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:
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?
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.
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:
The 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?
Six 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.
Mistborn – 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.
Tiffany 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.
Aladdin – 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.
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!