We can use any storytelling trope to write powerful novels. But there’s one trope that angers many readers because it’s close to cheating. It takes an ordinary character, steals his or her agency, and shoehorns them into the conflict.
It’s a trope for forcing an abrupt call to action. So let’s reboot the Chosen One.
What It Means to Be Chosen
When we design our main characters, writers usually take care to figure out how to bring them into the plot as smoothly as possible. Most of the time that means each character has a strong connection to the conflict and a good reason for wanting to be the person who resolves it. He or she is the survivor of a burned village, or the lone soldier trapped behind enemy lines, or the wizard who accidentally summoned the world-consuming demon ooze. The motivation is natural and believable.
But the Chosen One doesn’t need a natural link to the conflict. An outside force such as destiny or an ancient bloodline or the heavy hand of the author has already selected the Chosen One to be the hero. Pickled, our hypothetical Picked One whom we’ll develop throughout this article, could be anyone, and the plot will come to him. That’s the trouble with this trope, but it’s also the enduring element of the Chosen One which makes it a trope worth saving.
- We can take a completely ordinary person such as one who represents our readers –
- Pit him or her against a sudden and overwhelming conflict –
- And give that person unique magical superpowers so that no one else can resolve it.
Despite the disconnect between the chosen character and the conflict, the Chosen One can make a satisfying audience surrogate with mass-market appeal. The Chosen One trope gives me the slightest hope that my magical mentor will appear at my door sometime next week, and that’s a story I want to go along with.
Rechoosing Our Assumptions
So let’s drill this chosen trope open and look at ways we can clean up some of its problems. There are three major pitfalls we need to address so that Pickled the Picked One will be more than a cliché:
- The Chosen One has no agency. The character has the conflict thrust upon him, having no bearing on his life before the call to action, even when there are more capable people. The Chosen One’s primary character arc is about learning to accept the role and take ownership of it. Instead, Pickled the Picked One should play a role in becoming chosen.
- The Chosen One is chosen with certainty. The chooser in this trope is often destiny or ancient magics too powerful to pick the wrong person. Readers feel like the chosen character is guaranteed to succeed. Pickled the Picked One must face an expectation of failure.
- The Chosen One is empowered by vagueness. The power and role of the Chosen One are often grounded in old magics and historic legends that have little to do with the present conflict. Pickled the Picked One needs to have his powers grounded in the story’s main conflict.
Essentially, the Chosen One is a character whose background doesn’t matter, selected by the transparent hand of the author to succeed, for historic reasons that have nothing to do with the crisis at hand.
And it still plays the central role in many great fantasy stories. The avatar and the slayer and the seeker are always going to come out on top. It’s like it’s their job.
An Audience Surrogate
The Chosen One can be anyone. But let’s take advantage of that and make our chosen one into a solid audience surrogate with the greatest possible appeal. Let’s make the most of what this trope has to offer.
An audience surrogate should feel as much as possible like a normal person with a normal life who is suddenly thrust into something that he or she is unprepared for. The audience surrogate learns about the world and the conflict alongside the reader, making the entire story more relatable through his or her eyes.
To create Pickled the Picked One, I want an audience surrogate with unexplored creative potential. To find this, I’m going to look for a character background not commonly seen in fantasy.
Pickled the Picked is now Bálu-Bakô, a black teenager of the Malatanda people, living in the aftermath of a civil war that has left his nation fractured and unstable. In his routine life he faces peer pressures that are connected to scarred families and the infighting of a people who have yet to heal from the war.
Bálu-Bakô wants a normal life so badly that he has to actively pursue it every day in order to avoid the conflicts that spring up in the community around him. He’s normal with gusto, and that should give him plenty of potential as an audience surrogate.
Strangely enough the Chosen One is a passive phrase because there usually is not somebody who does the choosing. The Chosen One is not typically a Pokémon picked for a battle but a legendary power possessed by a seemingly random person capable of reshaping the world. But for Bálu-Bakô, to expand on the trope’s creative potential, let’s give him both of these qualities.
So who does the choosing? I want to ground that concept as clearly as I can. Some possibilities include fate, gods, old magics, kings, priesthoods, bloodlines, wizards, an old rock he stumbles on, and his mother.
But to get philosophical for a moment, who should be the one who chooses something like this? The people. That’s a little tricky to figure out so I did some wikireading on traditional African traditions and found this sentence:
“Agbala was the collective spirit of all holy beings (human and nonhuman).”
Agbala. That’s the magic.
When outside forces threaten to exploit the escalating turmoil of the Malatanda city-states, Bálu-Bakô does his best to break up the petty infighting and speak for the unification of his people. Seeing how the people respond to him, the king and the council of elders order their priests to conduct a spiritual rite to grant him a bond with the Agbala. Agbala is the collective spirit of the Malatanda people that connects each individual, both the living and the ancestors. The more that Bálu-Bakô inspires the faith of his fractured people and their ancestors, the greater his access to the power of Agbala becomes.
Bálu-Bakô, I choose you. And if I was a member of the Malatanda people that would mean something.
Empowered To Resolve the Conflict
As a figure of legend, and the main character of a fantasy novel, the Chosen One’s powers tend to manifest in raw combat ability. Strength and reflexes, amazing fighting skills, and incredible magic might define the Chosen One’s role in defeating enemies, changing the course of history and escalating the action of the story.
For the purposes of this article I’m looking for something that feels creative and fresh, but is also right for Bálu-Bakô and the Malatanda people. In my wikireading on African traditions, I was inspired by the emphasis placed on divine spirits with strikingly distinct personalities. One could smoke, or another could tell dirty jokes, or another could be angry all the time, as if they just wanted most to be comfortable being themselves. This is something I would want to explore with Bálu-Bakô’s tale.
As the Chosen One of the Malatanda people, Bálu-Bakô possesses heightened physical abilities and access to the knowledge of his people, including their magic. But the greatest power that comes from his bond with Agbala is the ability to draw out and confront the spirits who have given up on the Malatanda people. He has the power to hold each of them accountable for allowing the people to descend into civil war and to rally them to the defense of their nation.
The Chosen One of the Malatanda people wasn’t chosen by fate but by the people as a way of holding fate accountable. As he leads them, so too does he lead their divine spirits and their destiny.
But as the conflict escalates, if Bálu-Bakô’s failures mount, if the wounds of the civil war are too great, if the people betray him, if outside forces break them, so will his powers fade, the spirits abandon them once more, and the Agbala that unites all of the Malatanda people could perish forever.
Do Something Creative
Bálu-Bakô’s come a long way from Pickled the Picked One. He’s a normal person who becomes the Chosen One of the Malatanda people, his power grows and declines according to the trust of the people, and he needs to earn it every step of the way.
And that’s what’s important. Most of the time the role and power of the Chosen One are thrust into the hands of a normal person completely unearned.
So let’s do something creative and have a normal person earn it first.
What trope do you want us to reboot next? Post your nominations in the comments below.
About the Trope Reboot Series:
Anything can happen in a fantasy novel, but we don’t expect it to. Readers like familiar ideas, and writers want to build on the inspiration offered by others. Historic backdrops. Mythological creatures. Fanatic philosophies. Magic. Let’s do more with what we have to push our creative limits.
The Trope Reboot series tries to find creative ways to remake old fantasy tropes. All ideas presented in this series may be used freely.
To nominate a trope to be rebooted in this series, post your nomination in the comments section below.