Fenzel on Dragon Ball #2: On Chosen Ones and Super Saiyans

Fenzel on Dragon Ball #2: On Chosen Ones and Super Saiyans

You have to read it. You’re the Chosen One. It is your destiny.

Pay the Cost to be the Boss

Here are some of the major drawbacks of overrelying on an explicit “Chosen One” in a work of fiction (instead of, say, a complex apotheosis where ideas of destiny and fate are contributing factors, but not the governing or primary ones):

  • The dialogue is going to suck. Just the words “Chosen One” are so cliche right now that it hurts any character to put them in his mouth.
  • Your character becomes much simpler. There’s a reason that Keanu Reeves fits Neo from the Matrix so well – it’s because Neo is a frickin’ idiot with next to no personality. He’s so caught up in being or not being The One that he doesn’t bother to do any of the other things that make characters watchable.
  • There aren’t going to be a lot of surprises. When a character is organically motivated by things that are internal and specific to him or herself, then that character can go in any number of different directions. If you’re relying on determinism and destiny to get the character where he’s going, well, then there’s only one place he’s going to be, and that hurts you in the “bag of tricks” department.
  • It’s going to be harder to have diversity across characters. If you put your characters in a universe in which there is a “Chosen One” running around calling hims or herself that (or being called it by others), and if that’s credible in the world you’ve constructed, it can be very hard to find relevant stuff for your other characters to do. Clearly, it takes a lot of pressure off of them if some proxy for God is going to help this other dude and all they have to do is stay out of the way. If you make the backing for your protagonist less obvious, other characters can more believably think they are the hero, and this gives them their own opportunity to showcase their internal motives and to take interesting actions.
  • You are hamstringing yourself with a very specific ideology. It’s not a given that your fictional universe has to have “Chosen Ones” in it, but if it does, certain other things are probably true – namely, that there is something out there that does the choosing.Think of how much better the later Matrix movies would have been if there were no Architect – if the Wachowskis didn’t feel so obligated in following through their “Chooser” to its semi-logical, absurd conclusion.
  • It is lazy. For Christ’s sake, just use another word or something, at least. There are dozens of basically equivalent ways to motivate characters. Why use the same one everyody else is using?

However, there are also good reasons to use a “Chosen One” in your piece:

  • You can ingratiate religious audience members or readers without pissing off any specific religion or unreligious people. It’s a nice red-state/blue-state style cultural cop-out.
  • It adds stakes and purpose to characters that have no stakes and no purpose. Sometimes, you have somebody like Superman around, and there’s no reason for that guy to do anything. Might as well write in a prophesy, then. Keep in mind that you probably shouldn’t aspire to have characters with no stakes and no purpose.
  • Hollywood will probably think better of you for it. Seriously, Hollywood screenwriting types seem to really like the idea of the Chosen One, because they see in their audiences a large mass of pretty ordinary people who are looking to be told that they are special. It’s a cynical act of fantasy fulfillment. Now, I’m not against fantasy fulfillment through movies, but I do think that, while making it this cut and dried makes it easy for a producer or scriptwriting seminar guy to analyze and talk about it with praise, this sort of “critic service” is probably not going to make your actual movie better, even though it might help it get produced.
  • It is quick. Without the complexity of organic motives, you can breeze through discussions of why people do things and get straight to the action. This is probably the biggest reason why this tactic is so popular today. If you’re writing a movie for set pieces, you don’t want to waste time doing that other stuff, right? I say wrong, but that’s a topic for another post.

There’s a lot to talk about here, but I’ll leave it at that today. What do you think about Chosen Ones? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

11 Comments on “Fenzel on Dragon Ball #2: On Chosen Ones and Super Saiyans”

  1. JoeMc #

    Good read!

    I wonder how much, if at all, Terminator Salvation will touch on the chosen one aspect of John Connor. I haven’t really followed the Sarah Connor Chronicles (and after reading all the praise on here, I probably should) but I think I remember John Connor at some point throwing the idea out there that what happens if he refuses to lead the resistance. Does the “chosen one” have a choice in the matter? All the movie examples put forth here would seem to say no (Star Wars, Matrix, even Dragonball).

    Anybody have any movies or literature where the “chosen one” goes against the prophecy?


  2. Dan Miller #

    JoeMc, it’s been a while since I read it (and the series won’t end for a while yet, so I’m not sure how the issue will be resolved) but as I recall the Wheel of Time books deal with this issue pretty extensively. Plus they’re a pretty fun read. I’d recommend checking them out if you haven’t, although you might just wait until 2011.


  3. Jonathan #

    Great piece Fenzel!

    I think the reason Star Wars absolutely nails the “chosen one” idea, in the entirety of its six episodes, is Lucas allows the characters to make their own guesses as to how the prophecies play out. Anakin is the chosen one who will bring order and balance to the force, but unfortunately for the Jedi THEY are the one’s unbalancing the good vs. evil teeter-totter of the Force. Thus Anakin DOES fulfill his prophecy, but in a way the Jedi didn’t expect, by killing these hundreds of Jedi and then, later, killing the Emperor. But the key here is we are mistakenly led by other characters to believe something different than what actually happens: in the original trilogy, we believe that Luke is the chosen one because Yoda and Obi-Wan tell him this, only to find out that it is Vader who kills Palpatine, while in the prequel trilogy, those without the knowledge of the original movies believe Anakin will be good because many of the other characters believe this, only for him to become evil. It’s a great bait and switch, both times!


  4. mlawski OTI Staff #


    Seriously, though, great article, Fenzel. I especially liked this part: “You are hamstringing yourself with a very specific ideology.”

    It’s not only an ideology that demands the universe has a “chooser” to pick the chosen one. It’s also an ideology that is clearly monarchical in nature. As I said back in my Pan’s Labyrinth post, the hero’s/chosen one journey comes from King Arthur-type legends and is a justification for the rule of an authoritarian leader. In other words, “You have to listen to me, your king, because I am the Chosen One who pulled the sword from the stone and defeated the old evil king/empire/Saiyan. I also have magical powers.”

    This is not to say that I’m against prophecies in all texts, however. Actually I still adore the old Greek tragedy notion of the misunderstood prophecy. (Jonathan hit the nail on the head with the Star Wars trilogies. Those prophecies worked because they played out in surprising ways.) The problem is that prophecies have been so overused lately. But if you do something different with them, like Rowling does in Harry Potter, they can still surprise.


  5. fenzel #


    There are lots of movies where the Chosen One goes against the prophecy, and most of the time in those cases, the prophecy carries some pretty severe drawbacks, up to and including the destruction of the universe.

    Three fun movies that explore this sort of scenario –

    The Devil’s Advocate
    The Last Temptation of Christ

    Then of course, there’s _Good Omens_ by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, which gets a lot of mileage out of this idea. I heartily recommend it.


  6. Gab #

    @Fenzel: One of my favorite shirts in 7th grade had that first full-body shot of Goku as SS on the front (and that’s it). Nostalgia…

    Anyhoo, awesome post, and great job at tying it in with the Popular Culture in general. I couldn’t agree with you more when you list off why it does and doesn’t work. One notable aspect about the SS prophecy in particular is how Vegeta is willing to accept it isn’t about him. He passes the torch off to Goku as he dies, and thus lets go of that pride you mentioned- at least, for the moment. But his entire life, up until that moment, had been his quest to become a Super Saiyan. I think that also has something to do with why Goku forgives him.

    I’d like to nit-pick a little, though. I have not read any _Spider-Man_, so correct me if I’m wrong, please. But, it’s my understanding that he becomes what he becomes through an “organic” transformation (sort of like Goku’s)- something happens and he makes the choice to become Spider-Man. No one tells him he *must* do it and has no say in the matter. So, are you saying the circumstances of Peter Parker’s “transformation” were SO constricting that he may as WELL have been told it was prophecy? Otherwise, I’d say his is even less like Han’s or Neo’s than Goku’s is.

    @Mlwaski: I think your last post and the part about dramatic irony fit into the discussion- the reason those prophecies in ancient Greek tragedies work is their dramatic irony, as you say. I suppose for _Dragonball_, the dramatic irony is Goku’s oblivion/disinterest with regards to the prophecy while it’s kind of obvious to the audience that he’s going to be a SS. This, of course, makes the prophecy work and not feel *too* cliche. And it’s also sort of dramatic irony that Vegeta strove his whole life to fulfill the prophecy, even though, again, the audience is able to tell he’s not “it” the whole time (or at least up until the first SS transformation in the series). (BTW, Neville ended up being one of my favorite _HP_ characters.)

    (Oh, and Fenzel, a kernel for a post about race and _Dragon Ball_: Why are Super Saiyans blonde-haired and blue-eyed?)


  7. sarielthrawn #

    Buffy always seemed to make prophecy interesting.


  8. lauren #

    I was starting a really long comment about Buffy and how even though she’s a “Chosen One”, she’s more like Goku than Luke, Neo, or Harry Potter, but I realized it was going to get a little out of hand, so I think I’ll just blog on my own time about how Buffy chooses to be chosen, which I think is a process that determines whether or not the device of the “Chosen One” is earned or not. Kind of like what JoeMc said about John Connor.

    Hmm. Long sentences happen at 3am.

    Anyway, I also think there’s something to the finite destiny versus the continuous destiny thing that’s mostly divided along the film/TV (or comic) line.


  9. Gab #

    By “Han” I meant “Luke.”

    Although now that I think about it, the fact that it ended up being Anakin anyway while he had never actually been told the prophecy (right?) makes it a little awkward. Still, I think Peter’s status is more chosen by Peter than Neo’s and Goku’s, since he isn’t operating under any prophecy.


  10. fenzel #

    @Lauren —

    When you finish the post, send it my way! I’ll link to it! I’d love to read it!


  11. Atomic Red #

    Hey I’m mentioned in here! Thanks for including me!


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