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The setup:

We have a fantasy world. A while back (like, 30-100 years; not really sure yet) a prophecy was given that basically outlined a chosen one. More specifically it outlines a reincarnate of a god who would do an important thing.

One of the characters in my story believes that he is the chosen one (he's wrong), and so do various groups and people around him (they are wrong). He later gets conclusive proof from another character that he is not the chosen one.

The problem:

I have no idea how or why anyone else would begin to believe that he is the chosen one in the first place. Obviously, if the evidence for him being the chosen one is too strong, it will call into question the legitimacy of the debunking. Reincarnating gods are also not a particularly uncommon occurrence in this world, but not everyone believes that it actually happens, so any signals can't be so obvious that everyone in the kingdom would know the signs.

The question:

What are some common signs of chosen ones that could plausibly be found in someone other than the real chosen one?

If it helps at all, I don't really need to fool the reader, or at least not for long, since another character POV already knows he isn't really the chosen one. Also, it might not be hard to get him on board initially, since he quite likes the idea of being the chosen one.

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    This might be more of a Worldbuilding SE question in my opinion, since it is asking for idea generation as opposed to writing generation. It may be migrated there to get better answers :) – Sciborg Sep 27 '20 at 17:32
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    @Sciborg I see you're point, and I even considered it myself. (Though I generally try to avoid the worldbuilding site because I get a very restrictive and hostile vibe over there.) Ultimately I decided to put it here because the actual question in italics is about writing tropes, rather than worldbuilding. – BumpoBiddleton Sep 27 '20 at 17:40
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    Look at Neville Longbottom vs. Harry Potter. Neville could have been the Chosen one - Until Voldemort decided to go after Harry instead of him. – Polygnome Sep 28 '20 at 7:16
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    You can take inspiration from real-world fantasies like the Dalai Lama or even Christianity! Obviously, there can never be a fool-proof test for the "chosen one". The theoretical and practical framework which has been established around the Buddhist "chosen ones" is perhaps particularly interesting because it is an official concept of being chosen and a series of tests to determine him, but it is (afaik) not clear from the onset. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Sep 28 '20 at 11:58
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    @Sciborg Actually this is a terrible question for Worldbuilding. People usually aren't hot on list questions there, and idea generation is strictly off-topic. – Jedediah Sep 28 '20 at 14:17
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There are several writing tropes oriented around misinterpreting prophecies or signs of "Chosen Ones" that may give you some ideas.

  • Prophecy Twist - The prophecy comes true as it was written, but in an unexpected way, and the signs didn't mean what everyone thought they meant. The classic example is Lord of the Rings, when the Witch-King confidently declares that no man can kill him... only to be killed by a woman.

"Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!"

Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. "But no living man am I!”

Perhaps in your story, the character who thinks he's the "Chosen One" believes that because the prophecy lines up with him so well, it means it must be him, when in actuality the clues meant something completely different and were easily misinterpreted. Maybe the prophecy said the hero would be born on the fourth of Oktumber, and your false Chosen One is confident that's him, because it's his birthday... when in actuality, that's the day the true Chosen One's village was burned down and he decided to become a hero, thus making it the day of the true hero's "birth."

  • Prophetic Fallacy - The prophecy is incomplete, or outright deceptive, or told by a liar. Or, alternatively, the people who heard it, including the hero, heard it wrong.

To quote TV Tropes:

For example, a man might see himself being knocked down by a car and note that the time on a digital display is 10:51, then spend the entire episode trying to avoid going near a road, despite various events conspiring to put him in danger. He eventually makes it to 10:52 and thinks he is safe, but is knocked down an hour or so later and discovers that he saw the digital clock in a mirror and his actual time of death is 12:01.

Maybe in your story, the prophecy was incomplete and parts were missing. The false Hero believes that he's the one, and so does everyone else, because he doesn't have the missing parts that reveal the full prophecy, which actually lines up with the true Chosen One.

Perhaps in your story, the prophecy is seemingly ironclad, and so your false Chosen One is confident that it's him because he matches it perfectly. When in reality, the prophecy was just... wrong. It wasn't the true prophecy, or that's not how fate works, or it was just a big scam by some divine entity to mess with people. Whatever the case, the true Chosen One doesn't seem to fit, and so that's why nobody suspects they are the real Chosen One.

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    Some interesting ideas! The double meaning of the word "birth" really struck a chord with me. I think I'm going to focus on a double meaning moving forward. Sciborg my friend, I think I may have to credit you as a co-author if we keep going like this. – BumpoBiddleton Sep 27 '20 at 18:28
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    I think an even more classic example would be Macbeth - the witches decree that "no man of woman born" may harm Macbeth, but during the climactic duel, Macduff reveals that he was "from his mother's womb untimely ripped", i.e. delivered by Caesarian section, not natural birth. Another part of the witches' prophecy involves trees moving, which Macbeth thinks is impossible, until he hears reports of Macduff's soldiers carrying branches with them to obscure themselves... – F1Krazy Sep 28 '20 at 9:57
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    @F1Krazy For added fun - that's exactly what Tolkien was playing on when the Witch-King was killed by a woman and the Ents marched against Saruman. He was disappointed by the way the prophecies in Macbeth were fulfilled and wrote his own versions. – Richard Ward Sep 28 '20 at 12:56
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    Without spoiling anything, Brandon Sanderson is a good author to read for examples of this. – Cain Sep 28 '20 at 15:36
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    Another example of either the prophesy twist or prophesy fallacy comes from Star Wars, where Anakin Skywalker is prophesied to "bring balance to the Force". All the Jedi seem to agree this is a good thing, because balance is good, right? Weren't they shocked to learn that in a galaxy where the Jedi already rule, "balance" isn't actually that great for them. – Seth R Sep 28 '20 at 18:36
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A Few Ideas:

  • Letter of crucifixion: The character's name starts with a T, but no one names their kids with a T, because children with T names are killed by some power trying to prevent the prophecy from being fulfilled. The reincarnation is supposed to have a name starting with "the letter of crucifiction". In reality, the crucifixion under discussion was on an X-shaped crucifix, OR "the letter of crucifiction" really means C. Tradition has "the letter of crucifiction" as a T. This is just part of the prophecy. A painting made by the prophet comes to light, showing the prophet's true meaning.
  • Blue eyes are exceedingly rare. The prophet's native language had no word for blue (this is a real phenomenon). The chosen one is to have "eyes the color of the sea," but the prophet saw the sea as being green. This is revealed to the character by a linguist.
  • The character's mother wanted him to be the fulfillment of the prophecy (or seen as one). Despite the fact that no children other than the true chosen one were EVER born fulfilling the right astrological and birth conditions, his mother lied and claimed he was born (fill in the blank - to a priest father on a Sunday at midnight in the ruins of an abandoned castle). She wanted her son to be important, but she gives a deathbed confession revealing the truth.
  • There is always a chosen one. At the moment of death, a new chosen one is designated. Forces trying to kill the chosen one succeed, but the old chosen one actually died three days later at the bottom of the ravine he was thrown into. The old chosen one left a message carved into the cave wall where he took refuge. The character goes to find an artifact carried by the chosen one, and in discovering the body, finds the note indicating the character isn't the chosen one.
  • The guardians of the true chosen one have lied. There is a secret condition to the prophecy, and they know it, but no one else does. The main character has been told all his life he was the chosen one to set him up for death in case the god's enemies came to kill him.
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    I am so glad I left this open. The last one really hits home since the actual chosen one is quite close to the false chosen one, so it would make sense to use the character in question as bait. Also, the one about the color of the sea is amazing. It unfortunately doesn't fit well with my scenario, but that is so entertaining. +1 – BumpoBiddleton Sep 28 '20 at 3:58
  • Agreed, I love these ideas. – Sciborg Sep 28 '20 at 4:29
  • I find the last one incredibly entertaining. Have you ever seen the Matrix? In there, the Oracle tells "potentials" what they need to hear to, potentially, realize their potentials. I can imagine a similarly Machiavellian guardian setting up the main character for failure just so, in order to trigger the awakening of the "true" chosen one: a lover, sibling, best friend, ... – Matthieu M. Sep 28 '20 at 16:22
  • "There is always a chosen one" - immediately, the Song from bard's tale starts playing. "Oh it's bad luck to be you. A chosen one of many isn't new..." ;) – Syndic Sep 29 '20 at 13:30
  • I thought about a blue eyes variation, where the character has some rare attribute like a skin tone where everyone else has a different tone. Then on their voyages as the "chosen one" they land on a country filled with people with their skin tone, and they realise they aren't so special after all. – marcellothearcane Sep 29 '20 at 13:46
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Warning: Spoilers Below

In the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson, there is a double misdirection regarding the driving prophesy surrounding the identity of the "Hero of Ages". Some excerpts of the prophesy are as follows:

  • The Hero of Ages shall be not a man, but a force. No nation may claim him, no woman shall keep him, and no king may slay him. He shall belong to none, not even himself.
  • He shall defend their ways, yet shall violate them. He will be their savior, yet they shall call him heretic. His name shall be Discord, yet they shall love him for it.
  • The Hero will have the power to save the world. But he will also have the power to destroy it.

The understanding of this prophesy comes in three stages as the series progresses:

  1. For the first while, the prophesy is interpreted as written, that all the references to "he" and "him" meant that the Hero would be a man.
  2. Later on, a historian realizes that this was an intentional mistranslation, and that the pronouns in the original language were gender-neutral, and as such could mean that the Hero could be either a man or a woman.
  3. And finally, in the end, the historian realizes that maybe the pronouns weren't gender-neutral to indicate that the Hero could be someone of either gender, but instead to indicate that the Hero would in fact be someone who was effectively neither gender (i.e. a eunich).

The more twists that leave the prophesy text unchanged but fundamentally alter the understanding of it are, in my opinion, the most effective uses of a prophesy in fiction. For example, there could be a prophesy that says the chosen one will have "power in their scales". This could be interpreted literally to mean that they physically have scales and are some sort of lizardman, or is a reptile hunter with a bunch of scales collected from their kills. Or perhaps it's a weight scale and the hero is a merchant. Or that it's a reference to the scales of justice and the hero is a judge or member of law enforcement. Or it's a "scale" meaning a range of values, and the hero is a statistician.

Part of the depth and richness of a story comes from the ability to assure that the reader knows the truth before ripping their expectations out from underneath them in an "I can't believe I didn't see that coming" moment, and pushing a prophesy with a "commonly held understanding" that has its true meaning slowly revealed over the course of the plot (sometimes more than once) is a great way to accomplish that.

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Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series is basically revolving around the concept of a "chosen one", and some people sincerely, but wrongly believing that they are the "Dragon Reborn".

Usual "chosen one" trope involves the protagonist who is truly the chosen one, and sometimes other people who are knowingly trying to steal that role.

But this is very easy to make the prophesy so "nebulous" that there may be mistakes. Make signs of the chosen one rare, but not truly unique. Alternatively, you may show how the judgement of a "false prophet" is misleading.

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