In any story, the balance of power between the protagonist and the antagonist plays an important role in keeping tension high or dropping it altogether. In fantasy, this takes on particular importance, because the central conflict between good and evil frequently occurs on an epic scale, which serves to highlight any weaknesses in this area.
Of course, regardless of balance in power, we expect good to win in the end–or at least come out with partial victory–but if the outcome feels too much like a foregone conclusion, then it strips the story of emotional suspense.
In general, tension goes up when a greater disparity appears between the strength of the hero and the opponent he must face. Most people empathize with an “underdog” but beyond that, we must have a real sense of danger that will carry us through the story. The stakes must be high. Sometimes this isn’t externally driven, of course, but here I’m primarily addressing stories in which the outward conflict takes on a prominent role.
Here are some elements that can shift the balance of power too far in favor of the hero, lessening tension:
- The hero’s supporters and comrades possess great power and wisdom and use it too frequently on the hero’s behalf. This doesn’t mean the hero can’t have powerful friends, yet if these companions are ever-present to assist, much of the story tension leaves. For example, if Gandalf accompanied Frodo through the entirety of Lord of the Rings, then many of the dangers Frodo faced would have become less perilous. Yet because Frodo faced great enemies without a wizard to back him up, our emotions engage more deeply with his struggle.
- The villain appears weak or easy to defeat. Sometimes this occurs when the author attempts to make the hero appear to his best advantage, so in every skirmish he comes out on top–somehow eluding the supposedly brilliant and powerful foe. This undermines a sense of danger. Evil alone isn’t enough to make the antagonist appear threatening–we must see evidence of their strength, substance to back up the claims that the villian is a dangerous opponent. Allowing the hero to suffer early setbacks supports this. To continue with Lord of the Rings examples, when Frodo encounters the Nazgul on Weathertop and sustains serious injury, we’re convinced of the power of the Nazgul and their master. If he had eluded the Nazgul all through the story, we wouldn’t have nearly as strong a sense of his peril.
- The protagonist has too much strength (or too many special abilities). In the recent superhero film, Thor possessed great power and a weapon (his hammer) that added to his unique abilities. Only when his pride leads to this power being stripped from him, does he actually appear to be in danger. When he first faces the Frost Giants, our concern only runs so deep, because he wields his might with confidence. But later, when he’s cast to earth and his brother Loki, still in possession of skills beyond the reach of mortals, seeks to destroy him and overtake Asguard, the stakes go up, because the brothers do not battle as equals.
Not only does the proper balance of power increase the tension that carries a reader through the story, it’s a key part of a satisfying conclusion. If the antagonist is weak and easily bested, what reason do we have to celebrate his defeat? In cases where balance of power is handled well, victory usually comes with a cost, which adds to its emotional impact. So in order to effectively carry tension through a story and empower the climatic conflict, the balance of power shouldn’t shift too far in favor of the hero and the final outcome should never be taken for granted.
Do you agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear your thoughts.