FREESPEAK

Sam Hawke on the en­dur­ing trope of the Cho­sen One

SFX - - Contents - City Of Lies by Sam Hawke is out now from Ban­tam Press.

Fan­tasy au­thor Sam Hawke is the Cho­sen One for this is­sue.

It’s of­ten listed scorn­fully as a lazy sta­ple of the genre. Start an on­line dis­cus­sion and dozens will chime in with how much they loathe it. But if we hate it so much, why does the Cho­sen One per­sist in mod­ern SFF? In a “Cho­sen” story, a single per­son is, by virtue of some ex­ter­nal force (be it de­ity, prophecy, fate/des­tiny, magic, or ge­net­ics), the only one who can achieve some im­por­tant task or role. From King Arthur to Neo, Buffy to Aang, Bilbo to Harry Pot­ter, they’re a sta­ple of SFF, but the en­dur­ing pop­u­lar­ity of the Cho­sen trope car­ries with it ve­he­ment crit­i­cism: it’s over­done, lack­ing sus­pense and strips char­ac­ters of agency. If the out­come is pre-de­ter­mined, are there any real stakes? Fair points – so why does the trope per­sist? For cre­ators, its use­ful­ness as a prac­ti­cal nar­ra­tive tool can’t be un­der­sold, not just be­cause it’s sim­pler to be­stow pre-des­tined pow­ers/skills on a char­ac­ter than 15 years of sword train­ing, but be­cause read­ers can only in­vest in fi­nite char­ac­ters in a single story. The Cho­sen trope pro­vides a nar­ra­tive ex­pla­na­tion for why this par­tic­u­lar pro­tag­o­nist has the ca­pac­ity to save the day, giv­ing the char­ac­ter the agency and dra­matic stakes read­ers crave. This is use­ful where cre­ators want to avoid cen­tring char­ac­ters who are al­ready pow­er­ful; it’s a short­cut to make it be­liev­able for a peas­ant girl to rise to Gen­eral or a thief to take down a king­dom.

The al­lure for read­ers is a com­plex one that raises in­ter­est­ing ques­tions. We crave recog­ni­tion and pur­pose, and the trope of­fers the ul­ti­mate wish ful­fil­ment: one day, my let­ter from Hog­warts will come! Per­haps we’re at­tracted to the idea that be­ing spe­cial is in­nate rather than some­thing we must work at – be­cause of ap­a­thy (some­one else will fix the world’s prob­lems!) or to make sense of mod­ern so­ci­ety by col­lec­tively sup­port­ing the fic­tion that wealth and power are earned or be­stowed with pur­pose by some out­side force. Cul­tur­ally, is the rise from hum­ble be­gin­nings to great­ness ide­alised be­cause it re­in­forces both our se­cret de­sire to lead a sig­nif­i­cant life and the in­er­tia of the sta­tus quo? Maybe the in­ter­sec­tion of the Cho­sen trope with the lone wolf model (a hero stand­ing alone) is laud­able, en­cour­ag­ing in­di­vid­u­als to as­sert their own power. Or maybe it car­ries a toxic mes­sage about in­di­vid­ual glory at the ex­pense of com­mu­nity and co­op­er­a­tion.

Ul­ti­mately, though, most crit­i­cisms are re­ally against dull writ­ing. A great story is in the de­liv­ery, and tropes can be made fresh in how they’re used, twisted or sub­verted. Prophe­cies can be mis­taken, mis­un­der­stood, given false sig­nif­i­cance, even en­tirely fab­ri­cated. Cho­sen Ones have been misiden­ti­fied or ac­ci­den­tally killed, they’ve been “cho­sen” for great­ness or for sac­ri­fice, they’re heroes and vil­lains (some­times both si­mul­ta­ne­ously) and red her­rings. Un­der a skilled sto­ry­teller it’d be fool­ish to trust that a spe­cial birth­mark guar­an­tees an easy ride or a safe end­ing; good Cho­sen sto­ries will still keep you guess­ing about how (or whether) the char­ac­ter will achieve their sup­posed des­tiny. For all that the end­ing seems pre-de­ter­mined, if the char­ac­ters’ ac­tions carry weight and con­se­quences, if they be­lieve they are driv­ing events with their de­ci­sions, then the reader will too.

For all our love/hate re­la­tion­ship with it, read­ers will al­ways be drawn to this trope. Un­der­stand­ing the themes and ex­am­in­ing their bag­gage al­lows cre­ators new ways to make Cho­sen Ones rel­e­vant for mod­ern times. And there’ll al­ways be room for a seem­ingly in­signif­i­cant Hob­bit to change the course of the world.

“TROPES CAN BE MADE FRESH IN HOW THEY’RE TWISTED OR SUB­VERTED”

Buffy Sum­mers is a clas­sic ex­am­ple of the Cho­sen One.

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