Rowling has Harry Potter. Tolkien has Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. Lucas has Anakin Skywalker. They’re everywhere in SciFi and Fantasy. They’re characters that become legends because of nothing more than destiny. They’re ‘chosen one’ characters. While I don’t deny that well constructed chosen one characters are very successful (obviously), I’ve been trying to develop a different type of legendary character for my stories.
I’m actually finding it difficult to develop a character without creating a chosen one scenario. Writing a coherent, directional story requires us to develop characters around a preconceived plot, and the chosen one character is the most straightforward way of doing that. The plot simply becomes the destiny of our character who is compelled to act out the part. I’ve thought a lot lately about why such a character bothers me, and I wanted to share my thoughts.
Chosen one characters are cliche and all that, but a large part of what bothers me about them is that they are unrealistically passive. They are characters that go about their mundane lives until something life changing happens that sweeps them along in the adventure of a lifetime. They don’t ask to be chosen. In fact, they often resist being chosen, usually by denial that they’re ‘the one’ for the task. With these characters, it is always destiny that drives them along.
I’ve learned that there are two things that are required for someone to accomplish a task in the real world. They need both motivation and opportunity together. While opportunity is largely beyond our control, motivation comes from within. There is nothing in the real world that compels us to act when opportunity comes, and that is in stark contrast to the lives that chosen one characters live. Chosen one characters have motivation and opportunity taken from them and placed in destiny. Their choices are made for them. The adventure is more of a quest to discover the destiny than to develop as a character. Real lives are not lived that way. Real lives are lived actively. We choose to travel to Mordor. We choose to face Voldemort. Approaching real life in the passive attitudes of these characters will not result in grand adventure and accomplishment. It’ll result in failure and obscurity.
Over the years, I’ve watched as younger generations have grown up with these stories. I’ve watched as their imaginations and fantasies are shaped around them. And, unfortunately, I’ve watched as many of my family and friends sit by, passively waiting for their letter to arrive, waiting for a wizard to knock on their door, waiting for a savior to crash land on their planet, to realize just how special they are, to buy them out of slavery, and to send them on the great adventure they’ve always dreamed of having. And when that doesn’t happen, they sit at their window, dreaming about the day it will come, believing that, for every day that it doesn’t, Fate will somehow make it sweeter when it comes. And they dream their lives away, missing one opportunity after another because it isn’t big enough, it isn’t glorious enough, it isn’t (fill in the blank) enough. It doesn’t fit their preconceived plot. It doesn’t grab them and force them out of their comfort zone. It isn’t the adventure they want to live.
I recently visited the grave of a young woman here in the Ozarks, Adrienne DuMont, more popularly known as ‘Petit Jean.’ She became a legend that has lasted for nearly three centuries. She has a mountain named after her, as well as numerous other things. As I sat on her mountain, viewing her grave, I thought about what it is to be a true legend.
”The Legend of Petit Jean
One of the most captivating legends in Arkansas folklore is the romantic tale of the mountain’s namesake.
According to local legend, during the 18th century, a French nobleman named Chavet was granted an expedition to explore uncharted regions of the new world. Adrienne Dumont, Chavet’s beautiful fiancee, tried to convince him to allow her to join him on his quest. Knowing the hardship and danger of the journey, and that with rare exceptions women were not permitted on board ships, Chavet refused.
Undaunted, Adrienne came up with a daring plan: She would disguise herself as a young man and attempt to work as a ship hand. She cut her hair, went in disguise, and landed a post as the ship’s cabin boy. Her fellow sailors liked the quiet, little cabin boy and gave him the name Petit Jean (Little John). Petit Jean kept to herself, and her true identity remained a secret. Not even Chavet recognized her.
Chavet’s ship crossed the Atlantic Ocean and eventually made the journey up the Mississippi River, then further into the wilderness up the Arkansas River. The crew arrived at the foot of this mountain and was welcomed by American Indians to stay for the summer. As autumn drew near, the ship’s crew prepared to continue their journey.
Petit Jean suddenly became gravely ill with fever. While she was in a helpless state, her attendants discovered that Petit Jean was a woman. Shortly thereafter, Chavet discovered that the woman was none other than his beloved fiancee.
Petit Jean asked Chavet to forgive her for the deception. During their brief reunion, her condition grew worse. Her final request, knowing that death was near, was to be buried high upon the beautiful point of this mountain overlooking the river. Chavet and the ship’s crew buried Petit Jean here and named the mountain in memory of her.
Legend has it that the spirit of Petit Jean hovers over the mountain, giving it an air of strange enchantment.” – Memorial Plaque, Petit Jean State Park
She didn’t set out to be a legend. She wasn’t built around a tragic plot. She wasn’t compelled to follow her destiny to become the legend of Petit Jean Mountain. She was just an ordinary person, a young woman who loved her man, who was willing to do what it took to be with him. She just made a normal, everyday choice and acted upon it.
I don’t want to write a chosen one character. I don’t want to write a character that subliminally tells readers that if they wait long enough their adventure will come to them, or that if they’re unfortunate enough to not be the chosen one that their adventure will never come, or that some great, unseen force will drag them kicking and screaming along the destined path. I want to write a character that tells readers to actively live life, make choices, seek out opportunities, and grab hold of opportunity when they find it. I want to create a character that gives the reader a realistic, attainable goal. I want to create a character that leaves the reader thinking, ‘You know, that really could be me,’ rather than despairingly pining, ‘I just wish that could be me.’