Chosen Ones

by wjw on January 9, 2012


I’ve had it with Chosen Ones.  You know, the people we are told by the wise old wizard or some other Explicator of Plot who “are Chosen to save the world/kill the Dark Lord/become king/bring balance to the Force/whatever.”

Who the hell is it who does the Choosing, here?  Lazy writers, that’s who.

Listen up, writers.  Two things happen when I’m told that a person is Destined to accomplish something.

First, it removes all suspense.  Because the character is Destined, you know the character’s going to succeed.  Big yawn.

Second, it just makes me want to yell at the character, “Get on with it, won’t you?  Don’t futz around for thirteen episodes, go kill the evil usurper and make yourself king.  After all, you’re Chosen.  It’s your damned job.”

Writers, if you’re going to give your characters a Destiny, at least give them one that isn’t so straightforward.   Something like these:

Your character is Destined to fight a long rear-guard action against evil, until she makes a mistake or gets unlucky, and then she dies.  (That would be Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)

Your character is Destined to defeat the enemy, but will then be despised forever because of the means necessary to achieve that victory.  (Ender’s Game)

Your character is Chosen to defeat the evil monster, but will die in the attempt; and without his leadership, his kingdom will fall.  (Beowulf.  Heard of the Geats lately?)

Your character is Chosen to wield the most powerful magic in the universe, but is also Destined to use it to destroy the world.  PS, no exceptions.  (The Wheel of Time)

Writers, what these examples do is add irony, which is a vital component of successful literature.  They also open the story to at least the possibility of tragedy, which you really want.  If a tragic ending isn’t possible, and demonstrated to be possible (kill Boromir!), the eucatastrophe or happy ending will have no power.

Give me Destiny if you must, but also give me Doom.

Pat Mathews January 9, 2012 at 12:36 pm

In fact, yes, I have heard of the Geats lately. I have a nice, well-produced, bilingual epic all about the adventures one of their princes.

S.M. Stirling January 9, 2012 at 6:49 pm

Irony is like chile peppers; it’s a spice, not a vegetable.

Ironic deconstructions of the hero are the thing that have been done to death. I’m sick of -them-.

Max Kaehn January 9, 2012 at 7:05 pm

Or give us a character who fights against their Destiny and wins, or at least subverts it.

Ralf The Dog January 9, 2012 at 9:14 pm

I don’t know, this would probably need to be a short story, as the readers would just think it was another Golden Boy story and you would not want to string them along too long.

The hero faces the evil army of badness, kicks their collective cows, then comes face to face with the dark lord, has a nice conversation before the big fight, spots the evil thorn of evilness on his eyebrow, pulls it out in the middle of the fight, turns the dark lord back into “He who shines brightly and gives candy to kids”, then returns home to clime the stairway of the gods and claim his rewards.

He stands before the gods holding the great ring of greatness he retrieved from Mount Blastola, then the gods say, “What are you doing here? This was to be a quest for your little brother. Put everything back the way it was and do it quickly or face our wrath!”

Ralf The Dog. January 9, 2012 at 9:15 pm

Mr. Stirling, I love a big bowl of green chile in the morning. I count chile peppers as one of the basic food groups.

Ralf The Dog. January 9, 2012 at 9:18 pm

Sorry for the triple post, I think that should have been climb not clime. My internal spelll chker is taking th dai of.

S.M. Stirling January 10, 2012 at 2:51 am

One of the problems with eating chiles as a staple is that they destroy your capacity to enjoy more subtle fare.

This is a fairly good analogy with what OD’ing on irony can do.

It makes everything arch and mannered, breeds a cheap and unearned cynicism, and destroys the capacity for whole-hearted committment.

Reflexive irony is the posture of people who are primarily concerned with been “cool” and not being taken in. (The later renders them astonishingly gullible, of course.)

wjw January 10, 2012 at 5:52 am

Steve, I advised writers to use irony, I didn’t tell them to write like David Foster Wallace.

At what point did Buffy, Beowulf, Ender’s Game, and the works of Robert Jordan become airy-fairy postmodern literature?

Charlie Martin January 10, 2012 at 7:27 pm

I’ll just let Sterling’s mistaken evaluation of chiles slide, but I think you’ve got a great point, Walter. The other obvious examples are Bilbo and Frodo, who save the world from the One Ring and Sauron, but at the cost of losing or giving up everything, and the end of the Third Age.

Scott Card used to make this point in his Thousand Ideas in an Hour: if your character has magic powers — which is effectively what the Chosen One always has somehow — then there must be a cost.

Speaker to Lab Animals January 10, 2012 at 8:13 pm

Of course, the postmodernist version is to have the Hero predestined to greatness, but of course he is so burdened with self-doubt that he yields his greatest power, defeats *himself*, destroys the world and the evil one lives on. [Thomas Covenant series] Again somewhat tedious because the reader is ready to kill character, author and/or self to end the incessant whining.

wjw January 10, 2012 at 10:02 pm

Charlie, Frodo’s being unable to heal after the war, plus the Scouring of the Shire, are both good uses of irony. Though Frodo isn’t the Chosen One: he foolishly volunteers.

The whole “magic must cost” thing is a modern idea. If you look at medieval romances, the sorcerers can pretty much do anything, and it doesn’t cost them an iota. (Except that maybe they spend an eternity in Hell.) I think in the 20th Century writers wanted to swing the balance back to the noble swordsmen, and invented the “magic must cost” trope.

Certainly no other class of fantasy character is so handicapped. Thieves and rogues aren’t told, “There is a cost to the use of your thieving powers.” At least not beyond the chance of getting arrested.

Ralf The Dog. January 11, 2012 at 5:48 am

Irony is the driving force of the universe. Without it, existence is irrelevant. You could have a story that was not saturated with it, however, that story would have no true meaning.

The function of non irony is just to provide a bit of contrast to make the irony stand out. You could write a story only using irony, however, that story would be much less ironic.

wjw January 15, 2012 at 3:08 am

Hey, somebody came up with a handy checklist!

Jim Janney January 15, 2012 at 7:32 pm

I’ll admit to enjoying this one:

Dru January 17, 2012 at 5:22 pm

China Mievil’s meditation on the chosen One is worth mentioning: Un Lun Dun

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