I recently read an article about clichés authors shouldn’t use. It was a well written, well thought out article. For the most part, I agreed. There was one point I’d like to refute. The author of the article stated that fantasy & science fiction authors need to dispense with “The Chosen One” hero—someone destined to lead, kill the bad guy and save the world.
Here’s the thing: Nobody wants to read about the Nobody. We want the heroism, the special skills, the destiny factor. That’s part of what makes a hero heroic. No one wants to read about an insignificant peasant, unless the peasant steps up to greatness.
Where would Lord of the Rings be without Frodo? Where would the Hobbitt be without Bilbo? Where would the Narnia series be without the Pevensie children? I’ll tell you—at the bottom of a drawer, gathering dust, ignored for all time. The Hunger Games and Harry Potter books would meet the same end. Nobody wants to read about the Nobody.
That’s not to say that the hero must be perfect or of epic proportions. Even the famous heroes of yore, Hercules, Jason and Achilles, were flawed. Deeply, dare I say, Epically, flawed. Yes, they did great things, but their mistakes were equally as outstanding as their successes.
Books without a Chosen One hero aren’t likely to do well. Readers want and need someone to believe in, someone destined to lead, someone born to succeed. The problem here is not the cliché itself, but the way it is often handled. If the hero is too damaged, or reluctant, too afraid to step up, the story drags. Readers get angry with him. Some will stop reading.
I’m put in mind of the Thomas Covenant series. Here was a man who was horrendously flawed, his body ruined by disease, his life in tatters. But guess what? He’s the Chosen One! Who, less than five minutes after he arrives in the new land, rapes a girl simply because she’s there and he has to prove to himself he’s strong once more. I stayed angry with him through the entire book for that. I read several of the books in the series, because they were somewhat engaging, but his personality constantly grated. I finally gave up on them. I don’t mind a flawed character, but I don’t like a hero who’s only marginally better than the villain.
Readers don’t want fairytale princes either. Too perfect is as bad as too flawed. No one is perfect. We all have character flaws. Mr. Wonderful has to be Mr. Horrible at some point or again, readers lose interest. Make him interesting and realistic, not some two dimensional man of film.
The Chosen One, the person who, through no fault of his own, has been handed a job so daunting, no one would want it. He doesn’t want to believe he is the Chosen One, because no one in his right mind wants to do that job! He balks, he fights it, but eventually, he does what needs doing. Perhaps the belief in a higher being who has ordered this, grates with some readers. Perhaps it is because this seems to take away the concept of free will? That, I’m not sure of.
Quite often, the Chosen One reaches a decision making stage. They can fight and fulfill their destiny, or they can give up. Usually, they step up and do what needs to be done because they are Frodo, or Bilbo or Peter the High King or Katniss Everdeen or Harry Potter. They choose to move forward and fight evil, not because it’s foretold, but because the alternative isn’t even an option for them.
As John McClain says in Live Free or Die Hard: “That’s what makes you that guy.”
Hooray for the reluctant hero!