Chosen Ones and the Power of Love

In “Chosen One” plots, the protagonist has some born-in virtue or heritage that makes her the One Person Who Can Save Us. This is extraordinarily common in fantasy fiction, though it appears in SF as well (e.g. Jupiter Rising). In “Power of Love” plots, love has a spiritual, emotional, or mystical power that can directly affect the world. This is rampant in Hollywood (e.g. Interstellar); possibly less so in books, but that may be my reading tastes.

I see these two plot components — Power of Love and Chosen One — as “the same thing,” because they represent two facets of the same basic story choice. And that choice is pandering.

The common characteristic here is that success comes through no skill, training, or expertise. You could be revealed as the Descendent of the Hero! (You can worry about your training montage after that.) Maybe you love your Cylon enough to make a mixed-species baby possible! This allows the you, the reader, to more easily put yourself in the place of the hero — but it’s a cheap identification. Forget interesting characters, forget engaging stories, just make the hero able to succeed via things the reader could do.

This is why it’s pandering: it’s a lowest-common-denominator viewpoint. Who cares about education and expertise, if all you need is love? And this is also why it’s more common in movies than in books: because movies want to reach a wider audience, and make them leave the theater feeling proud and justified, as if they could’ve saved the world.

There are ways to write good plots with both of these elements. For example, I forgive Harry Potter a great deal for its ability to make a Power of Love plot work intelligently. But personally, I am tired of stories where Expertise Isn’t Necessary.

Edit: Note that pretty much any “instinct and intuition are correct, all the experts and scientists are wrong” storyline also falls under Power Of Love plot. Exact same thing, different flavor text.

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5 thoughts on “Chosen Ones and the Power of Love

  1. Eileen

    There is also the danger of what I call ‘competence porn’- when a protagonist is pretty much good/skilled at everything. I think this is the opposite extreme and it’s problematic for different reasons, but it makes me want to pull my hair out just as much.

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  2. bckinney Post author

    Gosh, yes. That’s why I couldn’t stand the otherwise-highly-recommended “Devices and Desires” by KJ Parker. The main character’s expertise was that he was good at understanding systems, which meant he was good at predicting *everything*. Though I’d classify that problem as more “Mary Sue” (unearned success/love) than “competence porn,” because I’ve heard the latter used to describe a much more common effect: readers do love characters who are awesome.

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    1. Eileen

      You’re right as to the use of the term “competence porn,” it’s not quite what I mean. I could not read much of The Name of the Wind because I felt like the protagonist was good at everything but persecuted for it so I should feel sorry for him.
      The other example that makes me roll my eyes is Miss Marple. I do like the books, but Miss Marple always trained in something ridiculous or had learned something obscure in her education that was pertinent to the case. Eventually these added up and I just expected Miss Marple to pull a rabbit out of her hat all the time.

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      1. bckinney Post author

        I haven’t read either of those, but Name of the Wind is on my to-read list. I hear good things about it, but I’ll keep an eye out for the Mary Sue when I finally get my hands on a copy!

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  3. Annaka

    Nice analysis! The “no special skills” == “broad audience” isn’t something that had occurred to me, but it makes sense. Add to that the general Mary Sue appeal and you have a winning but bland combination . . . sort of the literary equivalent of Hershey’s kisses. Although perhaps that’s unfair to Hershey’s?

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