Tuesday 26 October 2021

The Potterization of Science Fiction

One of the more annoying trends in mass-media science fiction and fantasy is the move away from
The absurdity of the notion that
some people are born special
cannot be overstated, whether
we're talking about a monarch
or the Half-Blood Prince.
(Image via Wall Street Journal)

achievement-based protagonists, and towards those whose ‘specialness’ derives from something they were born with.

It’s clear that the entertainment-consuming public is often interested in people who get defined as special, regardless of what arbitrary circumstances have bestowed that specialness on them. We feel that when engagement with a protagonist is predicated on birthright rather than achievement, readers and viewers are essentially being treated as Royal Watchers.

Being expected to care about the narrative because it depicts an unattainable and presumably better position in life is classist and demeaning.

Whether the privilege is acquired through right of birth, through being born ‘special,’ or through being the subject of a prophecy, this trope is fundamentally tied to a classist and undemocratic worldview. The prevalence of such narratives, and why they persist, needs to be examined and challenged.

Certainly, under the right circumstances, this technique can produce characters that are central to memorable and enduring cultural myths, such as Paul Muad'dib or Prince Corwin. Those circumstances, however, are contingent on the overall narrative working coherently with the premise.
Say what you will about Dune,
it doesn't pretend to be anything
less than classist and cryptofascist.
(Image via Screenrant) 

Between the superhero craze and the shoe-horning of high-born people into existing franchises, this choice seems to have become the default for too much mainstream (corporate) science fiction and fantasy — whether or not it strengthens the larger story.

One of the fundamentally troubling assumptions behind the born-great protagonist is the anti-democratic idea that the lives of some people simply matter more than the lives of other people. If we accept that Harry Potter is destined to be the only one who can do the thing that’s important, then why should we care about the life of Ritchie Coote? Likewise, if Aragorn is destined for the throne then we have to accept that all other Men of Gondor would be incapable of managing the kingdom (let alone Women of Gonder). There is a direct link between the idea that one person can be born great, with the ideas that underpin racism, classism, and sexism. See also: the equally flawed “great man” theory.

Just as troubling an assumption is the idea that greatness is unearned; those who are great have not thought about it, have not put in effort to attain greatness, have not practiced whatever inherent part of their nature makes for greatness. It wouldn’t matter if Húrin the Tall graduated at the top of his class in urban planning at the University of Dúnedain, he’d still be incapable of managing Minas Tirith, and
Yes, even your favourite kids'
cartoon Visionaries features
a prince who was born special.
(Image via YouTube)

would be doomed to repeat Denethor’s mistakes. This is an idea that breeds complacency as we are taught by the stories we consume that greatness is achievable only through parentage. That is, one’s efforts to improve their lot in life are largely irrelevant, as is the society that supports the achievement of greatness at all.

We are not suggesting that readers should avoid these books, movies, and short dramatic works. Rather, we are suggesting that readers should cast a critical eye to what they read; particularly concerning issues of race, class and gender. The fact that problematic authors such as (kinda classist) J.R.R. Tolkien and (transphobic) J.K. Rowling would produce problematic works is unsurprising. What is more surprising is that this “born great” trope continues to appear in a plethora of modern, popular, award-shortlisted novels by authors who harbor otherwise progressive and thoughtful worldviews. Our intent is not to cast aspersions on authors who use this trope, but rather to encourage readers to interrogate the ideas at the heart of it. Why is it so appealing to you?

This narrative crutch has long been a central part of epic fantasies (Everything from Lord of the Rings and Wheel of Time, to Dragonlance and Masters Of The Universe), but the trend of prophesied protagonists who were born to lead has seeped into wider genre stories.

Salvor Hardin, who in the novel Foundation had been nothing more than a competent mayor who
Although some have tried
to cast the great math
prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan
as someone who was
simply born with abilities,
an examination of his
biography reveals that they
were the result of significant
study and hard work.

happened to get caught up in historical forces, is recast in the television adaptation as someone who was born special; someone with a psychic ability to understand history. In the very same adaptation, Gaal Dornick has been recast from a young professor from a mid-tier university, to a child prodigy whose great mathematical abilities are simply in her blood. To our eyes, the way the series relies on the ‘specialness’ of these characters is condescending to the audience. 

Even Star Trek — once mocked for depicting an occasionally dull and technocratic meritocracy — has come to embrace the protagonist born great. Starting with the 2009 reboot of the classic series, J.J. Abrams reimagined James T. Kirk as a maverick who was born with a destiny, instead of the Original Series depiction of a studious “stack of books with legs” who had earned a captaincy through hard work in postings on the USS Republic and the USS Faragut. The distinction is not insignificant; in one version of the story greatness is something that is earned through hard work, in the other version greatness is something bestowed upon a person seemingly arbitrarily.

This is almost a direct rebuttal to the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Tapestry," which tries to give viewers a perspective into why Picard is who he is. It is revealed in that episode, that Picard could easily have ended up as a junior lieutenant, but that circumstances had motivated him to do better. In essence, he earned his command through hard work and diligence.

One could also note that when a protagonist is “born great,” it tends to undermine the role in societal supports leading to greatness. Harry Potter isn’t great because he lives in a society whose social services, schools, and hospitals enable him to achieve, he’s great because he was just born that way. One might parallel this to the view held by those arch-Randians who would proclaim that Mark Zuckerberg’s wealth is entirely self-generated, owing nothing to the school system that educated him or the public investment in developing internet technology.

Works that directly grapple with the implications of “born great” protagonists are worth examining. One of the best, Sarah Gailey’s Magic For Liars, engaged with the classism and elitism that is baked into the very notion of a person born with a great destiny. By taking the point-of-view of someone left behind by the destined greatness of another, the book serves as a sharp rebuttal to the elitism of
This will be the only time ever
that this blog says anything good
about Buffy Season 7.
(Image via Pintrest)

“chosen one” narratives. The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman takes a completely different tack in criticizing this trope by showing how infantilizing it might be for a character to be born into power; his protagonist Quentin Coldwater grows into a listless, emotionally stunted young man precisely because of his privileged magical destiny.

And despite a ham-handed delivery, smug self-congratulatory tone, and a toxic showrunner, we’d probably also have to give credit to the final season of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer for at least suggesting that the specialness of the show’s “chosen one” should be democratized.

At its core, the philosophy that some people are just inherently great (and therefore most others just aren’t) is nihilistic. This is a narrative framework in which few people have free will, or whose decisions can have an impact on the world.

If all of our enduring cultural myths are about people whose greatness and purpose are thrust upon them by right of birth, it implies that everyone else is saddled with a purposeless life. That’s a proposition that we urge readers to reject.


  1. This makes me think about how Star Wars’ latest protagonist, Rey, went from being a nobody to having an important heritage thrust on her. At first I felt that it made more sense for her to have been important all along, as it would explain her power and importance to the plot. Now I wonder if she should have just been a nobody all along who had to work for her greatness. That certainly would have made a more interesting narrative, and your article was very eye opening. I guess I’ve accepted the chosen one plot because it’s so common to SFF and I’ve liked fantasy (and more recently scifi) my whole life, but now I’ll think more critically. Thanks!

    1. That's a great point about Star Wars: TLJ!

    2. That was one of the very reasons I liked about TLJ. A "nobody" could truly become that which the people needed. But when I caught wind of what they were doing to her character (and the whole narrative flow, really) in ROS, I saved my money and never saw it. I love SW, always have. I am old enough to have seen A New Hope when it first came out in the theater in 1977 as a teeny 4yr old. The retconn they did of ROS to "save" it from LTJ for a very loud, very toxic fandom was just such a huge disappointment that it has almost ruined my love of SW for good. Some people may have soured on Lucas, but he was a whole hellava lot better than what J.J. did to the franchise.

  2. To be fair, it's movie Aragorn who gets to just waltz in and be king by reason of birth. Book Aragorn needs the royal birth to be eligible, but he has also been working his whole life to be worthy of the role, and it is by no means certain that Gondor will accept him as king until he saves the day after Denethor's death (Gondor had previously turned down his ancestor's claim to the throne after the last Gondor king disappeared in Mordor). He has previously served in disguise for both Gondor and Rohan (having the natural lifetime 3x that of normal men from birth helps him fit this all in, of course), and we see him working in the background during the book proper to win over key supporters who will support his claim when the key moment comes. So book Aragorn grts his position by birth plus a lot of unglamorous work, not birth alone.