Welcome to what I hope will be the first of a series of posts focused on tropes common in the fantasy genre. So if you enjoy the post, be sure to leave a like, and while you’re there, feel free to recommend what other tropes you think I should discuss.
First, a definition is in order. At its simplest, the chosen one is a character who is summoned in some fashion to take on the antagonist of the story. Often, they are something of an everyman; ordinary and unskilled in a way that makes them seem incapable of overcoming the antagonist. Others may attempt to defeat the villain, but are inevitably unsuccessful, generally because, although the chosen one seems ordinary, there is something about them that will inevitably give them a leg-up in the finale.
Fantasy is rife with such protagonists. It is widely regarded as one of the most tired, overused tropes of the genre. Partially, this is a result of latent powers and the lack of a proper motivation besides “I don’t have a choice; I cannot escape my destiny.” The character starts as someone from humble origins, receives the call which they grudgingly answer, until their latent powers manifest and they gain the confidence they need.
For all books mentioned below, warning: spoilers abound.
Lord of the Rings.
Frodo Baggins comes from humble origins. He may be from a rich hobbit family, but not well-versed in the dangers and conflicts of the outside world. He only agrees to take the One Ring to Mordor because no one else can decide who it should be; and before making it to Rivendell, he wasn’t exactly eager to walk out of the front door. There’s no latent powers, but to replace them, Frodo has a group of friends with a wide range of skills that ultimately help him reach his goal.
Eragon is chosen by Saphira to be her dragon rider, the only one in existence until later books, when two remaining eggs eventually hatch for other major characters. He is a farmboy, a forgotten heir, who is incredibly skilled at tracking and little else. The death of a loved one serves as his call to action, and as he learns about the Ancient Language, he grows more and more powerful, until he takes the skills he learns to kill the antagonist of book one…later learning and growing even more so as a magician to take on Galbatorix himself.
Wheel of Time.
Rand al’Thor is one of the main ta’veren characters, and literally the chosen one, the Dragon Reborn. He is loathe to believe it, but events force his hand. He learns to channel the One Power, becomes a blademaster (but, no, not overnight), and after trying to dodge his duties for awhile, eventually comes to terms with his responsibilities, so much so that he very nearly breaks under the pressure.
Throne of Glass.
Celaena Sardothien, otherwise known as Aelin Galythinius, knows of her magical powers even from the start of the novel, but magic has been taken from the continent and she can no longer use it. Celaena is loathe to take up responsibilities as Queen of the Fae after what had happened to her as a child, but events send her across the sea in later books, where she meets a Fae who helps her control her powers. Chosen by the gods, Aelin has a well of magic whose depth she never fully breaches until the finale, and armed with that magic and some really thick plot armor, somehow manages to defeat the equivalent of a god.
Harry is literally ascribed as the Chosen One through a prophecy. He grows up with Muggles, unaware of the magical wizarding world until he receives his letter to study at Hogwarts. As the Boy Who Lived, it doesn’t take him long to learn of the threat of Voldemort, who he discovers has somehow managed to survive a killing curse. Although he is a Gryffindor to his core, willing to run head-first into problems, he does display some confusion as to why he is singled out and is hesitant about going up against a very powerful, evil wizard.
When the Trope Goes Bad
While I already touched on how some of these books diverged from the traditions of the Chosen One trope, I’d like to go more in depth on three of them. Two–Harry Potter and Wheel of Time–did some interesting things with the Chosen One trope that should be discussed as good ways to twist a trope. The third, Throne of Glass, did not twist the trope in any meaningful way, and how it impacted the narrative as a whole is an incredibly important lesson for writers.
Let’s begin with Throne of Glass. The main antagonist of the series is an evil entity from another world that wants to take over Erilea and beyond. As I said before, there are many overpowered god-like people, and many instances throughout the series where Aelin, whether as Celaena or as herself, winds up facing insurmountable odds. As Celaena, unable to use magic, there is at least a much-needed cap to her powers, but as Aelin, with her god-given depth of magic, those insurmountable odds wind up with no stakes because it’s clear Aelin will just dive into her well of magic and defeat whatever evil they’re facing.
The conclusion of the series grows even worse. Vastly outnumbered by the forces of evil, facing not just one god-like evil entity, but two–Erawan and his ex-lover, Maeve, who has been a consistent threat from the other side of the ocean for most of the books. When Aelin rides onto the battlefield, the way she is described was absolutely cringe-worthy. I hated it so much that I promptly took the entire series to a nearby Half-Priced Books, which means I cannot find the quote, but essentially… She glowed with magic and fury and determination, and was painted in a way that almost made her Chosen One traits look exactly like Plot Armor.
Readers may say she was not invincible. She endured torment at the hands of Maeve earlier. She very nearly lost to Maeve again. But not only did she not lose, she also did not lose anyone she was particularly close to. Primarily, this is an issue of excessive, unchecked power, but considering that power was given to her just so she could defeat these villains, it very much is connected.
Chosen Ones tend to be pitted against a very powerful being, usually one that is Darkness and Evil personified. Sauron and the Dark One are the most powerful, truly the embodiment of evil, but characters like Voldemort and Galbatorix steal and abuse their magic in a way that makes them nearly unstoppable. I’m on the last 100 pages of Wheel of Time, so I don’t know what weakness Rand exploits, but for the other three entities, there was a known weakness that the characters took advantage of. Even Eragon did not defeat Galbatorix one-on-one without the active help of powerful entities.
Proper Twists from the Chosen One
Of all the Chosen One protagonists that I’ve read, some of the best twists I’ve seen is when the avenue of choosing is ambiguous enough that two or more characters could be considered for the role. On a small scale, this happens with Harry Potter and Neville Longbottom, both who could have been the one the prophecy referred to. Voldemort chose his own adversary in assuming James and Lily Potter are the pair that have “thrice defied him” even though Alice and Frank Longbottom did the same.
On a much larger scale, Wheel of Time had a dozen different prophecies, written in the Old Tongue so their translations were not always clear, with a checklist of sorts that would define a person as the Dragon Reborn. Many men who could channel tried to take the title before Rand began fulfilling the prophecy–Logain, Taim, and others that were caught and gentled even before Rand was born. Only Rand was born of Aiel parents on the slopes of Dragonmount. Only Rand took Callendor from the Heart of Tear. Only Rand can be Lews Therin reborn.
What’s interesting about the series is that there is ultimately no question that Logain and Taim are not the Dragon Reborn. After Rand fulfills many of the main prophecies, there is really no question of identity. But Logain’s and Taim’s pursuit of that title still play a role in the rest of the narrative. Taim’s pride turns him to the Shadow, Dreadlords forged by his hand for the Last Battle. And Logain, well… I don’t think his arc is over quite yet, but during the Last Battle, he does acknowledge how glad he is that it was not his role to play. He fights for the Light, but is grateful that he does not have to die at Shayol Ghul.
And, after discussing the power dynamics of Throne of Glass, it seems only appropriate to discuss Rand’s power levels and how it prepares him to fight against the Dark One. Firstly, Rand is ta’veren, the most powerful one born in a very long time. His ability to channel is literally tainted by the Dark One’s touch, preventing him from becoming over-powered too soon. But, of course, he will need to be able to channel without the taint at some point, and so does the unthinkable: with the help of many powerful male channelers and Aes Sedai, Rand cleanses the taint.
Additionally, the taint itself connected him to his past life, to Lews Therin. In a moment of breaking, his present life merges with his past life, so that all of Lews Therin’s memories belong to him. At that point, it’s clear to the reader that none of the Forsaken are going to be able to challenge him. He has outgrown them, and just in time for the Last Battle. Now, armed with his own growth as Rand al’Thor, with the memories of Lew Therin’s failures, capable of twisting the Pattern itself, Rand is ready to face the Dark One. It is a slow growth, and hard won, and yet even then Rand enters a battle of will with the Dark One and is very clearly outmatched.
When one fights a god, it doesn’t matter how much power one has. It doesn’t even really matter how far one has gone to earn that power. Even Rand is only a man as he fights the Dark One. But it is because he is a man that he never gives up; he thought his strength and coldness was required to beat the forces of the Shadow, but that sort of strength will shatter under too much weight, and Rand very nearly did. However corny it may sound, Rand comes to understand the meaning of life, of the importance of love and laughter, and it is those things, the elements of Light, that help him hold his ground.
The Chosen One is ultimately a character cast to defeat an antagonist that no other character is equipped to handle. In order to maintain stakes, some weakness should be established early on, as is the case of the One Power with Sauron and the concept of Horcruxes with Voldemort, to set up for their ultimate downfall.
Should they be a sort of god-like figure, it is imperative to remember that your own characters are (presumably) human or some equivalent. Even as they grow more skilled in whatever fields will help them win, they still are not gods, and that power discrepancy must be acknowledged throughout. To give your main character too much power, or at least to do so too early, is to demolish any chances you have at stakes. Even at the end, however, if the protagonist does not have to work hard to defeat the god-like character, be warned: the conclusion will likely not read as satisfying.