Open discussion: The Chosen One cliche

You read about it in books, see it in movies, and play it in video games.

In so many stories, when there’s a Huge Menace or Big Evil threatening the world, only one person who has been chosen by destiny is fated to defeat it. That person is the Chosen One.

Can I just state, for the record, that I hate the shit out of this?

Besides the fact that it’s lazy storytelling — after all, it’s a lot easier to say Destiny Said So than to give protagonists real reasons to make real choices that have an impact on the world — there’s also the fact that most of the time, the Chosen One cliche says some pretty side-eye-worthy things about the world and who matters. If the Chosen One is the only one with the ability to fight Real Evil, and this individual is more often than not male, White, straight, cisgender, middle to upper class, young (or rather not middle-aged or old), able-bodied, and has no mental illnesses, what does that say about the people who don’t fit that mold? Are they too weak? Too stupid? Evil themselves?

Let’s look at this logically even though the cliche itself makes no fucking sense. Let’s look at history. Do you know what we call people who believe they have a special destiny that they must impose upon the world for its own good? Narcissists and megalomaniacs. These are not traits that go well with things like compassion, which is one of those crucial hero type qualities.

Not to mention, when you look at the really old myths and legends, those Chosen One types tend to come from the underclass and shake up the status quo rather than preserve it. What scares the Bad Guys about people trying to change things is that they never see it coming. Because they value only power, when they look for threats, they overlook those they consider powerless. They never realize that one of these days, the people they exploit and abuse will get sick of their shit and someone will decide to do something about it.

So let’s do away with the Chosen One. Let’s leave prophecy and fate out of what makes someone a hero. What do you think are some ways we can do that?

33 thoughts on “Open discussion: The Chosen One cliche

    • I loved that article. It also put into words what has been bugging me for years. I liked the film and I own the DVD. Yes the film had its flaws (to put it mildly) but Loose Cannon brings up a valid point in that the outrage towards Catwoman always seemed a bit over-the-top (ie a black woman was the titular heroine), especially considering the legions of films that have come out that were far worse: Punisher: War Zone, Jonah Hex, etc.

  1. The thing is, all of the Chosen Ones throughout cinema history are considered to be from “powerless” backgrounds. Luke Skywalker, for example, was a simple farmboy from the boondocks (as was Eragon). Thomas Anderson/Neo, a simple computer programmer without a life. Matt Murdock and Peter Parker are some others. Anakin Skywalker was born a slave. John Connor was a rebellious teenager. And the list goes on.

    But the problem is that the Chosen One’s path plays out alot like Cinderella: The formerly powerless becomes Empowered, they have a good time with their newfound powers, and then they have a test in which they have to prove that they were indeed worthy of the power. When they pass, they live happily ever after in their new lives. But instead of teaching those around them to become empowered in their own ways, Chosen Ones act as if the new lives have now become a burden that they alone must bear. In fact, most Chosen Ones don’t even look to inspire courage or bravery in others. But the writers expect the audience to show fealty to their Chosen One at all times.

    • True dat.

      What separates real leaders from cinematic Chosen Ones is their accountability to their communities, and the fact that the work (nor the world, for that matter) does not stop just because they’ve proven themselves sufficiently capable. As a matter of fact, that’s just when things really get started.

      For example, Harry Potter. His whole schtick is to become a wizard, defeat Voldemort, and live happily ever after (SNL did a great takedown of how that would really pan out for him later in life – say, at age 25). That’s the Chosen One thing. But a more gripping follow-up to Voldemort’s demise would have been Harry realizing that in order to prevent another Dark Lord SoandSo from rising and doing the same thing (tends to be a pattern in Potterverse), he’d have to do real work to change the status quo in the Wizarding World, where lineage and power and connections determine far too much about where people wind up in life.

      But that’s not very glamorous or particularly Campbellian.

      This is also why Neville Longbottom. leader of the Hogwarts resistance movement, kicks much ass.

    • The thing is, all of those characters you just mentioned are straight white cis men, and that’s a combination that has a lot of privilege in the real world, and that translates to more power than people who are not one or more of those things have. And since several of those characters are from worlds not too far off our own, they too have more power than they, or apparently you, realize. Even the ones for whom that’s not true still represent that power to our culture.

      There are a few Chosen One stories out there about straight white women, but they’re vastly outnumbered by the ones about men. And off the top of my head, I can’t name a single major-media story about a non-white Chosen one, a gay or lesbian Chosen One, a trans Chosen One, much less any combination thereof. It’s one more narrative that supports the privilege endemic in our society.

      • MadGastronomer:

        The “privilege” is the whole point.

        Their privilege is unearned. There is no attempt in the story to mitigate that privilege, nor is there any acknowledgement that they have privilege at all, much less unearned and, frankly, undeserved.

        What Chosen One storylines attempt to do, however, is justify that privilege. Chosen One storylines attempt to blunt criticism of the characters by calling their Empowerment Predestined, Predetermined, and Inevitable. The Chosen One storyline almost always conclude that their characters did not ask for this power, but they will do whatever they want now that they have it – and that any other character who comes in contact with the same power will not become a great hero ever (Buffy the Vampire Slayer performs under the same lens).

  2. What do you think would happen if, instead of taking inspiration from other sci-fi/fantasy media, more stories looked to history for samples of heroism? What if more stories modeled heroes not on Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins, but on the lives of MLK, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Angela Davis, etc. (their historical lives, not the fairy tales we tell about them)?

    • I like the Chosen One device and use it in my narratives but I’ll be the first to say it has to be executed properly and explored responsibly. I think when it’s done right we see longshots and underdogs rise up and face impossible odds and win. It’s a timeless technique because 1) it connects with Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and 2) triumph of the human spirit and all of that.

      When it’s done right we get stories like Aang, Kyle XY, Buffy and Harry Potter. You get sympathetic protagonists who grow, evolve and rise to the occassion.

      When it’s done wrong we get Mary Sues like Hal Jordan (the modern version anyway) and Bella Swan and Britt Reid Jr. Obnoxious white folks with no redeeming qualities who are fawned over and told how their magically speshul just because they’re magically speshul.

      So when we live in a society that reinforces that white people are by default, the leaders of the team, the most “well-rounded” and are just innately superior……do I even need to explain?

      • “I like the Chosen One device and use it in my narratives but I’ll be the first to say it has to be executed properly and explored responsibly. I think when it’s done right we see longshots and underdogs rise up and face impossible odds and win. It’s a timeless technique because 1) it connects with Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and 2) triumph of the human spirit and all of that.”

        I agree, because it has to made good. Like that’s what i like about some shounen stories all though they don’t have the chosen one theme. It’s still fun to watch someone fall to get up again.

        “When it’s done right we get stories like Aang, Kyle XY, Buffy and Harry Potter. You get sympathetic protagonists who grow, evolve and rise to the occasion.”

        I’m not the sympathetic to Buffy (I’ll tell you later). But missed out on Goku (DBZ), Ichigo (Bleach), Yusake (Yu Yu hakusho), Solid Snake and Big Boss (Metal Gear Solid), Kagome (Inuyasha), Roger Smith (Big O) and many others (Yes they all from Japan, I know)

        When it’s done wrong we get Mary Sues like Hal Jordan (the modern version anyway) and Bella Swan and Britt Reid Jr. Obnoxious white folks with no redeeming qualities who are fawned over and told how their magically speshul just because they’re magically speshul.

        Same reason why they have White Jesus, white people like to have that uberman thinking. And don’t forget Shinji Ikari (Evanglion), Ian Archer (Tower Prep) and millions others

        So when we live in a society that reinforces that white people are by default, the leaders of the team, the most “well-rounded” and are just innately superior……do I even need to explain?

        • It really depends on how the Chosen One character relates to the other heroes. I see way too many mighty whitey types who ignore everyone around them and succeed *in spite of it*. Jake Sully in Avatar is the poster boy for this shit, but Return of the Jedi Luke is no different. It’s boring, and it’s message is “you’re special, you don’t need to listen to anyone else”. Cue the flounce when reality strikes.

          The examples I actually like gets by with the support of their friends. For one, Hollowstone really nails it, so two thumbs up Neo! Same with the rest mentioned – Aang and the gaang were inseparable during most of Avatar:TLA, and it’s just a fun dynamic to watch. The sense of humility is really what makes it stick. I liked early DBZ better because of this; later on it turned into “Goku and his saiyan bros save the day”.

  3. I admit, I kind of have a fondness for the sub-trope of You Are One Of The Chosen Ones, Are You Going To Do It Or Not? That the character has the potential to do the Prophecied Thing, but there are/have been/will be others who might do it, too, and the character gets to make the choice to do it or not.

    But what I’d really rather see is a fantasy that centers the specific idea of choice, where the character is empowered by the choices they make, and considers them carefully. Where choice has the important place in the narrative that prophecy does in a Chosen One story. A Choosing One story, if you will.

  4. I was thinking about Avatar: The Last Airbender and how that relates to this topic, and found it differing on a number of levels:

    1. The avatar itself is not someone unique in thousands of years, but who actually comes around about once every hundred years or so, and that it’s a duty that’s passed on from person to person.

    2. While Aang does feel burdened by his responsibility, and at such a young age, he doesn’t do it all alone, and in fact is helped out tremondously by others. Heck, Suki, a normal person in the world who has no bending abilities, plays a vital role in the final battle between the Fire Nation and the other nations of the world.

    3. It’s a cast made up entirely entirely of POC, some with disabilities, such as Toph.

    Overall though, I’d be more happy with seeing a group of people coming together to help change the world instead of one person led by destiny. It feels more inspiring.

  5. “there’s also the fact that most of the time, the Chosen One cliche says some pretty side-eye-worthy things about the world and who matters. If the Chosen One is the only one with the ability to fight Real Evil, and this individual is more often than not male, White, straight, cisgender, middle to upper class, young (or rather not middle-aged or old), able-bodied, and has no mental illnesses, what does that say about the people who don’t fit that mold? Are they too weak? Too stupid? Evil themselves?”

    Look up Hitler’s Idea of a perfect man.

    Also this is the reason why i liked Deep Space Nine and hate the relaunch Titles

  6. Here’s my take on the Chosen One thing:

    An immortal psionic transhuman entity (there’s more to the story), having run out of things to do (they can experience others’ memories and construct virtual realities, so there’s not much left to want), decided to take on Evil – as in, all Evil in the world. However, they can’t really punch abstract Evil in the face, so they create another conglomerate entity – all the heroes in one, upholding modern humanist values. The Chosen One is a bisexual racially-mixed guy with tons of specialized knowledge that seemingly comes from nowhere who travels the world and raises civilization from generic-brand fantasy medieval suck (twice, because the entity decided the narrative requires a death-and-resurrection motif).

    (Why a male? Well, the hero isn’t written to be objectively perfect (I couldn’t write objectively perfect anyway), he’s designed according to one person’s idea of what a perfect hero should look like, based on past examples – and past examples were overwhelmingly male.)

    There’s no destiny, there’s a time loop (and once out of it, the big plan goes to hell in a handbasket). There’s no outside intervention: the mythical and historical heroes were humans or were thought up by humans, transhumanism was made possible by a random mutation, technological wonders have been invented by actual humans – the hero is just reintroducing the world to them after an unspecified catastrophe – and are reproducible by human characters, and the hero wins by going off-script, with the help of his human allies.

    ——–

    Anyway. It’s one thing to write a world where people are racist (although shit writers write rapefest fapfiction and claim to be historically accurate), in a lot of media the world itself is racist – which should *always* be a horror setting, but it is rarely written as such. In the real world, prejudice can be overcome and disabilities can be theoretically cured. In e.g. Harry Potter (there are, sadly, too many examples) magic abilities are hereditary, and nonmagical humans *objectively suck*. That is a *horror* setting, and yet it is presented in a way that people dream it were true (as opposed to e.g. Cthulhu mythos – no one actually wants to be devoured by Nyarlathotep).

    Consider the Disney Princesses. There’s been talk on the Internet how the Princess and the Frog was a racefail because Tiana has to work anyway after her happy ending (though in a new capacity – she owns a restaurant) while other (white) princesses are doing princessy things (dancing and making pretty faces). And someone asked, would it be better if Tiana, too, went on to be stupid and useless? No, it’s just the Princess archetype is stupid and should go away. A fail archetype applied to a character of color will always be a racefail, there’s just no way around it.

    Similarly, the Chosen One archetype, and other bigot’s wet dream tropes, are stupid and should go away. Would it be better if a person of color was written to succeed not on their own merits, but because destiny said so? White characters only get away with this crap because white is the “default” and white people are selectively blind. Have a person of color as your Chosen One and they will “suddenly” realize how awful the trope is, only to hail the next Eragon as the greatest literary mseterpiece ever.

    • “Consider the Disney Princesses. There’s been talk on the Internet how the Princess and the Frog was a racefail because Tiana has to work anyway after her happy ending (though in a new capacity – she owns a restaurant) while other (white) princesses are doing princessy things (dancing and making pretty faces). And someone asked, would it be better if Tiana, too, went on to be stupid and useless? No, it’s just the Princess archetype is stupid and should go away. A fail archetype applied to a character of color will always be a racefail, there’s just no way around it.”

      With Disney, it’s a damn if you do and damn if you don’t. I didn’t like the movie because it showed how lazy Disney was in chosing the story. I mean they could of researched some African Princesses instead of just rehashing the European story.

      “Similarly, the Chosen One archetype, and other bigot’s wet dream tropes, are stupid and should go away. Would it be better if a person of color was written to succeed not on their own merits, but because destiny said so? White characters only get away with this crap because white is the “default” and white people are selectively blind. Have a person of color as your Chosen One and they will “suddenly” realize how awful the trope is, only to hail the next Eragon as the greatest literary mseterpiece ever.”

      Well like I said white people like to be on top of everything. THe only one that did the Chosen one thing right was “The Last Dragon” With Leeroy Green and Ben Sisko from Deep Space Nine. (thinking of writing a blog about him)

  7. One alternative I really like is the hero of circumstance. It’s not fate, just someone with the skill and courage to take a stand and win. That’s one thing I love about a lot of old pulp in spite of its other problems.

    Once you go down that path there’s all sorts of options. Maybe the hero can sway a secondary villain because they share a background of NOT being favored, or go find allies on purpose instead of by luck or the aura of specialness. It’s really a blast with multiple actors driving the story by consensus (speaking from D&D experience here).

  8. I have also grown tired of Chosen One and Fate in the clichéd form. But having grown up on exactly those kinds of stories I’m still willing to give the concept a chance – if it’s played with. Prophecy twists, truly unwilling chosen ones, horrific setting actually presented as such… I like those.

    But no matter how well they’re done, I still much prefer heroes doing heroics for their own reasons. Maybe the villains are threathening something dear to the hero – and the hero admits to themself that saving the world is simply a side necessity to saving that dear thing. Other good motivation is duty – there’s a problem, and it’s not Someone Else’s Problem. No, the hero(es) will handle this, because they have decided so. For all stories in the world where bad things happened because the people capable of stopping it were not there, there are also stories of right people being at the right place, right time. I want to see more of those. As an example I could mention the Super Nintendo game Chrono Trigger.

    And now that I start thinking about chosen ones, the only female ones I can remember are all from anime and manga. None from western media that I have run across. And I know only one Chosen One who isn’t perfectly able-bodied: Kano, from the webcomic Kagerou, is mentally ill. Even he isn’t really a prophecied hero or somesuch, simply someone that a goddess chose to be her champion.

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  10. I hate the trope because it is so often it is used to lazily make a character “super special.” It’s a way of making a character belvoed by all without even a flimsy reason.

    And it’s lazy story writing. Are we going to have a complex way to overcome the big bad evil? A plot, a plan, some skill? Nahhhh we got the chosen one’s special specialness!

    im especially hate ti when the Chosen One has a nice little stable of marginalised side-kicks – but of course it can’t be about them, they’re not the Chosen One

    I would like to see real people pushed too far and deciding to act. And people, not person,l it doesn’t all act on the charisma of one, but of collective outrage. I like to seee intelligence rather than specialness and leadership earned and proved rather than assumed

    • I would like to see real people pushed too far and deciding to act. And people, not person,l it doesn’t all act on the charisma of one, but of collective outrage. I like to seee intelligence rather than specialness and leadership earned and proved rather than assumed.

      Funny you mention that because that’s exactly how real change and real growth happen.

      • True we don’t grow by ourselves nor do characters in a story. Like take Deep Space Nine for an example. Although Sisko was a chosen one, he and people in Deep Space Nine grew as a family.. (Sisko actually invited his crew over for dinner in later episodes) So it’s not just one person but a whole characters that grow. As a reader or audience we like to see growth and not just “here you’re the chosen one” thing

    • I remember that movie..it was that or the Last Dragon that had POC characters as a chosen one. (also they was in a same timeslot on WB before it became CW)

      what i like about the last dragon chosen one was that had a character who was working hard to achive his goal instead of landing into stuff.

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