18 August 2010

Fantasy Elements #4: Chosen Ones

It's been a while since I've done a Fantasy Elements post, but you can find the rest of them here.

Chosen Ones: that fantasy staple that enough to set fans cheering wildly and opponents tearing out their hair - or the pages of the book, if they get a choice in the matter. What are they, and why do they engender so much controversy?

According to the all-knowing Urban Dictionary, this is the definition of a Chosen One:

Can also known as "The One". A common cliche in sci-fi and fantasy. This individual, the "Chosen One" is the sole person chosen by destiny to stop an impending disaster that threatens all life, save the world from a super villian, stop corruption, etc. Basically, the only person who can save the day. Not their sidekick(s). Not mom. Not Dan. Only them.

Okay. So Chosen Ones are cliches, and cliches are bad, right? Sure, but before we blindly go throwing around words like this, it's good to know why. After all, most things only became cliches because they worked, and hello, something are still going strong even though they've been done long enough to be a cliche - only they reached that mystical status of 'classic' instead.

Hence, Chosen Ones: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

The Good

Chosen Ones, I propose, rose to popularity because they're the ultimate metaphor of something we all desire. They're the scrawny little kid who everyone picked last for sport who ended up being Special somehow and got to Save The World. They're the person who everyone thought was no one, until it turned out they were the one.

Chosen Ones give us hope that anyone can be special, that one person can save the world, that larger things than us - Fate, destiny, prophecies - are guiding us, and that no matter how much we might personally suck, if we're meant to be a hero, we will be.

That's kind of comforting, because it means it doesn't matter how individually talented we are; if we're supposed to do something, then somehow, mystically, it'll all work out and we will.

But that brings us to...

The Bad

Chosen Ones became a cliche, not a classic. Why? Because modern readers need modern characters. While in ages past (and in some genres present) characters could get away with being passive, most readers demand now that main characters stand up and Do Things. Make Choices. Take control of their own lives.

This is a pretty good thing for us to learn, too: that we can take charge of our lives, that destiny needn't rule us, and it still supports the idea that anyone can do anything if they only try hard enough (hey, we are talking fiction here).

Which is the main problem with Chosen Ones: they don't have to try hard. They don't, in fact, have to do anything. The prophecy dictates they will save the world, and lo! they shall, often with minimal fuss on their part and with no active decision. Chosen Ones don't do things; things happen to them. Okay, that might be kind of nice in Real Life - sit back and do nothing and a handsome sparkly vampire stranger will come and save the day for you, because you are Speshul and the Chosen One.

Passive main characters: not so fun in any form.


Chosen Ones: inevitable?

The Ugly

Here's the interesting thing, though. I had this discussion once with my husband, who's not much a reader and isn't really into fantasy, and his counterargument made me thing.

The Boyful One proposes that ALL characters are chosen ones. We as the author choose them; it's their story we tell, not anyone else's. They ARE special in some way, or there'd be no story to tell. You can't escape 'chosen ones' if you write a story about someone.

I agree. A character has to be 'special' in some way in order for you to write about them. They don't have to be passive, though.

So while the 'ugly' is that even those who hate Chosen Ones are writing chosen ones, at least we can differentiate (by the use of handy capitals, yay!) between active MCs, chosen ones who are special but who take charge of their actions, and Chosen Ones, who have decisions about their actions made for them.

I know which I'd rather read about. You?

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