The fantasy genre contains a lot of tropes. A trope is a recurring theme or story element that is used so much that it becomes a common convention and almost cliched. One such trope is a protagonist who is marked out by fate or prophecy to fulfil a certain role. Usually, the fate of the world rests on their shoulders and only they can resolve the book’s central conflict. This article asks whether the ‘Chosen One’ trope has been used so much that it should not be used any more.
Before we address that question, let’s take a closer look at the trope itself.
A closer look at the trope
The ‘Chosen One’ protagonist is usually to be found in the sub-set of fantasy novels known as quest fantasies. These are stories in which the protagonist (and possibly his friends too) embarks on an adventure. Furthermore, the adventure takes them far and wide to meet people and visit places they never could have imagined. The journey usually starts in their place of safety and security (which could be a false sense of security) which is disrupted by outside forces. They receive a call to action, which they may at first refuse, but eventually they submit.
The ‘Chosen One’ protagonist is special in that by virtue of prophecy or birth they are marked or uniquely equipped to answer the call to action. No-one else can undertake the quest but they. Quest fantasies normally occur across huge backdrops and the conflict affects the whole world – the fate of the world is at stake. Additionally, choice is crucial in the quest fantasy – the protagonist faces cruxes where their choice affects many.
Many classic fantasy novels and series are based on a ‘Chosen One’ fantasy quest narrative. These include:
- Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings, and the rest of The Belgariad series
- The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams, and the rest of his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy
- The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, and subsequent books in the series
- The Harry Potter books
Should we keep the ‘Chosen One’ trope?
Not long ago I was at a convention where one of the panel slots on the programme was on this very question. Essentially it was asking if the trope has had its day and shouldn’t be used any more. The argument for canning the trope was two-fold. One was that it has simply been used too much and people are bored of it. The second was that in this day and age it is distasteful to think that some people are marked as ‘special’. ‘Chosen One’ novels tell us that some people are ‘better’ than everyone else simply because of their birthright or prophecy, and this is not something we should be propagating.
One of the panellists was Brandon Sanderson and he actually defended the ‘Chosen One’ trope. He acknowledged the above arguments but said that there is a reason why some story elements (tropes) are repeatedly used. That is because they are things that resonate with people and they also make really good stories. He said that when he was a teenager the ‘Chosen One’ stories really resonated with him because he felt out of place (like most teenagers do) and these books showed that even ordinary people who are maybe a bit different and unpopular can be swept up into great adventures and find their place and even be ‘special’.
I completely get this argument – that’s why I loved ‘Chosen One’ stories as a teenager. Teenagers can identify with the protagonists’ difficulties of coming to understand who they are and their place in the world.
So on the one hand we have an argument not to write stories where someone can be ‘special’ and on the other we have an argument where we should write those stories. Nothing is ever easy is it? I guess it’s okay to write those stories as long as we show that the ‘Chosen One’ protagonist is still human and maybe they struggle with the pressure of being the ‘special’ one; maybe they feel even more of an outsider at times during the book.
With respect to the argument that ‘Chosen One’ stories have been done too much I think that there are ways to keep things fresh. Writers should try new approaches. Speaking of writers, this leads me on to the next section!
Now I’ll show why the ‘Chosen One’ fantasy trope is great for writers.
For writer’s, the ‘Chosen One’ quest fantasy plot is more straightforward to write than perhaps other plots. This is because the ‘Chosen One’ quest plot normally follows a well-known story structure that is known to work. This is the Hero’s Journey plot structure (below). Follow the steps anti-clockwise; you can see how they are arranged according to the three acts of story. (If you are unfamiliar with three act story structure this article is a good place to start).
The ‘Hero’s Journey’ has the character development all good stories need. Also it has a sequence of events that take the hero from their sheltered world into the bigger story world and through a series of mini-climaxes until the final showdown. Essentially, it fits three act story structure to a tee. Here is a downloadable booklet on the Hero’s Journey plot structure, which discusses it in more detail.
What also makes the ‘Chosen One’ quest plotline a fantasy writer’s dream is the way it makes worldbuilding so much easier. I’m talking about worldbuilding now in the sense of building the world for the reader. And giving them the knowledge and information about the world so they can understand it.
The protagonist is almost always someone who’s led a sheltered life and is naive to the wider world and indeed the world of magic and fantasy that they’re about to be thrust into. This puts them on the same level as the reader and means that as the protagonist is exposed to the world and learns about it, your reader will naturally learn about it too.
The protagonist’s companions and/or mentor will show the protagonist places and things and explain how things like magic works. And this can all happen as a natural part of the story without any embarrassing infodumps. The reader won’t feel uncomfortable if they don’t know certain things because hey the protagonist doesn’t know yet. They trust that information will be revealed as and when necessary and they delight in the joy of discovering things alongside their hero.
Ultimately, I love ‘Chosen One’ fantasies and I hope they’re here to stay. Let me know your thoughts on the ‘Chosen One’ fantasy trope in the comments!