What fantasy authors do in their spare time, part #354:

Talk about deep stuff. Like, why are there Chosen Ones, and why aren’t more of them jerks? In private email, got to conversing with Sam Sykes, a fellow debut fantasy author of Tome of the Undergates, about the whole concept of the Chosen One and the trope’s not-so-subtle inherent message that birth matters more than effort. He’s got the whole discussion up on his website, but here’s an excerpt from, well, myself:

I mean, yeah, Chosen Ones are problematic as hell, and it’s creepy and depressing that the fantasy readership rewards this narrative with bestseller sales without seeming to question it. That’s because the fantasy readership is *conservative* at its core — tradition-obsessed, change-resistant, and more than a little bigoted. And yeah, if you want to be a bestseller, then to some degree you have to cater to this core.

Interesting stuff. Go see! Feel free to comment here or there.

19 Responses »

  1. Namecalling your readership also tends to be a good way to become a bestseller.

    Seriously, “chosen one” does not have to be a creepy idea. Generally, the story has some sort of deity, and this deity would be omniscient. It’s not that some random deity chose some random person to be the hero and then they did all these great things because of it. Instead, it’s that the deity is all-knowing and knows the type of person you are capable of being before you are born, and then the deity chooses the person who has the most potential to be the hero.

    Also, birth does matter. I did not have the same opportunities that the Obama children will, or that of any other famous/rich person’s children. This isn’t because I put forth less effort than they did, or that my parents put less effort than their parents did. It’s a simple accident of birth. Maybe the “chosen one” trope places too much emphasis on the birth part of the equation, but recognizing that it matters is just a fact of life.

  2. Ok, so now I have read the whole essay over at Sam Sykes blog, and I now see the whole point you were trying to make. I’ll back off my critique a little bit. I was thinking more of the trope as “Chosen One who defeats the Dark Lord” rather than “Chosen One who rules the world.” I agree that the Chosen One as a ruler is inherently creepy. I’m also not entirely sure of what your conception of the Chosen One trope is. You cite Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind as an example, but to me that is the opposite of Chosen One. Their’s no prophecy or deity that chooses the hero. Instead there is just a hero that pulls off a lot of great adventures, which seems to imply that any story with a great hero belongs in the trope, but that would paint a pretty wide stripe across the genre.

  3. Dave,

    You’ll back off “a little”? Huh, hate to see you being really critical. :) For that matter, at what point did I namecall anyone? Or do you consider “conservative” to be an insult rather than a descriptive term? I suppose I could use “tradition-bound” instead; same meaning in this case.

    The Chosen One we’re both talking about are people who succeed because they’re “special” in fantasy, whether through the anointment of a deity or exceptional/magic genetics or some other inborn, as opposed to developed-through-hard-work, characteristic. We’re not talking about the mere advantages of privileged birth; I’m not sure this is something that has a real-world analogue. Obama’s children have been born wealthy and with significant status, yes, but they’re not possessed of special powers, or anointed by God for some higher destiny. Lots of human beings in the real world think they are Chosen Ones, or are treated as such by others, but they’re not. Frankly, the people who’ve changed our world most have been people who worked their asses off to do so. This “born special” thing is something we see depicted literally only in SFF material.*

    Per Rothfuss, Kvothe certainly works hard, but he’s also born practically a genius, or at least a potential polymath. He has an innate musical ability inherited from his father, and it’s hinted that he’s inherited his talent for magic as well. However, we won’t know for certain whether he’s a Chosen One until the series is done, so he’s perhaps a poor example. For that matter, my own first novel’s Yeine gets where she does by the end of the story because she’s literally been chosen by gods (not her own; actually her god’s enemies) and given the special characteristic of a goddess’ soul. The fact that this is not a good thing — it makes her a pawn and sacrificial lamb, quite literally — is a bit of subversion of the trope, but fact that at the end it is a good thing (turns her into a goddess) puts it back squarely in trope territory. Ditto Oree in the second book; she’s born to her magic. The closest I come to truly subverting the trope will be in book 3, in which I (whoops, spoiler)

    bypass the whole chosen-by-gods thing and just make the protagonist a god himself, then strip away all his power over the course of the story. But he’ll still have all the knowledge of gods and his own billion-year-long life, and his godly family. These are no small assets,

    so I’m not sure even that example counts.

    What I would like to see are some real subversions of the trope — e.g., a Chosen One who’s a terrible human being and stays that way through the end of the story, or the Chosen One of a “good” god who turns out to be evil, or a Chosen One who’s incompetent and gets propped up as the puppet of more competent hardworkers, or something like that. Or a few more heroes who work their way up from nothing and lack any sort of innate talent or specialness — but I do wonder how successful such heroes would be in this genre. The readership really does seem to prefer people who are “born special” to those who have to work for it.

    *Belatedly it occurs to me: we also see “born special” people doing great things in religion. But that’s a whole other controversial topic that I’d rather not tackle right now.

  4. Maybe namecalling was not the best word choice (in fact my spellchecker tells me it’s not even a word), but “more than a little bigoted” was what I was aiming at. I’m not saying it’s not correct, because it certainly could be, your logic certainly makes a lot of sense. You mentioned that you have to cater to that audience to become a bestseller, and I was just trying to point out that calling that audience “more than a little bigoted” probably wasn’t going to endear them to you.

    To me Kvothe is the perfect example of natural ability plus hard work equals one very talented individual. I don’t have a problem with this because it’s a lot like real life. Most people at the top have reached there do to some confluence of hard work and natural ability. Of course, I guess this isn’t really what you’re reacting against. The problem isn’t that these people exist in the story but that they always end up being the hero or “chosen one.” I can see your point in that regard. I have no trouble reading the previous type, but I wouldn’t mind reading more stories trying to subvert the trope. Certainly the ideas you just rattled off sounded pretty interesting. I’d give them a shot.

  5. Hi, sorry. I was just reading the comments and I think I might have hit a spoiler for Book 3 – not sure cause I immediatly stopped reading! If it is could you put a warning in the post? Thanks!

    The whole concept of the Chosen One is interesting. I think part of the appeal is the wish fulfillment (don’t we all, in our daydreams, want to be a little bit Special? Revelation scenes are fun!) And special abilities can lead to some very cool scenes in fantasy, and also dump a load of fun character conflict of the ‘chosen’ character of the ‘oh my deity of choice this is supposed to be my responsibility WHUT’ kind, while also leaving a way for all the loose ends to be neatly tied up in the finale when the Chosen One HAS accepted their responsibility, HAS proven themselves worthy of their destiny, and can now ride off into their Magically Ordained happy ending. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE books like this – (especially when the trope is subverted a bit!) they’re om nom comfort food. But when you’ve got to the nearly tied up ending you close the book with a satisfied sigh but also a feeling of slight dissatisfaction. And pretty soon you’re hungry for something else.

    So yeah. I love my Chosen Ones but I will leap like a leopard on any book that promises to do something different. There’s a Terry Pratchett quote I love – he says that when he was a teenager he thought that fantasy was about battles and kings. Now he thinks it should be about NOT having battles and doing without kings.

    But really, I imagine that the reason most authors plump for Monarchy over Democracy is that the cast of characters needed for democracy would be really unwieldy (and less about the individual Making the Difference.) All those committees! Still. I’d love to see it done.

    I guess the other side of it is, though… people aren’t exactly equal. Some people are more intelligent or more charismatic then others, that makes them more likely to be able to take advantage of opportunities that come they’re way. And the capacity for huge determination and sheer, slogging, hard work… that’s a pretty ‘Special’ quality as well!

  6. Hi Dave,

    I have to call it like I see it. When I look at epic fantasy, I see a genre awash in tales of fantasized Europe and not many other places; idealized men and marginalized every-other-gender; overrepresented white people and stereotyped or barely-extant people of color; idealized Christianity and misrepresented other religions; stereotyped queerness and valorized homophobia; and so on. Certainly there are exceptions, and the fact that they exist is a good thing. But the bulk of the genre? Has serious problems, and bigotry is at the root of many of them. I don’t think it’s an insult to talk about this. Frankly, I think it’s more insulting — to the genre, to the readership, to my own intelligence — to pretend that the problems don’t exist. Your mileage may vary.

    And anyone who’s so horrified by my putting a name to the genre’s problems probably isn’t going to want to read anything by me given that my writing doesn’t shy away from addressing bigotry either. So I can’t say I’m particularly worried about losing those readers.

  7. Hi Kate,

    I didn’t think it was a spoiler, since I’ve mentioned the premise of book 3 in interviews before now… but I guess if you’re avoiding spoilers, then you probably haven’t seen those. D’oh! Sorry.

    Agreed that different people have different talents; I’m not saying that talent doesn’t exist and isn’t a real factor in how people interrelated. My problem is with the fact that talent — and only talent — holds pride of place in fantasy. Yes, the talented person often has to work hard to realize their potential. But so do non-talented people, and they often achieve just as much while working harder, or even while overcoming the shortcoming of having no talent in their chosen area — so why don’t we see more fantasy about them?

    I’ve been reading some books on parenting lately — no, no surprises forthcoming, just curiosity, and research for a book I’m working on. And one of the interesting points I’ve noticed lately is a big debate about childrearing philosophies. Basically, there’s a lot of discussion going on right now about whether it’s better for parents to praise a child for her innate intelligence (“You’re so smart!”) or for her effort (“You’re working so hard!”). I think the American (speaking from my own culture here) tradition is to lean toward the former, because as a culture we valorize innate qualities. But that’s not a universal thing, and many other cultures valorize hard work and achievement whether you’ve got talent or not. There’s pros and cons to both philosophies, but it really brought home to me just how reliant Americans are on the idea of innate gifts. Like you said, not everyone has them — so what should you do if you don’t? I’m beginning to wonder if this is one of the reasons why so much of our fantasy — our escapist, wish-fulfillment-focused fantasy — concerns itself with people who are supremely, inhumanly talented on an inherent level.

  8. Firstly: Great post! I really needed to read that. Thinking about it, I can see that Chosen One elements have definitely slipped into my own work as a matter of course, and while I can’t actually remove them at this point, I can definitely try to think about them more.

    Secondly: You’ve said above that you don’t want to get into the religion debate that parallels this one, but I feel sort of compelled to mention the following point. As a lifelong atheist and fantasy reader, I had this sudden epiphany when I was about sixteen and reading Feist’s A Darkness at Sethanon that while I was deeply sympathetic to Chosen Ones within the confines of fantasy narratives – that is, to the guy/girl who knows the reason for the coming darkness, has been gifted with divine revelation about how to thwart the rising of the evil god and is constantly frustrated at the unwillingness of every other person in their world to take the threat seriously – in real life, I was exactly the sort of person who wouldn’t listen to the Chosen One, because I don’t believe in god/s. That was an incredibly significant moment, personally: it was what made me realise the power of narrative, and particularly fantasy narrative, to make people think about the world from perspectives they’d never considered before. Because if, for instance, someone had handed me a book about Joan D’Arc, I would have never have tried to get inside her head and understand why she believed the way she did – what was the point, when my own beliefs told me hers were wrong? – and yet an endless succession of fantasy novels had made me do exactly that, without my even noticing! And now that I had noticed, what else could that sort of story do? What *couldn’t* it do? So I guess what I’m saying here is, if there’s one possible positive outcome associated with Chosen One narratives, it’s making those of us who live without faith seriously contemplate the notion of living with destiny, or divine guidance, and to see ourselves – the doubters – from the outside.

    Thirdly: In an earlier comment, you’ve mentioned the debate about raising children with praise for their intelligence as distinct from praise for their effort. I don’t know if you’ve read the following article, but if not, you might enjoy it: http://www.infobayarea.com/articles/stories/raisingsmartkids.html

  9. Hi Foz,

    I hadn’t seen that particular one, but there are many articles like it. It seems like something that’s been common knowledge in psychology for awhile — the notion that there are different ways to think about intelligence; it’s not all fixed and innate — is finally making its way into the mainstream. And I’d never seen it applied to the notion of children’s performance and learned helplessness before.

    Your point is taken about Chosen Ones acting as allegories for any number of religious figures — prophets, saviors, etc. But that’s partly why I don’t want to get into it; I have some theories about that, given the high number of atheists in our field, and while I don’t normally shy away from controversy, I’ve got a deadline right now and no time to moderate comments. So I’ll leave it at that. :)

  10. Lol, no worries – it’s a really big question, and one I’d love to see you unpick in the future, but deadlines are deadlines! :)

  11. From the discussion you link to:

    But there are a lot of folks in the fantasy readership who find a certain comfort and simplicity in concentrated authority.

    This can be generalized across F&SF, I think. Haven’t seen it much over in mystery.

  12. I haven’t read Campbell so this may be a stretch or just entirely wrong, but I thought that many of our tropes, such as the specially-powered/divine/chosen hero, can be traced back centuries, and even across cultures: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monomyth. I’ll look forward to going over and reading the thread you link to; I’m a long-time reader of F/SF so enjoy thinking about this stuff in general.

    This is not to say that the whole Chosen One “thing” isn’t overdone, or unfair. I wonder sometimes if we buy into it because it appeals to us on some deeper level (collective unconscious? we just like the familiar? it’s how we’re wired?). There’s also the appeal of a superhero that will save us all, rather than all of us individuals having to actually work or sacrifice to save the world.

    As a parent I think it makes more sense to praise work & process rather than emphasizing innate talents or intelligence. The latter are fine and dandy but they don’t usually blossom without work, discipline and failure. I also like the fact that the more we *teach* kids about their brains and neurology, the better the kids learn… knowing that you may have to fail dozens of times before your brain forms the necessary connections to do it right, for example, or just that doing the work of trying over and over will make other connections come more readily… I rather wish I’d known that when I was younger and blowing off all my homework!

    And while I hope that reading lots of Fantasy and Sci-Fi to my kids will make them happier/smarter/more fulfilled, I *do* plan to talk with them about Chosen Ones. ;-)

  13. I read some fantasy book about a decade ago where the second Chosen One(s), on learning that their Gods had Chosen them and that a lot of the crap in their life was because they had been Chosen, issued to said Gods a series of one-fingered salutes and wandered off to do whatever it was the humans thought worth doing. I don’t know that it worked but I appreciated the sentiment.

    I think it might have been the same series where the previous Chosen got themselves killed, derailing the original plot.

  14. James,

    Yep, I agree, but since we’re talking about fantasy here I tend to try and limit my generalizations. :) I think it’s endemic in American society to some degree, but its manifestation in epic fantasy tends to center around Chosen Ones, kings with divine right or a special lineage, and so on.

  15. James —

    Oh, and please see if you can remember that series! It sounds like a delicious subversion of the standard Chosen One idea, especially if it worked (to keep him/her from following the divine plan).

  16. I *think* it might have been by Laura Resnick and I think her starting point was “what does a Chosen One fantasy look like if the people involved are all Sicilian?”

  17. I call it American exceptionalism. ;)

  18. I don’t know if this is exactly on topic since it is a video game but In Tales of Symphonia there were two worlds and the each had THEIR OWN chosen one vying for the position of power from the same “gods”. Problem was for about half the game one “chosen one” didn’t know anything about the other one. Even though the other one did you still got the option to choose whether or not he was trying to sabotage the party the whole time.Unfortunately this interesting turn of events is far outside the norm for most video games of this type. So I guess the implications of the conversation have ranges outside of just the writtern SFF world. I mean I would like to read about something like this in a SFF book too. I think it would be even more amazing in the hands of a fantastic writer. Also I wonder is the appeal of the Chosen One based on the fact that deep down people beleive that special =interesting? Once again a little off topic but take a glance at just about any T.V. show. The only ones depicting ordinary family life or work situations are comedies. Soap operas are a prime example. Almost anyone on a soap is either rich, beautiful or a combination thereof. I have to wonder would the ratings be just as high for averagely pretty middle income people with the same amount of drama in their lives?

  19. I read your blog because you talk about all aspects of the genre, and your books are wonderful. The “Chosen One”/ central Hero gimmick is a long running one on fantasy for a number of reasons, I think it is rather prevalent in sci-fi as well. It comes down to the structure of having one main character to a certain extent, which is why while Martin’s work is rather white male based it does subvert this trope a bit by having interesting women at the very least and more than one “main” character. He really fooled me in Game of Thrones, but it is my favorite aspect of that series.
    Lulu, I am using that idea a bit in my own world. I love the hero’s quest, but it does get old after awhile.
    I hope the further discussion of religion and fantasy will be soon, I have a lot of interest in that myself.