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In many books novels or other forms of fictional writing, the reader is introduced to a so called 'chosen one'. This character or being is of higher power or in general, of different nature than other characters.

To be more precise - my question is about the making or formation of said 'chosen one'.

In my experience, being the 'chosen one' is often related to a certain event in which the 'chosen one' overcame a certain enemy or challenge in which most other characters would have perished/not succeeded.

In this specific event, I see a paradox: Did the character overcome the enemy/succeed in the challenge because he is the chosen one - or did he become the chosen one by overcoming the enemy/succeeding in his task.

How can I approach this paradox in a fictional story that has a 'chosen one' as the main character?

  • 4
    There's no hard-and-fast rules, here. The writer decides. It can be clear that they are marked out for greater thing because of that achievement, or that they were always special, or it can be left inconclusive. – AJFaraday Aug 15 '18 at 15:44
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    I don't think this is solid enough to merit an answer of its own, but this could be an interesting avenue to explore in the work of writing itself. The characters could debate this very question – Belgabad Aug 15 '18 at 18:35
  • F. Paul Wilson's “Healer” is chosen by a roll of the dice: he gains his superpower in an accident that nearly always kills. Not exactly either tine of the fork. – Anton Sherwood Aug 15 '18 at 18:49
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    Don't take it personally, but I do think this is asking for story ideas and “what to write” rather than how–to–write. I also voted down because I don't think you are really describing the paradox. – can-ned_food Aug 16 '18 at 0:54
  • 2
    What makes me wonder most about "chosen ones" is - who did the choosing? I'd love a book that explores that question... – Tom Aug 16 '18 at 7:40

12 Answers 12

77

It's not a paradox - it's a choice

You, as the author and creator of your specific fictional world, have the choice to define which of these statements is true. There is no inherent reason to assume one or the other is true and that the other one is false. In fact, it's often used as an important plot device for the characters themselves to explore whether they are just a pawn doing what some higher power wants from them or they have a "choice" and can influence the world around them.

There is not even a reason to tell your reader what you decided. Simply explore this very paradox in-universe and see what your characters make of it. And if it ever blocks you from writing just choose one and go with it for the moment - if it doesn't feel right later you know that you need to change it and that the other one is the right one for you, your story and your specific world.

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    +1 Compare the contrasting writing choices made in Episodes 7 and 8 of Star Wars around whether the character Rey is, or is not a "Chosen One" from birth. – Chris Sunami Aug 15 '18 at 14:51
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    Also compare Harry's conversation with Dumbledore in book six about whether Harry's status as the chosen one comes from the prophecy, from Voldemort, or from himself. – Arcanist Lupus Aug 15 '18 at 19:38
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    And also Neo in the Matrix. – Carl Aug 16 '18 at 1:12
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It's not really a paradox, the chosen one is seen as the chosen one because they succeed where others cannot, but they can only succeed because they are already the chosen one to begin with. To put it another way that character was always the chosen one but no-one can see it until they complete an impossible task that marks them out.

Think about Unbreakable the protagonist already knows what he is, what he's capable of, but he turned his back on that knowledge and its implications a long time ago. He's only recognised for the superhuman being he is after he survives the unsurvivable.

There are a number of different approaches one can take to the chosen one character archetype:

  • the knowing reluctant hero; they know what they could be but they don't want it, this character will hold back from situations they see as potentially exposing their true nature. They will also run from the responsibilities that come with their final revelation if they can.

  • the unknowing reluctant hero; this is a humble character who doesn't want anything to do with personal power of any kind. They don't know what they will become but when asked to take up their hero's mantle they will try to refuse it, they may take up power but never out of self-interest.

  • the completely ignorant hero; they have no idea what's going on, usually they're only involved at all because they're being played by someone else. They may fall into any of the other categories once they become aware of the position they have been placed in.

  • the knowing and eager hero; knowing what they are they embrace their role, they go to their destined fate with their heads up, eyes open, and a smile on their lips.

  • the unknowing but eager hero; they don't know what they're going to become but they grab any opportunity to prove themselves or gain power. Characters who fall into this category but aren't actually the chosen one will often fail, and/or die, spectacularly.

  • the necessary man; this is not a traditional hero, they have been called to a great task/destiny, but they're neither eager nor reluctant to complete it, simply accepting, resigned to the trials ahead. They'll do what they feel needs to be done, but they maintain a certain detachment from the task and the other people around them.

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    Not always. I recall at least one game where you are heralded as the chosen one, and then on the way to the final boss, you discover that several hundred people before you were heralded as the chosen one. You go on to defeat him, not because you're special, but because you're merely the first to succeed. – Mooing Duck Aug 16 '18 at 23:57
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    @MooingDuck Which is basically the plot to Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (except Peter is special, I guess). – zibadawa timmy Aug 18 '18 at 7:16
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The book Un Lun Dun is an exploration of this concept; the Chosen One said to save Unlondon basically never lives up to the pressure of being the chosen one and ends up being out of commission by the middle of the book. She becomes amnesiac and her best friend Deeba, who remembers, returns to Unlondon.

Deeba, in making the choice to return and try to save Unlondon out of her own free will becomes the Unchosen One, a fitting hero for Unlondon. The Chosen One trope is readily being subverted in that having destiny alone motivate a hero is more readily being pointed out as not enough.

These days, a hero needs to be motivated out of purity; my favourite renditions of the Chosen One trope is where the hero has an established track record of selflessness and doing the right thing before being revealed to have a great destiny.

In other words, I think the resolution to the paradox is that the Chosen One can become Chosen by making himself a damn choosable candidate by destiny.

7

I see this more as a response to being "The Chosen One" rather than actually whether or not the character is the chosen one. What you pretty much always see is that the Chosen one is named, declared or defined so by outside forces. Take the obvious example of Harry Potter. The only reason he was the chosen one, as it were, is because the prophecy said it could have been him, so Voldemort made it him by saying "it must be you who is destined to bring me down" and everything else that happened is a direct result of his decision to make Harry his target.

Essentially, in most iterations of the chosen one concept, the chooser is not the character themselves. They show themselves worthy or not of the title through their actions, and whether they accept it or no, but essentially, be it prophecy or be it Greater Powers (interchangeable in this context,) they have no control over whether or not they are.

This is why it's not really a paradox most of the time. They are not the chosen one by their actions. Being the chosen one does not make them succeed. They would still have been the chosen one had they not overcome this challenge. If they have the same skills, they would have overcome the challenge if they weren't the chosen one. Mostly where the "won because you were worthy or worthy because you won" paradox occurs, it is deliberately invoked for ambiguity and drama (mostly they are explicit one way or the other.)

5

This is one of the eternal human questions that literary fiction explores: Are we born to a fate or do we make it -- and does that apply to heroes? Do great people become great or are they born that way, and how do they live up to and ultimately fulfil a "chosen" designation.

This is Biblical story of Jesus, just to cite perhaps the best-known example.

Having a character be "the chosen one" in sci-fi and fantasy literature can be a trite cliche, but it's a universal theme of humanity, so it's common in the literature. As a device, it can get the plot going: "The boy who lived" is the first chapter of the Harry Potter series. It may be an element of character development (Neo doubts he is The One; Frodo finds strength and resolve he didn't know he had, Harry Potter...well, you know, it's his prize and his burden).

  • (spoiler alert, Lord of the Rings) And in the end, Frodo didn't have what it takes... only Fate and his mercy toward Gollum saved the day! – elliot svensson Aug 15 '18 at 23:56
  • But consider that the day would not have been saved had Frodo not had that character trait. And since Jesus was mentioned, perhaps something He said is pertinent: “Many are called, but few are chosen.” – WGroleau Aug 16 '18 at 3:49
  • Good comments. LOTR has the question of chosen status woven throughout, and spoken of explicitly. Does Gandolf see the future, or just follow a hunch on Bilbo (and later Frodo)? Is it just plain old inherent goodness that ultimately triumphs? – user8356 Aug 17 '18 at 13:15
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Note that this is more of a Western cultural trope than a universal one.

In Asian fiction, for example, the protagonist is often not supernaturally gifted. He or she is often unusually skilled, but rarely has the hero been directly given superhuman abilities or items by a higher power. At most, the hero will be given abilities just to make them equivalent in power to their foes.

With this approach, the hero's status as Chosen One simply means they happen to be the right person in the right place at the right time (or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on your perspective!). They're the hero due to their choices, applying their skills to the situation instead of being the only person with the one magical ability that allows them to win.

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In my opinion, the chosen one is made that way, whether they know it or not. IRL, the kings of old were warriors, born with a talent for fighting that was recognized, cultured and taught, if they were "chosen" it was by fate.

I prefer to think they were not chosen at all, but the recipient of blind luck that was then, usually, augmented by hard work and training, because their inherent talent was recognized by some mentor early on, while they were still able to be shaped.

That, IMO, is how it works in real life. Sports stars are not really special because of the amount of work they put in, for every one of them a thousand other kids start out working just as hard, and a hundred of them would be willing to work harder to achieve their dream. They just don't have the genetic gifts required to reach the top, no matter how great their desire.

It isn't just sports, but academics, and singing, and acting, and songwriting and music, and mathematics and engineering and games like chess. The prodigies that become world champions are kicking butt at the age of five; they have natural talents that were not taught, or were self-taught.

I prefer the same dynamic in my fiction. I write about a character because she was born with something world class special; and I want to see how she found that out, early or late, and where that leads her in life.

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Very fun question. Is it a paradox that "the Chosen One" is the only one that can defeat the great evil they face, or are they "the Chosen One" because they are the only one that can face it? I don't know that I would call it a paradox as the two perspectives are either predictive or attributed.

One hopes because of minimal evidence that the hero is "the Chosen One" either because of a prophecy or because they have the courage to try at something that everyone else has already failed. Your audience trusts you that they are in fact "the Chosen One" because why would you tell them they could be only to have them reach the climax and fail? (coincidentally, that does happen, and makes for some excellent comedy - Take "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" for example where Zaphod Beeblebrox is attempting to find the answer to life and everything only to get the answer 42 and have no clue what to do with the answer.)

The other acts as more substantial proof that in fact the hero could be "the Chosen One" because they have overcome something that everyone else has failed at. A great example of this might be Achilles in Greek Mythology at the battle of Troy. He had already proven himself, but in the end still fails. In either circumstance however being "the Chosen One" or fate can be its own paradox in that it attributes power to accomplish something before it is done and is only proven true or false after the thing has been accomplished. Whether this is attributed to the person before or after however is just hyperbole toward the character that for readers adds an extra element of strength and power to the hero and provides an added significances to their ability to overcome.

2

If you want to make it explicitly a result of overcoming the enemy, the "chosen one" could obtain some magical object by the defeat of the enemy.

The magical powers could even be tied to the defeat of the enemy as part of the process, such as the mastership of the Elder Wand in the Harry Potter universe.

For more realism and engagement, it can be something the character learned during their journey toward that specific victory (whether about themselves, about nature, or about the world) that allows them to go on to later greater success.

2

I believe "chosen one" stories are fun because it's not clear which way one should view it. The two viewpoints are two sides of the same coin.

If I may wax philosophical, Alan Watts was famous for arguing "Westerners love to talk about how they came into this world. You didn't come into this world, you came out of it!" Those are the same two sides of the coin. If you came into this world, then a higher power must have destined you to achieve this greatness when they put you into the world. If you came out of this world, you are simply part of a greater existence which overwhelmed the evil antagonist, and you just happened to be the most proximal part of that greater existence when the evil was defeated.

Thus, when we read such books, we never know whether we might be the chosen one too.

2

It is a cultural artifact from the Abrahamic traditions, which are themselves derivative traditions of Greco-Roman (or just greek) mythology.

The Chosen phenomenon is just a special case of the destiny child story, which is itself a special case of the prophecy stories. EVERYONE expects NEO to save mankind from the Matrix. Everyone expects King Arthur to do great things. Everyone expects Harry Potter to defeat Voldermort. Everyone expects Night King and Cersie to lose. Everyone knows LUKE will win.

There is no paradox here. It is just a very basic plot device to 1) tell the audience what you are going to tell them, 2) tell them 3) remind them what you have told them. People just want to see the hero win. And this is a easy way to shine a giant spot light on who to pay attention to.

And after 5000+ years, people are finally starting to experiment with subverting expectations... which is just a fancy way of saying.. breaking the well worn script. (like luke milking some alien sea cow .. and throwing away his light saber, and then peacing out for no reason... expectations subverted. Don't laugh... it has taken 5000+ years to get to this point.)

1

This is the beauty of the Oracle scene in the Matrix and the Beauty of Breaking the Vase (Upon entering the Oracle's kitchen, the Oracle tells Neo not to worry about the vase. Neo looks around for the Vase, and ends up knocking it to the ground, shattering it. As Neo appologizes, she sums up your noodle baker... er, paradox: If she had said nothing, would Neo have broken the Vase) which sets up the entire debate Chosen one paradox brilliantly. She tells Neo he's not the One, but maybe in another life... and unfortunately, Morpheous is so convinced Neo is the One, that either he or Neo will die because that conviction.

It puts Neo in a bind and as they try to Exit, Morpheous is captured preventing Neo's capture. This sets up the conflict... pull the plug on Morpheous and kill him, or attempt to save him and die. Now, we all know how the film ends, but again the oracle predicts everything. Neo saves Morpheous and gets caught by Agent Smith and is fatally shot (either Morpheous will die or Neo will die for Morpheous' belief in Neo being the one. Neo dies.). But then moments later resurects and fights Agent Smith as "The One" and easily beats him, as predicted by the Oracle (You're not the One, not yet, maybe in another life. Neo dies, resurects into a second life, and becomes the One).

The entire climax of the film centers around The Chosen One Paradox. Was Neo always the one, or was Neo the one because he chose to act in such a way that the One would? What bakes your noodle, is if the Oracle had said nothing, would he still be the One?

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