Sunday, January 27, 2013

Dissecting The Chosen One, Part I

I'm a fantasy writer and a fantasy reader.  I don't consider myself an expert on everything, but I do have opinions about the tropes that appear in the genre.  Some I like, some I do not.  One of my biggest pet peeves in fantasy is the eminent appearance of The Chosen One.  In this post, I'll dissect precisely why I dislike it.

What is the Chosen One?

The Chosen One, whether stated as such or not, is a variation of a hero.  Usually, they grow up in an impoverished, abusive, or just plain ordinary environment.  Bonus points if they're orphans.  Then one day they find out about some kind of wonderful destiny they possess.  Maybe they're the secret heir to a kingdom.  Maybe, they wield some kind of rare magic.  Maybe a prophecy has pinned the fate of the world to their shoulders.  At any rate, they are suddenly deemed extraordinary.

In general, our Chosen One is less than thrilled about this change.  Doubt blossoms in their bosoms and they protest they're not worthy, they can't do it, someone made a mistake.  Fortunately, a wise old mentor and a posse of followers usually bolster the hero's ego with such platitudes as, "you must fulfill your destiny," "the fate of the world rests on your shoulder," "if you cannot do this no one can," etc., etc.  Eventually, the hero bows to the pressure and saves the world.   

Why Do I Dislike It?

In the first place, the Chosen One is overdone.  It's fairly ubiquitous, and it's also fairly predictable.  Whenever I read a blurb about a displaced royal or an outcast magician having to embrace their destiny, my instinct is to shudder and put the book away.  I know exactly what's going to happen.  It's not new.  It's not interesting.

Aside from that, there are several pitfalls inherent to this kind of character that the writer may inadvertantly fall into.  I'm not saying all writers do or that all falls are unintentional.  A skilled writer may even embrace these traps and pull them off.  In general, though, these three pitfalls bother me because they are not pulled off well.

Pitfall #1: Laziness

Creating a Chosen One character does not mean that the writer is lazy, but it does give them an easy way to justify super-powering the character, showering them with luck, or unlocking a previously unknown ability right in the nick of time.  Why?  Because it's destiny, that's why.

The problem with a Chosen One is that you run a dangerous risk of creating an all-too-perfect, all-too-lucky, rather unlikable character to whom the entire world bows down before.  (A Mary Sue, in other words.)  Even if they aren't all powerful, remarkable things just happen to them.

The issue here isn't that these things occur, but that they aren't explained or justified.  If the author takes the time to set up these remarkable events and/ or abilities, fine, crisis averted.  But the temptation is to say, he's just special and move on.  That's laziness, and that does not satisfy this particular reader.

Pitfall #2: Predestination

Skipping the theology, I'm going to use define as predestination a set future in which whatever is destined must come to pass.  Many fantasy novels grapple with the issue of inserting free will into their story.  In the most literal sort of way, it doesn't exist.  In the world of the novel, the writer is God.  The author choses their hero, the author plot out the end, and they control the choices of the character.  End of story.

But the story can't be so transparent.  You see, destiny isn't so popular in the real world right now.  Most people in the audience like to believe they make their own decisions and control their own fate.  To compensate, the author tries to give a marginal amount of free will to the Chosen One: they can either accept or reject their destiny.  
Thus, we get heroes who spend 3/4s of the book moping about whether to accept the responsibility or not, all in an attempt to maintain the illusion of free will.
But readers know there is no real choice.  If the hero rejects destiny, there goes the story.  So the author pulls all sorts of strings to make the hero to complete their task.  Kill off a friend, kidnap the love interest.  Give them a nudge in the right direction.  In the end, as much as the author tries to disguise it, destiny wins.  The Chosen One had no choice.

It's a paradox.  

In my opinion, the problem comes down to one: one choice, one future, one destiny.  If the writer admits there are other choices, other futures, other destinies, then fate is a little more dependent on the hero's choice.  A good way to show this is to show the consequences of other hero's decision or to make the fate of the world a little more ambigous.  

Pitfall #3: Messiah-Complex

This takes two forms.  First and ugliest, is the self-righteous hero.  This hero has been told he is special so many times, he cannot conceive of anyone else saving the world but him.  As such, his methods are always right, wise, and justified.  Unless the author slaps the hero with a failure, this type quickly becomes insufferable.  

The second form of the Messiah-complex is the slavish-followers syndrome, wherein the hero may be modest enough to doubt he's the Chosen One, but his posse clings to their belief in him with the tenacity of cult members.  You'd think the hero would come across more sympathetically in this version, but that's not always the case.  A hero who needs ego baths from his followers just to get up in the morning is worse than the self-righteous hero.  At least Mr. Insufferable has self-confidence.

And heaven help you, if both forms converge.  A hero with a Messiah-complex followed by a posse of ardent worshippers is almost a sure-fire recipe for a villain.  The only cure is to make the hero lose--badly.  Rip all his adoration away and make him ordinary.  Only then will he recapture the audience's sympathy.

* * *

So this concludes my critique of the Chosen One, as seen in fantasy novels.  Next week, I'll post ways  to fix or avoid these problems.  How do you create a Chosen One who does not come across as generic or predictable?  I'll give you my suggestions.

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