So, the Editrix and I and undoubtedly several others have a word for this sort of thing, that thing where someone asks for volunteers, pretends or makes a show of contemplating, and picks you. We call it being voluntold. It happens a lot in rigid structures such as military or police forces, or some kinds of school. Latrines need scrubbed? Congratulations, probie, you’ve been voluntold. Someone needs to go on that scouting mission into known hostile territory? That’s right, you’ve been voluntold. Some idiot needs to pass a series of increasingly ridiculous and difficult trials in order to win the dubious privilege of battling the villain who’s terrorized the known world for the last century? Congratulations! You’ve been voluntold. Here’s your MacGuffin.
I still maintain that if half these protagonists weren’t in a place where their choices consisted of getting thrown in prison by the evil army or scraping a living off the streets because your dead parents left you nothing, most of them would tell their guides where to stick the prophecies that chose them.
The other option you get in a lot of organizations is the reaction of “How nice, you have a problem. Now go fix it.” This crops up only as a reaction, which limits the potentials somewhat. It requires the initial effort of spotting the problem, after all, in order to be tasked with fixing it. But doesn’t that make for a more dynamic beginning? Someone poking holes in the structure that’s been set up around them, then reacting to being told they have to fix it. Not necessarily with belligerent determination, that’s why we have the Refusal of the Call, but reacting nonetheless to a situation set up by their own actions. Admittedly, certain themes and archetypes and structures don’t work well with that sort of beginning, but as a general rule it’s a much more active start to a piece. It involves much more agency, choice, and action on the part of the protagonist. And that’s just one of the problems I have with this Chosen One malarky.
If you know me at all well, you know (and if you don’t, now’s your chance to learn) that much of my thinking on narrative is influenced by Babylon 5. Maybe not determined, so much, but influenced. So here’s where I reference Babylon 5, specifically a line from Marcus Cole. He said,
I used to think it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them?’ So now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the universe.
It’s much the same with being a Chosen One. There’s an outside order of things, something that’s imposed upon people and their actions and consequences, chance becomes thin on the ground. Whether or not that has anything to do with fairness is only tangential; in certain works, fairness becomes dependent on the point of view of the Chosen One. We call this protagonist-centered morality. (And we hates it, precious.) Depending on the skill of the writer, the Chosen One can clear obstacles from their assigned path by making personal choices and taking actions, but a lot of the time obstacles are simply cleared because they are the Chosen One. And the ultimate result is always the same:
The lesson in the work tells us that the universe is a more friendly place when it’s all geared to work in your favor. When destiny says you are chosen and will fulfill this great promise. It’s part of what makes works with that kind of dynamic and prophecy so appealing. Wouldn’t it be nice to think that all of our suffering, all the bad things that happen to us are simply to prepare us for something grand and important and wonderful in the future? I know I’d like that. I have a couple of really bad choices I made in the past that I’d like to think were destiny’s hand nudging me towards something greater in my future. When you’re the Chosen One, that’s exactly what happens! You’ve been voluntold to struggle through this bad relationship, this mind-numbing trained-monkey-level job, this class you’re failing so that in the future you’ll be a better… whatever. And you can defeat the bad guys and save the day.
But what’s your other option? “How nice, you have a problem, now go fix?” Not only is that putting all of the burden on diagnosing the problem correctly on you, it also conveys the sting of rejection. You ask for help, it’s refused, and it hurts. On the face of it, it’s a lot less friendly than having someone in a deep British-accented voice come down and whisk you off for adventures unknown telling you there’s a grave problem and they need you to fix it. Here’s your MacGuffin.
But that’s essentially the same thing, isn’t it?
When you find the problem, you have some idea at least of where to start. You might not know where the full boundaries of the problem are but you know where to begin looking. If done right, within the story at least, that kind of approach can be shown to confer confidence, authority, ability, after a suitable struggle of course. And this is all assuming the response is tempered by having the actual tools to fix the problem. If you don’t, it becomes futility and the Protestant lie of “You’re not succeeding therefore you’re not working hard enough, you’re wrong.” We’re all familiar with this one, yes? Still, this is fiction. We are the writers, we make the rules. We can give the protagonist a problem to find and then solve. We can give our protagonist the tools to solve it.
Or we can not do that. Which is the trickiest approach of all, but sometimes necessary. When I was a child, I learned a lot of things from books, just ask the Editrix who recently took a book tour of a lot of my formative reading. One of the things we can learn from books, more safely from books and with fewer direct hits to the psyche, is how to fail at things. How to approach a problem with what seem to be all the right tools, with the right mindset and all the data, and it doesn’t work. That doesn’t happen to Chosen Ones. But it does happen to us, in real life. And it’s much easier to learn how to cope with that from a character we identify with, empathize with, in a book, than it is to learn it the hard way.
There’s always room for wish fulfillment and escapism. I’m a big fan of it, engaged in a lot of it myself. So I’m not going to tell you there’s no room in fiction for someone special to be voluntold into fixing the world, with all the attendant glory and reward and happily ever after. But I find it disingenuous to make that the dominant narrative, And it’s much more satisfying, for me, personally, to stand at the top of the heap of bodies that I put there out of stubborness of will and the tools I have to hand.