Trope Talk: The Chosen One [Thinky Talky Thoughts + Book Master Training]

NB: This was previously locked as it was an assignment for my Masters course, but since marking is over now I will unlock it! Also cause I got good feedback from it so why not. 😎

The Chosen One. The one who will save us all.

The one who will vanquish the demons.

The one who is EVERYWHERE.

A cliché or just badly utilized? And has it gotten any better?

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💬WHAT IS THE CHOSEN ONE?

In SciFi and Fantasy (SFF), it’s a very commonly used trope, where either by some greater power or respected elder, or because of their bloodline, are chosen for some greater destiny that includes a fight between good and evil.


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But as with most things, there are many different types of Chosen Ones.

💭 The One Who Chooses – Someone who isn’t necessarily chosen to fight or doesn’t really have a great destiny, just an ordinary person who chooses to be part of the conflict and who’s choices decide their fate.

💭 The Chosen by Trial – The Chosen may have had their fate predetermined, but they likely will have to go through a trial of some sort to prove their worthiness. It might be some kind of test that all fated heroes have to do, or simply their adventure is a trial of their power, and that final fight is their actual fate.

💭 The Chosen Many – Being chosen doesn’t always mean they’re alone in their quest. Quite often there are a whole slew of chosen ones. Sometimes there’s a whole group of them who have been working as a team and training long before our hero came along.

💭 The Chosen Wannabe – When there is a Chosen One there are many who are not, and sometimes those who are left behind are not very happy about it. They might try to take the status of the Chosen One for themselves, or they end up being a rival for the hero. Sometimes they might even learn that they do have an important job that is one not even the hero can do…

💭 The Chosen Zero – Finally the Chosen One has arrived! But they’re a complete loser and incredibly uncoordinated. Or they’re an absolute jerk or hate that they have been chosen.

💭 The Chooser of The One – Like it says on the tin, this is a character that is in charge of finding our hero. They might have a book or a prophecy, or they might be a seer who can sense the chosen. Once found they might even mentor the fledgling or just drop them off at the correct place and tap out for the century.

💭 It Sucks to be the Chosen One – So they’re the Chosen One and now they’ve got a bunch of rules to follow and this is their life now. A Big Bad is out there looking for them and if they haven’t destroyed their lives yet, they’ll probably leave it behind anyway. Or hey! Maybe their destiny isn’t as great as people think and the so called amazing power they have, comes at a terrible price.

💭 Legacy of the Chosen – It’s very rare that being a Chosen One means they’re the first one EVER. Sometimes, they’re just a the current incarnation. Through reincarnation or bequeathal, or the fulfillment or a prophecy, being the Chosen One has been bestowed upon them until the next one comes along. Being part of this legacy can often come with a great reverence in their world, and past heroes can justify their destiny.

💭 Only the Chosen May Ride – You can’t really step foot into Fantasy literature without running into at least one Cool Horse or similar creature. Many times they are characters in their own right, regardless if they speak or not. But whatever the reason, they cannot be broken and can only be ridden by who they deem worthy.

💭 Only the Chosen May Wield – If you read this and your first thought isn’t The Sword in the Stone then you probably do not read much fiction at all. It’s a special item that only a worthy person can use, and it doesn’t always have to be a weapon.

💭 The Poorly Chosen One – They were destined for such greatness, chosen by the right person and followed all the steps, until they failed miserably before any greatness could befall them. So tragic.

💭 The Unchosen One – No magical destiny? No problem. Our hero stands up to fight because they want to. Sometimes even in spite of a prophecy. Maybe they missed their calling, or the Chosen One is a villain that needs stopping.

Setting one character above the rest however, is not a good look, and can be a disaster when handled badly.  But having a duty does not mean our hero cannot rely on others or still be unlikeable with issues.


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The ambiguity of a prophecy often can ruin a well written Chosen One. The child will be marked with an eye, They will be born in the fall, that kind of thing. Is the mark a tattoo or a birthmark? Will they be born just before winter or someone named autumn or during a literal fall of an empire or family? They create a lot of fun mysteries that could take readers the span of an entire story to figure out, or no time at all.

Although, having a prophecy with a Chosen One can often create a lot of weird paradoxes or misunderstandings. When it comes to prophecies, it’s all about meddling with the future. Is history really that set in stone? Is it possible to prevent it from taking place? Will that just speed it on its way? By saying something will happen are you ensuring it will?

Chosen One prophecies can be a goldmine when done well and are often like little stories within a story, giving something to believe in. But they’re also just one version of a story and have been created by someone with an agenda, which also adds another interesting layer to the story…


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There’s also the problem where in being The Chosen One, they’re not able to make these large choices about their own lives. So they tend to fall into very normative paths when they don’t have to be this different and unique hero.

They lose that agency to make decisions and also the choice to accept themselves as they are. Not really a good message for YA fiction.

 

💬HISTORY OF THE TROPE

If you go back far enough you’ll see that this trope is nothing new. Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table anyone?


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But let’s jump back a bit instead, to 1949 to be specific. When Joseph Campbell first broke down this trope in his magnum opus, ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’.

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
– 
Joseph Campbell

Campbell was an American Mythologist, best known for his work in comparative mythology and religion. In ‘The Hero of a Thousand Faces’ he discusses the journey of the archetypal hero found in mythologies around the world. He proposes that all of these myths share a common, fundamental structure called a “monomyth“.

This monomyth contains a series of stages along a journey.


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First starting in the ordinary world, they receive a call to adventure. Accepting this call will have them face a road of trials, where if they survive, may grant them a gift, an ultimate boon. Once this journey is over, they must then decide whether to return home with their boon, where they may face hardship on their journey. And if successful on their return, can put their gift to good use.

Not all myths contain every single stage, some may have a focus only on a specific stage, while others might deal with them in a different order, and can be organised in three sections.

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Now this is the part when we can zoom back in time again as Campbell’s monomyth borrows its fundamental structure from various religious tales and myths from various cultures. Such as the tales of Osiris, Buddha, Mohammed, Moses and Jesus.

This idea of a universal story squeezes what is otherwise a diverse world of stories in a ‘one size fits all’ format, eliminating the possibility of unique experiences. This binary also fails to account for the full spectrum of gender and sexuality.


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Lloyd Meeker in his essay, ‘Essential Differences in the Gay Hero’s Journey’, he gives an example that shows the problematic nature of assuming that any simplistic model is universal:

When the gay hero’s sexuality, or some other core aspect of his internal life, drives the story Separation from the World takes on deeper meaning, because a gay hero separates from the world before puberty. He discovers he’s an outsider in the heteronormative world. The difference this makes to a gay hero’s journey is massive …” – Lloyd Meeker

Although specific to gay men, this can be applied to any marginalised identity.

Campbell claimed his model is inclusive to all humans, but ignored the real lived experiences of these marginalised peoples. The life journey of a straight white able-bodied cis-male is accepted as the norm and is a default with many Chosen One narratives, even in the 21st century.

Campbell’s model also doesn’t take class or background into account either. The end of his journey is more of a state of limbo, waiting for the next adventure.

There’s also the problem where most of the tales he used as examples used to describe the stages, use male heroes and pronouns, and women appear pretty much just as the Goddess or Temptress. So when they do appear, their sole purpose is to further along the story of the male hero, removing them of their agency and the possibility of their own adventure.


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Now that we established that Campbell came up with this model that applies to pretty much all tales and myths ever, especially ones dealing with The Chosen One, which is great, but it’s flawed.

So in 1990, drawing on a background of psychology, Maureen Murdock came up with an alternative model in her book, ‘The Heroine’s Journey’ in direct response to Campbell.

She was prompted to do so after an interaction between her as a student and Campbell. She approached him regarding the question of women’s unique experiences and journeys in his model, and his response was very dismissive.

Women don’t need to make the journey […] All [she] has to do is realize she’s the place people are trying to get to.” – Joseph Campbell

OBVIOUSLY she was not happy.


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The answer stunned me; I found it deeply unsatisfying. The women I know and work with do not want to be there , the place that people are trying to get to. They do not want to embody Penelope, waiting patiently, endlessly weaving and unweaving. They do not want to be handmaidens of the dominant male culture giving service to the gods. They do not want to follow the advice of fundamentalist preachers and return to the home. They need a new model that understands who and what a woman is.” – Maureen Murdock

Since the publication of The Heroine’s Journey, more works have been produced with stories centering on female protagonists and their unique experiences.


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Murdock’s model is a series of section where each examines a stage of the journey.

Like Campbell’s model, it starts with a “call”. Here, it usually occurs when the “old self” no longer fits our heroine. This start often includes a rejection of the feminine, defined as passive, manipulative or non-productive.

Murdock says that women have often been portrayed in society as unfocused or fickle, and that this differentiation is perceived as weak. Women who seek success in the male-oriented world often choose this path to dispel that myth. They want to prove that they have good minds, can follow through and are independent.

Everything is geared to getting the work done, to achieve prestige or position and feeling powerful. Doing anything less than “important work” has no intrinsic value – apparently. She puts on her armour, picks up her sword, mounts her steed and goes into battle. She seeks and obtains her treasure – a degree, title, money, authority. She is finally welcome in the Tavern of Heroes.


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Again like mentioned above, Murdock addresses the issue of a lack of unique experiences in Campbell’s model, but her model is not without problems either.

Murdock’s model focuses on a particular part of the female population and doesn’t really take into account the other identities and intersectionalities within these women.


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💬EARLY YA SFF

YA fiction is a new concept, more than the concept of “teenagers”.

In World War II, young adults were given this title of a social demographic. The first book written and published for teenagers is said to have been, ‘Seventeenth Summer’ by Maureen Daly in 1942. It was mostly for girls and about first love. In its wake were more novels for teen girls about romances and sports for boys.

The term Young Adults however, was coined by the Young Adult Library Services Association during the 1960s to represent the age range 12 – 18.

Novels like S.E. Hinton’s ‘The Outsiders’, were among the first books to have a realistic and mature look of life for teens. The 1970s followed with novels by authors like Judy Blume, Lois Duncan and Robert Cormier. These books encapsulated the high school experience and introduced that angst and drama so commonly found in teen books.

But soon these books became simplistic and single minded and in the 1980s there was a boom of genre fiction with authors like R.L Stine. The 1990s however were the true beginnings of the young adult book trend.

1992 brought the second golden age of teen reading and in the 2000s publishers started directly marketing at young people.


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In the late 1990s, David Leviathan, YA author, helped Scholastic develop their teen imprint and spoke directly with teens to discover what it was they really wanted to read. What they found was that they wanted things that were real, that they could connect with. They wanted that emotional connection.

Meg Cabot, author of the successful ‘Princess Diaries’ series said that as a teen she found it difficult to find books she could relate to and that the single minded novels about girls dying for their choices bothered her. She wanted novels about, “[SFF] girls spying on other planets”.

The whole reason you’re reading is because you want some hope that you’re going to get through whatever you’re going through. I know how hard it was as a teenager, and I understood how it felt to be an outsider. I want to be able to offer people hope.” – Meg Cabot

Jennifer Lynn Barnes, a YA author and Ph. D. and cognitive science scholar reckons that paranormal YA fiction, especially in SFF genres, works so well with young people is because teens are caught between two worlds, childhood and adulthood. And in YA SFF books they can navigate these worlds and even dualities of others. YA has the luck of being a genre that can always be several at once, much like the chaos and constant change of teenage life.


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Here are some early YA SFF examples:

💭The Sword in the Stone (1938)

When King Arthur was a young lad he was tutored by Merlyn. There’s also a sword stuck in a stone and only the true king of England may pull it out and become king. Surprise! It’s Arthur!

💭The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56)

The Pevensies are a Chosen Many, by the great Chooser of One Jesus Lion that is Aslan. It’s no secret that the great majority of this series is extremely religious in nature.

💭The Chronicles of Prydain (1964-68)

This series makes use of Welsh myths, especially of the sword Dyrnwyn. There’s also the protagonist Taran, who gets involved in a war for control of his homeland because he went off chasing a pig. Talk about Chosen Zero

💭Ender’s Game (1985)

Colonel Graff is a Chooser of One and chooses Ender as the one who will lead the army to defeat the Formics.

💭Heralds of Valdemar (1987-88)

Talia is part of a Chosen Many but chosen by a horse. Only the Chosen May Ride! Unfortunately the Chosen Many she is part of falls under the Sucks to be the Chosen One. Having a glorious destiny will grant you a glorious funeral.

💭The Giver (1993)

Jonas is part of the Legacy of the Chosen to be the receiver of memory, a very revered position.

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Most of the listed examples if not all, are pretty basic in terms of Chosen One Adventures. They all follow Campbell’s model, and the ones from the 1980s onwards also follow along Murdock’s model.

That being said, they are not that diverse in terms of the lives that are led. All feature straight western kids, who while have had struggles in their lives and even have managed to better themselves, still do not reflect the diverse population that has always surrounded us.


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💬MODERN YA SFF

As we now live in what definitely is the “second coming” of YA fiction, this is the part where I’ll list some slightly more modern SFF examples!

💭Harry Potter (1997-2007)

Not only does he learn he’s a wizard, but he is a hero marked by a prophecy and is his community’s greatest hope and saviour. He also thinks it often Sucks To Be Chosen and finds all his fame quite unnerving. Worth mentioning that Voldemort was the Chooser of One because he tried to change his own prophesied downfall. Neville Longbottom, ended up becoming the One Who Chooses and was a huge asset in finally defeating him. Not to forget the sword of Gryffindor that was only for the True Gryffindor to wield, as well as being Chosen to Wield a certain wand to enhance their magic.

💭Zahrah the Windseeker (2005)

Zahrah is One Who Chooses to go on a quest to save her best friend from certain death, even though nobody blames her or expects her to do anything about it. She chooses her path and eventually comes from being a Sucks To Be a Chosen One to loving and appreciating all aspects about herself.

💭Percy Jackson & The Olympians (2005-09) + The Heroes of Olympus (2010-14)
 
All chosen by fate for their talents and gifts thanks to famous godly parent. There’s also the case of the first prophecy Percy Jackson hears and believes it to be about him. Turns out he was the Unchosen and instead the prophecy was about his antagonist, Luke.

💭The Hunger Games (2008-10)

Katniss more or less was an Unchosen One and only became a Chosen One because she stepped in to volunteer herself in place of her sister. Even though in later books it’s revealed that others have gone to great lengths to keep her for the face of their rebellion.

💭Shadowshaper (2015-present)

Sierra Santiago had plans for her summer but when her murals started to weep and her abuelo repeated a mysterious message over and over, she learns that she comes from a Legacy of Chosen people called shadowshapers. These people can use their artistic abilities to connect with spirits. Now it’s up to her to reclaim her heritage and protect her family from an outsider abusing their abilities.

💭The Rest of Us Just Live Here (2015)

While not being directly about Chosen Ones, this novel is about the people who have to live in their world. The ones who have to go to school and wonder if it will get blown up again. There’s also one character that is descended from a cat goddess and has powers of his own, but it is a book full of Unchosens and Ones Who Choose.

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Compared with the last batch of YA SFF novels, these are more complex and diverse in the lives that are led. Their plots are more dimensional and contain layers!


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💬IMPROVEMENTS! LET’S DO THIS!

While YA SFF is getting more diverse and complex with each passing year, it still is not enough.

For one, harmful and negative aspects of this Chosen One trope need to be eliminated. An example that is harmful is when there is a Chosen One, and their perfection is used to compare to others in a gross and reductive way.

You’re so special! They’re sluts and ugly!”

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Aspects that have become boring from overuse or misuse, however, still have use! They can be subverted or twisted, reinterpreted or engaged in other exciting ways.

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This brings something new to the genre but also lets readers engage more with what they read in questioning why these aspects have become so fixed in the genre!

🔹 Make the protagonist human! There’s no need for them to be EXTRA SPECIAL NUMBER ONE BEST IN ALL THE LAND. They’re already the Chosen One. If they get into a sword fight and they have no fighting skills, forget them being able to fight, let a supporting character step in. Showing that the Chosen One relies on their friends or their team is just as important.

🔹 Remember that the Chosen One HAS FLAWS. They are not perfect.

🔹 Again, don’t forget about the other people in their world. Their friends, family, teammates, or even their past lives.

🔹 The most subversive thing you can do with a YA SFF novel these days is to not have a love triangle. Yes the Chosen One does not need to be bogged down with romantic interest problems. They already have a prophecy to deal with.

🔹 Let the Chosen One take risks with their moral standing. Skirt the moral border or even cross the border altogether and even leave it behind. Let them kill, leave people behind. They don’t need to be good all the time. They have a lot riding on them. It makes sense that they’d be the ones to make the difficult decisions.

Some ideas:

🔹 The prophecy deciding in her fate as a Chosen One ends up failing spectacularly

🔹 A non-binary villain that is part of a Legacy of Chosen Ones instead of a hero and experiences conflict with their past selves for refusing to adhere to a gender binary

🔹 Deconstruct a narrative showing that a the One Who Chose wasn’t really that great and only is remembered so because as always, winners write the history books


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💬CONCLUSION

This is the part where I ask, has this trope improved much over time? Is it any better than it was when it first burst on the scene with YA fiction when it was single minded? Or has it really gotten more dimensional and complex?

Honestly, I think yes. It has gotten better. It has developed and come more into its own.

But let’s stop and think about who the majority of YA SFF readers are; Teenagers.


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While yes, more people past the intended age range are reading these books, we can’t forget that the true age range of these books are 12 – 18 years old. So it’s safe to assume that every six years or so, the audience is refreshed, with a whole slew of eager teens ready to consume whatever books they deem to be unique and exciting.

As a teenager, it feels like time goes by slowly, feels like you will never have the power to make something of yourself and that you’ll spend the rest of your life feeling like a nobody. When you remember this it’s easy to understand why this trope has survived so much.

These stories of Chosen Ones act as glimpses into highly motivating fantasies, squirts of hope in an otherwise angsty life, previews into fuller lives that are up ahead. While adults may have grown out of this type of story, it’d be silly to bemoan the people, especially young ones that do.

Having a trope like the Chosen One persist so long over time is also useful in that it can act as a guide for readers on what other books they might be interested in. They help readers understand what they enjoy the most and in turn, helps them find new books quicker.

If you enjoyed reading ‘Harry Potter’, wouldn’t you go out and look for another series that was similar to it? If you loved reading ‘Ender’s Game’ it would make sense to hunt for novel with a similar plot, or theme, right?

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This is not to say that tropes like the Chosen One are vital, but instead of dismissing it as overused or overdone, but give them a chance as they might be completely different to what came before.

And it is important to recognise that we still need to flip things upside down. We need models that unlike Maureen Murdock, do not need our heroine to reject their femininity to begin their journey or reclaim it at the end. We need to recognise that men should be allowed to find domestic bliss at the end of their story if they want.

And importantly, unlike Campbell, to recognise that the unique journeys of non-binary and trans characters, and characters of colour, neuro-atypical characters, and characters of all other marginalised identities are as represented as the others.

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But at the end of the day, these models are just guides, jumping off points. The conversation needs to keep going so we can continue to expand on them so they can become more reflective of the world we live in.

So yes. The trope of The Chosen One is important. It has been badly utilized. But it is unavoidable and it can be improved upon.

There is evidence of that happening already. The models put forth by Campbell and Murdock are just guides for a conversation that needs to continue.

They need to be expanded upon so they can be more reflective of the world we live in, and the experiences of the lives who inhabit it.


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“Even now I'm not really sure which parts of myself are real and which parts are things I've gotten from books.” - [Beatrice Sparks] Go Ask Alice 🍃☕

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