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The Trope of the Hidden Lineage

The trope of the hidden lineage is very common in fantasy novels. I will prove to you with example that there is nothing inherently wrong with the hidden lineage trope, and doing it well makes for an enjoyable read:

-          "Harry Potter" series by J.K. Rowling - Harry Potter learns that he is actually a wizard with a famous lineage within the magical world, hidden from him while growing up with the Dursleys.

-          "Mistborn" series by Brandon Sanderson - Vin, the protagonist, discovers her hidden noble lineage, which plays a significant role in her destiny as a powerful Mistborn.

-          "The Song of Ice and Fire" series by George R.R. Martin - Jon Snow's hidden parentage is a central mystery in the series, with implications for his identity, alliances, and the broader political landscape of Westeros.

Vin of Mistborn

If anyone wants to say all three of those are made worse by the trope, I guess we just can’t see eye to eye. 😊 So now that we can say it happens, we should probably delve a little more into the idea of what it is.

In a hidden lineage story, a character discovers or reveals to the reader that they are descended from a significant, often powerful or noble, lineage that was previously unknown to them or kept secret. This revelation typically has significant implications for the character's identity, abilities, or role in the story.

In many cases, the character starts off unaware of their true heritage, living an ordinary or even humble life, only to later uncover their hidden lineage, which may come with newfound powers, responsibilities, or enemies. This trope is often used to add depth to characters, create plot twists, and explore themes of destiny, identity, and the importance of one's origins.

I will be the first to admit that hidden lineage runs side by side with chosen one, for the first possible failing. Overuse: The hidden lineage trope is a popular and frequently employed narrative device, leading to its overuse in fantasy literature. When used excessively, it can feel formulaic and uninspired, failing to surprise or engage readers. This is not a “don’t do it.” This is a warning, that reader will recognize it immediately, bring all of their assumptions forward with it. This means you MUST do it well.

Because we bring those tropes in with us, and the assumptions about the lineage tale, we often see Simplification of Character Development: Relying too heavily on a character's lineage to drive their development and motivations can oversimplify their complexity. Characters should be multidimensional, with a range of influences shaping their identity and actions beyond just their ancestry. Main story lines can rely on the secret, but the character happens to be of a lineage, it is not all they are. Unless of course that is a character flaw to be explored!

An example and a series I loved growing up, but will admit has it slightly on the nose is Taran from Lloyd Alexander's "The Chronicles of Prydain" series, particularly in the first book, "The Book of Three." Taran is an Assistant Pig-Keeper, content with his modest role in the fantasy world of Prydain. However, as the story progresses, Taran learns that he is not merely a common pig-keeper but is actually descended from a noble lineage. His true heritage is revealed, and he discovers that he has a significant role to play in the battle against evil forces threatening Prydain. Taran's journey from a humble beginning to embracing his hidden lineage forms a central arc of the series. It is an enjoyable read, but by many modern standards would be considered a simple character arc.

My number one pet peeve for hidden lineage is the same as my worry with chosen one arcs. Undermining of Character Agency: The revelation of a hidden lineage can sometimes overshadow a character's individual agency and accomplishments. If their significance primarily comes from their ancestry rather than their actions, it may diminish the character's autonomy and growth. AKA, they win because that is what the trope calls for.

This is very hard to avoid in my mind. In Eragon, the protagonist Eragon is a farm boy who discovers a dragon egg, setting him on a path to become a Dragon Rider and play a pivotal role in the struggle against the evil Empire. However, it is later revealed that Eragon is not just an ordinary farm boy; he is actually descended from the ancient Dragon Riders, making him inherently special and giving him a significant advantage in his quest.

While the revelation of Eragon's hidden lineage adds to the story, it also raises questions about his agency and the extent to which his actions are driven by his own choices versus his predetermined destiny as a descendant of the Dragon Riders. This can diminish the impact of Eragon's character development and make his journey feel less earned, as his success is partially attributed to his noble ancestry rather than his personal growth, skills, and decisions.

To perform the trope well think to hold to these three opposites to the issues noted above.

Empower character agency: Make the lineage matter in a way that drives new choices, and choice availability instead of taking choices away from the characters.

Use it as a catalyst for growth: Instead of relying solely on ancestry as a source of power or significance, use it as a catalyst for character development and self-discovery. Explore how characters grapple with the implications of their lineage and navigate the expectations and responsibilities it entails.

Integrate it slowly and organically: Ensure that the revelation of the hidden lineage feels natural within the context of the story and aligns with the established world-building and character development. Avoid abrupt or contrived reveals that disrupt the narrative flow. Consider even going so far as to treating it like Sanderson’s laws of magic. You can’t solve the problems of the book with it like a hammer looking for a nail. Characters must still solve their own problems.

However, you chose to use the trope, even if the answer is “ignore it,” always remember. Writers write. So put pen to proverbial paper, and make your stories into a reality.

John Snow

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