Like a nukitsuke from a shadowed alley, I cut my way back onto the Internet! I’m mid-way through Finals for this semester and find myself blessed with a grace period and something to write about, so we’ll get right back to it. After nine months. Look, my arch-rival beat me in a duel and I needed time to recover. But now we’re going to take another look at a topic I’ve addressed before: the idea of escalating character power over the course of a series. Yes, I know, rehashing myself for my first returning post is a brilliant way to empty my near-ended follower count. But I think you’ll find this return an interesting one.
As I’ve matured and honed my craft (note how it’s a craft now) over the last few years, I realized I may have been too hard on escalation. After all, I like the word escalation. It makes me feel like a Field Marshal barking orders. “Escalate to Storm Phase!” “Escalate to Cold Weather Assault Protocol!” (I’ve snickered this to myself while dressing for Michigan’s winters) “Escalate to Shower Mode, I’m done working out and damned if I don’t give a damn!” I do enjoy when things get bigger. Keep thinking what you’re thinking, we both know that was my plan.
Regardless, I enjoy some escalation. Star Wars opened with Luke Skywalker driving a landspeeder to buy some droids and ended with two starfleets clashing for the fate of the entire galaxy. Actually, my biggest gripe about The Force Awakens is that it undermined the finality of Endor. A catastrophic battle in which one of the great strategic minds of his age (Admiral Akbar) pitted all his cunning against the sheer might and superior technology of the Galactic Empire. The rebellion’s bravest operatives against the Emperor’s fiercest legions, the Sith Lord Vader against his Jedi son. And, erm… Ewoks. I don’t hate them, just… damn. They don’t quite fit in. But they didn’t ruin it, let’s not be childish about this. It was still a hell of a way to end a war.
Which The Force Awakens blithely ignored in order to simultaneously rip off A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. It was still good fun, but in failing to set a limit on the previous conflict it undermined the sense of drama its predecessors so brilliantly developed. And no, for the purposes of this discussion the Prequels do not exist. Sorry about that. The problem with trying to raise the bar like this is that the audience can see you raise it. Why bat eyes or raise brows at the latest looming threat if they know the movie to come will dwarf it so much as to make it insignificant? Remember, between A New Hope and The Return of the Jedi there was this little breather called The Empire Strikes Back.
The up-scaling trend was harder to see because, between clashing walls of starships and blaster fire, there was a film which focused much more closely on the development of the Skywalkers, Han Solo, and a bevy of other characters. When the lens swung back to the galaxy-shattering conclusion of the war, it had all the more impact because it was out of focus for a time. We now have seven Star Wars movies. While A New Hope‘s blaster-battling is on a smaller scale, it’s still plot-central. For the other five, we have all-out war as a main focus. Be honest: when you got into the theater to see The Force Awakens, part of you said “Of course it is” when Starkiller Base turned out to be so much bigger. Presumably the First Order’s next superweapon will be the size of an actual star, and destroy planets by flying into them.
Gripes aside, I hope my mildly-irritated fanboy routine has set me up well for this next part. Let’s just agree to ignore the fact that I’m supposed to be talking about character power and got into abstract plot scale, hm? The broader scale still works, though. If you say to yourself when writing a piece, “These guys are the best in the universe,” stick to that. Treat that as an immutable law of physics. No one is allowed to be better than they are. People might get as good. Might. They will never be better. The only way for everyone else to catch up is if your top-tier murder-masters (I’m assuming they’re fighters for now) just lose all drive and turn terrible. That won’t happen, however, because if they had the kind of personality to fold like that then they wouldn’t have become best in the first place!
Now that you’ve set your bar, plan any and all power development accordingly. Don’t put your main characters at or near this zenith of awesome if you want them to have any room to grow. Instead of raising the bar, start lower and raise your characters to it. This also allows you to foreshadow by implication just how nuts things are going to get. If your telekinetic warriors can cut a dozen bullets out of the air at once as beginners, you don’t have to state that they’ll be absolutely ludicrous by the time they reach mastery.
Another important part of this, however, is nuance. Pure physical strength and speed we’ve got numbers for, but what you’ll more often be dealing with is skill. Skill, my friends, is a finicky thing to which I’ll articulate a separate ode at a later date. For now, it’s enough to say that the easy level-labels we make rarely hold up as firmly in reality. So when you say someone is the best swordfighter in her group, that doesn’t mean none of the others can beat her. It just means that she’ll beat them more often than they beat her. This also means that when you say a group of people are all the best, it can actually function because all of them have some degree of parity with each other.
You may choose to distinguish some towering warrior-demigod as the best of the best. That doesn’t mean this champion blade-slinger is invulnerable, just less vulnerable. In a more general sense, use nuance in how you ramp things up. Don’t go directly from the scrubs to the aces unless there’s a good narrative reason for it. The elite shouldn’t show up except to solve elite-level problems. Why would they waste their time on helping some rookie when they could look for challenges to test and refine their skills?
If you’ve done your worldbuilding right (and yes, I’ll finish that series of articles sooner or later), you’ll already know what the most powerful POWERFUL THING HERE in your universe is. Knowing that, you’ll already know when it’s justified to bring that thing in. The difference between escalating for tension and escalating to hilarity is all in how you pace it out. You’re not Akira Toriyama (unless you’re Akira Toriyama, but that works for, at most, one of you), so you can’t jump from crazy to crazier.
Just warn me if you’re going to blow any planets up. I was planning on testing my new star-sized super battleship on some of them and it’ll ruin the surprise if they’re already vapor when we get there.