by S.E. Zbasnik
In speculative fiction, there’s a trick people rely upon to insure their protagonist is the only one who can preserve the kingdom, save the world, and rescue the galaxy from mechanical centipedes. Unroll some ancient parchment, have blind monks read it in catacombs, and declare your main character the chosen one.
To say the chosen one has been done to death is to think hurricanes are a little windy. Not only is it a cliché infesting every genre it touches, it’s also a drama killer. Wrack your brain trying to create believable villains, establish obstacles that no one should survive, place your main character in immediate danger, and it all amounts to nothing. We know he’ll survive; he has to. He’s the chosen one. The spoilers are written right there in an ancient scroll only a wandering transient can read because his order failed to maintain itself before the prophesied times. Maybe they should have hosted more pancake feeds to raise funds.
A way around this lack of drama issue is to make the chosen one incredibly inept. You wonder if he can tie his shoes without accidentally garroting himself kind of inept. This should make him endearing, right? Will our hero learn how to master the skills bestowed upon him by magical birthright in time?
Instead, it leaves the audience wondering, “Why doesn’t the highly skilled warrior training our chosen one just do it herself?”
I picked my pronouns on purpose because, so people can have their “strong female protagonist,” often they will create the bumbling every man character who must be trained by Ms. Competent. She can already do everything our hero will eventually be taught, but because of some archaic writings she is not allowed to actually do it. It has to be left to him, the generally amicable fool who — at first — doesn’t want to be the hero, whines throughout his training, gives in, has some minor breakthrough, and is suddenly the savior. More than likely, he also gets the girl who spent her whole life training to do just what he did. Is she upset at having to bow to him, to let him take what she worked for? Of course not. He’s the chosen one.
Ms. Competent isn’t really a character. She’s just there to be strong, hate the protagonist, then fall in love with him. Her own goals don’t exist; she has no wants or needs outside of training this idiot and keeping him alive. If she did stop to think for even a second, she’d probably drop the chosen one off a cliff and take care of things herself.
The chosen one trope also stretches believability to the breaking point. There’s the grizzled old monk forced by fate to teach some twenty-year-old farm boy everything he knows in a few months. Somehow, that quick training montage is just good enough, the farm boy can now defeat the villain. (Especially now that the grizzled old monk ate it in some reverse deus ex machina fashion.) Unless that villain phoned in his own take-over-the-world plans to a stable of minions, it’s highly unlikely his years of scheming will be taken down by someone who just figured out how to hit things real hard with a stick.
Chosen ones come off less like full characters with a burden placed around their neck and more like a wish fulfillment. What if someone showed up on my doorstep, said I was really important, barely trained me, and — after a bit of work — I got to be Emperor of Pluto? Sign me up! Maybe I can finally get Pluto the respect it deserves.
The chosen one trope can be subverted. What if the monk got the translation wrong and forgot to carry the one? The true savior of the Lumtkins was actually a sentient piece of bread, but no one thought to armor up toast. Or, whoever’s been tasked with training the chosen one just ignored him does it her damn self? Or, on the way to the big battle, the chosen one accidentally falls down a bear trap and dies ignominiously, causing the villain to win. But, in a surprise to everyone, the villain is actually the best thing for the kingdom, leading it to a prosperous future.
Thinking outside the prophesized chosen one box opens up a far better chance to create a character instead of a cliché.
S.E. Zbasnik is the author of the Dwarves in Space series – think Tolkien and Hitchhiker’s merged in a horrific transporter accident – as well as a bunch of other fantasy novels. You can find her on her Dwarves in Space blog and at her Amazon Author Central page and hopefully not standing right behind you.