A problem that can often arise, particularly in series fiction, is that a protagonist needs to get more ‘powerful’ to defeat the antagonist but then the next antagonist needs to be more ‘powerful’ so the protagonist gets more ‘powerful’ and on and on it goes until the protagonist is so ‘powerful’ the likelihood of them being defeated is lost. The most common sort of series this is associated with is the fantasy genre, largely because in fantasy the ‘power’ of the character can often be an actual power. Other genres, such as crime, may need the protagonist to get smarter but this is less conspicuous that an actual magic/super power.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t create antagonists that challenge our protagonists to become better, this is often the point of antagonists. We simply have to be wary on not making out characters too strong. A way to do this might be through the characters that support the protagonist where as a collective they have a skill set to defeat a villain but apart they might not, divided they fall, as the saying goes. We may look to Buffy the Vampire Slayer for such an example where Buffy is portrayed as one of the most successful slayers, not because she is the strongest but because she isn’t alone. Throughout the series we are presented with other slayers who all had short life expectancies and are all presented as having been alone in their fight.
Another way may be by having the hero outthink the villain or discover new lengths they will go to rather than giving a character conspicuous ‘power’. Often a character solving a puzzle, though this surely shows how smart they are, is often a less conspicuous way of the character advancing their abilities without it becoming conspicuous that they are getting more ‘powerful’.
You may argue that we always know that the hero will save the day because that is what heroes do, which is true. But the question is rarely whether they will save the day but rather how they will save it. The intrigue in the story is seeing the characters challenged and how they overcome the challenge. When Frodo and Sam get to Mount Doom to throw the ring in do we really expect them to die? The likelihood seems high but they’re the heroes so we cling onto the idea that they will escape and they do when Gandalf summons the eagles to rescue them. Thus they have overcome their challenge to destroy the ring and escaped but don’t appear to have become stronger for it, especially Frodo who seems weakened. Except they have, their friendship has been tested to its limits and beyond and has come out as an unbreakable bond. This is an everyday power rather than a superpower so the idea that they have become more ‘powerful’ is less conspicuous. Every time they overcame a challenge in the three books of Lord of The Rings their friendship gradually became stronger and stronger but we may not have noticed what appeared to be a perfectly natural development.
So when we are writing characters it is important to remember the possible pitfalls but also to remember that there are different ways for characters to change and grow as a story develops without them becoming invulnerable.
NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.