In every story there is a protagonist, the protagonist can either be a primary character, someone the story just so happens to follow, or in some creative cases the enemy of the “protagonist” should the story follow a villain rather than the hero (think Invader Zim). In many stories a a protagonist will more than likely be labeled a hero and in some cases even a ‘Chosen One’. Now a Hero protagonist and a Chosen One don’t have to be one and the same, but in some cases both will be merged into one character for convenience or lack of creativity. There is nothing wrong with having a Chosen One or a hero, but one can’t help but admit that it may be done a bit too much at times.
The Hero’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey is pretty self explanatory, but just to give a little more detail as to what goes on is that your protagonist goes on a journey and through a series of events has experiences that cause change in his character which may result in heroic deeds.
I’m going to go farther back than I normally do with my references to pop culture and media and reference the poem known as Beowulf. Yes that long poem you had to read in twelfth grade english class will be talked about a little today, no I’m not talking about that weird CGI movie that came out ten years ago. Beowulf hears of the troubles the monster Grendel is causing because the tenants above him won’t turn down their partying resulting in Grendel killing citizens under the land of Heorot. Grendel and Beowulf do battle, Beowulf rips off his arm and Grendel dies at home. His mother gets pissed.
Grendel’s Mother gets her revenge, and Beowulf travels to put an end to her too. For these two battles Beowulf is more or less just being a nice guy and is very confident in his abilities. He’s a hero because it’s the right thing to do. After fifty years and becoming a king himself, Beowulf takes on a dragon, but thanks to old age isn’t as confident in his abilities and is mortally wounded while dealing with the dragon.
The story itself isn’t too thrilling, but we have the basic hero of Beowulf who technically does go through change in his story of heroism from confident man who defeated two monsters to a king who wasn’t so sure he could defeat a dragon.
The subject of change for the hero can vary from the confidence of the hero regardless of it being a lack of confidence at the beginning to having confidence at the end or vice versa in the case of Beowulf.
There is also the ‘Zero to Hero’ story where Disney’s adaptation of Hua Mulan (just Mulan for the film) is a good example. In the original story Mulan wanted to join the army in place of her father (after she dueled him for permission and won) and was already a skilled martial artist and capable with a sword and after gaining much credit for her work returned home in retirement accepting no compensation for her work in the military.
The Disney adaption keeps Mulan replacing her father as a soldier, but takes away her badass combat abilities. She instead has to learn and earn her abilities as a soldier with the stakes increased in the film that should the Chinese military discover that she is a woman she will be executed for daring to break social norms by entering the army. Mulan is discovered, but is spared because Li is probably very relieved that Mulan is a woman meaning he isn’t gay. For all her efforts Mulan returns home a changed woman with a better understanding of honor and very happy to see her family (and is even hugged by the Emperor after she blew up his castle and earning the highest headcount of her Disney Princess counterparts).
It could be argued that the Disney film Hercules released a year before Mulan has the same Zero to Hero format and technically it does, but the character Hercules is doing it for selfish reasons at first rather than the selfless reason of Mulan and only learned to be a hero after Megara dies and the gods are freed. Technically Hercules didn’t learn a damn thing in the movie (Hades wasn’t such a bad guy and was just keeping his end of the bargain, Hercules is an asshat).
From the three examples above it could be argued that Mulan is the best example of a hero due to her compassion and will to sacrifice herself for the needs of her loved ones (and a cricket for good luck) while Beowulf was just being a nice guy and Hercules had no idea how to be a hero outside of getting a merchandising deal.
The Chosen One and The Special
What do Harry Potter and Star Wars have in common? Well besides the hero and villain relying on the color scheme of red and green to help the audience determine who is good and who is evil, not that much. Both DO have a Chosen One and do indeed play with the idea of a Chosen One. Normally a Chosen One is someone who is predicted to “save the day and put an end to evil!” Because destiny said so.
While this isn’t a bad plot device for a story, I chose the topic of Star Wars and Harry Potter because most audiences are familiar with these two franchises when it comes to having a ‘Chosen One’ despite the actual label of Chosen One being played with. In Harry Potter, Harry is known as ‘The Boy Who Lived’ and after a run in Voldemort his first year at Hogwarts is the only wizard who can defeat Voldy after Dumbledore himself. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (book 5/the one with the blue cover for you muggles) after being responsible for the death of a student and his godfather Harry demands answers from Dumbledore as to why this is happening to him.
Dumbledore explains that because of a vague prediction that Voldy knew of Harry could have been living a normal wizard life while his classmate and friend Neville Longbottom could have been the one with a lightning bolt scar on his forehead, but Voldy picked Harry because he felt Harry was his equal. Dumbledore mentions that Voldy didn’t HAVE to actually listen to the prediction and could have gone on causing problems in the wizarding world, but because of knowledge of said prophesy didn’t want to take risks and decided to go after baby Harry setting the story into motion.
In Star Wars we have the Skywalker family; this starts off with Anakin Skywalker who has a special talent with the force and is prophesied to bring balance to the light and dark side of the force. Anakin is a gifted padawan despite having temptations from the dark side of the force. In the tv series Clone Wars he is shown to be a competent general, but it’s all for naught when in Revenge of the Sith he falls to the dark side and becomes Darth Vader putting an end to his Chosen One status. For the original trilogy audiences figured Luke was the actual Chosen One, and the force even had a back up plan with Leia, but in the end it’s Vader who puts an end to Emperor Palpatine.
In recent movies and spin offs though in the Star Wars universe things are shifting away from having Chosen Ones save the day to a bigger picture type of story I’ll get into a little bit.
The alternative to The Chosen One is ‘The Special’ as The Lego Movie puts it. As the name suggests, the Special is someone who is special, they can be someone immune to most vampire abilities, a vampire with empathic abilities, or in the case of The Lego Movie, someone who will be the best master builder ever! I do like that The Lego Movie also plays with this with the character WyldStyle hoping that she is the special, but discovering it’s a guy who thinks inside the box in contradiction to the outside the box master builders and saves the day more frequently because of it. It is revealed that the Special is completely made up for the sake of one of the protagonists buying time earlier in the movie and that all the protagonists in the movie are ‘The Special’.
Born for the Job
A variation for ‘The Special’ is literally being born into the job. Very good examples of this are Avatar The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra, and Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon. In these cases our protagonist is born into the role of hero due to being reincarnated in the case of Usagi Tsukino (Sailor Moon), and the light spirit of Raava being transferred into each life and incarnation of the Avatar.
The approach of being a hero is taken to two different extremes with the Avatar series; in the first series Aang is just child when he is told that he is the Avatar and has to defeat the Firelord to restore balance between the four nations. Aang flees resulting in the mass genocide of Airbenders and has to clean up the mess later. The first two seasons of the series Aang focuses more on having fun since he is still a twelve year old, but grows to understand the seriousness of the situation with the Fire Nation and realizes that he is the only one who can fix his mistake. While the first two seasons are more lighthearted, the third season takes a darker approach with the final batch of episodes focusing on the conflict between Aang’s personal beliefs that killing is wrong despite his position of being the Avatar and needing to protect and bring balance to the world and that he needs to kill Firelord Ozai (he takes the third option).
In the sequel series Legend of Korra, Korra is the opposite of Aaeng, when she discovers she’s the Avatar, she’s excited and spent her whole youth training to be the greatest fighter mastering all bending outside of airbending. While Aang was primarily a defensive fighter who went to great lengths to avoid violence as a solution to a conflict, Korra was ready to kick ass and chew gum. Korra’s constant conflict throughout the series is being told that she as the Avatar is not needed anymore. It starts off small when Amon of the Equalist movement tells her she is no longer needed because ‘benders shouldn’t be superior to nonbenders.’ this continues onto the second season where her uncle tries to replace her as the dark avatar, and comes to a tragic level in season three where the radicalist Zaheer wants to kill Korra and end the Avatar cycle for the sake of chaos and anarchy. The tragedy comes at the end of the season where Korra is damaged physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally and is told by her mentor Tenzin that the newly formed air nomads will aid the people of the four nations further pushing the message that Korra isn’t ‘needed’ anymore. In contrast with most tales of the Hero’s Journey, Korra realizes that in contradiction with Aang needing to resort to violence to save the day (he technically didn’t, but there was still fighting), she needed to rely on pacifism and talked her final foe down without resorting to what she believed was needed in the form of brute force and skill to save the day a few years ago.
Now there’s Sailor Moon; many people see it as the one of the girliest shows out there. They might be right, but who says a story aimed for girls can’t have depth? Compared to the previous two examples, Usagi Tsukino almost had to be dragged into heroics kicking and screaming. The manga, nineties anime adaption, and live action tokusatsu series do a decent job of Usagi’s growth into a hero from her usual cry baby antics (the first episode of the nineties anime is literally named Crybaby Usagi’s Beautiful Transformation). What convinces her to go out and become a hero despite being a crybaby with zero combat ability? Her friend Naru is in danger (she never turns her back on a friend, she’s always there to defend, she is the one on whome we can depend), so she leaps into action without a second thought to save her best friend. As the series continues it is shown that what Usagi lacks in heroism (there are times where Luna and Tuxedo Mask have to talk Usagi into believing in herself to beat the bad guys), she makes up for as a people person genuinely liking most of the people she meets and standing up for oddballs and social outcasts that would later become her dearest friends.
By the third arc of the manga Usagi admits that she has accepted her fate to protect the earth from all who want to do harm to it and it’s people. In the final series arc she even gives a pep talk to a future incarnation of Sailor Moon known as Sailor Cosmos that even though the fight against Chaos seems hopeless, she can’t destroy the Galaxy Cauldron because then there would be no more life and that even if the fight against Chaos seems hopeless, it’s no reason to give up.
The Legend of Zelda
Why is The Legend of Zelda getting its own portion to this essay? Because it’s just that amazing. In nearly each Zelda game, there is one constant. There’s a Link, and there’s a Zelda. Things got a little interesting a few years ago with the release of the Hyrule Historia finally placing some clarity to many fan debates of how the series worked concerning our two main heroes.
Our heroes Link and Zelda are both subversions and straight examples of a hero and a Chosen One (this can vary from game to game). Each Link is a hero earning the Triforce of Courage for their courageous deeds (and in two cases getting the complete triforce). Many fans wondered how each Link was connected, and the only connection between them outside of the green tunic was bearing the Triforce of Courage, thus being the subversion of a ‘Chosen One’.
The multiple Zeldas in the series are an interesting approach to being a ‘Chosen One’ and ‘being born into the job’. It was revealed in The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword that there was indeed a fourth goddess for Hyrule known as the goddess Hylia born into a human by choice into the first incarnation of Princess Zelda. From that point onward future Zeldas are by technicality a Chosen One in their adventures not because they are royalty, but because they have the blood of the goddess Hylia flowing through their veins and with this power are trained and obligated to protect the land of Hyrule.
In the most recent game in the series Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild, this incarnation of Zelda can’t connect with the power wielded by her ancestors and doesn’t like the pressure of being needed to protect Hyrule due to her inability to connect with these spiritual abilities and would rather be a scholar aiding in the research of past technologies. In contrast the Link of the game is a stern soldier fully devoted to Zelda and to the land of Hyrule ;Zelda laments that Link may have chosen this path because his father chose it and asks him what if he had chosen a different path mirroring his own situation with her own.
Unlike the Zeldas, most Links don’t have the baggage of having a duty to protect the kingdom and are just someone who stepped up to the plate to save the day for various reasons either to save a friend, sister, or because a tree told them to do it.
Subversion of Everything I Just Talked About
I have some issues with Chosen Ones; not that a story is bad for having a Chosen One, but that in writing once you set your protagonist as a Chosen One, you wrote yourself to rely solely on a protagonist. First let’s talk about destiny.
Destiney can tie into having a Chosen One because they’re destined to be chosen (so shocking). Back to Star Wars, in 2003 the video game Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic was released; it is one of the only GOOD Star Wars games out there. You can literally make your Player Character have decisions that affect their affiliation with the Force (as in you gain light side points for giving a man money, or can earn dark side points for mugging that man instead). You can also strike up conversations with crewmembers of the Ebon Hawk, one of them being Jolee Bindo. Bindo provides some insight and an alternative perspective to the way the Force is seeing as he isn’t on the best terms with the Jedi Order.
One story is how a force user named Andor Vex who is told that the Force has a strong interest in him. Andor takes this as a sign that he will be a great hero and is cocky, this eventually leads to him confronting a villain and is taken captive. Andor begins to mouth off and brag about his destiny, resulting in his neck getting snapped and his body tossed down a hole that leads to his captors getting blown up. The lesson from this is pretty obvious that just because you are told you have a big important destiny, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be a delightful one.
To continue on with the thought of destiny there is Steven Universe; in the later portion of the series the main protagonist Steven begins to think he exists and was created for the sake of a big fancy destiny, possibly from the influence of his friend Connie.
Steven is a unique entity on his show where he’s half gem and half human. He was created because his mother, Rose Quartz, was so intrigued by humans and their ability to choose their own destiny, decided she wanted to have a child so that said child can choose their own destiny. By the episode Lion 4: Alternate Ending, Steven becomes obsessed with finding out more about his life and what his mother wanted for him only to be told by his dad that nothing in Steven’s life was planned and that everything that has happened so far was by pure chance.
Philip J. Fry
Philip J. Fry was the protagonist (sorta) to the animated scifi comedy series Futurama! He was a delivery boy from the year 1999 who got frozen and now lives in the year 3000 (sort of) as a delivery boy. As the series goes on it is discovered that Fry is a very important and special (no not that kind) person.
Because of time travel it is revealed that Fry had a one night stand with his grandmother and is his own grandfather. It seems like a throwaway gag at first, but this makes him the most important being in the universe; because of Fry’s ‘nasty in the pasty’, Fry lacks the delta brainwave making him immune to mind control and having his own mind read.
This doesn’t make him a Chosen One and Fry does qualify as a Special, but his importance is never really brought up. While the Nibblonians were aware of Fry and his importance, once his job of defeating the brainspawn is done (twice) he lives an uneventful life most of the time when he isn’t saving the universe by dumb luck alone.
I really do like the approach to Fry in Futurama since his character arc was planned from the start of the series instead of thrown in out of nowhere as the series went along. Futurama is also filled with constant subversions of science fiction and fantasy tropes that inspire the show and treated with love and respect.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
Super heroes, they’re not exactly chosen to do the job of being a hero, but they do a good job of doing it. I like comicbooks, The above title for this part of the essay comes from The Amazing Spiderman as something Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben tells him shortly before being killed. And this quote does indeed echo not only through the Marvel Comic universe, but the DC universe as well.
There are hundreds (possibly thousands) of superheroes drawn and printed onto comicbooks once a month that range from being a mutant, alien, gifted with powers, and so many origin stories of how they became heroes.
A common plot involves the hero getting the power by sheer accident (like Spiderman or The Flash), they then proceed to use said power for the sake of doing good. In the case of Spiderman, it was originally just to find the crook who killed his beloved uncle (like a more sarcastic and middleclass Batman), but Spidey decided to keep on saving the day.
- Once Upon a Time- the first six seasons of this series followed Emma Swan and her adventures in the small town known as Storybrook as she slowly begins to understand and accept her life as the Savior with constant forks in the road of her eventual destiny of saving everyone (even the villains)
- The Hunger Games trilogy-I’d Argue that Katniss Everdeen is only a hero because her sister just so happened to be selected to participate in the games. Had neither of their names been selected Katniss and Prim would have just continued on their lives and no big rebellion would have happened.
- Battlestar Galactica-holy crap this series is all kinds of weird “because God wants it this way” going on.
They All Said Ouch
The hero protagonist has been here a long while and is here to stay. The same thing goes for being a Chosen One. The story of a hero can and has evolved though from basic stories of individuals doing good deeds just for the sake of doing them to complex prophecies saying ‘someone will save the day’, and even stories both real and fictional bringing in a protagonist who came from nothing and caused many great and good things to happen.