Article: Chosen Ones, Specialness and the Narrative of the One

Chosen Ones, Specialness and the Narrative of the One

The Chosen One is a very common trope: the special one; the one chosen by the gods/the magic/the plot; the one who has unique powers or ends up saving everyone, because no one else has the ability to. It’s quite common: you find it in narratives from Harry Potter to David Eddings’ Belgariad (and that’s just relatively modern examples, there’s plenty more earlier ones), and also out of genre, in numerous movies or books (Die Hard, …).

I have a lot of sympathy for this trope–I understand the need, on a visceral level, for role models; and for those role models to be extraordinary, and for enormous stakes that requires enormous abilities to face. But I also have issues with it.

The main thing I take issue to is the narrative of specialness. It’s the myth that you have to be special to matter, or else be doomed to be an unimportant sidekick. The myth of the One; the persistent notion that there can only be one protagonist in a given story strand; instead of a chorus of people who all matter and all work together to achieve the same goal. It’s the myth of the Lone Leader, the Lone Scientist, the Lone Hero–there’s so many examples of it it’s fair to say it’s become utterly pervasive in our culture (I’m looking at you, Hollywood movies).

It feels to me like a dangerous narrative in a number of ways: the first and most obvious one is that it’s often played as exclusionary. If a character doesn’t have special abilities–if they’re not Chosen–then very often, they don’t get a story. Oh, sure, they might get a sop thrown at them: a subplot, one or two episodes in a series. But in the grand scheme of things? Protagonists are special. They must be, else they’re not interesting.

But most of us are not special; most of us aren’t granted unique powers, or amazing capacities. Should we therefore judge whether we’re worthy of a story based on what most of us do not have and can never have?

Part of the mythos of the Chosen One, of course, is that they must be alone. They can have a team around them, but in the moment of reckoning–at the climax, when they must show their mettle, they have to be alone to face the antagonist/Dark Lord/ murderer/etc. This, after all, is the main reason why they were given those abilities. And this always troubles me, because things often don’t work that way in life. Though we are alone in many instances (not least of which are the hours of our birth and of our death), we achieve many things as a team. Achievements like sending people to the moon were not made by a lone genius working in a lab, but by teams with different capacities and skills. Over-valuing people’s capacity to be individualistic turns easily into a paean to selfishness and self-centredness, and negates the value of teams and of building communities around us, in a way that I find troubling.

A corollary of this narrative is that, very often, the Chosen One can do no wrong: how could they, when they have been anointed by the plot? There are far too many Hollywood movies in which the hero does the exact same thing as the villain and isn’t lambasted for it because he’s the hero and the rules don’t apply to him [1]. Torture is OK if the hero does it! Murdering peopleĀ is ok because they’re saving the world! Etc.

The other aspect of uniqueness/specialness that bothers me is when it gets applied in slightly different circumstances, among a body of marginalised people: it’s the token.

It’s the one woman being quoted whenever people are making list of women in Science Fiction and Fantasy, which almost always include Ursula Le Guin and no one else (see the male respondents in Clarkesworld’s survey of writerly influences). It’s the one POC/the one queer/the one marginalised person whom everyone thinks of when asked to think of POCs/queer/marginalised–and it’s great that people are thinking of them! However, there are many many more marginalised people working in genre, and all the rest tend to get forgotten while people feel quite happy about their reading or recommending habits because they included a marginalised person. And in some cases (more than you’d think), people try to justify at posteriori why this person is included on the lists and no one else is, with things like “she’s great, she’s not really like other women” (or equivalent saying for other identities).

This, needless to say, is not helpful.

It’s not helpful because it erases others, as said above; and it’s not helpful because it tends to make that person the One, aka the reference for all things female/POC/queer/etc.. It magnifies a single narrative at the expense of all the others (see Chimimanda Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story”), which carries the very real risk that any subsequent voices in that sub-category will get labelled “inauthentic” because they don’t feel similar enough to The One, or “superfluous” because they are too similar (yeah, you can’t win. Funny that. Or not).

And, finally, it’s not helpful because you don’t have to push it very far to see that it’s essentially a “divide to reign” tactic. There is little space for more than one person at the table: therefore, if you want to be at that table, you have to be the One (you can push for more space, but it’s freaking difficult without being in a dominant position; or you can decide to leave and make your own table–thereby making the field poorer [2][3]); and you have to conform to what’s expected of you at least in some degree, if you want to be accepted. Like the Chosen One trope, this narrative is essentially encouraging lack of solidarity.

I’m not saying that things are that bad and that marginalised people are throwing each other under the bus all the time! (quite the contrary in fact). But the narrative is there, and it’s pervasive; and it’s quite easy to buy into it without realising it; and it has a lot of undertones that I don’t much care for, and I’ve been meaning to unpack it for a while. So there you go.

I may be quite grumpy about it, but I think it needs to be said–again, it’s not the specialness per se I object to. It’s the fact that it’s become the dominant and, above all, unquestioned narrative; and that we’re much the poorer for it.


[1]I could have said “she”, but we know that it’s 90% likely our hero is a man.
[2]I’m well aware that “the field” is a tricky proposition–I mean “Western Anglophone, dominant culture”, but there are a lot of implications there about the importance of dominant fields vs others, the choice of centring attention on it, etc. It’s beyond the scope of this post: there are discussions of this over the web, like this one.
[3]I really feel this shouldn’t be in a footnote because it’s important (but it’s not really relevant to the main body of the post, so…). A lot of people (marginalised and others) just leave without making a fuss or even a noise, because when the situation seems overly stacked against you and you don’t feel welcome, why would you bother? And if they don’t make a fuss, then very often the majority doesn’t think anything is wrong, because they’re not affected and from their point of view nothing is happening. And then one day, possibly, the majority wonders where the minorities went. Yeah. Right. Silence does not mean everything is well.

8 comments

  1. I love this article, and I hate the phenomenon that it describes. I remember Lloyd Alexander’s _Chronicles of Prydain_ as embodying a sort of antithesis to this “specialness narrative”… sure, the main protag turns out to be [uh, 50 year-old spoiler alert?] special by birth, but if I remember it clearly this played no part in most of the narrative the reveal is practically a footnote at the end of the last book. Taran had to become a man over the course of the entire series, and most of the time he is a bumbling adolescent who observes things from the sidelines. Unlike your typical Harry Potter knockoff, he becomes worthy of his birthright through an exhausting process of self-development and learning from others, and not because he is just naturally awesome. As a kid, I found it a little frustrating to read about his various failures and humiliations, but I appreciated his progress by the time I finished the last book in that series.

  2. I loved the Prydain chronicles! If I remember correctly, Taran isn’t actually special by birth–it’s the whole point that he painfully ascends to it? The fourth book is him being concerned by his real family, and Dalben admitting to him he was found on a battlefield and his true parentage will be forever unknown? (I could be wrong. It’s been quite a few years since I last read these).

  3. And thank you!

  4. You might be right about that Aliette… For some reason I thought he was either the long lost child of someone important, or that there was a prophecy about him to indicate he was special, but either way I’m pretty sure it played no part in the forefront of the narrative. The details are all kind of blurry for me too right now, and Wikipedia is not too helpful. Luckily I have a young daughter, so in a few years I will have an excuse to read the series again!

  5. The entire point of Harry Potter is that he was an ordinary kid who used the personal strength and courage any of us could have to make strong ethical choices. He became “The Chosen One” when Voldemort chose him, but it was his choices that allowed him to defeat Voldemort in the end, not his status as “saviour”. He could be any of us. Any of us could make those kinds of choices. “It’s our choices not our abilities” is right there in the text.

    I really, really wish people could actually read Harry Potter.

  6. I have read Harry Potter.
    And yes, he’s chosen by Voldemort and shaped by further choices–it doesn’t change the fact that there is a Chosen One, and that the entire narrative is based on how special he is (and how lionised he is for it, compared to other people who are merely ordinary).
    I take your point that you can *become* the Chosen One by your choices and that it’s a slightly different narrative than being arbitrarily Chosen; but I object to the necessity and the myth of a Chosen One in the first place (it could be, say, a team of heroes with equal status instead of a single hero. Ron and Hermione and the rest of the wizards, though his companions, have nowhere as big as a status in the story as the one accorded to Harry).

  7. I really enjoyed reading this and i agree, the “choosen one” is overdone and in a way has become cheap.

    But at the same time i love it, i guess its a fantasy in itself for someone to run up to you, throw you a sword and break the news that you are a hero. then BANG no more boring ordinary life, although admin to dragon slaying is a big step for me.

    But like you said its over done and those who either become the hero in their own means or a team that works together to the heroes.

  8. @Adam: thank you! Yes, exactly–it’s so common it’s filled every other spot šŸ™

Sorry. Comments are closed on this entry.