“The Chosen One” vs. Someone Who Grows Into a Hero

Posted: January 8, 2015 in Reflections, Writing
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A while back I posted on character tropes and cliches that needed to be retired from literature. Some of my Followers of Fear thought that maybe the trope of “The Chosen One” could stand to be retired. I’ve been thinking about this since I wrote that post, and I thought I’d discuss it in contrast to what I call “Someone Who Grows Into a Hero.” If I had another name for that character trope, something a bit shorter, I would use it. Maybe I’ll think of one in the course of this post. Or maybe you’ll give me one (please?).

So, let’s talk tropes. The Chosen One is, in essence, a character who is basically chosen by some higher power–God, Fate, some powerful wizard, the President, the Force, that kooky neighbor down the street, etc.–to take on some great evil and defeat it. Sometimes this choosing takes place pretty early in life, sometimes years or ages before the Chosen One’s birth. A good example is Harry Potter being chosen to defeat Lord Voldemort (funnily enough, I’ve been listening to Harry Potter audiobooks while I’ve been working lately. Already on Book 3. You can always get something new from these books no matter your age, I find). It’s been used hundreds and hundreds of times throughout history, since possibly before the Greeks and Romans started telling stories involving oracles.

Now, this trope has a good reason for being used so much. The character who is the Chosen One–usually the protagonist–is usually a good person, selfless, kind, somewhat charismatic. They’re often presented with insurmountable odds, but through their own ingenuity, goodness, and the help of their allies they overcome and become victorious. We want to be that person, who is good and destined to be great as well, to save everyone and to have the best group of friends around them. To be a messianic or godlike figure.

However, there are some problems with this trope. For one, it’s been used so much that we know it by heart. Harry Potter, Eragon, Mila Kunis’s character in Jupiter Ascending, Gregor the Overlander, Emma Swan, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader (with Luke’s help, I guess), Neo, Buffy, Po the Panda, Thomas from The Maze Runner and many, many more. These characters are everywhere. And they seem to all have similar personal stories. They grow up in simple circumstances–programmer, abused nephew, farmer, teenage girl, etc.–but are thrust into extraordinary circumstances that change their lives and center events on them. They’re told they’re special, that there are things that only they can do. At first they might be reluctant, or not have the confidence to do what they are told to do. But as time goes on and they somehow make it through the most dire circumstances, they become confident and settled in their roles, and they do end up destroying the ultimate evil (except if you’re the Slayer, in which case it never ends) once all is said and done.

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These sort of stories also say something about how the universe works, namely fate vs. free will. In some circumstances, the way these stories work is that no matter what, the Chosen One is to win against the ultimate evil. So personal choice isn’t a factor. The universe must work to get the Chosen One to win. Remember when I said I was listening to the HP audiobooks? In the 2nd, when Harry stabs the diary, and I remember this clearly, Harry doesn’t think when he sees the fang and the diary. He just acts. Perhaps the universe intervened so that Harry could someday take on the full mantle of his destiny? And in the case of Buffy, no matter how much she tries, the duties of a Slayer force her back into the world of darkness and away from anything resembling a normal life. The universe (or the writers) seem to have no care for Buffy’s choices, apparently.

So the problems of this trope is not only that it’s overused, but that it’s predictable, and that it takes the freedom of choice out of the equation to a great extent, sometimes even totally. There are ways to change up the trope, but it’s rarely done. Katniss Everdeen could be considered a slight variation on the theme, as she kind of stumbled into the role of Chosen One by an act of defiance, but from that point on her life is controlled by others. Heck, even Peeta manipulates her by forcing her into the relationship and pregnancy ruses. Still, I’ve been open about my disdain for the Hunger Games trilogy, so I’ll say it’s not the best example. I’m trying to think up a better one, even if I write it myself, so I’ll let you know if I think of (or write) something.

The other trope is the Accidental Hero trope (I did find another title for this trope). This is one I like a bit more, because you can do so much more with it and there’s a growing number of examples of this kind of character. This is a character who, rather than by fate, is made a hero through circumstances and their own choices. They may not be hero material, they may not want to be heroes, they may rather go home, but they rise to become heroes by their own merits. For example, Nathaniel from the Bartimaeus books wasn’t chosen to be a hero, and never set out to be a hero. In the first book, he was seeking revenge for personal reasons, the second book he did it because of his job and because of political reasons. In the third book he does it after a lot of self examination and because he’s scared of the demon uprising.

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Another example is Teen Wolf (the awesome TV series, not the very bad 80’s movie). Scott McCall became a werewolf by accident, and because of the threats to his family, friends and his town, he has to rise to become a hero and save the day. No fate, no gods, no prophecies. He becomes a hero (and later a very special form of werewolf) because his personality, the events in his town, and his love for the people close to him mold him into a hero.

And there are many more examples. Chuck from the titular series never asked for the Intersect, and he wasn’t supposed to have it. It could’ve been taken out ages ago. But he chose to keep it, use it for his friends, and save the people he cared about. Through that he becomes a spy and a hero. In Doctor Who, the Doctor only wanted to travel and see the universe. He is a hero of his own choice. Lelouch Lamperouge from the anime Code Geass received his powers through luck, and later chose to use them for his own ends and to get his revenge (more antihero I guess, but whatever). It’s a trope with a lot of wriggle room in it, and even better, it’s still underused, unlike the Chosen One trope. So perhaps many more authors should write less Chosen One stories and more Accidental Hero stories.

Of course, there’s no way that this post will cause less Chosen One stories to be written. For better or worse, that trope is popular and will stick around for a long while. Still, I’m hoping for more Accidental Hero stories. I figure most of my stories will feature them. Reborn City and Snake‘s protagonists become heroes (or in the latter’s case, antiheroes) through choice and circumstance. Heck, I might try and find ways to subvert the Chosen One trope while writing Accidental Heroes. We’ll see what I can do.

Which trope do you prefer? What’s your favorite example?

What is a way that one could change either trope so that either one could be a bit more original?

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Comments
  1. Pat Bertram says:

    It’s as if these writer’s follow the “Hero’s Journey” to the letter without mixing it up a bit. The hero’s journey is a powerful tool, but as you say, it’s been done to death.

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