The Balance of Power

Christian Fantasy Writing

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.

Comments

  • Kessie
    November 18, 2011 - 9:39 pm · Reply

    I remember I first noticed this pattern when I first started watching anime. There’s always this progression: the heroes are strong, but the bad guy is a little stronger. So the heroes power up and beat that bad guy. But then the guy running the previous bad guy shows up, and he’s even more powerful. So the heroes have to power up some more, and so on and so forth. When the heroes are finally the most powerful, then the show is over. (Or they die, or have some other unsatisfactory ending, as is the case with anime.)

    There’s also the corollary law about how the hero can never hit first. If the villain hits first, we root for the hero. If the hero hits first, we root for the villain. I’ve done it both ways in my stories and observed this happen. It’s that whole underdog thing again.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      November 22, 2011 - 11:40 am · Reply

      Great example of the way the balance of power must be constantly adjusted. I have only passing familiarity with anime, but the progression you describe sounds reminds me of superhero genre. There’s typically a new and worse villain in each film or story. I think it can fit for a series of novels as well. By the end of a book, we expect the hero to have grown stronger, so he must face more serious challenges the next time around. There comes a point at which the story has end to because the hero has grown too strong.

      And your corollary law is quite true. In fact, I can’t think of a successfully story that has violated this “law.” Thanks for adding your thoughts, Kessie!

  • Jamie T
    November 19, 2011 - 10:51 am · Reply

    I agree completely! You have to have a balance between your three points, otherwise you do loose the tension and it feels cheap. 🙂 Great post!

    ~Jamie

    • Sarah Sawyer
      November 22, 2011 - 11:49 am · Reply

      Thanks, Jamie! Often writers maintain a strong balance of power naturally, but it can help to keep it in mind–especially in places where the tension might be lacking. 🙂

  • Patrick J. Moore
    November 21, 2011 - 1:15 pm · Reply

    Important things to think about in my writing. Thank you, Sarah.

    It seems in many of the stories I’ve enjoyed, the Hero isn’t even recognizable as a “hero” at the beginning of the story. This character is just an average anybody, and the villain is already very powerful. There is no hope that this character (as they are at the beginning of the story) has any hope in overcoming this foe. There may not even be any indication at the start that this “hero” has any aspirations or goals that have anything to do with defeating a foe… but as the character develops they become someone who can make a difference in their world. The story has to convince us that this nobody can become somebody who can make a difference.

    As much as I love first person narration there is a built in tension-killer in that mode of writing. You know from the beginning that the hero, even if unsuccessful in their goals, is not going to die. So in a story such as The Hunger Games where the goal of the character (at least in the first book) is survival… we already know she will come out as a winner without ever having heard anything about the story- she has to live because the story is told through her- we never have to fear for her life.

    I think that is my biggest hang-up on whether to tell my WIP in first person or not. It could add some power to the story if it is possible that the “hero” may not survive the story. Maybe there are multiple heroes, or an omniscient story teller, so the story can keep going even though the person whom the story was primarily about doesn’t continue in the tale. We could see the after effects of their victories and sacrifices.

    Also in my WIP I know my hero pretty well, but I’m still fairly lost with my “villain/s”. I need to get to know them so they can be powerful enough to pose a significant threat to what I intend for my hero to become.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      November 22, 2011 - 11:58 am · Reply

      I’m with you in that many of the stories I most enjoy have a protagonist that hasn’t even considered going out to battle a powerful foe. We catch a glimpse of the hero in his or her normal world, and then something happens to shatter that world. Like Kessie mentioned above, the villain strikes first, directly or indirectly. Of course, sometimes we don’t see the villain moving early on, but there has to be something that upsets the life of the hero. How he responds to this takes him from a nobody to someone special.

      The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers delves into the concept of the hero’s journey in depth. I don’t think every story adheres to the “hero’s journey” structure (though some would say otherwise) and the book has some oddities and elements I disagreed with, but the concept can be useful.

      That is a weakness of sorts with first person tales, but I think there can still be tension, because as the cliche goes, they could meet “a fate worse than death.” 🙂 However, in a book like The Hunger Games, where a big part of the story is survival, it does take away the fear of losing the protagonist.

      By the way, how did you like The Hunger Games?

      Have you experimented with different POVs for your WIP? That can be helpful, because usually that process makes it quite clear that the story has be told from a certain perspective. Once I discarded the first 50ish pages that I wrote of a story because I realized I had to change the POV, and when I did, suddenly everything clicked into place. If you have critique partners you trust, they might also be able to tell you in which POV does your voice come out most naturally.

      • Patrick J. Moore
        November 25, 2011 - 11:13 pm · Reply

        Thank you for another book suggestion, Sarah! With a friend like you I will surely never reach the end of my TBR list. That’s a good thing, I think.

        I have not experimented much with my WIP. The chunks I’ve written out are currently omniscient POV. I’ve decided to develop structure and outline before I write much more. I’m hoping that will save me some time in the long run. I don’t really like omniscient, and would prefer 1st person. I have played with writing in first person, but independent of my WIP so far- just getting a feel for writing that way. I think I’d like to tell the story first person from my protagonist’s POV- but I’ve also played with the idea (in my head not on paper) of having the story told in first person through several different POV characters with none of them being the protagonist- we would only see her through the eyes of others. BUT that sounds way too challenging for a beginner such as myself to pull off well, so… we will see.

        I do not have any critique partners yet. But I also don’t have anything significant to share with anyone yet either, so I have time.

        Over all I did like Hunger Games. I have many complaints about the first book. I gave it 3 stars on Goodreads and wrote this review:

        ** spoiler alert ** I feel very conflicted about this book. It has high quality writing and story telling. It definitely kept me wanting to know what will happen next. But several of the ingredients that usually help me enjoy a story are missing.

        I want to like the main character. In a first person point of view this is nearly essential for me. But, I don’t like Katniss very much. She’s a very cold, distrustful, arrogant, and selfish little girl. Too fiercely independent. I think Peeta, Rue, or even Fox-face would have been a more enjoyable perspective.

        I like to see a character grow. Katniss is exactly the same at the end of the story as she was at the beginning. Nothing has changed in her, and her only accomplishment is that the government she hates now knows her intimately and the feeling is mutual.

        I like a happy-ish ending; bitter-sweet is fine but I like a story to end on a hopeful “up”. This one ends like a deflating balloon, but cut short. It doesn’t feel like an ending. Nothing feels resolved.

        Being told from the fist person perspective (which I usually love) destroys any suspense regarding the life of Katniss. We know from the start she will win. The story is told through her, so if she died the story would end there. Honestly though, I think if she would have swallowed the berries that would have been a better ending. That point would have been the only event in the story to make a significant change in her world… but it didn’t happen.

        There was no change in the character or her world. So, what was the point? Apparently, book one is only setting the stage for what happens next. Despite all my complaints I like the writing. The detail and flow of the story are nearly perfect. My issues with the content have not overcome my curiosity to know what happens next. I will be reading the next book in the series. END OF REVIEW

        So, then I read the second book. Katniss does grow a bit. Especially in compassion for others, and she is growing more selfless. I still don’t care for her much, but I think I gave up on liking her and just decided to go along for the ride. I like other characters and the story pretty well. Book two has a more hopeful ending in my opinion.

        Book three… Katniss is even growing on me now. I think the only think that bothers me is that it seems about half of the chapters end with Katniss loosing consciousness, and the following one begins as she regains consciousness. Seriously? I am very satisfied with the ending. That is something I never expected with this series.

        Through the whole story the evils of The Capitol, The Games, and especially the person of President Snow are very disturbing. But I believe it just shows how evil that person is… and how evil some others become 😉 but I think that’s saying enough in case you decide you might want to read further into the series (I remember you saying you were done after the first book).

        • Sarah Sawyer
          November 29, 2011 - 6:55 pm · Reply

          I agree, a never-ending TBR pile sounds great. Then again, I’ve long been an admirer of the Beast’s library in Beauty and the Beast, and I don’t think it’s possible to have too many books. 🙂

          In my opinion (for what it’s worth), omniscient POV is the most challenging to write well, and its also usually difficult to find a publisher for an omniscient manuscript. Given that and the fact you don’t personally like it, I’d suggest switching to first person or multiple first person. I did do multiple first person in my fairy tale retelling, and it was a stretching experience, but I was happy with the result. I’m not sure I could have successfully tackled it in the first book I ever wrote, but each writer is different. As another alternative, you could go with deep third person POV. It actually gives a similar feel to first person POV, but allows a little more of uncertainty regarding the ultimate fate of the character, plus it can be simpler to execute. Forgive me if that’s too much unsolicited opinion!

          Great review. I agree with many of your points on both the positive and negative attributes of the book. It was compelling–I wanted to keep reading to find out what would happen, but the ending didn’t satisfy. It’s interesting to hear your perspective on the second and third book of the series. Some of the things I didn’t like in the first one made me decide not to continue (good memory there), but the fact that you found the overall ending satisfying is a good recommendation, since that was one of my reservations. So there’s a chance I may pick it up again someday, although I’m beginning to think dystopian books just aren’t my thing. 🙂

  • TheQuietPen
    November 22, 2011 - 10:16 pm · Reply

    You’ve done a good job observing, identifying, and conveying some elemental truths in fantasy fiction. It was really inspiring and a little convicting, because I tend to go a little easy on my main characters. I like to think that a modern fairy tale has enough “oomph” to run on its own steam, but deep in my heart I know that’s an excuse. Every time I up the ante when I edit, the story’s interest-level skyrockets.
    However, all rules are meant to be broken, and I have a few ideas of how to break these ones:

    “The hero’s supporters and comrades possess great power and wisdom and use it too frequently on the hero’s behalf.”

    —> Make this a liability. Have their advice conflict, their powers seem to help, but in fact make things worse in the end. Have their constant butting in seriously annoy the main character and tempt him to join the other side, or else give up the quest.

    “The villain appears weak or easy to defeat.”

    —> This would actually be a very interesting plot twist. Have the protagonist think he defeated the baddie. Have him grow fat, lazy, arrogant, or all three. Have it all be on purpose: a ploy by the Enemy in order that he catch the hero by surprise. It could be tricky to pull off, but it could work.

    “The protagonist has too much strength (or too many special abilities).”

    —>This one is really an interest-killer. The “Mary Sue” or “Marty Stu” type is really annoying. The best way out is the method you mentioned in “Thor” — have him lose his powers. The other way you might be able to do it is to have the helpful supporting characters and friendly woodland animals abandon the main character because they are scared of him/her. Make their power be a key to evil, the use of it a conduit to the darkness inside them, pulling them ever closer to the edge. In other words, give it a price.

    I’m pretty sure there are examples of all of these in existing fiction, but I can’t think of any at the moment.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      November 29, 2011 - 5:58 pm · Reply

      I’m so glad this post provided inspiration. Often I think 0ur affection for our characters can make it a challenge to go hard on them…but it strengthens the story when we do. That’s the beauty of the editing process and input from good critiquers–it helps us increase the trials of our protagonists and get rid of low-tension scenes. 🙂

      I love your ideas of how to turn these potential story weaknesses into strengths. Your thoughtful examples illustrate how we can turn almost any situation around and make it a challenge for our protagonists. Then readers will hopefully rejoice all the more at their victory in the end, because it will be hard won.

Leave a Comment