Disclaimer: “the chosen one” is not usually one of my favorite tropes, but I’m going to go through it because it really is one of the most iconic and enduring and–as per usual–it is thus for a variety of good reasons. The reasons it can be obnoxious are also quite valid.
So, the good, the bad, and…the resonance.
Except not in that order, because I’m gonna start with the negative.
When it Doesn’t Work:
This trope fails when it is too easy. Too easy, meaning the chosen one never experiences failure, never has to work for anything, accomplishes tasks like magic, and never has to figure anything out on their own.
This trope fails when it is too rigid: when the chosen one is so locked into their destiny that they might as well be a marionette rather than a character so that even when they DO fail or make mistakes, those failures and mistakes have no impact on the narrative whatsoever.
This trope fails when the chosen one’s special chosen-ness overwhelms and overshadows all the other characters so that everyone else looks like cardboard backgrounds designed to show the chosen one in a good light. Secondary characters shrink away and become mere props and furniture in the life of the chosen one.
If the chosen one never wrestles with the dilemmas and dangers of being the chosen one at any time, the story can suffer. I mean, come on, even the original, most iconic chosen one in history (‘anointed one’ in more accurate translation) had sweat like blood running down His face when staring down his great task.
On the other hand, if the chosen one only ever gripes about being chosen and how miserable and unfair it is, that can get old and frustrating real quick too. A sullen, reluctant chosen one can be a fun subversion of the trope, but if they don’t grow to meet the task put upon them, it will probably feel hollow.
Those are a few off the top of my head, and there are probably notable exceptions to each of those, but we’re speaking broadly here.
When it Does Work:
It works when you care about the character, and you care about what they are saving. If it’s too broad, too generic, too mutable, then it’s just an empty title.
It works especially well when it looks like, at some point, the whole thing has utterly fallen through. The Chosen One was going to restore the kingdom, but then they died before they ever built an army! (again, that references the historical Messiah/chosen one). We thought the Chosen One was supposed to accomplish “X” but instead it all turned out completely different than what we envisioned.
It also works well when there is some subversion or another that makes the Chosen One not all that special or graced with much magic or skill, but just some average joe or jane trying really hard to do something that seems impossible because the job got placed in their hands.
As a counter to the “Doesn’t work” list, there is something powerful about watching the chosen one really struggle. Break down. Almost give up. Almost lose hope. Almost. But they don’t give up.
This trope works when the Chosen One illuminates the other characters and vice versa, rather than overshadowing them. Like salt, they should bring out the flavor in other characters, not overpower them.
So here’s my take (and I’m sure there is a ton more that could be added or argued on this topic). I think this trope resonates at at least two basic levels.
What I wish I was
What I wish existed.
We like to be in small percentages and special categories. We like to feel chosen ourselves. If we’re in a certain IQ bracket, or we were selected for a special honor or course, if our Meyer’s-Briggs personality type is really rare or cool-sounding, or if people say “man, someday she’ll do something great.” We like the idea that we could have some unique, positive, pivotal role in history. (Or Maybe it’s just me…) Either way, that’s as close as we get to “chosen” in the regular world.
But I think we also like the idea of something being destined, regardless of whether it’s us or someone else. Because the word destiny has a humming, drawing quality to it. It’s something that’s magnetic, yanking either us, or the whole every world in an exciting, dangerous direction. I talked a little bit about this in another Everlasting Trope post.
We take personality tests when we want to be told who we are, where we will go, and what we will do. We invest our time and devotion when we see a public figure–artist, politician, scientist–who we believe can fix things or solve some great problem.
Of course, it’s easy to see how that can go awry in the real world–obsessive self-analyzing to answer questions only time and effort can answer, or obsessive hero-worship of some public figure who will fail you at one time or another–but it also shows that the desire is there, and is not likely to go away.