(And no, I’m not going to explain why it’s an especially appropriate topic at this time of year. Figure it out, dude… ain’t exactly rocket science.)
According to Wikipedia (so it MUST be correct, he said with a straight face… though perhaps just a smidgeon of irony), our relevant definition is: “The Chosen One, also known as The One or The Chosen, is a narrative trope (which Wikipedia also defines as ‘a commonly recurring or overused literary device, motif or cliché’) where one character, usually the protagonist, is framed as the inevitable hero or antihero of the story, as a result of destiny, unique gifts, and/or special lineage.” Let’s pause and examine those qualifiers a moment.
Destiny is an interesting one when you get right down to it, because it implies the character has been chosen by a higher power (i.e. God or whatever term you wish to use) to complete a specific task or quest. I’m sorry, secular humanists, but it does. In a purely atheistic, cause-and-effect universe, there’s no such thing as destiny. (Or ‘magic,’ either, by the way.) Which, of course, opens up a whole ‘nother can of worms i.e. are we merely puppets, or do we possess free will? Philosophers have been arguing about this one for thousands of years, so don’t expect a definitive answer from me… though I will say that if we’re just going through a series of pre-determined motions, it would seem to take the point out of doing anything… and be really boring to watch. Just sayin’
Unique Gifts… this one’s a little vague. What do we mean by it? Abilities? Special abilities? Really special abilities? It’s open to just about anything the author wants to make it.
Lineage… perhaps the most predictable/boring of the three. Because the character’s mom/dad/siblings/myriad-other-relative-possibilities performed some function or had some role --- king, queen, chief financial officer, Grand High Poohbah --- our protagonist becomes the hereditary recipient of Protagonist status. Yay.
Literary example, you ask? Well, arguably one of the more famous Chosen Ones in literature these days is Harry Potter… in fact, to make sure dimwitted types get the message, Jo even labelled Harry… wait for it… the Chosen One. Ta da! He certainly checks off all three boxes our Wikipedia friends include: destiny (the one destined to destroy Voldemort… though given the fact that Rowling’s work is really, really secular, the destiny thing is a tad ironic --- Lev Grossman famously said that, if you want to know who dies in Harry Potter, the answer is God); unique gifts (the Boy Who Lived and also, incidentally, became a horcrux); and/or special lineage (child of James and Lily --- hey, that’s special). You have to love it when an author hits you over the head with a hammer to make sure they’re driving the point home in a way intellectually challenged readers will understand. Subtlety is apparently out of fashion these days. (Well, after all, it does require a modicum of intelligence, which, given the current state of things on our sorry little rock, is apparently in very short supply.)
I said earlier I don’t tend to get too worked up about the whole Chosen One trope, and, full disclosure, part of the reason why is because… well, I’ve used it myself. And it’s a trope that’s been around a helluva long time --- I mean, you can go back to ancient Greek mythology and there it is, staring at you from behind gigantic pectoral muscles. Or moving forward in time a little, you could argue a protagonist or six in Will’s plays tend to be Chosen One types.
The other part of the reason why I don’t particularly mind the Chosen One trope is because… well, it works. Yeah, I know part of the trope definition talks about cliché, which is the overuse of a literary device. But here’s the thing, folks: as humans, we’re walking clichés. Most of us aren’t nearly as original as our vanity likes to think we are. Stereotypes and clichés? Writers use them because they’re the real deal, things every reader who ever lived can easily relate to.
And you know, when you get right down to it, just about every protagonist is a chosen one… even if they’re just a pastoral hobbit with no particular lineage, destiny, or abilities… save one. One very important ability: they need to be WILLING to accept what Will lightheartedly called ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.’ (It’s no good having a protagonist who says, ‘Screw this. I’m going home, getting under the quilt, and staying there. Might make a blanket fort.’ Actually, you pretty much don’t ever get that… because then you don’t have a protagonist… or a story. Even Katniss Everdeen, that Mountain of Misery, was willing… well, kind of. Though I bet she later privately regretted that crazy moment of wild abandon when she volunteered as tribute in place of her sister.) Frodo? No special lineage… sure he’s cousin to Bilbo, the finder of the Ring (NOT nephew, BTW… that’s strictly a Peter Jackson thing), but so what? Destiny? Well, maybe. Gandalf certainly seems to think Frodo was meant to get the Ring. Abilities? Umm… not particularly. I mean, really, Frodo really isn’t hero material at all. Except that he’s willing to accept the booby prize and take the damned Ring on what he knows is likely a one-way suicide trip.
That’s really all which is required. No ‘Chosen One’ tropes… no ability to slay mighty dragons with one magical sword-thrust… just a willingness to do the job, even if it’s dirty and unpleasant and likely to cause severe complications like death.
As Will would say, ‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.