Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Fantasy Sage Speaks: Power Balance

In the last Fantasy Sage post, I wrote about the rules of magic in fantasy writing, and in that I mentioned that there was one very specific time when the To Thine Own Magic Be True rule could be broken, as the object of a High Quest, for the purpose of providing a decent power balance in the last conflict.

What is power balance? This is the odds of Team Good or Team Evil winning. This is one of the most important aspects of your novel, because a well done power balance provides the thing that keeps your readers turning pages: tension. Basically, if you stack the deck too far on one side or the other, the tension in your story is shot to pieces, and you end up with bored readers.

So, let's talk about our next rule for good fantasy writing: Thou Shall Balance Power Between Team Good and Team Evil.  Though I'm playing fast and lose with Good and Evil here, Protagonist and Antagonist is probably more accurate, because lots of fantasy readers like a great Anti-Hero, gray Heroes, and darker gray Villains. But let's call them Team Good lead by the Hero and Team Evil lead by the Villain for the sake of amusement.

Now, at the beginning of the story Team Good can have a one-in-a-million shot of winning this thing, but it's got to have that shot. And by the end of the story, you've got to get things close to one to one. If it's still one in a million when you hit the final conflict, you're A: writing a tragedy (Which plays by it's own set of rules, but is an acceptable subset of fantasy. More on this in the In The End post.) or B: your readers will not believe it when Team Good wins.

Once again this is where plot wrangling comes in. Many fantasy novels, when broken down to the most basic plot level work something like this: Team Evil has the power. This is intolerable. Team Good decides to do something about it. Adventure allowing Team Good to make up most of the difference occurs here. Final conflict. Team Good fights hard, looks like all is lost, but triumphs in the end. (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, DragonLance, and on and on and on: they all follow this basic plan.)

The problem is that many writers forget how tension works in a fantasy story. A really bad Team Evil is a lot of fun to write. And many writers are a little too attached to Team Good and make them too strong. But, if the odds are too firmly stacked on either side, the story is boring. If Dark Lordenstein is not only a murderous-paranoid-psychopath, but psychic, with a doomsday weapon, no limits on his magic, and an army of loyal-unto-death Super Ninjas, and the Hero is played by the gangly thirteen-year-old Farm Boy, that's just not good reading. None of us are going to suspend our disbelief far enough to make that work. Likewise if Skippy Von Goodandstrong is playing the role of Hero, and he's well nigh invincible, in addition to handsome, kind to puppies, and just so perfectly perfect, he'll be labeled a Gary Stu before the third chapter is done, and the readers will depart shortly thereafter. In fact, the only way Dark or Skippy is even remotely interesting is if they're facing off against each other in a satire.

There are a lot of lessons we can all learn from Star Wars, here's the first one: Luke Skywalker V. Darth Vader isn't much fun to watch until Luke has his powers and Darth is weakened by doubt about his vocation. Luke V. Darth in Empire is fascinating as a character study, but it was terrifying as a fight. Anyone who was paying attention watched Luke go into that fight and felt their stomach drop. If Luke won the fight it was going to feel like a cheap shot, and if Darth won... Well, before seeing it for the first time, none of us wanted to think about what would happen if Darth won.  Compare that to the time they face off in Jedi: the odds are still on Darth's side, but not so far on Darth's side that we cannot believe Luke can win. Which is why we sat on the edge of the chair, trying to see Luke in the gloom, wondering how he was going to best Vader.

So, by the time you get to writing that final conflict, I'd say you want no more than a ten to one shot against your Hero winning.  That still allows for the underdog takes the game sort of sense, but isn't so far out in the realm of impossibility that your readers don't bother to finish the book.

Getting the ratio close(r) to one to one is usually where a lot of the story part of the story takes place. It's the entire point of the Hero's Journey. It's the reason why the farm boy comes into his powers, and the old mentor has to die/vanish before the final conflict can occur. If the mentor is still around, the power is too strongly stacked on Team Good's side.

In the High Quest variation of fantasy, some level of evening things up happens during the quest, and then the Object of the Quest finishes up the deal. If Dark Lordenstein is cackling away, rubbing his hands with glee, and summoning the Minions to destroy Farm Boy, then Farm Boy needs a real weapon to take to that fight. So this is the time where whipping out the +5 Holy Avenger of Villain Smiting is perfectly okay. If it comes out earlier in the plot, where Farm Boy is still fighting rats and ruffians, there's no tension in those fights. If Farm Boy never finds his super weapon, and Dark trips on his Minions, causing the doomsday weapon to fire upon himself, thus killing him, the reader is let down because there's no triumph for Farm Boy. (This is part of why Harry Potter, with the rebounding curse of doom, was less than perfectly satisfying. Voldie kills himself in the end is just sort of flat. It's not terrible, but it's not very rich, either.) But if Farm Boy finds that +5 Holy Avenger of Villain Smiting a chapter or two before going into the final conflict, then he's got just enough time to get a feel for it, but not enough time to become the absolute master of it, and we get to enjoy seeing him and Dark battle it out, with both sides powerful but not invincible.

In the tragic folly sort of fantasy plot, (this is where Dark Lordenstein is a major POV character, being set up to fall as a tragic figure) this is where his Minions are betraying him, getting killed off, etc... In this case it's not necessarily so much that Team Good is gaining power as that Team Evil is losing it.

And in many fantasy stories, there's a bit of all three going on, and probably a half dozen or so other templates, but they all work out to the same thing, when Team Good and Team Evil clash for the last time, it's a toss up as to who will win.

Who wins in the end? Team Good. This isn't as hard and fast as the Happily Ever After is for romance readers, and I'll go into the variations on it in the next post, but in the end, Team Good has to take the day.
Other Fantasy Sage Posts: Magic, Contract, Plot

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