Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Chosen One Cliche - When SHOULD It Be Used?

Harry Potter, Harry Potter. Anakin Skywalker, Star Wars. Tris Prior, Divergent. Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games. Eragon, The Inheritance Cycle. The Pevensies, The Chronicles of Narnia. Every Protagonist Ever, Warrior Cats. All these main characters share something: each is somehow the only one in the entire world who can solve the war/galaxy/society/government, despite being a pretty average Joe. Oftentimes they are special because of a prophecy, but there are occasionally other reasons. But the underlying concept is always the same: this (sometimes only seemingly) average protagonist is the only one who can fix the overarching plot problem. Commonly, this gets called "the chosen one" cliche, and it can either go over really well or really, really badly.

Hahahaaaaa . . . not in Star Wars. But more on that later.

Many people get annoyed with this particular cliche. After all, why is that girl/boy, out of millions, the one who is special? Why couldn't anyone else just step in and beat up the big baddies, whoever they may be? Sometimes, these people are voicing valid questions - why couldn't someone else have been the "chosen one"? But other times, when the story is well done, there is a legitimate reason for the "chosen one" cliche. It all depends on the individual story.
Take Harry Potter (SPOILERS for The Order of the Phoenix and onwards ahead). In this series' case, the cliche was well used. Harry was "the chosen one" because of a prophecy which clearly was talking about him - but there was actually more to it that that. Harry really was the only one who could have finished off Voldemort, because: (1) he was the only parselmouth apart from Voldemort, thereby allowing him to stop Voldemort's return in book 2 and claim the sword of Gryffindor, (2) he was the only one able to sense the horcruxes and therefore find them, (3) he had the sword of Gryffindor because of point 1, which allowed him to actually destroy the horcruxes once he found them, (4) he had to die in order for Voldemort to be kill-able (although, why Voldemort had to do it himself I've never understood), and (5) he was the only one Voldemort couldn't kill in one shot. So, in the Harry Potter series's case, there were reasons apart from "because this prophecy said so" that Harry was "the chosen one." (SPOILER END.) Because of that, the use of the cliche worked and no one complained.
Basically Harry Potter.
Now, let's look at Star Wars (minor SPOILERS for Episodes I-III ahead). Anakin Skywalker is "the chosen one" in this case, as we are told in Episode I (a real disappointment of a movie, actually). We are told via the Jedi that the Chosen One is prophesied to bring balance to the force. Yes, another one of those pesky prophecies (maybe that's another cliche to talk about later?) - they always seem to be messing up people's lives, don't they? Any-hoo, while I adore Anakin and the ability of his character arc to make me cry, the whole "chosen one" thing was really quite unnecessary in my opinion, and therefore is just an annoying cliche instead of an actual plot device. Why? Well, in Episode I (bleagh) Qui-Gon Jin discovers Anakin's super-high midichlorian count, which makes him think Anakin is the Chosen One, thereby getting Qui-Gon to break a whole load of Jedi tradition to make Anakin a part of the Jedi Order. Because of Anakin's midichlorian count, we'd expect him to be really powerful in the force - like, maybe moving starships, or something. However, as far as powers go, Anakin seems to be just like every other Jedi.
So much for special.
Here is where the problems start. If we'd seen evidence that the prophecy meant something, and that Anakin truly was special because he was super-powerful, then we would have had evidence that Anakin was worthy of being "the chosen one," subject of a prophecy. As it is, the prophecy is expected to create its own importance . . . which in my opinion, wasn't very successfully done.  Next comes problem two: because Anakin doesn't appear to be special, the prophecy doesn't seem to play any part in the entire rest of the series, and "the chosen one" thing isn't really mentioned after Episode I, the only reason for the entire "chosen one + prophecy" set-up in the first place was to get Anakin inducted into the Jedi Order. Which is a really bad excuse to use a cliche, especially if you aren't going to back up "the chosen one's" chosen-ness with actual tangible evidence or utilize the prophecy and/or chosen one thing much at all in the rest of the movies. (SPOILER END.)
Except for that one time when Obi seemed to remember it.
It didn't stop me from crying over Episode III, but still. Poorly done, Lucas. The prequel trilogy would have been much better if Anakin had been unusually powerful. And look, most Star Wars fans don't even like the prequel trilogy, or at least Episodes I-II. I wonder why.
That was a mistake no fan would have made.
Another poorly done "chosen one" cliche was in Divergent. Tris is never named a "chosen one," per se. However, she is supposedly special (SPOILERS ahead) because she is Divergent. However, she wasn't the only Divergent! There were hundreds of them. Roth's main problem with this was how she set up her world. How had so many Divergents gone under the radar if they were being hunted? Why is the majority of the population so limited in admirable traits? Why was Tris the only Divergent who took action? (SPOILERS end.) All these questions caused the idea of Tris's special-ness to fade, and had readers doing a little bit of head-scratching.

So, don't use "the chosen one" cliche unless:
  1. You'll use it as a plot device more than once.
  2. There is a reason apart from prophecy that this character deserves to be labeled special.
  3. The character takes actions or possesses abilities no one else can manage.
  4. There is literally no one else in society who also shares the character's specialness.
The Chosen One can be done really well and used to create a really fantastic story (look at the sheer success of Harry Potter!), but you need to make sure you're not just using it as an easy excuse to propel the plot forward or as a cheap way to set your protagonist apart from others.

What do you think? Do you agree with my assessments of Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Divergent? Do you think that this cliche shouldn't be used at all, ever? If you don't, when do YOU think it SHOULD be used? I'm interested in what your guys' opinions on this are, guys!

Want more posts on cliches and how to put a twist on them? Click here for all my posts on cliches, or click the label in the sidebar.

34 comments:

  1. I actually haven't read Divergent (saw the movie) or Harry Potter, but you were spot-on because I've seen Star Wars and yeah the prequels were kinda lame. Except I might like Episode III better than the first two.

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    1. Episode III never ceases to rip my heart out. The two before it though fell a little flat.

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  2. I go crazy with my stories, trying to keep away from any type of cliche, but I never think about using them to help it along. Great points!

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    1. The thing about cliches is that they're cliche for a reason. Something doesn't get used over and over again unless it can work. I'm glad you found the post useful; thanks for the comment!

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  3. Okay, so just out of curiosity... Would a completely average guy with a messed up past getting getting picked by a guy with an even more messed up past than his to take care of a little girl whose life has been really messed up count as a usage of the chosen one cliche? Just curious... :P

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    1. Depends. If this doesn't have anything to do with saving the world in any way, then no. If, however, by taking care of this little girl he'd somehow be saving everyone, then it WOULD be a chosen one cliche.

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    2. Aah. I see. And I'm not entirely certain. I can never quite be certain with this. I don't think so, though. :P Than you! :)

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  4. Apparently, Annika, you are the chosen one to bring this to our attention! Ok, lame joke done. Actually, the concept of a seemingly average person being the one specifically chosen to do some great thing that the exceptional people couldn't do isn't just found in fiction. Take the story of Esther in the Bible, or Joseph being used to save the world from famine (after some weird prophesies being fulfilled, I must say! ) Most of the characters in the book of Judges had nothing special about them with the possible exception of Samson. However, the fact that they were trying to find the secret of his strength seems to indicate that he appeared rather ordinary. Moses, Joshua, David, the twelve disciples and numerous others dot the pages of Scripture. I'm not trying to argue, just to point out that it happened in real life and fiction often follows the patterns of real life. Perhaps that is why it is used so often. Of course, any literary device must be used well to work. Even commas can be misused.

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  5. Yes, exactly. It's just when it gets used wrong that it comes off bad or cliched. When it's done well it's a fantastic lirerary tool.

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  6. I really like the chosen one device when it's used properly. It's really cool to have someone special out of millions to do a task and I agree it was done poorly in Star Wars. Though in Divergent they mended that in the Insurgent film (which I thought was way better than the book. I strongly disliked the book), by making Tris more of a pure Divergent than others. So the filmmakers actually filled in that plot hole which I've noticed a lot of movie adaptions are doing. They're fixing author mistakes which is one reason why I often prefer the film over the books sometimes--except Percy Jackson. Just ... the books were so much better ...

    storitorigrace.blogspot.com

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    1. Yes, I appreciate a movie that can surpass the book. :D And PERCY JACKSON URGH. Those movies were just awful to anyone who'd read the books. I heard the director never even read the books....

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  7. The reason Anaikan was the Chosen one was because of what happened in book six, he was special because he would become Darth Vader and then destroy the Dark side through himself and the other Darth lord.

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    1. I think Lucas did the whole "chosen one" cliche well despite the poorly done movies, because as explained in the extended universe such as Star Wars the Clone Wars etc, Anakin kept the balance of the force. He didn't necessarily have to be amazing at his skills or anything, because keep in mind he was young, stubborn, hot tempered etc. he has to learn just like anyone else to be the person the prophecy stated him to be, which as stated above happened in the end. It wasn't necessarily skill but a balance.

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    2. That makes sense and is a good way to look at it. However I still think that it could have been done better . . . because you still have the issue of the prophecy getting nearly NO attention in the rest of the prequel movies. What was supposed to be a major factor in Anakin's character arc (which is what ties the prequels to the originals) is often an afterthought when people describe Anakin. It gets forgotten when it SHOULD be something that has a big presence in the movies.

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  8. I actually see this in every piece of writing. EVER. Think about it. Stories are written by people, for people, about people. Every single character out there in library-land is a "Chosen One" because someone thought them important enough to write about. Whether the story is well written or not, in this particular thread, is unimportant.

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  9. I've seen the Chosen One plot over and over again. Writers that use this plot should at least spice it up a bit. maybe have the book written in the POV of an 'background character' or have someone else other that the chosen one (and his two friends, usually a boy and a girl) kill the evil bad guy as he is monologing.

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    1. That is why it is cliche. While it can be a very useful literary tool, it has been used so much that you are correct - spicing it up makes it a lot less predictable and therefore more interesting.

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  10. er... your points about Harry Potter are a little...off. It almost sounds like you watched the movies but didn't read the books. For example, saying the prophecy was about Harry Potter, and he was the only one who could kill Voldemort/speak parsel tongue.

    Harry was only a parselmouth because Voldemort was one. When his killing curse backfired, it created a horcrux that was put into Harry - which is why Harry could do the things Voldemort could. Part of Voldemort was living inside of Harry. Essentially, Harry had two souls inside him - when he was killed, Voldemort actually killed himself. After Voldemort killed Harry (and he came back - by choice, no less. Harry could have chosen to stay dead if he wanted to), he could no longer speak the snake language. He also could be killed by the killing curse, if anyone ever decided to try it again.

    The sword of Gryffindor was obtained by HP not because he could speak parsel tongue, but because of his fierce loyalty - which was the mark of a true Gryffindor. The parsel tongue only allowed him to enter the sewer.

    In the books, Harry could NOT sense the horcruxes AT ALL. That was a movie-only thing. Voldemort also couldn't sense that they were being destroyed. There was no connection that told them both the horcrux was destroyed. Harry found them all through sleuthing, and Voldemort only figured out what he was doing after the bank robbery.

    And there's various reasons as to why Voldemort had to be the one to kill him. one is that Dumbledore knew that Voldemort would come after the elder wand after his death, and the elder wand was loyal to Dumbledore (who was Harry's protector), so it wouldn't kill him. Also, when Voldemort came back, he used Harry's blood, thus unintentionally strengthening the protection around Harry from Voldemort. (When Lily saved Harry, she bound protection against Voldemort. So when Voldemort took Harry's blood, he was essentially building his new body with that link of protection - because Harry's protected blood was inside Voldemort, he couldn't truly kill Harry. Instead, he would kill the only thing inside Harry that *wasn't* protected - the horcrux.) In both cases, anyone other than Voldemort probably would have successfully killed Harry - that's why it HAD to be Voldemort.

    And the prophecy wasn't about *Harry*, it was about a child whose parents fought Voldemort ("born to those who thrice defied him"), born at the end of July ("as the seventh month dies"). That child would be the one to mess up Voldemort's plans, and Voldemort would mark him. The ONLY reason it was Harry Potter was because his birthday was on July 31. He started at the end of the month and intended on working his way backwards. Had he succeeded in killing Harry (and he absolutely could have if Lily hadn't stepped in), wanna guess whose birthday was July 30, and whose parents ALSO defied Voldemort, and thus the next door to be knocked on?

    Neville Longbottom.

    It was just pure chance (or luck) that Harry was the chosen one.

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    1. Yes, I do know about Neville. The thing is, Nevile COULD have been the chosen one, but he wasn't. It was a close call but in the end, Harry Potter was still the only chosen one.

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  11. Spot-on; well done!

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  12. Really nice article, Annika. I've wrestled with this question too. Even though this *is* a cliche and a very well-used one at that it seems to still work well in a lot of instances. Something about it must appeal to people when done well, I don't know what it is?
    I do think that the Star Wars prequels could have been much better done to greater affect. The thing that bothers me about them is that there is really good material there that good writers could do great things with, but it was never tapped into properly. That's super frustrating. #movieregrets
    Thanks for a great read!

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    1. I'm really glad you enjoyed it. :) I really regret the prequel trilogy as well - like you I think it really could have been so much better.

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  13. Considering "the one" took me to a brilliant use of "the one" in the TV show "Babylon 5," which does at least have the distinction that the plot was written to come together in 5 years as people plan novels. "We live for the One, we die for the One," says some soldiers for a cause. A character looks up, excited, as a group of people enter the room. "not the one," he mutters, not quite to himself.

    In this plot (SPOILERS) there were 3 "Chosen ones," the one who was the One because he went back in time, the woman who had risen through politics and made a choice before the start of the series in a moment of absolute devastation, and then (still before the series) realized through contact with the first (before he went back in time) how she was even more thoroughly wrong than she had thought, and who had a few other connections to the guy as well), and a guy who had distinguished himself in the mess she had started and would be found to have links to other important events. The first man and the woman had markers others saw before they reached the positions at which they did the things they were needed to do. The last man did have more luck involved, and there were actual arguments on whether someone was just hoping he would be (SPOILER END)

    They also didn't choose the path they were groomed for (at least the 2 who could still choose). And one of The Ones basically said that their current mess had been due to the way things had been arranged by the back-in-time One.

    I am often going back to that series (one I think of more the way I see the novelizations of LOTR than any of the other shows that filled my late teens-early 20s) when plot ideas are coming up. "chosen one," got it. "telling everyone the end in the middle," hmm, depends on if we need to interpret it (other than major characters being alive), having an Absolute Evil and Good Guys using people they chose to fight their war, and other tropes.

    I always keep them in mind when I am reading a list, or at my story, that these things can be used but that need to be done well, and there needs to be a reason you are doing it, or are appearing to. Thanks for acknowledging both sides and giving criteria to help us use this one in a way that doesn't involve circular argument or other blatant logical fallacies.

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    1. I'm glad you thought my take on it was good. That does sound like it is a complex and interesting series, though I have to admit I haven't read the LOTR books. It's on my to-read though.
      Thanks for reading. :)

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  14. I've always thought about Anakin Skywalker as "The Chosen One," not because he was super powerful, but because he was the father of Luke Skywalker, who did eventually bring balance to the force. That's why they're called prequels, because Luke is the actual "Chosen One," not Anakin.

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    1. That's a very interesting take on it and one I haven't heard before. Thanks for the comment. :)

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  15. Actually, Anakin isn't any more powerful than the other Jedi because he didn't work for his power. He wasted his potential as a Jedi, and if he did work to the extent Obi-Wan did... let's just say we wouldn't be calling them "prequels". As for Luke being the Chosen One, George Lucas stated that it was actually Anakin. Who was the one that killed the Emperor again?

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    1. Yes agreed, Anakin was the Chosen One and Luke wasn't even though Luke was the protagonist in the originals. And that's an interesting theory about Anakin's power. In the Clone Wars series we got a couple glimpses of Anakin using amazing power, but never got any of that in the movies. I really wish we had because just putting it in the Clone Wars made it seem like a patch-up job.

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  16. Late arrival, but I think this trope is only old if the writer doesn't find ways to play with it. Instead of Chosen One, why not the Chosen Many, aka, the entirety of humanity/wizards/etc.? Why not have that person be the "Chosen One" because of an accident, a case of mistaken identity and/or roles, or because the role was forced on them? Why not have them accept the role only because there are personal stakes involved, not just overarching ones? Why not have them fight tooth and nail to get out of their predicament? Why not have them deal emotionally with the fallout of such a role? Or, and I rather like this one, why not make them "chosen" to wreck the entire world and cause its destruction instead of saving it like they and so many originally thought?

    Again, there are many, many ways to tackle this trope.

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    1. Agreed. That is what I was trying to do with this series of posts - explore new ways to make cliches new so that they don't bore readers any more. I like like your mistaken identity idea. That could make for a very interesting plot twist. :)
      Thanks for the comment!

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  17. I whole-heartedly agree with both Harry Potter and Star Wars, but Divergent is a bit of a stretch. Tris wasn't a "chosen one," and wasn't the only person who could have brought about the end. The whole point of Divergent was that anyone COULD have, but Tris is the one who did. And to be fair, there were a few special qualities about Tris that set her apart from her cohorts. For one, she was the only person (that we know of) who was a 3-split Divergent (Abnegation, Dauntless, and Erudite). All of the other Divergents mentioned throughout the series were only split between 2 factions. That in itself makes her a little special, genetically speaking. The reason she is that why could be linked to another thing that makes her different, which is that her mother was from outside the fence. People who grew up outside the fence had different qualities about them, because they didn't grow up in the strict faction setting surrounded only by like-minded people. Also, both of her parents were from different factions (Erudite and Dauntless, both turned Abnegation not because they belonged there, but because they wanted to be together and were frustrated by their original factions). The fact that Tris never felt that she fit in, though she tried really hard to, is something of a cliche itself, but it is what initially launches her onto the path of becoming a hero. The fact that she transitioned from Abnegation to Dauntless (a rare feat), just made her stand out to others as both interesting and as a target. In the last book of the series, it is clear that Tris's specialness does play a small roll in her being able to save the city from the people on the outside (being that she was able to resist the effects of the death serum long enough to stop them), but Tris did not bring about the uprising. She was not the only one who contributed to the war. She was not the only one who could have done the things she did, but she did, because of who she was as a person, and because of the things that happened to her throughout the series. Not because she was a "chosen one."

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    1. Forgive me if I was a bit off on points related to the third book - I never read it or watched the movie, to be honest. The second book didn't keep my interest enough for me to read the last one. I made my point based on the fact that she was not the only Divergent. If she had been the only one - if she had been a never-before seen phenomenon - it would have seemed more "special" and to me. You do have valid points though - maybe that's one series that comes down to more personal opinion. :) Thanks for the comment.

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