The Web is full of lists detailing fantasy clichés to avoid. Some of those lists have so many different items on them that it would be simply impossible for a writer to avoid them all – and, of course, there's a fine line between the clichéd and the pleasingly familiar. All genre fiction, by definition, contains a certain amount of cliché, and it's not so much what you do as how you do it … but I digress. Because the point of this post, the first in an intended series, is to examine a common fantasy cliché and consider what it is, why it exists and whether it can still work in current fantasy literature.
So to kick off, I've picked the mother, father and perhaps entire ancestry of all clichés: the Chosen One.
We're all familiar with it as a plot device: ordinary person discovers he (or she, but it's usually a he) is the one person who can defeat the forces of evil. Think Harry Potter. Think Rand al'Thor. Think Neo from The Matrix. There's usually prophecy involved, noting the signs by which the poor sap can be identified; typically these culminate in the prediction that to defeat evil, the Chosen One must also die himself. (Though as we all know, foretelling is a tricksy business, and frequently it turns out that the prophecy can be read in another way that means our hero isn't doomed to die after all. Which keeps everyone happy.*)
The main thing to note about the Chosen One cliché is that it tends to go hand in hand with a simplistic good-versus-evil morality structure. You can't have someone destined to save the world without also having someone or something it needs to be saved from. Where there is a Chosen One, there is also a Dark Lord. And although there may be shades of grey layered on top, the foundations of this type of plot remain black and white. There's never any doubt who you're meant to cheer for.
I'm not saying there's anything wrong with this. Despite the cliché, people like stories of good versus evil. They like reading about characters who turn out to be special in some way. And, after all, it's hard to get away from this cliché altogether. A POV character will inevitably be involved in whatever great events the story concerns – to the extent of playing a key role in their resolution – because otherwise he or she wouldn't be a POV character. No-one wants to read about a character who sits at home twiddling their thumbs whilst life goes on elsewhere. But the Chosen One is more than that. The Chosen One is drawn in not by choice, but by destiny.
I think it's here we see both the main interest and the main drawback of this cliché. Personally I always enjoy reading about a character who is forced to accept a role greater than they could have imagined: how they come to terms with their own importance and the burden of a vast responsibility they didn't ask for. Yet at the same time, that's just it. They didn't choose it. As soon as words like fate enter the picture, an element of free will leaves. And maybe even more interesting than the man who is forced to accept his foretold role as the saviour of the world is the man who has no such guarantee that he will prevail, but sets himself against what he perceives to be evil anyway – not because a prophecy said so, but because he believes it's the right thing to do.
* Except, presumably, the forces of evil.