Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Level Up or Nerf a Character?

You guys! Guess what? This week we're talking about "leveling up" characters, which, being gamerspeak, merges two of my very favorite things in the universe: gaming and storytelling. Basically, this is my happy place. *happysigh*

Sorry, I just had to glee all over you.

Back to the topic.

Should a writer or should a writer not level up a protagonist over the course of a book or series? I think my initial response to that question was kind of, duh, of course. But then I actually thought about it. I mean, yes character development needs to happen. That's kind of what effective story is (don't believe me, read Lisa Cron or Michael Hauge). However, developing or evolving a character does not necessarily mean their power or skills "level up." In fact, I've done it both ways.

Perfect Gravity depicts a character leveling up. The protagonist, Angela, begins at the effect of other characters' power plays, but she takes ownership of more and more of her own power until, by the end, she has fully come into her essence and is one of the most admired and feared people on the planet. The increase in level, or relative power, is a metaphor for how much she has come to control her own destiny. You see this kind of parallel powerification a lot in, say, superhero stories, which I love.

But it's not the only way to tell a story. As I was writing Angela's story, I thought a lot about the potential disconnect between character evolution and superpower leveling up, and when I sat down to write More Than Stardust, I decided to do the exact opposite. In that book, Chloe begins with incredible superpowers -- she literally can begin and end wars and is described by some as a god -- but as she incrementally loses that power, she claims more of her self, her personhood, so by the end she has leveled down in terms of how much she is able to affect humanity or the planet, but as a human person, she is much more evolved. 

In gaming land, we have a term called "nerfing," which is to reduce the impact of a character's power, to render them less effective even if they haven't technically gone down in levels. It's a game balance thing. That's kind of what I did to Chloe, I guess, in order to produce the kind of interior character development I wanted for her. 

Possibly this term could also describe that thing you hear writers talk a lot about: throwing rocks at protagonists. That is, every time a character seems to have leveled up or achieved something, you're supposed to introduce a new or tougher conflict, yet another seemingly insurmountable obstacle, and basically just torture them more. It's supposed to be a good technique for getting characters to dig deep, be scrappy, show grit and determination, and generally inspire readers.

Potential caution, though: Unless the new obstacle is inevitable within the context of the story, I have found nerfing characters to be a little frustrating, both as a reader and as a game player. 

So, leveling up, yes or no? Yeah, leveling up in the superhero way is likely to give you the kind of structure readers are familiar with and will enjoy.

Nerfing though? Much more complicated and difficult to do effectively.

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