Friday, July 11, 2014

Thoughts On: The Chosen One

"Palantír" by Mr. Muggles is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Over the past few weeks, I've been thinking a lot about the "Chosen One" narrative. You know the one; a prophecy says that so-and-so is going to this great thing. You probably don't have to think too hard to think of stories that use this narrative.

However, in spite of its popularity, we seem to have a turbulent relationship with this idea. On the one hand some of the most popular, critically acclaimed and commercially successful stories ever written have used this narrative.  Paradoxically, many critics have complained incessantly that the "Chosen One" is an over-used cliché, and roundly trash stories that use it. So, why is this?

It could be that this is a trend that's run its course.  It was fun, but we've moved on. This is probably partially true, but I think there's more to it then that, particularly as whether or not a work is criticized for using the "Chosen One" narrative isn't directly related to when it was first created.

Maybe the "Chosen One" narrative is always annoying, and some works are just good enough to make up for the fact that they use it. Again, this explanation doesn't seem to add up.  More often than not, the "Chosen One" narrative is central to the story, and it seems a bit strange that other, more minor elements could make up for the central premise.

The solution I propose is probably a bit anticlimactic for such a long set-up, but here it goes: the "Chosen One" is a very convenient narrative device for bad writers, because it can be used to quickly and easily cover up flaws in their work, such as plot holes or pacing issues. Instead of readers wondering why a kid is saving the world instead of a qualified adult, or why an ordinary person can defeat a seemingly omnipotent villain, you can just toss in a prophecy and problem solved. If your protagonist has to learn something, and you can't be bothered to make the descriptions of their training interesting or well-researched, you can just make them the Chosen One and dispense with most of it, because the Chosen One can learn things super-fast, because... Chosen One!

Now, I'm not saying that the "Chosen One" narrative can't be used effectively. There are many talented writers who use it to talk about issues like destiny, free will, responsibility and duty. The key is to really think about what it means to be the Chosen One, or live in a world where the Chosen One exists, and make sure that it adds something to the story as opposed to just being a get-out-of-jail-free card.

What about you? Do you love the "Chosen One" narrative? Hate it? What's your favorite example of the Chosen One narrative being used well/poorly?