Why am I even devoting a post to this? Everyone knows that this plot device is so overdone it’s beating an undead horse to death–twice.
Oh, right, because I said I would talk about the House of Night series all week this week, which is a perfect example of this trope in action.
I think this was originally said on a TV Tropes page, but basically “every protagonist is expected to have some degree of specialness” even if it’s only the fact that they are the main character, that out of all the stories the author could have told, they choose to tell this one.
The Chosen One shtick is what power fantasies are made of–not only is the story about you, you are the World’s Last Hope. The Entire Fate of the Universe Rests in Your Hands, Brave Adventurer, and as much as I wish this trope would die a horrible death, even I get in the mood for a nice power fantasy (if only power fantasies that revolve around women weren’t so denigrated–Mary Sue, anyone? As power fantasies for men).
However, I think there’s a point when “specialness” becomes “speshulness”. The character isn’t just “special” the character is so extra speshul that another person like this character hasn’t been seen in generations (or maybe even hasn’t existed at all up until this point). If magical powers are a normal part of the world, this character will have a speshul power all their own, or they’ll have more than the allotted powers that everyone else has (ie. if everyone gets one special talent at birth, our speshul snowflake will have three).
Now, I don’t think that being unique in some way necessarily makes a character speshul. I think Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra do this well. Yes, Avatars are super powerful, but an antagonist who uses their head (see: Azula) can and will give the resident Chosen One a sound thrashing until they figure out how to use
godmode the Avatar State. Even Korra, who at the start of the series has mastered three elements, is still taken down a peg by people with no flashy elemental powers at all (just electrified equipment). Then they figure out how to turn on godmode the Avatar State at will and their enemies are basically screwed.
But then you have protagonists like Zoey Redbird, who are pretty much speshul because the plot demands it. Normally, vampyres each have one elemental affinity, Zoey starts off with an affinity for all five elements. Her mark is also unique in that its filled in right off the bat, something that normally only happens when you Change. There isn’t really a reason given for why she is the way she is beyond “Nyx has declared it to be so” and she’s a goddess, so are you really going to argue with a goddess?
Of course, everyone is so supportive of Zoey–except the people who aren’t, but of course, they’re all evil, or at least unpleasant, everyone Zoey doesn’t like is like that–you are not allowed to disagree with the super speshul protagonist, even when she’s juggling three boyfriends and lying to everyone about it (including the guys in question). Zoey is right, you are wrong. The end.
Of course, the Chosen One thing isn’t limited to YA or fantasy or well, books (video games are pretty much all about making sure you, the player, are as special as possible, with exceptions). In fact, if I had to name one of the worst offenders in my collection, I’d pick every major character in the Black Jewels Trilogy, especially Jaenelle Angelline who is powerful because the world wants her to be powerful. Most people only get two shiny reservoirs of power (the titular Jewels), Jaenelle not only gets one Jewel of each color, she gets thirteen Black Jewels, the highest ranked Jewels ever!
To put this in perspective, one Black Jewel has the power to:
a) sink an entire island nation
b) erase the memory of that island nation from existence, even from the oldest books ever written, even from the heavily guarded repository of all knowledge and history that is the Keep
It’s basically giving a small child the equivalent of thirteen nuclear bombs. Actually, it’s like giving a child thirteen nuke manufacturing facilities and being all “Now Jaenelle, you must never push the Big Red Button, or the world will explode.”
And lest you think that Anne Bishop can’t possibly top that, when Jaenelle comes of age, she gets a Jewel that’s even darker than Black (Ebony) which has never been seen before, ever.
Granted, every major character in that world has Issues with a capital I, but as with Zoey, there’s really no reason why the protagonist should utterly break the world’s rules because “they’re the protagonist, dammit!” It’s not that these characters are special, it’s that the specialness really serves no purpose except to say “LOOK AT THIS CHARACTER, EVERYONE! THEY’RE SPECIAL!”‘
This is what I’m trying so hard to avoid in my writing, because not only do I not think these characters are very interesting, but it’s something that’s just been done to death. If a character gets a special mission from a deity, well, that’s actually not that special, because deities give out tasks all the time. You just happen to be right there, in the right place, and have the right abilities to do the job. (And, TBH, sometimes the deities like to troll people a bit with tasks that sound important but really aren’t.)
The other thing super speshul characters often lack is weakness (although, in Jaenelle’s case, her Issues are definitely a weakness….except when they really aren’t). Zoey doesn’t really have any weaknesses. Sure, there’s one point where she loses all her friends and every single one of her boyfriends, but she gets her friends, powers, and a bf back by the end, so you know, no biggie. Characters with flaws are interesting, characters with too many flaws go right back to being boring.
In my own writing, I have sat down and wondered if, indeed, the world I’ve created is too perfect. Everyone seems so accepting of everyone else, in such an accepting world, where do we find the villains? Where is the potential to do evil things in a world that was pretty much designed from the ground up to give everyone the best life possible? Take children, for instance, children are rarely abandoned or mistreated because they are (literally) gifts from the pantheon, and you just don’t neglect things that deities give you. It’s just not done, ever. (And if you try to do it, the deity in question will find out, and they will kick your ass.) It’s seen as well, extra heinous. That is not to say that antagonists must have craptastic childhoods (many protags do as well) it’s just not something I can really use in this world, because it just doesn’t work within The Rules I’ve established (don’t worry, I’ve found a workaround, everything’s cool).
I went off on a bit of a tangent there, but I think what I’m trying to say is that flaws aren’t really all that difficult to implement. Maybe your character has a super special power, and maybe the catch is that every time this character uses it, they run the risk of dying/losing their sanity or can only use it once before passing out (thus leaving them vulnerable). In other words, what’s the catch? Surely all that power comes with some sort of price? Power without price is just boring, there’s no risk involved, there’s no dilemma, no “if I use this, will I need it later” kind of thing.
So to sum up:
Power for the sake of being powerful = boring (those occasional times when you want a power fantasy excepted)
Flaws = Good
Too many flaws = also boring