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How do I avoid the "chosen hero" feeling?

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In many works of genre-fiction (I'm talking mainly about fantasy and sci-fi, but others genres can apply), and across many forms of media, the main characters ends up being special in some ways.

Maybe it's the abilities the MC has, maybe there is a prophecy, maybe it's something in his/hers birth or upbringing: it doesn't matter how, but often a character is, somewhat, "chosen". No one else could fill in his shoes because the MC is not-replaceable.

Sometimes this is played up straight. Sometimes prophecies are warped. Sometimes, the whole concept is subverted.

My issue: I dislike the whole chosen hero idea; I'm bored of it. Yet as I'm writing my novel I notice that, somehow, I'm falling into it (my MC will eventually get important thanks to the circumstances of her birth; she cannot, therefore, be considered an everyday woman). So I'm finding myself in a contradictory situation - even hypocritical, if you may.

So, here's my more general question:

How do you avoid writing a chosen hero?

I realize that even when classic elements like manifested destinies and roboant prophecies are missing, you still kind of risk a "chosen" situation. We have the natural tendency to make our characters interesting - after all, we like to read about the struggles of extraordinary characters more often than not.

So, the real question is how to add quirks and characteristic to your characters without making the quirks overcome the whole characterization. Is there a point of equilibrium?

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Being the chosen one implies that her fate was decided for her as opposed to deciding for herself how she is going to proceed.

Even if the circumstances of her birth are significant to your story, it's not in stone that she is required by Providence to do whatever Providence wants.

So simply change her motivation and you avoid that trope. She doesn't fight the Big Bad because she was born to it. She fights the Big Bad because it threatens all she holds dear or it violates her sense of values. She fights because she chooses to.

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Add other characters who also fit all the "not replaceable" chosen-one requirements. You could have several heirs, a highly trained merc squad, a prophecy which covers all first-born daughters conceived under a sickle moon, etc.

It happens that your MC is the person who's available to do the job, but if she wasn't there, someone else could potentially fit the bill. It may be that the other Chosen Ones are doing other, equally critical jobs, or the other heirs are getting married off, or the other daughters are getting killed off, or some of the Chosens might agree with the Big Bad! The point is that your MC happens to be in the right place at the right time to Do The Thing which the plot requires.

This was sort of done in the last season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer:

when all the potential Slayers were activated at once to battle the season's Big Bad instead of there only being one (or a few).

and in the Harry Potter series:

Trelawney's prophecy could have equally applied to both Neville and Harry, and it was Voldemort who chose to go after the Potters.

If you put your red fish in a pond full of other red fish, it will seem less contrived that the fish you end up catching is red.

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A possible answer I thought of:

Meet the Everyman

The Everyman (or woman) is a character who's the epitome of being normal. This is played quite often in media to make the audience sympathize more easily with said character; even brought to extremes in some cases (a funnily well done example may be the MC from The Lego Movie, who's so generically bland, yet good-natured). Other relevant examples are dr. Watson in BBC series "Sherlock", Sam in the Lord of the Rings, Bilbo in the Hobbit and so forth.

Imho, the Everyman probably negates the whole "chosen hero" concept, being probably it's polar opposite. How to write a good everyman should be an entire other topic for discussion, I guess.

Yet, I feel there are some limits to this option.

  • First of all, it is a little difficult to write an Everyman in a setting unfamiliar to the reader. I talked about Sam because, I mean, he's a friendly, loyal gardner, yet he's still an hobbit and the Middle Earth isn't your typical place. Grandpa Tolkien did a great job in making him relatable, but well, he was Tolkien.

  • By definition, the Everyman trope clashes with the whole "interesting background" I cited in the question. The more quirks you add to the character, the more it becomes less "ordinary". This doesn't mean that an Everyman has to be a blank slate, yet making it interesting is kind of a challenge.

Obligatory tv tropes link: the everyman

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To answer this question, I think it would be useful to look at The Lord of the Rings. We are explicitly told that Frodo is "chosen" for the task:

Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, book 1, chapter 2 - The Shadow of the Past)

Yet we do not feel, at any point while reading the LOTR, that Frodo is "chosen", "irreplaceable", "the only hero who could save the day".

Why?

I believe three elements are involved:

First, many other characters in the same story have their own crucial tasks. Is Aragorn replaceable, could the Battle of the Pelennor Fields have been won without him? Are Merry and Pippin replaceable? Is Eowyn? If every character is "chosen" for a particular crucial task, then none are "the chosen". Frodo's task is one among many. While without his mission, everything else would have been futile, without any of the others, Frodo would have gained a rather pyrrhic victory.

Second, there is Sam. When Frodo is wounded by Shelob and captured by orcs, it is Sam who saves the quest. Sam is not merely a "sidekick" without whom Frodo could not have succeeded - he is the "backup plan". He could, if need be, finish the quest. In fact, it is never made clear just how far Frodo was "meant" to succeed. And Elrond explicitly says that Sam is "meant" to go with Frodo.

Third, Frodo himself is rather weak and incompetent, compared to other "chosen ones" in the genre. He cannot carry the quest on his shoulders. And he is very aware of his own limitations, even as he tries his best to rise to the occasion. The quest would have failed a hundred times over, had it not been for the help of others. That last one is particularly realistic. No man is an island. No one can achieve what they set out to achieve without the help of many many others. In which case, they are not all that special, are they?

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I think in large part this is due to the fact that we're all the hero of our own stories, and so when we read a story about someone we adopt some of their story where it fits with our worldview.

I'm not sure if there's any really interesting way to write a story without at least some of this feeling. Unless your character is simply an observer, and not really a part of the story.

An example I can think of is Bean from Ender's Game. He was a fairly minor character in that book, but in later books he was the hero of his own story.

Maybe the reason that it's so tough is just the fact that every single one of us is who we are and nobody else - and while most things we could do could be replaced by someone else who could probably do them just as well, there's the undeniable fact that I'm the one writing this response and it's not anybody else - if it were someone else it would probably be different in some subtle way, and maybe not enough to matter.

I think if you want to avoid that feeling of chosen you'll have to be able to make your conflict such that they literally were just in the right place at the right time and happened to make the right decision... but that's kind of a sort of chosen, too, huh?

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I appreciate this question as it's something that can definitely be overdone. It seems to be a problem mostly of the plot driving the characters. We need people to do XYZ, so let's have characters who can do XYZ. That's okay to a point, but it can feel contrived, which is, I think, your issue with it (and mine).

In my own novel, I do have characters who play certain roles in moving along the plot (otherwise you can't really have a plot). While I knew my plot going into it, the characters developed as the plot did. In many cases as well, I have structured the plot around who the characters are.

Take any group of people and a set of tasks that need to be done. Certain people will gravitate towards certain tasks. Some will want to be leaders, some will be managers or support staff, and some may play the hero. It doesn't matter who the people are, they will each find their niche (or they won't and you'll have conflict).

My MC is the only one who could have set my plot in motion. It had to be her. Except if she didn't exist, it could have been someone else in another community. But her role in the novel is not interchangeable with anyone else's.

Is she special? Only in the sense that "everyone's special!" Which is a modern joke, though true to a degree. The reality is that everyone is an individual, with hopes and dreams, with skills and experiences, with a like or dislike of various tasks, and so on.

She's not a "hero." She's not perfect. She lacks skills that other characters are good at. And she doesn't really know what she's doing (yet). Was she "chosen?" Ehhh, I suppose slightly, since there is some magic involved and her mind was the one receptive to the call for help from the past, and she fit in other ways. But there is absolutely no talk in the story of her being unique or the only one in the world or needing to save the day. It's just not the way I roll.

None of us know where we'll end up in life. We don't always get to do the things we're good at. Or use the skills our parents instilled in us. But they're always part of us. If I were in a crisis situation, I could step up to help in certain ways but not others, based on who I am and what my skillsets are. Someone else could step up in ways that have some overlap with mine but are also different. The roles we take on will depend on chance and who else is around with what skillsets and desires.

Show this back and forth. Show who the various characters are and what makes them different. Show the conflicts when more than one wants the same role. If someone really must be the one who takes on that role (Frodo from Lord of the Rings, for instance), show their reluctance, their imposter syndrome, and how they are far from the perfect choice.

The more you make the characters fully fleshed out real people, the less they will be defined by the roles they take on. And this is how you'll get out of the "chosen hero" trap.

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So this is a bit of a frame-challenge answer, but I think it's worth answering:

Maybe it's the abilities the MC has, maybe there is a prophecy, maybe it's something in his/hers birth or upbringing: it doesn't matter how, but often a character is, somewhat, "chosen". No one else could fill in his shoes because the MC is not-replaceable.

One of these things is not like the others, and unfortunately it's the first one. Having someone be chosen for their abilities doesn't feel to me like an example of the "The Chosen One" cliche; it feels like the right way to avert it.

There's a terrorist out there looking to blow up something important. Who should we send to deal with the problem? Arthur, who mystically pulled a gun from a stone, Harry, who as a child survived a bombing by that same terrorist with nothing but an odd scar on his forehead from a piece of shrapnel, or James Bond, who has demonstrated that he possesses relevant skills and has years of experience under his belt dealing with problems of this nature? Any one of them could be a legitimate candidate for the hero of the story, depending on what kind of story you want to tell, but I don't think anyone would call James Bond's adventures a "Chosen One" narrative.

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One idea would be to use the trick Stanely Kubrik used in his screenplay for The Shining. There was in fact a telegraphed Chosen One, it was obvious who he was, he had the info and skills needed to save the day, and he was killed at the beginning of the third act. This left the remaining characters to have to try to find a way to save themselves, with their lesser skills.

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The fact is that in the real world there are doers and slackers; fascinating people and dullards. Usually an extraordinary person just pops up out of nowhere. No-one in their family was particularly famous or skilful.

The chosen one by contrast is almost always royalty brought up as an ordinary person and their intrinsic royal qualities shine through and are eventually discovered. This is unrealistic - Royalty is inherited by birth not by ability.

In time of crisis sometimes a person of extraordinary qualities will crop up, Winston Churchill and Gandhi come to mind. At other times (e.g. Brexit) no-one will rise to the occasion.

Situations based on an MC where no hero appears simply don't make for good stories - unless we have a charismatic villain.

A hero is simply someone who happens to be in the right place at the right time and by chance has the right character to tackle that particular situation to the benefit of others. In some cases they don't even have the perfect set of abilities and have to struggle through by sheer determination.

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While other answers have done well in suggesting specifics, let me try to generalize a bit.

Avoid narrative simplicity.

And yes, this is three simple words which will cause you no end of extra work. Deal with it.

If you have a strong narrative thrust and a simple conflict, the Good Guy has to be easily identified. Go read Conan the Barbarian stories.

How do you get around this? Other answers have interesting ideas. Probably the biggest and best current example of this is Game of Thrones. Presumably, there's going to be a victor, but at this telling there's no lack of uncertainty among the fan base. You might the call this the

GRRM Principle - have many credible heroes, and kill them off.

Of course, so far this has taken 7 seasons (on TV) and six very large books. Are you up for the challenge? It takes a lot of effort to establish a credible, sympathetic character who deserves to win. Once you've done that, it's hard to put in the effort to develop another (and another and another and ...), but that's what you have to do.

There are other possibilities, of course. One is to make the road to victory so painful that you blunt the thrust of the hero's progress. In GOT terms, for instance, you have

Jaime Lannister losing his right hand, Sansa Stark getting raped by her husband(s), Arya Stark going through a very rough road to becoming a Faceless Man (and arguably becoming a sociopath), and Bran Stark becoming paralyzed. Not to mention Jon Snow getting stabbed to death. None of the contenders for the throne are unscarred.

And some of them are going to die.

But this, of course, makes for a messy, nasty story, not a clean one with a clear goal and a virtuous, deserving winner.

Are you up for it?

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In one series (which I won't name, as I'm giving away the ending of one of the books), the Gandalf-like character simply created a chosen one. He announced, based on his own authority, that such-and-such was the bastard child of a legitimate king (the previous one, if I recall correctly). Supposedly he had been saving that information until the child was fully grown.

As it turns out, he simply made that up. He could have picked anyone and said the same thing. He picked someone who had recently lucked into a few achievements and parlayed that into an heir. People were happy that it turned out that the heir was so accomplished and not just some idiot with some royal blood.

This goes along with the concept of a Gandalf or Merlin being someone who grifts, just conning people. There's no actual magic. They just convince everyone there is. (Although in this particular series, there was real magic.)

In any case, this option can turn your mystically chosen hero into someone who just fits some basic characteristics. Perhaps the character has the right hair color or a nose of the right shape (and indeterminate parentage). If the character has some accomplishments, that's even better.

Or if you have enough "royal" options, perhaps the grifter simply makes the description fit the character. The most qualified orphan becomes the heir. If that character won't work with the grifter--the next most qualified orphan becomes the heir.

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The simple answer is, of course:

By showing how your hero earns his spoils through work, effort and luck, not prophecy or choosing. If the reader can follow his evolution from ordinary person to hero of the story, and there is no "he's the one" moment anywhere, it becomes clear to the reader that while the hero is extraordinary at the end of the story, he is so because of the journey he took and the decisions he made and the prices he paid.

You can spot such elements in movies like Rocky, which show you the toil and pain (and failures!) of the hero on his way to overcoming his challenge.

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One approach is to give the chosen one a flaw that she must overcome. It is fine if she has ability. I agree with Mason Wheeler; special ability, particularly ability that demands training and attention to sustain, is not the same as being born a prince, or born with more magic than anybody else. Having an innate aptitude for music is great, but it doesn't automatically make somebody a world class violinist or pianist; that takes years of grinding work. The same thing goes for fighting, the world's best swordsman will undoubtedly have a great aptitude for the task, but isn't born the world's best, and doesn't get to be the world's best without decades of practice.

That said, one way to counter the "chosen one" feeling is to give your MC not only a gift, but a curse. Something they are terrible at. Maybe more than one thing, and so much so that this may sabotage their mission. Alienate their friends. Endanger their comrades. You can make them arrogant, or so self-assured they don't listen to common sense. Let them use their skill to win battles, but make it so they can't win the war unless they can overcome their flaws.

Admit they were wrong. Beg for help. Make amends. Reconcile a hatred. Become a better person. Then that becomes the real breakthrough in their story, and the victory over the villain is not just a triumph over the evil of the villain, but a triumph over the flaw in their own soul.

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Have your character tell the stories of those around her as if she were a leaf blowing in the wind. The story unfolds from her interaction with the other characters, but the focus is never on her, instead she is the mechanism by which the focus is moved through the intricate weaving of the other characters stories. Then after having read the story of her interactions we will have learned something about her, not that it is special but she like her encounters is equally relevant.

A teacher who recognizes that each student is on his or her own path allows the non-disordered students to play a minor character in the classroom without having to act as if their whole life is unimportant. 1

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You can try adding a twist. Follow the usual pattern, and when the final battle comes, the prophecy is about to be fulfilled - it turns out...

  1. ...MC has been mistaken, lied to or used, that MC is no Chosen One at all and has no higher chance to do "the thing" than a regular person, which was presumably said to be zero...

...but still, MC does "the thing".

...alone or with help from MC, someone else does "the thing".

...noone does "the thing" and either Game Over - it was actually a tragedy!, or a way to prepare space for a sequel, where someone finally does "the thing". (you can be extra mean and let the sequel end badly)

  1. ...there is no "the thing" at all!

  2. ...there are / have been others who are trying / tried to do "the thing" who failed for one reason or another and it wasn't certain MC will be the one who finally does it at all.

Maybe even exaggerate the "chosen" aspect a little. Works well for putting emphasis on "overcoming odds", "last minute help" or "extra despair" effect in 1A, 1B and 1C option, respectively.

If you want to kill the whole Chosen One aspect altogether though, either make sure there is no goal clearly more important than any other events in the story, introduce multiple very important characters or avoid having a single MC throughout the whole story, switching between multiple characters as you progress or move to other character after a few chapters.

For example, any slice-of-life story is pretty much immune. It doesn't have to be a mellow story at all, by the way. I can imagine a SoL taking place on the battlefield during a non-pivotal battle in a long war, following a group of regular low ranking soldiers. Not one of them being protected by a plot armor, no chance of the war ending anytime soon, result of the battle we observe from their point of view not entirely relevant. But you really have to flesh out the characters to make it interesting, I think this really tests ones skill to write deep characters with real personalities. Quite often you can get away with shallow heroes because there's a lot of shiny explosions and flashing lasers - here you have nothing but the characters.

By the way, I recommend checking out a game called The Longest Journey - can't spoil the story, but let's just say it works really well with this whole thing, in my opinion. Including the main heroine contemplating the trope as well.

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My advice: Look at real-world examples of historical heroes and how they got into that position.

I think the answer about Frodo in LotR is excellent, but it basically tells you that the main protagonist should not be a typical hero, but rather someone who is not up for the task, but still tries to. That is only one way to write a protagonist, though a very cool one.

But consider that there are real action heroes in history. People who did awesome feats and who are interesting enough to write about. Jeanne d'Arc, Arminius, Alexander the Great... and many of them did have special circumstances that led them down this path. In your fictional world, it can be the same without being in any way related to a boring Chosen One stereotype. It is not a problem to want to write about a very interesting and very capable person who also has a background that made it possible for them to come into the position they find themselves in!

So I would argue that you do not have to overcome the hero protagonist, but the Chosen One framing of them. And looking at the life of historical figures can help in that regard because these people were not Chosen Ones. Look under which circumstances they rose to prominence, and think how something like that would work in your narrative. Have a bit of happenstance in there, some goodwill from other characters, and frame the special circumstances of her birth as something that was important, but did not make them destined to be a hero.

It's a tightrope walk to be sure. But consider yourself a historian of your fictional world. The reason you are writing about this story is because it is so extraordinary.

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When everyone is chosen, no-one is.

Game of Thrones comes to mind. Every character seems to be important and yet they die with such frequency that you can't ever know which are important enough to make it to the end.

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The Thomas Covenant series presents a different way to avoid the "chosen hero" trope.

Covenant is a person of many flaws, which never go away (not least that he has leprosy). He never forgets his own flaws. Although he moves back and forth between his own world where those flaws are evident, and a fantasy world where he seems to be the hero, he never, ever is comfortable in his "hero" skin when in that fantasy world. He may even be lauded in that fantasy world, he may even be the chosen one in that fantasy world, but he never ever accepts it.

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If when u start to write and it always seems like your are going towards the chosen on cliche. Thats cos thats the most primitive feeling we feel. We want to be different and special, and if you are chosen boom no effort you are already different. So you have to question your roots and mould a different personality when ever you write, as the details are just adding onto the personalities of your characters and their fusion. So u need to set the personality of the story, place, setting.. The overall feel. There are a lot of stories and, movies where its not a chosen one situation. Like forrest gump, it feels very personal and not choosen at all. So think abt who is writting, what does he want to be. Cos thats what he is writing. His fantasy.

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If you want a good example of a hero who lacked any appearance of being chosen for the role, I recommend watching the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

One of the themes was that Ranse Stoddard (the hero) was only seen as a hero in retrospect, after Liberty Valance had been shot; up until that point he can barely handle a gun, and his only real qualities are a strong sense of justice and the incapacity to shut up about it. There's a spoiler here for those who haven't seen the movie:

Stoddard isn't the one who shoots Liberty Valance. As Stoddard is facing down Valance, and it looks like Valance is about to kill him, Tom Doniphon shoots him from a nearby alley. Doniphon lets Stoddard take the credit, and for a while Stoddard (who shot at the same time as Doniphon) believes that he had done it, but Doniphon disillusions him later in the film. However, in a greater sense, Stoddard is the real hero here; he is willing to face evil from a position of weakness, whereas Tom Doniphon faced evil from a position of strength.

See the movie. It's one of the best films ever made.

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