Uncertain Destiny: Why It’s Time for More Un-Prophesied Heroes with Humble Origins

This week I thought I’d get back to exploring some Uncharted Territory in Fantasy and spotlight a type of character that I wish I encountered more often in the stories I read and watch: a hero or heroine that doesn’t have a royal birthright, a noteworthy lineage, or a reassuring prophecy to prop them up.

I admit, this isn’t completely ‘Uncharted Territory’ as there are examples out there of characters with more uncertain destinies. However, it’s still something I think we could afford to see more of, not only because royal heirs and chosen ones can get a little tiresome, but because I find they can sometimes rob the story of a tension or devalue a character’s achievements  (e.g. when a special bloodline or inheritance is unveiled in a late surprise reveal I find it especially disappointing). Here are three reasons why:

Image: Hand Holding Water Crystal Ball with Fish

Chosen one prophecies are not only clichéd, I feel they rob the story of a bit of tension. If we already know Character X is prophesied to save the world, how much can we fear they won’t succeed? Certainly we can still fear it, otherwise the trope wouldn’t be successful, but surely not as much as we’d fear for someone who hasn’t been prophesied to do anything? Also can’t someone do something noble without a prophecy to “assign” them to it?

Image: Family Crest

Characters with a royal lineage can be very interesting, especially if tension comes from the responsibilities, challenges and threats they face as potential rulers. However, if the age old mantra of the ‘rightful heir’ is continually praised, and the only thing that makes a character interesting, loved by others and fit to rule is their lucky position in a family tree, I sometimes feel the story is too simplistic.

Image: Crown Pattern Tiles

The secret heir reveal (“Character X is actually the heir to the throne!”) has been done so many times it’s really losing impact for me. More importantly, I find it disappointing when it comes toward the end of a story: I’m so excited that an ordinary character has triumphed against all odds, and then I’m told that they are actually a lost princess or the last descendent of an ancient bloodline. I feel like this devalues what the character has achieved, explaining away their success as “destined to be”, rather than something they fought for and won simply because they were a talented, clever, strong person.

I’m not saying I won’t read books with chosen ones and secret heirs – in fact, I enjoy many stories that feature these tropes. However, I sometimes feel like I enjoy them in spite of these tropes, rather than because of them. Two series I read and loved – which will remain unnamed here due to spoilers – seriously disappointed me with secret-heir-style reveals, and I wished the authors had found a way to do without them.

I admit, there are some good reasons why these tropes are so common. These might include the fact that:

  • prophecies can be intriguingly cryptic, as well as grand and magical.
  • we probably all like the idea of being plucked out of obscurity and told we are “chosen” or “special” and will save the world
  • magical power is often hereditary, so a focus on bloodline makes sense.
  • continuing dynasties where a child inherits the responsibilities or trade of a parent, thus “carrying on the torch”, have a certain appeal.
  • the notion of a rightful heir has a long history, and is appealing in its simplicity and symbolism.
  • the return of an heir believed long dead can inspire new hope.
  • being an heir to a throne can make a character a prime target for the villain, and thus increase the danger and need to keep a lineage a secret.
  • royal courts provide a great setting for political intrigue and back-stabbing.
  • a happy end can be happier with the suggestion that the whole kingdom will now live happily ever after due to the reinstating of a rightful ruler.
  • kings and queens are common in fairy tales, and it’s fun to lose ourselves in the ceremonies, politics and power plays of their extraordinary lives.

Nonetheless, I still find it refreshing when I encounter stories that work against these traditions, and give us characters who aren’t ‘special’ or ‘destined’ from birth.

So Can Fantasy Heroes Succeed Without a Noteworthy Lineage, Royal Birthright, Dynasty or Prophecy?

While they are still in the minority,  there are actually quite a few well-known fantasy books and films with protagonists who aren’t chosen ones or secret heirs, and don’t belong to a noble family or special bloodline. So I’m going to put forward a few examples of those I thought were particularly successful at avoiding these tropes or flying in the face of them, while still telling a great story:

Book Cover: The Lord of the RingsThe Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit – Interestingly, this most classic of fantasies provide good examples of heroes with humble origins. Sure, Aragorn might be a secret heir, but Frodo, Sam and Bilbo are not royal, or from a noble family, or even really prophesied to succeed. They’re certainly more adventurous than your ordinary hobbits, but this is a trait rather than an inheritance, and the strength they find in themselves is all the more admirable for it.

Even Narnia seems to avoid prophecies and the heirs as far as I can remember, so perhaps it only became popular in later fantasy works?

Book Cover: Six of CrowsSix of Crows – This duology features six fascinating, talented main characters, most of whom are outcasts that have been overlooked or dealt a bad hand by the society they live in. The only one who really has a parent from the nobility has been essentially disowned, and even though many of them are officially criminals, the real villains in the story are the noble, the rich and the powerful.

Book Cover: The Final EmpireMistborn – There are definitely prophecies in Mistborn, but I’m still including it here because often those prophecies don’t turn out the way you or the characters might expect (I won’t say more to avoid spoilers). Despite her being an orphan, there’s no suggestion that the protagonist, Vin, is descended from anyone noteworthy, and it’s her magical gifts and personal strength that make her extraordinary.

Book Cover: The Wee Free MenTiffany Aching – This sub-series of the Discworld novels features a heroine who comes from very humble origins. She’s the 7th child of herders living on the sheep-grazing hills of ‘The Chalk’, and while she’s an expert at making cheese, she’s also got a talent for witchcraft. Admittedly Tiffany’s grandmother was also magical, but since Granny Aching was only one humble relative who wasn’t ostentatious about her power, it’s hardly a dynasty.

Movie Poster: AladdinAladdin – This classic film is one of several fairy-tale inspired stories, like Cinderella or Ever After, that show an ordinary person succeeding through marrying a prince or princess. Admittedly, this scenario involves royalty, but at least the protagonists are still everyday people who win the heart of their true love because of who they are, rather than who they were born to, and are not at the last minute revealed to be nobility themselves.

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No doubt there are other fantasy stories out there that buck the trend, but in my humble opinion, there could be more of them. The genre might even be richer if less stories relied on chosen one or secret heir tropes, or used them in less expected ways. I’m not saying I want to stop reading about kings and queens (I love the intrigue, drama and fancy garments of a royal court!), but I’d also like to read about everyday people who do extraordinary things, or rise to great heights, without being ‘destined’ to do so.

But that’s just my opinion – what do you think of these tropes? Do you know any good fantasy stories that turned expectations of being “chosen” or “destined” on their heads, or put ordinary characters centre-stage? Feel free to share them in the comments!

63 thoughts on “Uncertain Destiny: Why It’s Time for More Un-Prophesied Heroes with Humble Origins

  1. Narnia actually does have its share of prophecies (the four thrones at Cair Paravel in LWW) and secret heirs (Prince Cor in HAHB). But, like Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, these are the books that set up the tropes. Everybody is copying Tolkien and Lewis (or copying those who copied them). They also do the tropes really well!

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      • I hate to disagree here, but surely the King Arthur stories predate Narnia by several centuries. I see that as the beginning of the trope. And then I disagree with myself for many a Greek myth also has this trope (Jason, for instance)

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        • True, the King Arthur stories did have prophecies (now I think about it, the sword in the stone has to be one of the most quintessential “chosen one” scenarios!), and so did many early fairy tales and myths. I suppose I was thinking set them up in terms of as staples of the modern fantasy genre, which I tend to think of as starting with Tolkien & Lewis (though admittedly many would disagree with me on that point and list earlier authors/books, including some King Arthur stories!)

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        • I have to admit I can’t think of any examples (other than fairy tales) between the first Arthur stories and Tolkien though that could be due to reading more science fiction in those far away and long ago days. I didn’t come to fantasy till post-Tolkien.

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  2. I absolutely agree with you on this point, while it might have been a rather novel track for some authors, nowadays, a fair share of fantasy books do have that one character that’s the savior or the chosen one or what-have-you. It is sometimes written well enough that I can digest it but most times, it just falls flat.

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  3. It does get tiresome. I think you’re right that part of the appeal is the audience fantasy of being revealed as “special”. It’s easy to feel insignificant in a world so full of people.
    I actually like when stories subvert that trope, setting a character up to believe their skills are due to some secret heritage, when the truth is they’re no one, but that doesn’t change what they’ve done. At a certain point not every character needs a complex web of connections to justify their place in the story.

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    • I wonder if that is why Game of Thrones is so popular these days. In that world, birthright doesn’t really mean much unless you have the power to claim it. There are heritages in play, but they don’t drive the plot, schemes and battles do. It might appeal to modern audiences to see that just being part of a rich, high class family doesn’t mean much. Anyone can make a name for themselves through cunning and skill.

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        • I disagree with you here; as Game of Thrones does include heavy subplots regarding how heritage is important. basically the only reason Daenerys succeeds is because she is a Targaryan. Plus thinking of R+L=J.

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        • Heritage does play an important role in GoT but I think it also subverts the ‘rightful heir’ idea a lot more than other fantasies. Daenerys might have claim to the throne but at the same time it’s acknowledged her father was unfit to be king (and her brother too) and her family was inbred and a bit mad. She also gains power not just because of her being an heir but because of her ability to inspire hope and collect loyal followers (and wield dragons I guess – which is admittedly a bloodline power thing). Also many other people have claims to the throne but as JM said it’s only the most cunning or powerful that manage to get it and hold it. So I think birth definitely matters (esp as relates to R+L=J!), but at least in GoT it’s only part of the story, and a good hereditary claim doesn’t immediately make you the best person to rule.

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      • I think that you are missing the point of the SOIAF GoT. The core theme of the series I think is the futility of all concepts of determinism, both internal determinism such as free will, and external determinism, such as fatalism. Ultimately it is about the pointlessness of trying to understand the cosmos. At best you can only maybe hope to understand yourself and try to be true to what matters to you.
        In this type of Game then, the only real winners are those characters who stay true to themselves. Surely success and failure aren’t really up to to. You’re only ever a pawn in a greater game. But by staying true to yourself, when you fail at least you’ve died for something you believe in, and if you succeed you’ve achieved something worthwhile. If on the other hand you’ve compromised your beliefs or let external forces sway you from your true self, then if you fail you’ve died for nothing and if you succeed you still lose because what you’ve achieved doesn’t really matter to you anyway.
        At least, that’s my own two cents.
        So in terms of this topic, I think that GoT/ASOIAF to a certain extent transcends this debate in that it tries to go beyond simple questions of predetermined destiny or the self-made man or woman. Instead it seems to ask whether it matters if either of these of true if the outcome isn’t worthwhile to you.

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  4. Some great examples there! I think the “humble origins” concept can be as cliche as having a prophesy or secret lineage. The farm boy (or girl) rising to greatness and saving the world (with or without a prophesy) is one of the oldest stories in the book. Star Wars (before the prequels) was a great example of this, and was inspired by archetypal hero stories and myths. What about a middle-class hero? Why does the hero have to either be at the very top or the very bottom? I can’t even think of any good examples of this.

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    • True, the farm boy/girl or lowly kitchen/stablehand rising to greatness can be equally clichéd. I do feel many of them end up being less “humble” in the end through a secret lineage reveal, especially if they are orphans (Star Wars is indeed a perfect example of that), but even without the prophecy or lineage those typical humble beginnings do feel very overdone. I would definitely be interested to see more middle class heroes (Or at least ones that don’t start out in the typical farmer/castle servant roles). I also can’t think of any examples right now…but surely there must be some out there!

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      • I think the reason that the poor/lowly protagonist is so common is because being poor and having no social connecting and potentially no normal education sets up a ton of challenges to be overcome, making the story more interesting than if they already had decent money and a fairly normal life. The harder it is for them, the more interesting their story can be.

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        • True, being unconnected and poor can make a character’s final success more satisfying and hard won (I love rags to riches stories in large part for that reason). If you have a middle class or rich hero the author has to put other obstacles in their path instead… but if they are creative enough about it I think those can be interesting too.

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    • Cliche is the wrong word I think. Rather say to-the-point or thematic. As the brilliant Northrop Frye explained, you only get two types of stories really: overcoming adversity in which case you get a low-born hero, or else fulfilling your potential in the case of the high-born hero. Of course, low-born or high-born doesn’t simply refer to social status, but can also manifest in terms of special talents or any a-typical trait whatsoever. And to complicate things, the low-born hero inevitably turn out to also be high-born in some way so that adversities can be overcome, and the high-born hero inevitably finds some low-born traits that stand between him or her and their true potential.
      So, ultimately all heroes actually are middle-class heroes, and low-born heroes and high-born heroes all at once. This is nuts-and-bolts of storytelling stuff that you can’t escape. What really matters in the end is never what cliches you use but how well you use them.

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  5. You mentioned Tiffany Aching, but I really like the way the Watch subseries plays with this trope. Carrot is a rightful heir who has no interest in making a claim to the throne, and repeatedly denies his royal lineage. Also, although he is an almost flawless hero, his role is usually secondary to Vimes (who’s another example of a self-made hero).

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    • I haven’t read the Watch subseries yet but it sounds great. I like the idea of a character choosing to deny their lineage or claim to a throne – now I think about it I’ve encountered a couple of characters like that in other books and I always found them interesting.

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  6. What an amazing post, Nicola! While I do still love these tropes and reading about them, I do agree they are overused and should become less popular among authors. It’s been done before and we all know how it ends, no matter how enjoyable they are. But I personally will still read them hahaha
    The un-prophesied hero is an interesting twist and I definitely would love to see more of that in stories. It’s ironic how very few books I’ve read about that trope! So few I can barely remember them. So thanks for the recs! 🙂

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  7. I have to say that this trope has seen a lot of use and is definitely wearing thin for me (as with all tropes after a while). What’s interesting for me is looking at books with prophecies in them which use this trope in inventive ways. For example the first Percy Jackson series has a prophecy introduced really early on, but as the books go on there are more and more candidates for the ‘One’ from the prophecy, so you’re left wondering who it’s going to be. Also that prophecy sounds awful, more in the tradition of the ancient Greek myths were prophecies only exist to ruin your life, so everyone who’s a candidate is desperately trying to get out of it, which is much more interesting!

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        • If you like that then I think you should give Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time a go. I really can’t praise this series enough. It tells the story of a prophesied hero who is destined to both save the world and destroy it (and go mad while doing so).
          The idea of prophecy is so essential to fantasy. Like the related ideas of magical powers, supernatural beings and fantastic otherworlds, it all speaks the the essential question of whether what we see is all there is or if there is more to life to be gained, which is what I think fantasy is all about at the bottom of it all. This is both the starting point for limitless dreaming, but also for endless nightmares in equal part.
          Jordan’s Wheel of Time cuts to the heart of this question by asking about the morality of fantasy. If the prophecy is true and there is some magical paradise on earth waiting for us, is it morally justifiable to seek it, especially if the cost of achieving it may potentially be too terrible to contemplate.
          We all know that it takes sacrifice to achieve anything worthwhile. Most fantasy stories simply make this a issue of courage and completely sidestep the ethical questions involved. WoT however delves into the question of the morality of making such choices, since they almost always involve other people. What about their say? At what point does a ‘better world’ lose its value due to the cost in getting there? This is perhaps a more relevant issue than any other explored in fantasy today, given the world as it is at present and the core issues we are facing.
          Take Syria for example. Do we step in and send in troops to stabilize the country or do we stand aside and let things take their course. Both options involve people dying and lives being ruined. But which is the lesser of two evils? Can we even know?
          Or look at global warming. The Paris Agreement involves everyone pitching in financially to solve the problem of emissions, even the poorest people on earth, people without the means to supply even basic necessities such as food, water, shelter or healthcare. There is going to be a significant body count in order to achieve sustainability, and if you understand the nature of poverty you know what we’re mainly talking about – infant mortality. It is always the most vulnerable segments of populations who suffer the most from deprivation. Folks on TV are always talking about the small sacrifices that need to be made to achieve sustainability, but you can be certain that those small sacrifices in question are not their own newborn infants. But how f*ed up is that – we’re planning to kill babies to save our own asses! If anyone should be paying the ultimate price it should be the adults who created the problem in the first place, not helpless innocents. Only adults have rights and votes, and no one is ever going to vote to starve to death. The only way to convince humanity to do what needs to be done in a democratic world is to defer the mortality costs to those who are too powerless or helpless to sway majority opinion, such as those in extreme poverty and those who cannot speak for themselves. But if we don’t get the agreement of the majority, the effects of global warming like drought or sea level rise may well take those lives in any case. Either way its a difficult choice.
          My point is not to open a debate on current issues, but simply to point out the crucial relevance of fantasy (at least those fantasy novels which take themselves seriously) to our lives and real world issues. Fantasy is fun and games, but it isn’t all just about fun and games. Fantasy matters. A lot.

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  8. I don’t mind these tropes at all, since they seem to be a part of the genre going way back to myths and fairy tales. There’s something primal about it that captures the imagination, probably for the reasons you listed. On the other hand, when you can see “the big reveal” coming a mile away…..or when it’s done exactly like every other story……then it’s not as fun.

    Maybe I’m just defending it because my writing recently surprised me with a similar trope? (I had meant to subvert it but ended up falling right into it.) I’ll have to go back to the story and take a hard look at whether it’s inventive or just like every other story….

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    • Yes the tropes definitely have a long history and a primal appeal (and I do still read plenty of books that use them!). Like you though I tend to prefer it when they are used in more inventive ways and don’t make everything too obvious. It’s mostly those “big reveals” that don’t work for me, because I’m more willing to accept a character I know is the heir or ‘chosen’ from the start than someone who is revealed to be one later (I guess sometimes it feels too much like an unnecessary or predictable trick?). Anyway, I’m sure it’s fine in your story if it naturally turned out that way while writing it. I suppose it doesn’t hurt to double check though and see what you think 🙂

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      • Definitely going to take a second look at it. 🙂 Just in case!

        There might also be a difference in whether the big reveal/chosen one status automatically fixes something or makes something more complicated. You mentioned this, too…if it makes things more difficult or complicated for the character, then that’s good. If it solves things and lowers the tension, it seems more like a deus ex machina-style device. Maybe.

        Now I’m going to be thinking about this. 🙂

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        • Yes I think you’re right! It does make a difference whether the reveal makes things easier (eg if it feels like it ties up everything too neatly in little bows) or whether it makes things complicated and interesting. The former can indeed have an overly-convenient deus ex machina feel to it.
          Some food for thought for me as well 🙂

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    • What, if I may ask, was your approach to subverting this trope?
      I ask because I’m doing the same thing in the novel I’m presently writing. In my story, one of the protagonists is exactly such a descendant of kings prophesied to save the world. Only he lives in a world which laughs at such impractical mystical mumbo-jumbo, none moreso than himself. He starts out as a outright villain, concerned only with lining his own pockets. But in his dreams he is haunted by the prophecy, in particular by the implication that his life can be more than it is, that it can mean something, that he could matter. The prophecy is never fulfilled, never really acted upon, never even exists in the story world outside of his dreams. But slowly he finds himself changing, caring, living life meaningfully, and in this sense the prophecy is fulfilled in a way, in that he does become a saviour in a sense through the small acts of kindness to those around him, and he does become a sort of king, a king in heart.

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      • That makes the prophecy an integral part of the story from the beginning — so I feel like that could work well. It also takes the familiar trope in an unusual direction (or unusual to me, at least! 🙂 ).

        As for me, I have a prophesied “chosen one” character who is not the main character and who hates her role. She turns out to NOT be the fulfillment of the prophecy…or at least not all of it, because society has been interpreting the prophecy the wrong way. What worries me is that the *main* character’s role in the fulfillment subverts the subversion. =/

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        • What you should be asking is what role prophecy plays in your story. What is the moral of the story? Why does your story need to have a chosen one in it? If it doesn’t get rid of it. If it does, why?
          The moral of my story is how everyone is a hero, a chosen one – not everyone has the potential to be one – literally everyone IS one. So firstly I picked the most unlikely hero imaginable, namely a villain, and then I figured out a way for him to be a chosen one in a way that doesn’t stop anyone else from being one at the same time. In fact, in the way I wrote it there is the strong implication that what is true for the hero is equally true for everyone.

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        • In my case, the prophecy (or rather, its interpretation) gives rise to a revolutionary movement that drives much of the external plot. The gradual recognition of what the prophecy actually means gives the main character another piece to the puzzle in how she must solve things–but ultimately the riddle isn’t solved until she acts (as I recall–I have to check this to make sure). In other words, it doesn’t have a moral meaning, per se–it’s part of the fabric of the world.

          Perhaps the moral of the “chosen one” story, so to speak, is that it should be necessary to the plot, and as inventive in execution as possible.

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  10. What a great topic!! And I was actually having this conversation just yesterday with my sister about why I really don’t like prophecies ruining stories- because yes, chosen one prophecies are so cliche and take so much of the tension out of the story. Even if the prophecy says they must die- because then that just feeds into the whole Jesus trope and I *still* know exactly what’s going to happen. I always prefer heroes that *choose* to get involved in the story and not ones who just have to do it. And oh gosh the secret heir thing makes me chuckle at this point. I can understand why they’re popular- I just like a bit of a twist for them to feel like they work for me personally (not a massive twist, but at least a bit of one). Even your first point about the prophecy being sufficiently vague enough can work for me. And I do like the dynastic element- but I always feel like that doesn’t have to involve prophecies (righting wrongs, like in the demon king series works well for me) I absolutely love your examples for this- especially LOTR actually- cos again I was thinking about that one just yesterday 😉 And Six of Crows and Mistborn are amazing. I agree with you, there could certainly be more stories that buck the trend!

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    • Thanks! And I didn’t even think about those prophecies that say the hero will die, but you’re right, it’s always pretty glaringly obvious what will happen. In fact I actually just finished reading a book with exactly that kind of situation (the character is doomed to martyr himself to save the world, but, surprise, surprise, he survives!), which made the ending very predictable… though I think there was just enough of a twist to it, or at least a difference in the characters’ approach/attitude to the prophecy from the usual, for it not to annoy me too much (though it wasn’t a strength). Like you said, I think a bit of a twist is often what it takes to make these heavily used tropes work. And yeah, dynasties are not as annoying as chosen ones and secret heirs can be, I guess I just don’t always like them when they are suddenly revealed near the end, i.e. in a convenient “Tada! You’re actually related to [person or ancient special family]!” moment. Anyway, I’m glad you like the examples – and you’ve reminded me I really must read the Demon King Series! 🙂

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      • You’re welcome! Yeah I always think that (and if I’m feeling particularly grouchy it’ll get an eyeroll 😉 ) haha yes- I really think it does!! But you’re right- just the slightest twist can make a difference- and to be honest as much as I criticise the trope, a book is more likely to become a book I love if it does try to mess with the trope. hahaha yes- you’re totally right. Hheheh yes, as if that plot twist has never come up before 😉 Oh definitely read it- it’s a really good series and I’d definitely like to hear your thoughts on it!

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  11. Jen Williams manages to avoid these tropes in her books… Technically one of the characters is an “heir” but it’s used quite differently (trying to avoid spoilers)
    Sorry to burst your bubble, but Narnia did have prophecies 😦 there was the prophecy of the two sons of Adam and the two daughters of eve that the White witch was trying to prevent

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  12. I agree! I much prefer stories where the ‘chosen one’ is useless, rebels from their destiny or dies before fulfilling their purpose. I do like stories where the wrong person has to take on the task – perfect example of Frodo there, by the way! – and I would like to see more stories where the sidekicks, the ones without any special powers or destiny get-out clauses, have to try to do what a superhero is meant to achieve. Which is why my favourite episodes of Buffy were after she died and the gang *tried to fight vampires without her.* It’s also why I like Spiderman – yeah, he’s a webslinger but he’s not impervious.

    One day I will write a fantasy about all the wrong people having to cobble together a plan to fulfil a destiny/prophecy because the chosen one is utterly hopeless.One day!

    As for stories without any chosen one … more realistic but personally I think it’s more fun (in sword and sorcery fantasy anyway) to subvert the trope than to ignore it.

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    • I like the way you phrase that: “the wrong person has to take on the task” – I guess that’s at the core of what’s enjoyable about that kind of trope subversion. Somehow when it’s a person people don’t expect to succeed that adds a really intriguing, surprising element. And that’s a great point about sidekicks too – it’s cool when the sidekick has to do something instead of the superhero/alone, there’s much more uncertainty and a sense they are less “protected”.

      Haha I like the sound of that fantasy with a hopeless chosen one, good idea – I hope you get to write it one day!

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