The “chosen one” trope is a common narrative device used in storytelling. You are probably already familiar with the character arc because lots of films and franchises rely on the chosen one’s unique abilities and skills to defeat the villain and restore order to the world.
Often chosen by prophesy and fate, these characters are on a sacred mission to fulfil a special purpose. Only Harry Potter has the power to defeat Lord Voldemort, Luke Skywalker is destined to bring balance to the Force, and Link has the courage to wield the Master Sword and save Hyrule from another calamity.
This introduction to the archetype will focus on its function in the narrative and why the chosen one remains popular in media texts.
Writers and audiences like the chosen one trope because it provides a clear structure with compelling characters and an engaging fantasy world to explore. Using a variety of narrative frameworks should help us develop our understanding of the hero’s journey and uncover how producers construct meaning.
Disequilibrium and Repair
We can use Tzvetan Todorov’s approach to narrative to describe the representation of the chosen one. They begin in a state of equilibrium but soon realise there is a terrible force that threatens to destroy their world. The character then goes on a journey to find a repair and establish a new equilibrium.
An obvious example is Neo in The Matrix. The audience learns he is a programmer for a software company and his secret life as hacker operating under the alias “Neo”. This state of equilibrium is disrupted when he meets Morpheus and uncovers the truth behind the Matrix. The protagonist then battles against the machines to fulfil the prophecy and free humans from the simulation.
Of course, the producers are playing with the chosen one trope by naming the character “Neo” – an anagram of “One”.
Another good example is Moana. The story begins with her grandmother describing the myth of the hero chosen by the sea to return the Heart of Te Fiti and restore balance to nature. In the next scene, the eponymous hero toddles down to the shore where the sea offers her the Heart. This backstory confirms her role as the chosen one to the audience.
When a terrible blight strikes the island, Moana sets sail on an adventure to repair the disequilibrium and establish a new balance for her people.
It is worth noting Todorov argued the minimum requirement for plot was the movement from one state of equilibrium to another. Fantasy and action-adventure games might offer some exposition before the player takes control of the character, but the gameplay usually starts in a state of disequilibrium, such as Aloy in Horizon: Forbidden West who is searching for a working backup of GAIA to cure the mysterious plague which is threatening to destroy all living life on the planet.
Only the chosen one can find the repair and establish a new equilibrium.
Spheres of Action
In terms of Vladimir Propp’s character types, the chosen one is the hero because their sphere of action usually includes acquiring a magical agent, defeating the villain, and rescuing the princess. This role is epitomised by Link who has to obtain the Master Sword to defeat Ganon and rescue Princess Zelda.
In his list of narrative functions, Propp also referred to the transfiguration of the hero when they are given new clothes to signify their new status. Link can upgrade to the blue champion’s tunic in Breath of the Wild, Aloy is rewarded with a tiara for defeating HADES, and Neo changes into the iconic black trench coat and combat boots when he returns to the simulation.
The ability to customise your character in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim emphasises the importance of the chosen one’s sphere of action compared to their personality. At the start of the action role-playing game, you select your character’s race and sex. You can then modify their appearance, including their complexion, skin tone, weight and even the number of scars on the avatar. However, it does not matter if you are an Orc, Dark Elf, or Nord, you are the “Last Dragonborn” who can defeat Alduin and save the world.
Although the spheres of action define the heroes in the narrative, we have to remember it is the concept of prophesy and destiny which elevates these characters to the chosen one archetype.
Roland Barthes believed the chronology of narratives were driven by action and enigma codes. The chosen one character arc will follow a logical and coherent progression from the disruption which caused the disequilibrium to the hero overcoming the complications and establishing a new equilibrium, but many of these stories also include a revelation of truth.
For instance, Harry Potter does not know the origins of his lightning-bolt scar and his connection to Lord Voldemort at the start of the story. The reason why Aloy is motherless in Horizon: Zero Dawn is also withheld until she learns she was “manufactured by a machine”. Perhaps one of the most famous revelations of truth occurs at the end of The Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader declares he is Luke Skywalker’s father.
The action codes create tension by signalling the next beat of the plot and setting up the final conflict. Our engagement with the chosen one is strengthened when aspects of their personality are revealed through their actions and reactions.
Enigma codes introduce elements of intrigue and uncertainty into the narrative. Interestingly, these mysteries are often linked to characters’ origins and why they are destined to be the chosen one.
Although clothing is usually a semantic code, the transfiguration of the hero could be considered a symbolic code because the change in appearance is a structural device used to signify the change in their status.
The binary opposition between the protagonist and antagonist is a well-worn symbolic code used by producers to explore morality and the opposing forces of good and evil in society. The audience are positioned to root for the hero and their quest to save the world from a despicable tyrant.
The chosen one trope intensifies this conflict by adding elements of destiny and making the quest sacred.
Claude Lévi-Strauss argued certain themes and structures in storytelling are universal. By analysing myths, we can uncover deeper insights into the human mind and society. What does the chosen one narrative reveal about the human condition?
Consider the importance of lineage for Harry Potter, Aloy and Luke Skywalker. Their status as the chosen one is firmly linked to their origins. Even Neo was created by the machines to fulfil a special purpose in the simulation. Perhaps this pattern of representation draws attention to the conflict between our past and the need to determine our own future.
Resurrection seems to be another fundamental unit of the chosen one narrative. Harry Potter willingly sacrifices himself to save his friends, Neo’s death gives everyone a chance to disconnect from the Matrix, and Link is reawakened in the Shrine of Resurrection in Breath of the Wild. Since each character is compelled to confront their own beliefs, strengths, and morality, this mytheme could be an attempt at resolving the tension between individual freedom and the need for social conformity.
The disruptions in the narrative are often caused by a blight. We have already mentioned Moana and Horizon: Forbidden West, but reducing humans to batteries could also be viewed as a disease in The Matrix. This mytheme plays on our physiological fears and our need to survive.
Maybe the chosen one simply teaches the audience we are all destined for greatness.
We are all searching for a magical agent to repair the misfortune in our lives. Deadlines. Bills. Responsibilities. Revising for a media studies exam. These are villains we need to defeat.
The chosen one is often an ordinary individual whose world is disrupted, and they find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. For instance, Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games struggles to survive in District 12 but soon becomes a symbol of rebellion against the Capitol and leads the fight for freedom in the dystopian world of Panem. Her strength is inspirational.
We can use the representations of the chosen one to help construct our personal identity and find the strength we need to overcome the challenges in our own lives. If Harry Potter can succeed, so can we.
David Hesmondhalgh emphasised how media industries are driven by profit. It’s show business and the chosen one trope has proven to be a commercially successful formula.
It appeals to our fundamental desire for purpose and empowerment. There is also a tremendous purge of emotions when the villain is defeated.
The trope involves elements of fantasy and adventure, providing the audience with a diversion from the reality of our everyday lives. Some of their settings have become iconic: the wizarding world in the Harry Potter franchise, Frodo Baggins’ journey through Middle-earth, or Luke Skywalker’s adventures in a galaxy far, far away.
There is no doubt this epic form of storytelling will continue to entertain the audience in the cinema and on our consoles.