The trope is endemic to fantasy literature. Especially middle grade and YA fantasy literature. How many times have we gone through the old song and dance of a single person who is “special,” who feels like an outsider or doesn’t fit in, and turns out to have special powers or is the long-lost heir to the fairy throne or some other trite nonsense that hangs the fate of the world on the decisions of a single hormonal teenager? (Nostalgia Critic’s review of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief covers a lot of the issues with this trope of “Wowed Teenagers” quite nicely.)
Now, to be fair, a lot of people do connect with this base character type, and as long as the story does something interesting with it, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the trope. For people just discovering works featuring that character type, it’s something new and unfamiliar to them. For people like me who have read a lot of fantasy and see the same tropes and cliches turn up over and over again without much variation, it can be a little grating. To each there own, of course, and I would prefer to see more variation. But a lot of people, especially those in the middle grade and YA audience, do feel like outcasts and want to be reminded that they to can be something special. It can be inspiring for them and help them discover their own talents.
But there’s a Dark Side to this emphasis on being a special, super-powered Chosen One. It can help reinforce two very unfortunate mental states: Magical Thinking and Delusions of Grandeur.
All writers have heard the adage “Show, don’t tell.” It’s one of the most ambiguous and frustrating pieces of writing advice I have ever received. After all, writing is all about words. How can you “show” something when the only way to communicate is by “telling” the reader what’s happening? You’re also supposed to make sure something is always happening to move the scene forward. You don’t start in a static or simple moment. You have to begin with a bang to get the reader’s attention! Where’s your momentum, people?
Now, I get what this advice is trying to say. “Show, don’t tell” encourages writers to not just give a play-by-play of the scene, a “Then she did this and then he said that and then they went here” style of story-telling. That’s acceptable for a four-year-old telling a story, but not for a novelist. You’re supposed to make it more dynamic, fluid, and engaging. And starting with a bang isn’t literal, but to avoid the cliche of having a character wake up in the morning or monologue to themselves. The devil, as always, is in the details of how exactly to do this.
It’s easy to then fall into the trap of thinking that these are iron-clad rules which cannot for the love of all that is literary be broken. Rules are useful as a framework, but it’s always nice to see how the rules can be bent or outright broken and still leave you with an engaging story. Enter the Foreigner series by C. J. Cherryh.