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August 07 2007

"The Secret to Selling Sci-Fi" by Jane Espenson. It's all about The Chosen One.

"Kids have potential. Adults have accomplishments. Which of those feels more magical and limitless?"

Wonderful - and I think she's on to something there.

I used to think also that it was the fully-realized world of HP that drew all and sundry - and the talent J.K. Rowling used to draw her world is certainly part of its appeal - but she's right - that's not the big it. Yup, I bet it is "the specific type of Hero's Journey." That just resonates with me, anyway.

"It's universally appealing, like pie and Anderson Cooper."

Well, pie, anyway.
Now that she's said it, it seems incredibly obvious that Buffy and Harry have this in common -- being The Chosen One, growing up someone special with the curtains pulled back on a whole new world, etc. etc. I feel almost stupid for not having seen this commonality before now.

Thank you so much for posting this.
Just as the young King Arthur and Luke Skywalker were both orphans discovering that they had inherited a special sword from their wonderful and previously unknown Father, Harry is discovering his true legacy. We all hope to get some kind of exciting legacy from hitherto unknown relatives which will proclaim us as having a brilliant destiny.
I definitely think that Jane has put her finger on it!
Good golly, that was an awesome article. Thanks very much, Simon, for allowing me to read it.
Elves in space!

It really is amazing how much Harry Potter and Buffy Summers have in common, when you think about it.
They've already done elves in space, haven't they? Vulcans?
While I agree that's she's put her finger right on an important point, I think that she's also expressing fatigue as a pitching writer without a Chosen One.

C'mon, like you said, Star Trek, Firefly, and Battlestar all got made without that. Keep thinking, you're really good at that. And like Ron D., you've got a built-in audience. I even watched your and Doug Petrie's The Batman. Meh. But I know you can both do better, given your own parameters.
Am I the only one who thinks The Batman was pretty good? Not better than anything in the Timmverse mind you, but still quite good and faithful to Batman? Yeah? Ok, Ill go hide...

I was in a debate with a friend about this once, and while I do think part of it is that people dont get sci-fi and that there has to be a Chosen One, I think part of the problem with sci-fi is the inherent pessimism that envelops most, if not all, of sci-fi. Inherently, Star Trek is quite optimistic but Firefly and Battlestar are deeply pessimistic about the human condition, about religion, and about the nature of evil. Of course, some will argue that instead of ascribing pessimism to these shows, we should ascribe realism, but when we think of Heroes for instance, we think inherently positive. And I think thats the point, its the world view of these shows that influence who watches the show more so than either The Chosen One or intelligence, its the idea that sci-fi is seen as bleak and pessimistic, involving characters who embody only the worst of mankind. Essentially, the main reason I can infer is faith, whether that be in God, Religion, or Humanity itself, and I think that plays the most important part in selling sci-fi.

ETA: For instance, how many times did you hear people say that the reason they watched Heroes was because the world needed heroes right now? There is a sort of optimism to shows like Star Trek and Heroes, an optimism that not only allows us to escape but to feel better about who and what we are as people, to reinforce that faith that we have in humanity, and in that sense, I think many people do understand sci-fi, they just simply do not like it.

[ edited by jerryst3161 on 2007-08-08 04:15 ]
Well, I liked The Batman at first. Then it seemed to get more constricted, topically, at the same time it started showing the same episodes over and over, which reflected, I thought, budget cuts. Subtracting or adding faith in humanity can come in any medium or genre. But I agree that for many people it might be that they avoid science fiction because it reflects a scientific world view that they think belittles them.
We need to start with an empty page of notebook paper, write "The Chosen One" across the top and start brainstorming. At least, that's what I plan to do.

I hope she gets somewhere with this. I've been waiting for an Espenson-created show for a long, long time.

I don't know if pessimism and optimism are necessarily factors in deciding the success of a show. The original Star Trek (great show), while optimistic, was cancelled after three seasons. Conversely, I always found the X-Files at it's best to be pretty pessimistic, and for a time it was a runaway hit.
I only watched the first 7 or 8 episodes of 'The Batman' but found the style too jarring.

Might give it another chance though because I initially had trouble getting used to the quippy, Spider-man ish take in 'Batman Beyond' but eventually came to think fairly highly of that. Course, BB had the advantage of still having Kevin Conroy for continuity and I don't think anyone understands the DCAU better than Timm and his team.

(prefer to watch them on DVD anyway, no adverts and I like 'marathons' of cartoons, helps me sink into the world)

Jane's right about the Chosen One story-type but isn't that basically the Hero's Journey as related by Joseph Campbell (among others) ? So the idea's been around a while but Jane's explanation of it is very clear and well written. And being 'chosen' (like being 'last', 'first' or 'only') is a very romantic wish fulfilment going back hundreds if not thousands of years. Cinderella is a fairly old example of a female 'chosen' one (though with no particular abilities apart from kindness, hard work and good looks - and a fairy godmother obviously ;).

And I wonder if a lot of TV sci-fi doesn't sit too well with mainstream audiences because they feel unrepresented ? Most people don't know much science (or care to) and sci-fi on TV has been notoriously straight white male centric so those two things together make for a fairly exclusive 'club'. 'Heroes' for instance offers no explanation for the abilities that you can't 'understand' just by knowing we have DNA and it, to some extent, determines what we're able to do. It also has a pretty diverse cast and characters that are largely working or middle class and easy to identify with.

The pessimism thing might also be true, I think Larry Niven said something like "If someone invents the car, sci-fi writers have to invent the traffic jam" and I think that element of examining the problems the future might bring may seem negative to a lot of people.

(ultimately all sci-fi is optimistic IMO because, problem filled or not, it at least tells us we have a future ;)
I don't buy it.

I've often thought that what has made Harry and Joss stuff so popular is that they have something (well, a LOT) for all tastes.

Humor always works, when it works, that is, it goes far.

A lot of people like the scary stuff. A lot of people like the actiony stuff. (I'm not either of those, myself.)

Having humany humans -- people with actual personalities, that are both good (so you really care) and flawed (so they aren't not-human, and you can identify with them).

And that they hang together -- not just verse backstory stuff, but there are tons O twists, but they aren't just twists for twists' sake, but make sense, even when you go back and reread or rewatch.

(Think of those Law & Order eps where they do lots of twists, but when you watch the ep again, the whole thing is lamoid.)

And, of course, all the mysteries -- some hinted at from the start, others brought up over time; very slowly spun out.

What makes for the obsession and "GOTTA see how it ends; gotta know what's been going on" are all of those mysteries.

I don't think that simply having a Chosen One is the key -- I think playing to lots of tastes, having realness of character and of feeling, and having compelling "WHAT IS going ON here?" are the key(s).

But what do I know?
I have this effect in the non-virtual world, too, of bringing all talk to a screeching halt.

But I'm right. I know I'm right.

I guess that, since I get the last word, I should be happy.

But it would have been nice to have others acknowledge my rightness.

Or even argue with me.


OK, OK, you suck ! There, feel better ? ;-)

I agree with what you're saying tehabwa but I think the things you list are just the properties of good popular fiction rather than being a particular recipe for mainstream success with sci-fi.

(course, if you've created good popular fiction then, by definition, it doesn't matter what genre it is - it's already 'good' and 'popular' ;)
Which, it might be worth pointing out, has **spoilers** for the end of Harry Potter (I haven't read any of the books yet, wouldn't particularly consider myself a fan and even I stopped reading after the first sentence - bet it is interesting though, I like King's writing about writing ;).
tehabwa - enjoy reading your thoughts, happy to disagree/agree with you at length, but do me a favor? Each sentence doesn't need to be its own paragraph.

While its not the ONLY thing, having a Chosen One is certainly central to a lot of the big bad myths that we take to heart and love and hug and squeeze and call George. That fact of the myth alone seems to dig into our hearts like not a lot of other things are capable of doing. Funny, smart, actiony, scary, are all compelling in their own ways, but feeling 'hey, that could be me if I were Chosen' has an inestimable effect on one's perception of the material, methinks. As I said its not the only thing, but it sure is a thing :)
Maybe I'm the only one, but I find that "saver of the world" stuff distancing. I DON'T see myself as that sort of person (more the "I laugh at danger, then I run and hide until it's gone" type).

What most resonates is what we ourselves do experience. So, even though we didn't have lightening-shaped scars on our foreheads, we HAVE all felt, at some point, we were going into a situation where we would be the only ones who didn't know anything; that everyone else was on home turf, and we were going to stick out like sore nimrods.

(Sorry about my usual lack of paragraphing; I find long paragraphs on the computer screen intimidating and hard to read. That's why I overdo the other direction.)
No worry :) The thing about these Chosen One myths is that so often they explore the awkward, I-don't-know-what-I'm-doing phase as well and you get pulled in ebcause "Hey, that's me!" and then they go on to save th world and you are pulled along for the ride and perhaps uplifted by being able to put yourself so securely in that fantasy. In a way that you wouldn't have been able to had they not also done the awkward phase.

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