Trope Rants: Choosing the One Protagonist

I feel like I haven’t done a “literary/storytelling pet peeve” rant in a while, and I haven’t posted on my blog in forever, either. So I figured telling anybody who will listen about why I hate the “chosen one” trope would be as good a distraction from real life as anything. Here goes …

I think a large part of why the “chosen one” trope bugs me so much is because it inherently gives responsibility and power to somebody with no regard for whether they’re remotely qualified or even have reasonable potential of becoming qualified outside of “but … DESTINY.” A rather definitive part of the chosen one trope is that the person in question is presented as being the only one who can accomplish X goal, despite all logic that might indicate otherwise. Once again, there’s typically no other reason than “because DESTINY.” As often as not, the chosen one does little to nothing to merit the — admittedly often dubious — honor of being picked out from the crowd at all, much less of being the only person who could conceivably accomplish the goal.

I know a lot of authors like to think that by having random whims of fate pick out a regular Joe Shmoe to be the protagonist, their hero will be more relatable due to their averageness. But let me tell ya, having a random, thoroughly unqualified schmuck have all this importance and power handed to him (or her, though it usually seems to be a guy) without earning a lick of it makes the guy way less relatable. Even if he doesn’t want the responsibility, I usually find myself thinking, “Oh, boo-hoo. You were deemed special and deserving of powers and/or adoration through no effort of your own. Get over your damn self.”

Part of why I found Rey refreshing as a chosen one type in the latest Star Wars trilogy was that she reacts precisely the way a nobody who suddenly finds out she’s a badass out of nowhere would/should react. Namely, whenever she discovers a cool new thing she can do, she doesn’t throw herself an unwarranted pity party — even if she does get frustrated when she’s in a legitimately frustrating situation. Instead, she reacts with, in essence, “Holy shit, this is awesome!”

For contrast from the chosen one archetype, let’s look at Frodo from Lord of the Rings and Katniss from The Hunger Games. I know, I know — some of you are probably giving me puzzled looks. A lot of people seem to conflate these two with chosen ones. But to me, they’re actually perfect examples of how to have one main/central protagonist without making him or her a chosen one.

Frodo toes the line with this, as he does share a lot of traits with straight-up chosen ones — he’s an average shmoe who did at least partially stumble into his role by accident while being told that few, if any, other people could take on the task. That said, it wasn’t purely fate or prophecy determining this, and neither was he truly the only one who could theoretically do the task. Sure, the ring fell into his hands through forces that one might call fate-adjacent, but he ends up deciding to continue carrying the ring for the full length of the journey for multiple reasons that have nothing to do with destiny:

  • He’s uniquely qualified precisely because he’s an average Joe who isn’t likely to be tempted by power the way that others might.
  • Instead of some prophecy or other force of fate basically doing random selection and/or relying on “because I said so” powers, actual people — in this case, Gandalf — encourage him to take on the responsibility for real, explained reasons.
  • Other people’s encouragement only takes Frodo so far. After a certain point, there’s some question as to whether he will, can, or needs to continue being the main point person for the task. But he actively chooses to continue with said responsibility.
  • Note that this has the express implication that the ultimate ring-bearer could have become somebody else, should the Council of Elrond have gone a bit differently. In fact — in the books, at least, though possibly also in the movies? — Sam does briefly carry the ring. In the books, that particular scene/series of scenes does cross a little into chosen one territory — unnecessarily so, in my opinion — but we won’t get into the weeds with that. Suffice to say, Frodo ends up deciding that it has to be him who carries the ring the rest of the way, but Sam is later honored as a ring-bearer, nonetheless, because he did legitimately share the burden.

Similarly, in Hunger Games, we see that Katniss ended up volunteering herself to be a tribute, a role that could have been filled by literally anybody. In fact, the role was so indiscriminate — and intentionally so — that people were literally selected by lottery unless somebody volunteered. Here, we do get that chosen one-ish element of somebody getting picked at least semi-randomly, without regard for their qualifications, but in this case, the cruel randomness is the entire, very intentional point.

Rather than fate saying “yes, Joe Shmoe is the best person to save the world because REASONS,” it’s people picking other people at random for the sake of being cruel. And as with Frodo’s situation — albeit for different reasons — it adds an element of “It really could have been anybody within X parameters and/or with Y qualifications, but under these specific circumstances, it ended up being this person.” And even then, the element of randomness didn’t remain constant throughout the story. Katniss later became indispensable because of her individual experiences, actions, etc. rather than simply because “a prophecy said so.”

This isn’t something you’re going to get in a story such as, say … Harry Potter, in which the protagonist and/or those surrounding him decide that he’s the only possible person for the job, not for any real, actual reason — not his qualifications, nor any practical logistics of a given situation — but because apparently even attempting to defy fate/prophecy/destiny would be heresy or something. So whereas Harry Potter became the chosen one/leader in the fight against Voldemort because DESTINY, Katniss and Frodo came into their situations through their own tangible qualifications — often learned/demonstrated/etc. within the story itself — and the actions of actual characters within the story (themselves included).

Funnily enough, both Katniss and Frodo managed to do all of this while starting out as average Joes. So, you see? In the end, even if you do seriously think average-ness is the only way to make your protagonist relatable (hint: it’s not), you can have a character who starts out as a Joe Shmoe type and yet still earns whatever level of importance he or she achieves. In fact, earning the status they achieve rather than having it handed to them will likely make the characters you write that much more relatable.

 

Is College Just Preparing You to Be a Glorified Jeopardy Contestant?

Hey, have you ever thought about how liberal arts education is often just about knowing tidbits of trivia? Let me explain. I hold what’s probably an unpopular opinion — among my liberal friend group, at least. Namely, no, I actually don’t want a college education to just be about learning for the sake of learning. Rather, it should be about learning valuable life and career skills.
Yes, a person might pivot and change careers after college. But at the same time, even if higher education was affordable (or even free), I know certainly didn’t go to college to become a trivia champion. And even granted the often inevitable pivoting of careers, coming out of college with some useful life/career skills (some of which might even help you in multiple different fields) is far better than coming out of college with half-decent prospects as a Jeopardy contestant, but little else. (That said, being a Jeopardy contestant sounds like fun, but I digress.)
College Jeopardy Track
 
A handful of “just for fun” classes at a college that’s otherwise actually preparing you for a career and real life can be nice and good (heck, I certainly took “just for fun” classes in college). But if all a college education is about is learning tidbits of interesting, but otherwise completely useless information, then at best, it’s a massive waste of time. (It’s also likely a massive waste of money, but the time-wasting bit is inevitable, even if we lived in a utopia where all education, including college, was free.)
 
We have so much information at our fingertips these days. We can leave the just-for-fun trivia-learning to our spare time, especially given that there is so much real-life applicable learning that often gets dropped/ignored/etc. in both high school and college education. For example, the two universally useful things I can think of immediately that people often never learn in school are statistics and personal finance.
 
But this is often true even for more liberal arts and humanities-related information. And the neglected info can be specific to an individual field of study, as well. For example, anybody who knows me well likely knows that one of my favorite soapboxes is how English classes in high school and college are often so focused on finding imaginary symbolism that they completely ignore actually useful things like how to write well, which you’d think would be an essential part of an English class/major/etc.
Other things that would be super useful for English majors to know (depending on their specific fields of interest)? The ins and outs of working at or with a publisher or news outlet; how to get your work picked up and published to begin with; how to edit and otherwise work with writers, editors, and other people involved in the writing process; and the ins and outs of working at or with libraries. And those are just a few of the many things that seem difficult to find in undergrad education, even though there’s no reason they should be such rare birds.
 
As I have said many times before, this is a large part of why I was so grateful for the Rhetoric and Composition Department when I studied at Oberlin. Even granted the limitations of having a tiny department, the faculty actually covered a lot of the practical writing skills that I wanted to learn in college, all while encouraging creativity. At least while I was there, the faculty was living proof that practicality, creativity, and critical thinking skills don’t have to be in any way mutually exclusive.

Brain Barf O’Clock: 6 Reasons the Harry Potter Books are No Masterpieces

While I will always think back fondly the experience of growing up with Harry Potter and nerding over it with friends – and will always love certain characters – I will never be under the illusion that J.K. Rowling is a good writer. Why? Well…

One

She has absolutely atrocious grammar, especially in the earlier books.
la belle et la bete meme

Meme courtesy of Megan Rosado.

Two

She loves McGuffins way too much – from the Whomping Willow’s first appearance in Prisoner of Azkaban to Cormac McLaggen only seeming to get introduced for the sake of Ron’s character arch in later books (and then mostly disappearing again, if I recall correctly).

Three

She has a penchant for over-complication and deus-ex-machina-ness (which, combined, reached a really, really horrendous – indeed, painful – crescendo in the last book).

Four

Her attempts at showing that her books are/were inclusive and diverse feel so pandering and fake. Prime example: having tons of obviously straight characters in obviously straight relationships, but only having one supposedly gay character who nobody can tell is gay until she says so during a book tour for what seems like purposes of shock value. And did I mention that she only came out with that after all the books were already published? (She also gave PoC only small roles whenever they did appear in the books. Oh – and then there was that moment of, “There are totally Jews at Hogwarts… as evidenced by this one guy with a super Jewish-sounding name in Ravenclaw, who never made an actual appearance in the books.”)

Five

While I have seen fans pick things apart, analyze, and elaborate/create/expand things to their own liking on this front (occasionally making for analyses and stories I’d prefer to read over the books themselves – even if the good stuff gets mixed in with all the “My Immortals” out there), Rowling tends to pigeonhole each Hogwarts house (and its members) into its stereotype.

Six

She inserts often particularly gross stereotypes into the books even as she claims that said books are supposed to be all about love, inclusion, and tolerance. Prime example? The Gringotts goblins are super obviously coded as “greedy, money-lending Jews,” and some might make similar arguments of other characters.

Trump’s President – How, Why, and Now What?

So… if you don’t know that Presidential Candidate Donald “Drumpf” (as John Oliver famously started calling him) is now President Elect Donald “Drumpf,” you’ve probably been living a few hundred miles under a rocky bluff. But if you have heard the news, you may be elated (I hope not), you may be in shock, you may be depressed… But are you really surprised? I doubt it. The real question is, “If you’re not celebrating and accusing people who are scared for their own safety of being ‘whiny,’ who do you blame? And what are you going to do about it?”

With all the anger aimed in all directions, I saw it coming as a real possibility months ago. But do I blame Hillary Clinton for winning the Democratic nomination fair and square? No. Do I blame her for not being an idealist who promised everybody the moon, plus a few other planets’ moons, even though she knew she couldn’t deliver that much? No.

Do I blame her for not enacting better campaign strategies – y’know, like focusing more on her own positives or campaigning more in certain states? In some ways, yes. But that’s only a small part of what I saw going on with this election…

I also blame people who chose to cover their eyes and ears at the idea of Clinton doing or saying anything right, and who insisted on using language about her that implied she was an old, power-hungry crone who rigged elections, even as the DNC email scandal showed no proof of any such rigging. (Individual bias? For sure. Acting on that bias? Show me the proof.) Who equate being a bigot who sexually assaults women, cheats contractors of money, and participates in housing discrimination with being accused and acquitted of overblown scandals. Who voted for Trump (often against their own values) or for a third-party candidate or not at all because of any of this.

You know what else I blame? I blame voter suppression and the pro-Trump voter fraud that enacted the very things that Trumpies claimed to fear. Even if it was a small factor, it was a factor.

And I blame the Electoral College – not just because they threw the election to the candidate who lost the popular vote (and not for the first time). Not just because there is a damned good argument to be made that the Electoral College shouldn’t exist at all (at least, not anymore). But because in the vast majority of cases, the Electoral College does not vote proportionally. As it is now, the Electoral College swings “winner takes all” in most states, no matter how close the election was. At the very least, we would have seen a much, much closer election if states like Florida had their Electoral College votes divide proportionally according to the popular vote, instead of simply swinging completely towards the candidate who won by as little as a fraction of a percent.

There is no single thing that made this election go the way it did. There were so many factors. The important thing now that the election has happened is to do something about the weeks, months, and years. Sign a petition or contact a legislator about reforming or abolishing the Electoral College. (Read this piece from the Guardian for more info on the National Popular Vote bill, and go here or here to sign a petition or write to a legislator about it. You can even sign a petition to ask the Electoral College to switch their votes to better reflect the popular vote. Not that it’s the most likely thing to happen, but evidently their vote isn’t official until December 19, so if you think it’s worth a try and is something that you’d want to do, there it is.)

You can also boycott and protest! You can even do small things like accompany somebody on their commute if they’re not feeling safe in the environment that Trump’s election has created. Or educate people about how awful Vice President-elect Mike Pence is. Or donate to organizations like Planned Parenthood. (People have even donated in Mike Pence’s “honor.”) But whatever you do, just remember: don’t let yourself become complacent.

A Brief Summary of Thoughts on the Final Presidential Debate of 2016

Trump and Clinton Presidential Debate 2016

(Creative Commons photos by Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

On Hillary Clinton

Hillary really held her own, had some comebacks that I wish she’d had in previous debates (e.g. laying out what Trump has been doing in the 30 years that he accuses her of doing nothing). I also appreciated the way that she laid down policy (though I wish she had been more detailed at certain points).

On “The Donald”

Trump proved that he is an actual overgrown two-year-old, but I worry that some of what he’s said – even some of the blatantly false stuff – will sink in with some people who will buy it as “fact.”
Seriously? People aborting a day or two before a baby is due? Trumpie-dearest, have you ever heard of a C-section? It’s the much, much more likely event in that scenario. Is an abortion even possible, much less done in the few days before a baby’s due? (Answer is no, no it’s not.) Sad thing is, so many people are so misinformed about how things like abortion actually work (often through no fault of their own) that it’s easy to imagine people actually believing Trump’s bullshit.
And while Clinton briefly addressed the issue in the second debate, I fear that Trump’s nonsense about Hillary “doing nothing” in Congress, etc. for 30 years will sink in with people who don’t feel like doing the critical thinking of, “Oh, right. Congress – and the government as a whole – is generally made up of more than one person, and no one individual has the power to single-handedly just change things at will, the way Trump seems to suggest Hillary could have done.” Goodness knows, Trump’s repeated the line often enough that it’s bound to stick in people’s heads.

On Moderator Chris Wallace

Chris Wallace tried to keep things moving and had one or two strong moments of sticking it to the candidates in terms of getting them to answer questions, but overall, he just made more of a mess of things. It felt as though, with the way he went about trying to control the debate (which, admittedly, has proven very difficult for all moderators during this election cycle), he ended up acting like that well-intentioned but incompetent schoolteacher who just yells over the class and ends up creating an even noisier and more chaotic environment where nobody can hear each other. While there were some very good parts of the debate, half the debate just felt like people talking over each other so that nobody could understand anybody.
Plus, a good portion of that talking-over-each-other stuff involved Chris Wallace hurrying things along in a way that felt fast and clipped even by the standards of the last two debates. With many topics, each candidate seemed to get a sentence in – often a very questionably factual one – before Wallace attempted to move them along. This is understandable to an extent – there were time constraints – but the way that Wallace did it nipped several topics in the bud before they could become substantive (even when they had potential), and often resulted in letting Trump off the hook on very egregious and obvious factual errors without the slightest question.
I was also incredibly disappointed in some of Wallace’s questions – especially of Hillary. The one that stands out most to me is his question about the Clinton Foundation’s ties to the State Department during her time there, when it’s very obvious to anybody who actually looked at the evidence that was presented that the “pay to play” accusations are on tenuous ground at best.

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