Pawn to Queen – The Staircase of Protagonist Power

“I may be a pawn, but I’ve been to the other side and survived the trip back and can move like a queen. Don’t piss me off.” ~Rachel Morgan in The Witch with No Name (2014) by Kim Harrison

At the beginning of a story, the protagonist is forced to act by the initiating event. As such, they are often like pawns, moving to the whims and plans of the antagonist. With each successive challenge faced and defeated, the character grows stronger until they are motivating the action of the story and are able to defeat the antagonist’s designs. After all, with enough moves made in a chess game, a pawn will eventually have the opportunity to become a queen.

Though victory may be achieved over the course of a single volume, it seems like the publishing industry and readership have increasingly come to expect a series. This trend presents unique challenges for the Pawn to Queen archetype. After all, each story should represent a step change in the ability of the characters. However, with sustained growth the protagonist will eventually become strong enough that they overshadow all of the antagonists’ efforts. Tension is then lost as the character doesn’t need to struggle to win.

The first way to avoid this problem is to have the protagonist face and defeat a sequence of minor villains that eventually lead to the ultimate Big Bad. This strategy is extremely popular in video games and other forms of serial storytelling. The major hazard in this approach is the reader getting threat fatigued. This issue, however, can be effectively turned around if the protagonist knows of and seeks to defeat the Big Bad from the beginning of the story, approaching defeating each of the lieutenants as steps in that journey. Each conflict becomes a measure of progress, not another irritating hurdle to be faced.

The second approach I have seen work well is having the challenge be so overwhelming that it is impossible for the protagonist to ever defeat the antagonist solo. The story becomes about the protagonist gaining friends and allies to help them accomplish their goal. By spreading out the step change in power over a group, the antagonist can still isolate and threaten individuals to maintain tension. Take out any of the relatively weaker members, and the whole plan can fall apart. It’s a plot structure ripe with tension.

In order to maximize story tension, readers must believe that the protagonist simultaneously faces impossible odds and is capable of their own salvation. After all, we want to see our protagonists struggle, but we also want them to grow and succeed. However, the more extreme the growth in a single volume, the more difficult it is for us as writers to find a plausible challenge for the next book in the series. After all, you can only save the world so many times before the threat is no longer believable.


3 Responses

  1. Helen says:

    Could another approach be a gradual growth? One series I was reading had a character develop to success in one book, but that success did not set everything straight, it actually created new problems as well. And from there, you have the next milestone for improvement, which will lead to success for the next part.
    I don’t know how long you can keep that up. I plan for my series to interleave characters… but I am excited about one’s growth and well, improvement does not mean perfection, and that is a reaction I’m looking forward to people seeing.

    • Nathan Barra says:

      Absolutely Helen! In fact, I’m a firm believer that things should only be *completely* wrapped up at the end of a series. When I plot a series, I try to find how the climax of one story initiates the events of the next story. After all, it doesn’t seem reasonable for a climax to be a big deal only for the protagonist, ya? I touched on it briefly while talking about the Big Middle concept way back in May of 2013. The post is called “Fighting Free of the Mire” if you are interested.

      I think you are on a good path with how you plan to progress your character’s power, and with interweaving character perspectives. Multiple POVs is a harder thing to do than a single perspective (something I’m working on myself), but very rewarding if you can make it happen. Make sure you are excited about every character’s growth. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that my betas didn’t like a scene, only to find out that I hated writing the scene myself. If the author isn’t having fun, readers will notice. 🙂 I can’t wait to read the story though. And yeah improvement =/= perfection. Story of my life. Good thing too, else life would’ve gotten very boring!

      • Helen says:

        Oh, thanks for pointing me towards the other post, looks interesting.

        Oh yes, you’ve got to be interested. I definitely cut a few of the slow parts. If I’m skimming my own work, that’s a bad sign. I think I’m on a better trajectory. When I switch to a character, I get excited, then disappointed I’m leaving it… but then excited again for being on the new character. I like them all, for different and strange reasons.

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