The “Chosen One” Trope: Walking The Line Between Classic And Cliché
There are plenty of explanations for why the “Chosen One” is such an evergreen trope, appealing to writers and readers alike. It’s a truly versatile device that presents ample opportunities for authors to craft complex worlds and relatable characters. However, because of its ubiquity, you also run the risk of writing yourself into a cliché-filled corner!
Learning how to avoid clichés, and lazy writing in general, is essential to literary success. To that end, I wanted to give some advice on how to make this classic trope work — and crucially, how to avoid its worst pitfalls. First and foremost, you need to…
1. Understand the trope
The Chosen One, as the term implies, is a character who has somehow been “chosen” as the only one capable of defeating evil, saving the world, or resolving some kind of major conflict in a story. It is especially common in speculative fiction and is often paired with a hero’s journey.
Some well-known examples include King Arthur, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. Indeed, this trope can be adapted for any genre; what unites these characters is that they have all been elected to play a pivotal role in their respective worlds.
With countless “Chosen One” sub-tropes to explore, my first tip for any writer is to read extensively! This tried-and-tested method gives you a chance to:
- Absorb what has been said before, what you think works and what doesn’t;
- Take inspiration from what does work, and;
- Figure out how to craft something original.
2. Avoid the major pitfalls
While I can’t warn you against every potential pitfall with the Chosen One (there are too many variations of this trope for that), here are some key things to watch out for.
A) The destiny trap
For every story that features an element of “chosenness,” there is usually some flavor of destiny or predetermination involved. This can (unsurprisingly) lead to predictability — the protagonist discovering their chosenness, setting out on a quest, and meeting some type of opposition so they can undergo personal growth and, eventually, realize their true potential to defeat their opponent.
It’s a tricky line to skate. As a writer, you want there to be some element of inevitability, because it’s a central conceit of the Chosen One narrative. Perhaps you can twist it a bit in your writing (the reluctant hero’s internal battle against their true destiny is always a fun one).
That said, destiny can start to eat away at the agency of your characters, or inadvertently give away the plot. After all, if we’re so sure the hero’s going to defeat the villain, why bother reading to the end of the book? This is why you need to keep readers on their toes, even if it means misleading them for a little while.
Carefully planning your novel can help you maintain good pacing to keep readers on the edge of their seats, even if they already have an inkling of the overall arc. The potentially predictable nature of Chosen One plots require extra care to prevent readers from growing disinterested. If you’re struggling with this, break it down into manageable chunks! Make sure you have at least the following things outlined before you start writing:
- A narrative arc with a beginning, midpoint, and end;
- Character profiles for your main characters;
- A clear setting.
This will give you a solid idea of when best to deploy certain action beats to keep your pacing tight, while still allowing the creative freedom to get from point A to B. In short: you can ensure you have a good grasp on all the different threads that need to be tangled and subsequently untangled over the course of your novel, and become a true puppet master of your characters.
B) The flat character trap
Once you’ve structured your novel with plenty of surprises, you’ll want to map out your characters. Unfortunately, the Chosen One device can lead to lazy characterizations because well, she’s the chosen one — isn’t that interesting enough? Spoiler alert: it’s not.
Flat characters are the kiss of death to any book, and what could be more flat than a perceived lack of agency? Predictability and inevitability can make your characters seem powerless and anonymous, as well as utterly replaceable. It also makes it tough to create the necessary tension to carry the novel forward and make your readers really root for the protagonist.
So how do you avoid this? It’s actually pretty simple: give your “Chosen One” their own choices and introduce them as having a real personality and relationships, using the following tactics:
- Create backstories for your characters. Include only necessary details in the story itself, but let a more elaborate mosaic of character memories and personal history inform your character’s thoughts and actions to create consistency. Not sure where to start? Check out this character questionnaire to get the ball rolling.
- Have your main character act decisively, or make a choice with real stakes (even if it has negative consequences in the short term). You want to remind the reader that, while fate has given them a helping hand, they’re still agents in the story whose choices matter.
- Pay attention to character descriptions. Don’t write as if you’re describing someone to a forensic artist, with physical traits only! Instead, pick one deeper aspect that would stand out to you if you met them in real life and slowly build from there. Describe your protagonist’s thoughts, actions, and interactions to reflect their personality, rather than using basic exposition (in other words: show, don’t tell).
C) The good vs. evil trap
Every good Chosen One story needs a great antagonist. It doesn’t have to be a person, but it often is — which may tempt you to create an out-and-out villain, verging on caricature, to offset your good guy/girl. This might be fun to write, but it isn’t super compelling to read. And, more importantly, writing a strong, complex antagonist is a useful way to avoid accidentally making your story’s morality too black-and-white.
Whether your main character is facing an evil mastermind or fighting a wider threat to peace, plan your antagonist(s) out and consider what motivates them. One good exercise is to think about how you would write the story from their perspective, and incorporate your insights about their motivations and feelings into your main story.
It’s easy to over-simplify the world around us and write an antagonist who’s obviously, undeniably evil, but people rarely think of their own choices as such. It is far more interesting to read something that makes you question your own assumptions about what is right and wrong, so adding shades of gray and character flaws to your antagonist (and your protagonist too!) is an opportunity to shy cleverly away from this binary worldview and spice up your Chosen One tale.
3. When in doubt, look inward, not outward
When you take on a common trope, there’s a great deal of pressure to create something familiar yet unique. If you’ve made it this far and you think it seems like an impossible task, I have one more tip that might help you think of it in a different, more freeing way.
I’ve hinted at this already, but once you know the pitfalls like the back of your hand, you can use them to your fullest advantage. Toy with your readers by subverting the common characteristics of the Chosen One trope and make it fit your story, not the other way around. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, which can stump even the most imaginative authors, look for what is real.
By all means, use your imagination to make up whole new worlds, but always put your story and characters first to create something readers can relate to and which speaks to them. Religiously adhering to a mold other people have created (or trying desperately to avoid one in the pursuit of originality) is not going to serve you in the long run. When you write what is real to you, it doesn’t matter if it has been done before, because it will feel fresh and unique to the reader.
Whether it was some mysterious force that put a pen in your hand or your own pure determination, you’ve got this! Happy writing.
Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction, writing short stories, and analyzing literature into the ground.