Monday, July 26, 2021

You call it “Leveling Up,” and I call it growth.

Okay, so this week we’re discussing whether or not characters need to “Level Up,” as a tale progresses. I put that in quotes because frankly it needs definition.

Leveling up is changing, becoming, at least in theory, more powerful. Well, kids, I have to say this straight away: Unless you’re writing comic books, (and even then) if your character does not change or evolve, or unless it’s actually a plot point in the tale, you’re doing it wrong.

Sorry, that’s just my opinion and I’m sticking to it. Listen. For me it’s like the idea of being the same person you were in high school at the end of college If you haven’t grown, changed adapted or evolved you’re going about life the wrong way.

Now, I don’t m=necessarily men getting more powerful. We’ll get to that in a minute. I mean adapted to your way of life. And, yes, by “you” I mean the characters in your stories. Trust me, I was a very different person at 13 than I was at 18, and the changes kept coming for a long, long time.

So why wouldn’t the same rule apply to characters? Seriously? Now, about those power levels…

Listen, I mostly write horror and fantasy with a side of science fiction If my characters don’t change, (and there ARE EXCEPTIONS) then I haven’t put them through the grist mill enough. Sometimes the transformation of character is from alive to dead (or vice versa) and sometimes it’s an evolution. Mostly it’s on an emotional level but there are as always exceptions.

I have one character who has already had his hero’s journey as it were. He doesn’t change much. Someday I might even tell his earlier tales and explain how he got from where he was to where he is but I’m not there yet and I may never be there. Time will tell.

That said, the story you are telling is supposed to be about a character who is meeting new and interesting (read: often extremely dangerous) challenges on physical and emotional levels. And if you want me, the reader, to care about this character, there better be some transformation going on. People either adapt or stagnate. That’s the way of the world.

In some cases, characters get stronger. In other cases, they are broken by the world. Happens in real life, too. The most blatant example of character evolution I can use in my own writing is Brogan McTyre, the main character in my TIDES OF WAR trilogy.

Once upon a time, while watching late night TV, I came across the original King Kong, when the natives have captured Faye Wray and are offering her to Kong as a sacrifice. Great scene. But it got me wondering why it was that in all the old movies when the sacrifice fails, nothing untoward really happens (in Kong’s case he’s not actually a god. I get that.). And so, I decided to examine that concept. The result is the aforementioned trilogy.

I gave Brogan what I can only call the Job Treatment. One day all was well in his world and the next I added venom and chaos to his recipe and stirred vigorously. In the first chapter of the book, I kidnapped his entire family. They were taken by the He-Kisshi, the literal messengers of the gods in the world I built. They were taken to be sacrifices to the gods. In a fit of justifiable outrage Brogan gathers together the other mercenaries he knows and rushes off to save them all before they can be killed.

He fails. The sacrifice is messed up, he gods are angry and before long Brogan has done horrible things in a fit of rage (read: mass murder and selling lot of survivor into slavery as punishment for killing his family).

Folks, there’s nowhere for Brogan to go but up by the time the third chapter of the book is done. It’s a dark, bleak story about vengeance and death and angry gods. The gods decide to end the world. The only option they offer is to replace their chosen sacrifices (Brogan’s whole family) with Brogan and the mercenaries/friends who came to his aid.

So, the world is being destroyed by the gods, and the only cure as far as the gods are concerned is to kill our hero and all of his associates. Brogan goes a different route. He declares war on the gods. And then he tries to figure out how to kill these deities.

He has a lot of help, but believe me, Brogan McTyre levels up a few times in the course of the story. Musty he levels up by finding a way to actually interreact with the gods in the first place. He uses sorcery to aid him in discovering a method wherein a mortal can physically reach and deal with a god. In the process, he gets a few godlike abilities. Weird as this sounds not as many as you might think. Mostly he finds out where he can physically reach the gods and he discovers a weapon that will let him combat them on a relatively level playing field. He does not get godlike abilities (well, he does, but only for a few minutes) but he is forever changed in the process. He is emotionally changed since the start of the first book. He is physically changed by the end of the last book and he is not alone in that process.

A necessary evil. Either Brogan is leveled up, or the entire tory evolves around him ranting at the gods while they ignore him and have him hunted down and killed. The entire story revolved around him being altered until he can successfully defy the gods. That is his “hero’s quest.”

Let me clarify here, that at best Brogan McTyre is an anti-hero. He is not at all altruistic, at least not at the beginning. He is forced to change and adapt if he’s going to survive and win. That is his only choice. The rest of the story revolves around his transformation and his drive to save the world after he screws it up. His level of success varies greatly. He is literally wading through Armageddon as he seeks to find way to fight the gods.

Is he a very different person by the time the story is done? Dear heavens, yes. He is different emotionally. He is different physically He has been changed by the events in his world Does he level up? Well, yes and no. he can still be killed by a well-placed arrow, but he can also go toe to toe with the gods of his world. He can be captured poisoned and killed. He can defy the gods and fight them on their own turf. He is “leveled up” but only in certain ways.

We’re not talking about Mary Sue here. Everything he does costs him. Every action he makes changes him, some for the better, some for the worse. Because that’s the way life is, frankly. We learn We adapt. Sometimes we become better for it. Sometimes we are scarred by our actions and never fully recover.