Quick, name a Chosen One narrative.
Okay, I’m hearing Star Wars, I’m hearing Harry Potter, Percy Jackson… Did someone actually say Disney’s Hercules?
All right, now name one with a female protagonist.
That isn’t Buffy.
(Leave your answers in the comments.)
Most Heroines– at least the ones of the past 30-ish years– don’t get chosen but rather choose their adventure. Mulan decides to take up her father’s sword and join the Army. Katniss volunteers in place of her sister for the Hunger Games. Merida’s entire story is about how she should have the choice of what her life will be. It’s hardly ever seen in Sci-Fi; Ripley isn’t a Chosen One, neither is Capt. Janeway or Dana Scully or the Doctor’s Companions (pointed stare at Moffat). Chosen Ones tend to deal with prophesies and mysticism and fate, things more often associated with Fantasy.
There’s also more to girls who are Chosen Ones than being princesses with curses, or being Buffy. They follow certain patterns, the same that the guys follow. There are essentially three different types of Chosen Ones; Type One, the kind that has an explicit prophesy attached to them; Type Two, the kind that is chosen by the gods/the universe’s higher power; and Type Three, the kind that simply has a unique power and is “Great Power, Great Responsibility”-ed into being the hero. Types One and Two are the easiest to write, but the hardest to write well due to just how many of them there are, and Type Three works best for serialized stories. I’ll talk some about each of them, with some of their higher profile examples, as well as some writing advice to nail the character arc.
Type One: So Let It Be Written, So Let It Be Done
Éowyn is the first example that comes to my mind of a Heroine tied to a specific prophesy, though interestingly the prophesy is not her own, nor is it the Witch King of Angmar’s, but Macbeth’s (which I’m almost sure should be spelled MacBeth, but that’s just the Scot in me, I guess). Tolkien was a professor of Literature and Linguistics and while he tended towards Medieval literature, he couldn’t exactly avoid Shakespeare. He also hated that he couldn’t avoid Shakespeare. The common anecdote for the culmination of Éowyn’s character arc is that Tolkien was annoyed that Shakespeare missed a perfectly good opportunity for a woman to kill Macbeth, as opposed to Macduff who was born via c-section, which apparently doesn’t count. If you know someone who’s had a c-section, ask them if that counts. Go on, I’ll wait. I have a much higher opinion of Shakespeare than Tolkien did, and even I think that was a bit of a cop-out.
Éowyn’s function within the story is as simple as anything Tolkien wrote. She is the niece of the King of Rohan, she falls in love with Aragorn, she disguises herself so that she can join the Riders of Rohan at the Battle of Minas Tirith, she kills the Witch King, fulfilling the prophesy. The whole point of a prophesy-based narrative is for the prophesy to be fulfilled, and that messes with the tension. You know it’s going to be fulfilled by the end, because that’s how prophesies work.
Take Raven from Teen Titans. She is prophesied to become a portal for her father, Trigon (basically Satan), so that he can come to Earth and destroy it. I even remember what the prophesy was: The Gem was born of Evil’s fire / The Gem shall be his portal / He comes to claim, he comes to sire / The end of all things mortal. While the other Titans tried to stop the prophesy from coming true, it nonetheless did. In an episode titled “The End, Part 1”. Parts 2 and 3 were the Titans fighting Trigon in a post-apocalyptic waste in order to save the world. It seems that prophesies with a twist are the preferred way to get out of the tension-less state that a prophesy creates.
The problem with prophesy is that it’s inevitable, and you’ve trapped yourself in a narrative. Trying to prevent the prophesy almost always ensures that it will happen. The audience knows that, you know that, so unless you are committed to a plot, wait until the story is done and see if it stands on its own without the prophesy– with character motivations that make sense and events that logically proceed from one another. Then figure out where your prophesy would fit in. Éowyn would have been at that battle anyways, Raven would have wanted to stop her father regardless. What the prophesies do is allow them to use their motivations to create the narratives.
Type Ones to Look Out For:
- Annabeth Chase, Piper McLean, and Hazel Levesque of the Heroes of Olympus series
- Lucy and Susan Pevensie of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe
- Emma Swann of Once Upon a Time
Type Two: Touched by the Gods
Moana as a Heroine is much more towards the Mulan end of the Disney Princess spectrum. Unlike Mulan, however, she was chosen by a higher power to journey on her quest. In this case, the Pacific Ocean. In her movie, the ocean is a sentient being along the lines of the Force from Star Wars. Moana is constantly questioning her role as a Chosen One, culminating, of course, in a song. And her insecurities are pretty justified– she needs to find the demigod Maui and sail him to Te Fiti, and her people have lost their ability to wayfind after spending 1000 years on Motonui and not exploring the ocean. And she doesn’t exactly have a natural talent for it, her first time out on the water doesn’t go particularly well, and she has a lot of trouble getting to Maui. I won’t actively spoil the movie if you haven’t seen it yet, but it is a Disney movie. They’re not going to go off-script that much.
We don’t know Rey’s full story yet, but speaking of the Force, it seems awfully interesting that Maz Kanada was A) in the possession of Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber and B) so willing to give it over to Rey. It’s never very clear how the Force works as an influence over events at any point in the Star Wars movies, so we should instead look at who it chooses to act out its will. Apparently, the Force likes desert planets. I can already tell you that Rey will be instrumental in the destruction of the First Order and the Knights of Ren. She’s a great pilot and mechanic (though the films might forget that like they did for Anakin and Luke), she’s a decent shot, and she’s tough. She’s going to need to be.
What inevitably happens with Type Twos is that they’re always partially questioning why they have been chosen. Especially if the high power isn’t one for communicating their thoughts and opinions to normal humans like us and their Chosen One. And even if they are, they’re not always clear. And whatever isn’t clear for your characters isn’t going to be clear for the audience, to a point. Moana and Rey both have skills and abilities that show why they’re fit to do the jobs, and you need to make sure that those are present in the story as well.
Type Twos to Look Out For:
- Kelandry of Mindelan from Lady Knight
- Cordelia Chase from Angel
- Princess Zelda from most of the Legend of Zelda games
Type Three: The Power is Yours
Of course, I couldn’t not talk about Buffy. The Slayer seems to be chosen not quite at random, as there are girls who are potential slayers, but the Slayer herself has no clear method of how she is chosen. Sineya, the First Slayer, was chosen by a group called the Shadow Men, being imbued with the strength and powers of a demon. As such, they created, perhaps inadvertantly, a line of Slayers that continued on into the 21st century, with Faith actually being the most recent one. Ever since the end of the first season, there were two Slayers– due to some rules laywering about how Buffy was technically dead, but was revived by CPR and didn’t really die. Then, at the end of the seventh season, Buffy and the Scooby Gang gathered as many potential slayers as they could and Willow activated all of them, making sort-of a Chosen Army. They are not chosen by prophesy (though prophesies do exist in the Buffyverse) nor by the Powers That Be (who were more of an Angel thing), but because of an innate ability or spirit.
Along those lines, Avatar Korra as the latest in a reincarnation chain starting with a Firebender named Wan, is chosen due to who she is and what she can do rather than by fate or design. She’s not the first named female Avatar– Kyoshi and Yangchen both appeared in the previous series– but she’s the first we get to know really well. The Avatar is unique in their universe as they can bend all four of the elements, Water, Earth, Fire, and Air, as opposed to just one. The show is steeped in Eastern mythology and religions, and the Avatar works to bring balance to the world, as opposed to fighting pure evil and being pure good. Korra is much more brash and athletic than her predecessor, Aang. Her approach to Avatar-ing starts off as “punch first, ask questions later”, and she grows into her position over the series.
Both Legend of Korra and Buffy the Vampire Slayer deal with being the Chosen One differently than most others as their chosen-ness is an ongoing state, as opposed to being for a specific event. They are chosen to fight for good/balance, and that fight doesn’t end when the credits roll. When Éowyn slays the Witch King, she’s done. The Prophesy is fulfilled. When Buffy kills the Big Bad of the season, there’s always more evil on the horizon. Korra gets the world back in balance only for another destabilizing threat to come along. If you’re planning a running series, that’s great. For a stand-alone prophesy, though, Types One and Two might work better.
Type Threes to Look Out For:
- The Halliwell Sisters from Charmed
- Usagi Tsukino from Sailor Moon
- Thorn Harvestar from Bone
The Chosen Many
Chosen One narratives aren’t going away, not entirely. Humans seem to like them, especially when paired with the Hero’s Journey. Certainly Fantasy isn’t giving it up any time soon. What we have to do though, is decide what type of Chosen One we’re going to have and how to make them more interesting. Prophesies can be interesting if they’re played with, but doing it straight has pretty much been done to death. Sure, the gods of your universe can pick their Heroine, but you have to make it clear why they did. And being chosen based on some intrinsic ability works great for serials, but not so well for movies and can veer into unfortunate readings if mishandled. This doesn’t mean that it can’t be an effective device when used properly. Whether your writing for a girl or a guy, a well-handled Chosen One arc can give the story a weight to it, and helps move along the plot.