Most people with any passing familiarity with the fantasy genre know about the “Chosen One” trope. In its most popular incarnations, like Harry Potter and Star Wars, it follows a young man with a prophesied destiny of defeating the villain (or performing some great act the villain would like to see stopped, etc.). It’s not a purely gendered trope, though; my favorite female iteration is Lyra of His Dark Materials.
Though it may have its origins in mythology and fairy tales, it has been thoroughly explored throughout the fantasy genre to the point where it has become exhausted. There is even a wealth of subversions of this trope, where the prophecy was wrong and the chosen one is useless, or it was really all about believing in yourself, etc.
As far as I can tell, the purpose of this trope is almost always to pluck a random, usually unaware, nearly always unskilled nobody from the ranks of the masses and lift them to the heights of heroism—all because of this prophecy. This is, in many ways, the Holy Grail of wish fulfillment; the “I, just little old me, plain boring me, could be a hero and I don’t even know it” wish. Sure, the chosen one has to learn skills, train, grow in strength, leadership, and bravery—and often faces numerous violent threats from the villain who needs to get them out of the way—but the only reason they’re the main character is that they are the chosen one.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this trope… but it has been done, again and again, to the point where even the merest hint of it can send a shudder down a reader’s spine. Its related cousins, which are quickly reaching saturation points as well, if they haven’t already, are the bumbling random person and the hidden skills/species person. The former is anyone who is random and unaware who happens to be in the right place/right time to gain some object or ability that makes them the center of the plot (Frodo Baggins, Bruce Willis in The Fifth Element, Richard Mayhew in Neverwhere). The latter is anyone who seems random and unaware, but discovers a hidden talent or species that they never knew they had—it’s not quite a prophecy, but it’s enough to make them special (Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy, Clary in The Mortal Instruments, etc.)
So what’s the alternative? Any character who is already aware and skilled, and goes after the villain by choice and through hard work, can be a protagonist who doesn’t fall into these tropes. Or perhaps they do something that either brings on a particular ability/object or puts them in the villain’s path (I’m thinking of Fullmetal Alchemist and The Mummy here, for some reason; Star Trek is another one where the heroes’ actions are choices to take on the heroic fight).
Why bring all this up? Well, lately I’ve been wondering about young heroes—specifically, children or young adult protagonists. How can they be heroes without this trope? In some cases it can work (Fullmetal Alchemist being one), but often, the young hero simply can’t be skilled or active enough to be the center of the story without a bit of prophecy or hidden powers involved.
But I think it’s probably more the case that we just haven’t seen enough of these stories that don’t follow this trope… at least, I haven’t. There’s a certain allure to the Chosen One trope, I won’t deny that. In fact, if it weren’t so overused, I would be sorely tempted by it. I think it’s because of that fact that I am trying to find alternatives that are still satisfying.
Just my thoughts for the day. 🙂