Story Slice: Twisting the Chosen One Archetype (Part 1)

A close look at the awesomeness of Po from Kung Fu Panda

· character arcs,story slice,archetypes

Did you know you can twist a character archetype to surprise and delight your audience?

First, what is a character archetype? Essentially, they're broad character types that are repeated across stories and often represent specific aspects of human nature that feel familiar or universal (or at least universal to Western audiences. It's a very Western-centric idea.) There's lots of lists of archetypes out there on the Internet. Some sources say there's only twelve literary ones, others list hundreds. Usually, archetypes are used to plot stories and character journey arcs.

But, did you know that writers can take archetypes and twist them to make them stronger for their audience? Let's dive into how to do this with a very familiar one: The Chosen One archetype. (Also referenced as the “Hero” or the Hero's Journey.)

For the next couple of Story Slices, let's dig into the "traditional" aspects of The Chosen One archetype and I'll show you how my favorite Chosen One — Po from Kung Fu Panda — twists or subverts it for maximum impact.

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Character Trait #1

One character trait of the chosen one is that they often don't know much about the world they've been chosen to save. They're brand new, which makes it relatable as an audience because you learn about the world as they do.

Examples of this: Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker (new to the Jedi!), Neo (from the Matrix), Sailor Moon, literally any portal fantasy anime.

So, how to twist it? First, it's important to remember -- who is your audience? In Kung Fu Panda’s case, the audience is:

  • kids
  • youthful adults (all adults? I mean, its such a classic.)
  • martial arts fans + martial arts movie fans

Alright, now that we’ve got the WHO we’re trying to impact. So, how exactly does Po twist the “newbie” trait to deliver that impact?

Po knows EVERYTHING about kung fu. The history, key players, cool weapons — he is an obsessive kung fu super fan. And why does that work? Because who among us hasn't nerded out over something we love? Nowadays, we’re all super fans of something. Having Po be that level of super fan, instead of a total newbie, makes him more relatable to the audience.

Sure, the story could’ve had a panda who didn't know anything about kung fu and had to learn from the ground up. But having Po already an expert in the world and lore made his journey so much more satisfying and engaging because from the beginning, his goal was to be as awesome as his idols. He holds the Furious Five in high esteem while his own self confidence is much lower. This sets up his character arc and what he needs to learn over the course of the story.

Plus, him being a super fan led to so many fun and funny moments that really appealed to the story's key audience. The writers took something familiar — the new-to-the-world chosen one — and then subverted our expectations by changing that aspect of Po’s character. Pretty cool, right? Next post, we'll dive into another trait of the chosen one — their magic or skills.


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