Sam Hawke on the enduring trope of the Chosen One
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.