Only the chosen one can save a story from poor sales! Is your fantasy or science fiction universe plagued by dark lords and ancient evil? Fix that problem with a chosen one! Results may vary. Contact your doctor if dark lord persists for more than three books. We cannot be held responsible for inaccurate prophecies or chosen ones turning evil. Side effects may include poor characterization, overpowered magic, overshadowed side characters, sudden mentor death, and Mary Sues.
My Honest Thoughts on the Chosen One
Get ready. This is going to be a long one.
Almost every fantasy cliché list has chosen ones listed at the very top. Ask an avid speculative fiction reader and most of them will say that they hate chosen one stories. Then ask them what their favorite stories are. They will probably list off the usual suspects “Star Wars, Harry Potter, Wheel of Time” all chosen one stories. Even most of my favorite stories use chosen ones.
So if people hate this cliché so much, why is it so popular? What is the deal with chosen ones? In my opinion, I think people really do enjoy ‘well written’ chosen one stories. Those are just hard to find. But there is a deeper appeal.
Part I: Why We Love Chosen Ones
On the surface, a lot of the chosen one’s appeal is pure wish-fulfillment. The idea of being the center of attention is very powerful. The chosen one is often the focus of the entire world’s events. The fortunes of empires and nations are in the hands of the chosen one. All eyes are on them. This often times translates to celebrity status and wealth. Fame and fortune, both are things my culture values and that many desire.
This wish-fulfillment goes even deeper. Stories aimed at male demographics often focus on giving the chosen one power. Trappings vary from magic to technology, but sometimes authors don’t even bother to explain it. Sometimes they don’t have to. Making the chosen one defy the setting’s understanding of their nature and powers is its own form of power fantasy.
The idea of destiny and fate also ties in neatly with romance. The chosen one is connected to destiny and it meshes well with the idea that we are destined to fall in love with a soul mate. The idea that two people are meant for one another is something I have seen over and over again in fiction and it resonates with many people. A character’s status as chosen one gives the author an easy justification to tie all of those forms of wish-fulfillment together.
One of the core reasons for the prominence of chosen ones in fiction is their ability to let us live out that wish-fulfillment vicariously through them. We get to experience what it is like to be powerful, famous, and wealthy, to be important. It is a fun escape from a reality full of uncertainty and worry. There is nothing wrong about that. Humans need a way to cope with reality.
But there is a deeper appeal there. Chosen ones have an intrinsic place within our culture and, if Carl Jung is to be believed, most other cultures as well. The world can be a scary place. The idea that a higher force can guide us to success, that a greater power will set the balance of the world straight is very appealing. The chosen one is not just a person who fights for justice, they are a symbol of hope and faith that the future will be better. This is so often why chosen ones share a deep connection with the world they are a part of.
When done right, a good chosen one can encapsulate all of those things and still remain an engaging character in their own right. But when done wrong…
Part II: Why We Hate Chosen Ones
So why do chosen one stories get so much hate? Again, on the surface, most will cite the chosen one as a Mary Sue. There is a lot of overlap between the two. Both are usually at the center of the story and very powerful. However, I don’t find this designation helpful in diagnosing the core problem with chosen ones. After all, Mary Sues are usually a collection traits that could work if not for author favoritism.
Another surface level reason people hate chosen one stories is their predictable nature. We have seen a hero chosen by destiny defeat the forces of darkness over and over again. We have seen all of the story beats play out the same again and again. A lot of writers also end up using the hero’s journey as a crutch which often has the side effect of making the story even more predictable. But again, I don’t think this the core of the issue. I have seen stories that have a very standard plot with a stock chosen one and still be very entertaining.
My theory is that a lot of problems with the chosen one surface when being chosen is used as the character’s sole characterization. A chosen one whose only defining trait is being the chosen one is going to be boring. As a reader, I don’t care that the main character is a chosen one. What I care about is how the main character feels about being chosen, what they think about shouldering such a huge responsibility, about what being the chosen one means to them and others around them. This is the true strength of the chosen one as a storytelling tool. It should be used to reveal things about the characters, not just as an excuse to move the plot forward or as a cheap justification to dump a bunch of special powers onto them.
The powers granted to a chosen one present their own problems. Make a chosen one too powerful and they rob the story of conflict. Balancing wish-fulfillment and the story’s need for conflict can be tricky. The more powerful the chosen one, the harder it is to maintain the balance. An overpowered chosen one combined with author favoritism will only highlight a lack of balance while overshadowing more interesting side characters.
Yet there are even deeper problems with the chosen one. The idea of fate and destiny seem innocent enough, but they can also have unintended implications for a story. A destined hero is also destined to succeed. A prophecy can easily destroy a story’s dramatic tension if used incorrectly. A prophecy that cannot be changed suggests that the story’s universe is deterministic in nature. If time is set in stone, then it implies that all of the characters’ choices are meaningless. It robs everyone of their agency. It sends the unintended message that we are all slaves to fate. Even if the author avoids a hard deterministic universe, it still sends the ugly message that only special people can change the world. It downplays the efforts of everyone else who keep the wheel of civilization turning. It is not enough to idly add fate and destiny into the story, but they have to resonate with the themes as well.
Let me stress that these elements are not in themselves bad, but using them without thought can lead to problems. As often happens, flaws in one area of a poorly written chosen one can amplify the rest.
Part III: Story Ideas
I’ve mentioned most of the obvious pitfalls I can think of. Most of the time, the fix is pretty simple; better characterization. Even the most standard chosen one story can be saved by engaging and wonderful characters that keep the reader invested. If the audience can establish a genuine emotional connection then they usually won’t care about any philosophical implications. So long as an author maintains the balance between wish-fulfillment and conflict, then it should be enough to keep the audience engaged until the end.
However, I do have some suggestions of things I would like to see more of. Like any storytelling convention, there is nothing to stop an author from experimenting and twisting it in new ways.
Now one thing I think might be cool would be for the good guys to find the chosen one only to discover that a secluded life and constant abuse by foster parents makes the chosen one a nervous wreck and completely ill-equipped to deal with the pressure of saving the world. I just find it funny that a lot of protagonists are awfully well adjusted given the amount of abuse they endured in their backstory. Most of them would need years of therapy. But I think that would make for an interesting story where the mentor struggles with the abused chosen one’s panic attacks, much less start mastering their magic powers. Depending on their powers, such an individual might prove more dangerous than the evil they were supposed to fight.
Another interesting idea would be to center the story on finding the chosen one rather than training them. Rather than the main character being the chosen one, the story could focus on the other characters who tend to get sidelined or overshadowed in these stories. It would also be a great way to add dramatic tension in the form of a time limit. Evil could be gaining power and causing damage while the good guys search. It might make for a good ensemble piece.
I also think it might be neat to see a villain who represents free will vs a hero who represents destiny. This would provide a really good opportunity for a great villain. Imagine a dark lord who knows better than to engage with a prophecy. It would be awesome to see a group of typical fantasy heroes who usually rely on destiny for their victories, to suddenly be forced to change their tactics once the dark lord finds a way to circumvent the prophecy. Such a villain could really challenge the heroes’ assumptions and preconceptions about how their universe works as well as cast their faith in doubt.
However, what I really want to see is the opposite. I want more villainous chosen ones who are destined to conquer the world. That would be a very interesting story. Not only would it flip the usual chosen one dynamic on its head, but it could be used to add tension to the story. Imagine an alliance of good guys trying to stand up to a Chosen Dark Lord. His victory is assured. Why not sell out your allies for a place by his side? You can’t beat him. Not only would the good guys struggle against the dark lord, but they would be forced to confront their own hopelessness and despair at knowing that fate itself is set against them. Those rare moments in fiction where characters face absolutely overwhelming odds with no hope of victory, and then decide to fight on anyways are always some of my favorite scenes.
Part IV: Interesting Examples
Finally I would like to cover a few stories that I thought handled chosen ones well. I won’t go into too much detail about each so feel free to look up more in-depth analysis if you wish to know more.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a good example of a deconstruction of the chosen one cliché. Buffy Summers’s struggle to balance her duties as the Slayer with her desire to live a happy and fulfilled life is a central theme. A lot of episodes focus on the problems being the Slayer creates for her. Being chosen does not make her life better, it only complicates things.
The first book of the Mistborn series subverts the chosen one trope and twists it in a lot of different ways. The identity and nature of the setting’s chosen one is constantly cast into doubt as the heroes discover new information. The book takes the old chosen one trope and turns it into a mystery that ends up driving the plot rather than being a vehicle for wish fulfillment.
Wheel of Time deconstructs this trope by showing how much it sucks to be the chosen one. Its main character is constantly attacked by the forces of evil at nearly every turn while all of the setting’s factions try to manipulate and control him for their own ends. He also gets more and more injured as the books go on. Now whether or not Wheel of Time ultimately succeeds in deconstructing the chosen one is up for debate, but it was a rather new take for its day and one of the reasons it got so much attention.
For those who want a good straightforward chosen one model, Avatar the Last Airbender would be one of the best examples I can think of. Aang has to struggle between his own fulfillment and his responsibility as Avatar and this conflict unfolds over the course of the show’s run. He must find a balance which is a central theme of the story. The depth of characterization Aang gets is amazing considering that it’s basically a kids show and it really outshines a lot of more serious fantasy books that try to tackle similar themes.
Berserk is one of the rare examples of a villainous chosen one. It also does not shy away from the darker implications of its universe and explores how causality shapes choices. Although if you are squeamish, I would recommend avoiding this series. It’s at the same level of brutality as Game of Thrones.
Frank Herbert’s Dune has a very cynical take on the Chosen one or Kwisatz Haderach as it’s called in setting. The prophecy turns out to be manufactured by political forces as a means of manipulation while the main character, Paul Atreides, masters powers that let him see the future, he discovers that his status as a religious figurehead will cause untold and death and destruction no matter what he does. Dune turns the power fantasy on its head and uses the consequences of that power to drive the character’s internal conflict.
I would also like to mention Harry Potter, if for no other reason that it will come up at one point. First, I don’t really like how Harry Potter handles the prophecy part of its chosen one, but I must give credit where credit is due. The story does attempt to address the whole “prophecy insures you will beat the dark lord” thing. When Harry starts thinking like that, Dumbledore does reprimand him. Not enough to placate my criticisms, but bothering to address these issues at all is far more than many other fantasy authors do. Also, as I mentioned on my honest thoughts in the magic schools video, Harry Potter is a good example of how to balance wish-fulfillment with conflict in a character. Maybe you disagree and that’s fine, but it’s hard to argue with the sheer amount of success the franchise enjoys.
One final thing before I end this essay. Most of my criticisms of chosen ones really come from my own personal biases and preferences. I tend to like stories about normal people who rise up to meet challenges, who make themselves special. So just remember, my suggestions here are just that, suggestions. Write what you want to write. Enjoy the stories you want to enjoy. There is no correct way to write. I encourage you not to follow what I or any other writer say as gospel, but to make up your own mind and decide for yourself. Rise up and seize your own destiny.