Discussion on “The Chosen Hero”

NK Jemisin and Sam Sykes were talking about the Chosen Hero trope in fantasy, and the various ways in which it’s problematic if you think about what-all it implies about how the world works. It’s short but it makes a lot of good points, and Sam posted it on his blog. It’s definitely worth a read for anyone who writes or reads fantasy.

Excerpt from Sam:

But in terms of philosophy, I sometimes wonder if the whole concept of The Chosen One isn’t a toxic one. I occasionally wonder if it’s right to put the concept of someone utterly infallible in all that he does out there, if it’s right to put up this concept that birth matters more than effort. Or, at the very least, if it’s right to put it out there without questioning it.

Excerpt from Nora:

And Chosen Ones who are “select people” or have some birthright to leadership are even more problematic, because then you get into eugenics. If some people are *meant* to be rulers, then that means some people are meant to be ruled — and the latter group can therefore never be allowed to have the power to self-govern. Why give it to them if they’re genetically or magically or psychologically less fit for leadership? And while you’ve got two divisions of people (“select people” and peons, patricians and plebians, whatever you want to call them), why stop there? If some people are especially fit to rule, why not decide that some people are especially fit only for combat, and some only for skilled trades, and some only for intellectual pursuits? And maybe some people aren’t fit to do anything but die, because they’re old or disabled, or because some of your industries (e.g., mining) are especially dangerous and you can’t spare anyone *valuable* to do that kind of work. You’ve just created a eugenicist caste system, whee.

There’s more, it’s good, click through and read. 🙂

I’d never thought of the Chosen One trope from this POV before, but the conclusions do follow from the given. Having the gods or whoever point a finger and say “You” implies that they’re saying “Not You” to everyone else. None of the other people can become the hero, the ruler, the winner, no matter how hard they work, how good or moral or smart they might be. And yeah, that creates an underclass of people who might as well not even try to ever be more than a farmer or a potter or an assistant pig keeper, because that’s what Fate has written for them and that’s what they’re suited for, The End.

I’m trying to think of ways to subvert this. You could have someone who’s been Chosen to perform some task, but maybe that’s all they’re good for and everyone knows it. So you’ve got a bodyguard/babysitter following the Chosen One around to make sure he doesn’t choke on his own shoes before fulfilling his narrowly-focused but necessary destiny, and once he’s done, give him his reward, pat him on the head, and send him home.

Or you can come at it from the POV that the god/Fate/Oracle/whatever doesn’t decide who’s going to do great things, but rather knew who was going to do what. Certain sects of Christianity have spent a lot of time wrestling with the whole predestination question, but to me there’s a clear difference between causing and knowing. If you assume omnicience but not omnipotence, then your oracle can say “This one, but not that one,” with no question of actually controlling anyone’s life. Or maybe you have a Hero’s Oracle who’ll give a prediction to anyone who comes to ask, but the people who come to ask (a long journey over hard terrain, of course) are the ones with the ambition and ability, and thus the ones more likely to get a “Yes, You” sort of answer. [ponder] But anyone can do it; it’s up to them.

Another thought — the oracle would have to give “No Comment” type messages to some people, because foreknowledge can change the decisions a person makes. Or even lie to them sometimes? Although that kind of manipulation could be considered interference and you’re back to having the oracle choose people and force a path upon them. [ponder] Maybe the person’s response to hearing their fate is part of it? Maybe it’s just a potential — so if you ask, “Will I be a hero?” the answer tells you the most heroic future you have available to you at that time, and it’s your choice to work toward it or turn away. If your potential heroism is to step in front of an arrow and die saving the girl who’s going to eventually defeat the Evil Wizard-King, well, some would be content with that and some would say “No freaking way!” and high-tail it back to the smithy. But what if that choice impacts the prediction given to the girl who came last week and was told that she could defeat the Evil Wizard-King?

This could get twisty. Of course, that just makes it more fun to play with. 🙂


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Angela Benedetti lives in Seattle with her husband and a few thousand books. She loves romance for the happy endings, for the affirmation that everyone who's willing to fight for love deserves to get it and be happy with someone. She's best known for her Sentinel series of novels, the most recent of which is Captive Magic.