Writing: The Chosen One Chooses

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Sorry if I’ve been a good deal in absentia here lately. I’ve been writing and reading (oh, and working). First off, I just had to finish reading everything Patrick Rothfuss has written ever (more on that later, and why it’s a good thing and a bad thing). Then I had to get through the newest B.E. Priest novella, Fire From the Ashes, which is just as worthy a read as the rest of his series. Now, thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I’m stuck with Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series–which, so far, is totally worth it, if a little frustrating for the sheer amount of Female Distress involved (ladies do things other than get raped and abused).

So, we’re reading a bit gluttonous this week. But I have time for a short blog. I always have time for a short blog.

I want to talk about the Chosen One.

Of course I do; I’ve been reading Mistborn. The whole premise of Sanderson’s somewhat dystopian world is that the Mistbornian Chosen One, that big bolshy hero in shining armor, DID NOT save the world a thousand years ago.

Note: he is not a main character in the story. At least, not in that form. The action in the story takes place a thousand years from then. Of course it does: how can you make a compelling story when the Chosen One was Chosen wrong? It becomes background, nifty set dressing (or it is so far, I’m only about halfway through the first book).

But this brings up an interesting point. Is the concept of the Chosen One (think Harry Potter, or Paul Atreides, or Aragorn in LotR, or…well, you get it) still a useful fantasy archetype?

A little background information, if you’re living under a rock, never took an English class, and don’t have the faintest fucking clue what I’m talking about:

The Chosen One (see: big bolshy hero) is a character who, by divine interference or some happiness of birth, has been gifted with singular powers, and has been destined to save/rule/otherwise generally change the world. It isn’t uncommon for the Chosen One to have a Mighty Weapon (again, think Aragorn, or redheaded Aerin from Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown). The Chosen One is usually a part of a Hero’s Journey type of story arc, often combined with Coming of Age (because, naturally, the Chosen One is unaware/not fond of being Chosen, and must learn to accept his or her place as a hero, and that goes really well with growing up and getting the fuck over ourselves).

For me, this is a writing archetype, particularly in fantasy, that is inescapable. Your character has to be central to the action of the story–it is, after all, THEIR story–so there’s got to be something special about them, right? BY THE POWER OF GREYSKULL. We can do this shit. Let’s stick some mythical abilities and divine providence in there.

But here’s the thing. The Chosen One’s power, and continued currency, as an archetype doesn’t come from BEING chosen. It comes, instead, from CHOOSING.

The important thing about Effluenza the Ordinary Peasant Girl isn’t the extraordinary powers she is currently discovering, quite by accident, on her father’s farm. It isn’t the Magical Machete in the Barn of Ages, which has been waiting for a thousand years for the arm strong enough to thresh wheat with it, and which Effluenza snags one night because she really, really needs a long blade to slice up some pears she stole from Goodman Gottson’s neighboring farm. It isn’t even the Wise Old Man, known to all the village as Billy the Drunkard, who heralds her coming and teaches her to use her Mystical Powers to cheat at Blackjack without counting cards.

The important thing about little Effluenza–about any Chosen One type hero–isn’t that she is Chosen. It’s the moment she STOPS being the Chosen One, and becomes the One Who Chooses.

There’s a moment in the Hero’s Journey–a transformative moment–where the Chosen One has to own up to destiny. It stops becoming a game, where you learn cheeky things and men in the tavern commons teach you how to spit, and becomes an earnest desire to take the Machete of Might and stop the local baron raising the rent. It’s the moment, in short, where Paul ceases being the hunted Atreides Duke, and becomes the Kwizatz Haderach. Where Harry Potter sees the real death and torment Voldemort causes, and begins taking steps to stop him. Where Aragorn, previously Strider the Ranger, becomes Aragorn the King (hard to pinpoint this moment, but I think it’s when he calls the Dead down from Dwimorberg, especially in the movies). This, and not before, is where this archetype starts to have pull and strength, where the character starts making his or her own decisions towards the positive. An old identity, which didn’t quite fit, is shed or transforms into a new one.

If you’re writing a Chosen One type character, this is the character arc you HAVE to follow. I’m sorry, but there is no other. There are variations– Failed Chosen One Tries Again, or the eternal falling action of Chosen One After the Great Battle–but it’s the same story. The Chosen One MUST become the One Who Chooses for this archetype to hold meaning. You can do it any way you like, but it has to happen for the whole premise to work.

Using an example from my own work (and if you haven’t read Aurian and Jin yet, and you plan to, you might want to stop reading here):

Evinanjin is the classic Chosen One, minus the boring prophecy. She has remarkable abilities, a good mind, the love of the people.

But (and here’s one of those monkeywrenches you can throw in things) she loses the abilities that made her who she is. Or, she thinks she does. It takes a lot of drinking and bad-tempered brawling for her to figure out that, in the end, it isn’t what was given to her that makes her who she is–it’s something she was born with. Aurian Sees his wife, towards the end of the story, and what he Sees isn’t her training or the Holy Bones or the Emperor’s favor–it’s an empty field and a people dying of hunger. It’s her essential peasant nature. Her determination. Her willpower.

My timing’s a little different–the pivot-point, where Evinanjin makes her decision, actually occurs in the past–but its placing in the story is spot on for the third act, where such things usually happen, in tandem with Aurian’s decision to actively help his wife destroy the Bonemaker by stealing the Sundering Sword (see how cleverly I doubled it up? See? SEE?). I like putting pivotal moments in flashbacks. It makes me happy. Character motivation reveal and whatnot. Don’t judge.

Point is, stop thinking about The Chosen One completely. Think instead about his second self, The One Who Chooses. If you write a Hero’s Journey type story, this is the person who completes your MC’s character arc, and moves the story forward.

For More Information on Common Fantasy Tropes:

The Hero’s Journey–Very good layout of the classic steps of The Hero’s Journey. Pay special attention to step 8–this is where your chosen one begins actively choosing. If you get confused at any point, just think of Star Wars. Not the new, crappy Star Wars. No. Luke and shit.
Hero’s Journey, Now With Charts!–Though for screenwriting, this is also very useful. They place the turning point I’m talking about near the end of Act II, which, okay, I’m open to suggestions.
The Hero With A Thousand Faces–You’re an epic fantasy writer, and you haven’t read this yet? What the fuck?
TV Tropes Wiki–Like all wikis, this information might not be 100% factually approved, but my God, this is fun for any media. People who’re afraid of ‘tropes’–do not read. You’ll learn just how unoriginal all your ideas are and cry like a little baby.

Related Posts:

Tropes and Archetypes Won’t Kill You–Why all this hand-flapping and trope-fearing is stupid, especially among unseasoned writers. After all, would it be called a MONOmyth if it wasn’t pretty pervasive?

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3 thoughts on “Writing: The Chosen One Chooses

  1. Love it! With your usual candid humor and sarcastic wit, you parlay a particularly endearing insight into an overused and possibly under appreciated trope.

    Even though I understand this importance, I never thought of it this way: A Story of Two Heroes. Prophecy-be-damned, this person needs to accept his/her responsibility. Because the whole country/city/world is on his/her shoulders. And if he/she chooses to back down from being chosen, the country/city/world dies. I mean. Your choice.

  2. This is good. I love the prophecy/chosen one topic, and it’s pretty crazy how prominent it is in fantasy. I especially think the Harry Potter generation (including myself) has trouble breaking away from that mold, but really it’s every kid’s dream, right? I’m special, I know it!

    The takeaway for all genres, by the way, is that your protagonist needs to take initiative (or: have agency) at some point in the story. Don’t let them be led along by other (inevitably more interesting) characters. A passive hero is a boring mofo. Though it’s easier said than done in a coming of age tale!

    1. Hey there! Good to see you!

      You’re absolutely spot on…there’s a point in ANY story where a main character needs to take some initiative, or risk becoming duller than dry cornflakes.
      I actually think part of the meaning of a coming-of-age is that the character DOES learn to take that initiative–it’s a process very much like growing up.

      As for before that shining moment…yeah, it’s tough. I guess we can aways take the Star Wars way out and let ’em whine. 😛

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