspending disbelief for “Chosen Ones” – even in some of the movies that have been mentioned here. (Yes, I know…blasphemy! I will admit – I fell asleep during the original Star Wars movie.) They really just don’t do anything for me. Fun article, S.E.

  8. I enjoy your points about how the female ought to just drop Chosen Dude off a cliff, but ignoring this trope is ignoring an archetype that underpins Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and the Chronicles of Earthsea, to name just a few contemporary fantasies I wouldn’t have wanted to have missed out on. But really, this archetype goes back before written history and can be found across cultures. The trick is to do it well with original characters and powerful writing instead of slinging tired cliches. What about boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl? Shall we get rid of that trope, too? Sometimes “tropes” are simply evidence that we are human.

  9. Now that you mention it-yes, prophecies and chosen ones do appear in many very popular stories and epics especially. Undoubtedly, many lesser known writers have been inspired in their own works to attempt to duplicate this formula.
    Another concept that seems to be making the rounds more and more, is the super hero. While these superior beings may not be ‘chosen ones’ per se, their unique abilities inevitably pit them against ever more powerful villains and desperate odds.
    In either case, I believe good writing, well developed characters, strong visualization, witty dialogue and, above all-the ability to hold your reader’s attention, will prevail above a theme that some may consider ‘over played’.

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