The topic of today is “The Chosen One”. If that term isn’t familiar to you, well, you must be avoiding the fantasy genre like the plague, for it’s an extremely prevalent trope in fantasy stories. It goes something like this: The main character is a nobody throughout their early life, until they’re suddenly told that they’re incredibly important, powerful, and destined to save the world. The young person reluctantly agrees to do what is asked of them, because as outlined by some magical prophecy hundreds of years ago, there is no one else who can do it. You’ve seen this trope, or variations of it, in Harry Potter, Star Wars, the Inheritance Cycle, The Power of Five, The Matrix, even Spy Kids 3-D and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (regrettably). It’s so engrained in the fantasy canon that we’ve come to expect it from just about every movie or book that has a dragon or a medieval sword on the cover.
The concept of the Chosen One is often derided as a telltale sign of lazy writing, and it’s easy to see why. Not only is it criminally overused, but it also allows the author to bypass essential character development. Instead of bestowing their main character with a compelling personality, relatable flaws, and notable achievements, they can simply dream up an ancient, irrefutable prophecy that claims they’re important, and thus gain the readers’ investment without properly earning it. It’s the narrative equivalent of a microwave meal: quick, zero effort involved, and lacking any kind of substance.
Why is the Chosen One trope so popular then? Why do we keep cheering for characters who are only interesting because a prophecy said so? Heck, why is something as restricting as a prophecy so ubiquitous in a genre that’s meant to let our imagination run wild? Well, I have a theory, one that builds on another theory formulated by J.R.R. Tolkien. That’s right, we’re going all the way back to the grandfather of modern fantasy to figure this out. You see, Tolkien often spoke of applicability. It is the ability of fiction to, independently of the author’s intentions, resemble aspects of its readers’ real lives and thus captivate them. He much preferred this to allegory, which is when a story is intentionally written to resemble and explore a real-world issue. Here’s the quote:
“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, presumably translated from Elvish
Let me explain this further by using Tolkien’s most famous work, The Lord of the Rings, as an example. The evil land of Mordor doesn’t represent Nazi Germany. That would be far too limiting, on the nose, and well, allegorical. But there are coincidental thematic similarities between Mordor and Nazi Germany – expansion, enslavement, extermination, evil – and to readers in the sixties who remembered the horrors of World War II, well, that made the story even more engaging, regardless of whether they consciously made the connection. The same can be said about Frodo’s relationship with the One Ring; the story isn’t dependent on the parallel to real-life addiction, but someone who’s struggled with alcohol abuse is going to connect with Frodo even more. The bottom line is that stories work because there are elements in them that we recognize, grab on to, and subconsciously apply to our own lives. And the stories that are the most popular, are the ones that hold the most universal applicability.
To bring this back to the Chosen One, I’m not going to defend said trope because it holds some kind of symbolic value. I don’t think the countless writers who employ it mean for it to secretly represent something important. I do, however, think it’s applicable to something important. Something crucial, in fact:
Everyone needs to learn that they are the Chosen One in their own life.
That’s right. You are the most important, most special, and most powerful person in your own story. You are the Harry, the Anakin, the Neo, the Tim Burton’s Alice of your life. Only you can fight the great battles that you must fight, and it is your destiny to triumph. Your status as main character is not something you have to earn, or justify by being interestingly written; no, you were simply born to be the protagonist. And that’s why the Chosen One story works. When the character who used to be a nobody understands that they’re actually somebody, somebody incredibly vital to the story even, we are pulled in because it resembles the epiphany we at one point had about ourselves. Or perhaps we haven’t had that epiphany yet, in which case the story might help us reach it. That could be why the trope is especially popular among young audiences – the realization that you matter the most in your own life is a crucial part of growing up and forming your own identity.
Honestly though, everyone probably needs to be told about their protagonist role every now and then, for we forget it far too often all throughout life. We let others walk over us, anguish over what people think about us, do things against our will just to please the crowd, and even give up on our dreams because we’re too afraid of disapproval. Perhaps we need the Chosen One trope to keep popping up in our books and movies. Perhaps it needs to remain a staple of the fiction we consume, lest we forget the prophecy about our own importance and go back to being the nobodies we used to think we were. Back to Tatooine and Privet Drive.
Now, to sum up my stance in the matter: Is the Chosen One story overused? Yes. Does it encourage lazy writing and vapid characters? Sometimes, yes. Is it time we bring more variety to the fantasy genre? Absolutely. It’s not cool to constantly regurgitate the same plot, even if it’s somehow still making money (I’m not naming names, but you know what to do here). But I stand by my theory that the trope comes from a good place, and became popular for a good reason. We gravitate towards it because it’s applicable to one of the great truths of life – that of our own central role in it. We all need to be reminded sometimes, of how essential we are in the story we’re writing every day.