“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.Tags: Sequence 05: Tropes and Archetypes