Buffy Summers, Clara Oswald, and How to Pull Off a Chosen One Story
Let us talk, for a moment, about The Chosen One.
No, not my cat, although I can see why you might jump to that conclusion: I considered just posting twenty gifs of her here and calling it a day, and let’s be clear, as the cabin fever starts to set in, there might be time for that yet. But I want to talk about the Chosen One trope in fiction – and why they’re so frequently so truly and utterly fucking annoying.
First off, I think we need to establish just what a Chosen One trope looks like in fiction; I would define it as someone whose fate is both intimately tied in with the success or failure of the world around them, and over which they have little to no control. Your Luke Skywalkers, your William Mulder-Scullys, your Connor McAngels; those who are born into a destiny that they have little control over, and that they must choose to deny or accept as per their own alleged will.
For this little, wildly unscientific case study into what I find annoying or otherwise, I want to talk about two specific examples of the Chosen One trope: Buffy Summers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Clara Oswald of Doctor Who. Because one of them is done right, and one of them, frankly, just bloody well isn’t.
Okay, let’s get the bad out of the way first: Clara. I’ve been pretty clear, in my writing about Clara’s tenure on Doctor Who, that I find her one of the most outrageously boring characters on TV. And no doubt a big part of that comes down to the fact that she is such a dreadfully rote example of the Chosen One trope: from the moment she appears in the show, she is utterly defined by what she means to the universe, to the Doctor, to the history of time and space in general.
Even though the show intermittently injects her with attempts at personality (mostly involving her snogging random women but never actually showing it, because, you know, representation), Clara never really feels like more than a pawn for the universe and the showrunner by extension to make use of. She is buffeted by the forces around her, never much changing in response to it; the most we get is an increase in recklessness, which is eventually remedied by the forces of the universe once more. That’s what makes her so fundamentally annoying: she is the most important person in the show, without ever actually becoming a person in the process. Like a character only there to spout exposition, one who only functions as a plot point – worse, in Clara’s case – a series of plot points that shift depending on what hare-brained idea the writers have come up with this week.
And that’s what I don’t have time for – that’s what makes a Chosen One to very, very annoying. Even though they might make a fuss and moan and groan and angst about the situation at hand, they functionally do little to even attempt to change it – and even when they do, they are stimied at every turn by the show pushing them back on to their standard path.
Which brings me to Buffy Summers. Now, I admit to being a late convert to the Buffy universe – and an eternal and unremitting despiser of anything even Angel-adjacent, unless that happens to be Cordelia – mainly because I was so put off by the thought of a Chosen One narrative that was so central to the idea premise of the show. But one of the best things that the show pulls off is the way it sidesteps the worst of what that trope has to offer.
Instead of Clara’s constantly-shifting purpose to fit with what the narrative demands of her, Buffy feels like a fully-formed character in her own right. Whether she accepts or rejects the fate that’s been handed to her – and that regularly changes and moves depending on the nature of her relationships with herself and the people around her – her decision to engage with her so-called fate or otherwise is something that always seems to come from embedded character work. In fact, one of Buffy’s most consistent motifs is the idea of playing with the Chosen One narrative, whatever form it takes; tradition and expectation are consistently bucked in favour of true human reaction.
Basically, Buffy is an active participant in her fate, and often an active force working against it; Clara is a passive being influenced by whatever hers calls for at any given time. That’s the difference between a Chosen One who actually works. Though it’s an easy narrative choice to allow the character to be carried along by the waves of fate, it’s that exact lack of autonomy that renders them basically unwatchable.
A Chosen One who works is not driven by the nature of what destiny has decided for them, but the way they react to that destiny – whether they fight back against it, accept it, or are constantly torn between the two in reaction to the paths their life and the lives of those around them have taken. The best stories – like those of Buffy Summers – balances external plot factors and internal motivation in a way that feels true to the character at their heart. The worst chart a course, and, while they might allow the promise of something changing things up once in a while, they stick to it – and, in the process, trap that character in a boring and wildly irritating loop of repetition that always brings them back to them same place.
(header image via Bustle)