Pitfalls of the Chosen One Trope

Tropes are the building blocks that make up many of our favourite series, and many literature types include them. Some fantasy and sci-fi tropes include magic items, hidden royalty, and innate or rare types of magic.

Tropes are not in and of themselves bad. However, some are overused and cliché. Others don’t live up to a modern standard; they promote harm against others or weak character development.

In this series, I’m going to explore some of these worse-for-wear tropes and offer suggestions to revitalize them.

Next up: Chosen Ones.

What Makes a Chosen One?

Many of our favourite stories have a Chosen One: someone to bring balance to the world, or unite the clans, or defeat the dark lord. In fact, it would be hard to write a story without a Chosen One; we need a protagonist, after all.

The Chosen One trope is not necessarily one to avoid. However, it has been used a lot. And, it can become cliché when

  1. the narrative doesn’t establish why the Chosen One was chosen beyond destiny, or
  2. the Chosen One doesn’t have to work for their special magic/ability.

Both of these examples make a Chosen One difficult to relate to. If we can’t connect to a Chosen One’s character, we are not going to care about their goals or ultimate Destiny Quest. Likewise, it can be irritating to see a Chosen One gain an ability so easily because we know that learning something new actually takes a lot of work.

There are tons of great examples of interesting Chosen Ones: Frodo Baggins, Paul Atreides, and Katniss Everdeen to name a few.

One of my personal favourites is Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender because of the way the show subverts what it means to have a destiny.

How Avatar Flips Destiny on its Head

Aang: Maybe you can help me. Everyone, even my own past lives, are expecting me to end someone’s life, but I don’t know if I can do it.
Lion Turtle: The true mind can weather all the lies and illusions without being lost. The true heart can tough the poison of hatred without being harmed.

In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang comes from a long line of Avatars, the one person who can bend all four elements—Air, Earth, Water, and Fire—and is destined to bring balance to the world. Aang’s Destiny Quest is to defeat the Fire Lord; for over a hundred years, the Fire Nation has oppressed the other three nations in the name of world domination.

Throughout the series, Aang’s driving goal is to learn how to bend all four elements so that he can defeat Fire Lord Ozai and put an end to the war. And everyone—his friends and allies—assumes that means killing him.

But Aang does not want to kill Ozai. As an Airbender, Aang was raised by monks to be a peacemaker. He always looks for the clever way out of a tough situation, and only uses violence if absolutely necessary. When the time for the final battle approaches, he searches for an alternative route, something his friends don’t understand.

Zuko: What are you waiting for? Take him [a practice dummy] out!
Aang: I can’t.
Sokka: What’s wrong with you? If this was the real deal, you’d be shot full of lightning right now.
Aang: I’m sorry, but it just didn’t feel right. I didn’t feel like myself.

In the end, after encountering the Lion Turtle, Aang finds the solution: he takes away Ozai’s Firebending ability.

I love this conclusion because Aang stays true to himself. While he takes his destiny seriously—he very much wants to bring balance to the world—he does so in a way that doesn’t compromise his values. He chooses what destiny means to him.

How to Keep a Chosen One Interesting

Because the Chosen One trope is so common, it can be difficult to bring a fresh perspective to it. If you decide to make your character a Chosen One, you might want to ask yourself these questions:

  1. How do they become the Chosen One? Is there a prophecy, do they inherit a magical item, or do they discover an ancient book? If you go the prophecy route, the prophecy shouldn’t serve as a placeholder for personality. The prophecy might make your character the Chosen One, but your character should be able to stand on their own without the special designation.
  2. Do they gain new powers or abilities? Do they have a hard time learning their new abilities? Showing these struggles will make a Chosen One seem more human, thus giving us more reason to invest time in their story.
  3. How do they adjust to their newfound status? Do they have a hard time accepting their role as the Chosen One? It takes everyone time to acclimate to big changes; it shouldn’t be different with our characters. Show the difficulty of taking on sudden responsibilities, or the fallout of friends accepting or rejecting your character.

In all things, your Chosen One character is still a character who should go through conflicts and development. If you rely on the Chosen One title to carry your character, your story will fall flat.

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