Being a Better Writer: Balancing a Returning Character

Whoa! Late post today! Don’t worry, it wasn’t because I was slacking off. The opposite, actually. See, during that month-long burn to get Colony published and into eager reader’s hands (many of whom are now enjoying it immensely, going by the high-quality reviews that have already rolled in), I skipped a lot of sleep. Quite a lot. We’re talking 10-12 hours spent a day working on Colony regularly, plus everything else my life had. So I was, for almost a month, getting 5-6 hours of sleep a night.

Now I’m catching up. Fighting off a cold, letting the web-eyed feeling go away. The like. So today I slept pretty late. I’m not going to apologize for it; I needed it.

But since I’ve touched on the topic, here’s my shameless plug reminder to go buy a copy of Colony! It’s currently collecting a nice set of 5-star ratings and reviews across Amazon and Goodreads! Not only does it help support yours truly, but you’ll be getting an awesome Sci-Fi read to enjoy!

Right, enough plugs, as I’m sure you’re all off to buy Colony now. Once you’ve done that, you can come back and read today’s Being a Better Writer post. Which starts in the next paragraph (but first, as a quick aside, if you’re a long-time reader of BaBW but not of my books, consider being one who reads both. After all, if I can write this much good advice on writing, wouldn’t it be worth your time to see if I’ve delivered on that?).

So, balancing a returning character. Many of you are probably wondering what exactly I’m referring to when I say that. It could be taken a couple of ways, I’ll admit. So let me explain in a bit more detail. Today’s topic comes as a response to a reader question from long ago, one given in response to a post on dealing with overpowered and underpowered characters. This reader had a curious thought with regards to both that subject and the idea of continual, advancing character development: Considering that characters do (or at least should) continue to advance, develop, and grow, how does a writer keep them from becoming overpowered if they use them in a sequel work? Or, as they phrased it, how do you keep legacy characters (or characters from earlier in a series) from becoming too much for the story to take and overwhelming it?

Okay, some of you are nodding, but for those of you who are nodding but only halfway certain of what I just said, let me explain in a bit more depth through use of an example. Say you write a book. You’ve got a cool protagonist that starts out fairly inexperienced against whatever foe you’ve got, but by the end of the story they’ve “leveled up” and gained enough skills and talents to be able to defeat the antagonist.

Cool. Edit it, print it, sell it.

Then you decide you want to work on a sequel. Except … you can’t write the same book twice. Why? Because if you throw that character into the same scenario as the last one, or even a similar one … guess what, you’ll have a pretty short book. Because they’ve already overcome those trials and struggles. They know how to succeed.

So, now the obvious answer is to escalate the threat/antagonist the same way you’ve escalated the protagonist, right? Well … maybe. You can only do this for so long before the story starts to hit DragonBall Z-levels of ridiculously competent/overpowered characters. Endless escalation makes for … Well, it makes things start to become ridiculous fairly quickly.

And that’s the query that was proposed by the reader. They wanted to know how they could use these “Legacy Characters” without breaking the flow of their sequel. How they could keep things tough and difficult for their protagonists while still using the same protagonists in some manner (even having them as a side character can still enable them to solve a lot of problems).

So today, that’s our topic. How to bring back a character in a later work with all their skills and talents … but not have them break our story.

So, the first way to do this is the one that we’ve already joked about above: Escalation. Are you writing a sequel with a character that’s gone from a generic nobody to a talented somebody? Well, rather than having them face off against a talented somebody like last time, up the game! Put them up against a skilled somebody!

This is a pretty generic solution, I’ll admit … but that’s because it works. Which also means that it’s a pretty common solution. How many sequels have you read or seen (especially from 80s-era Hollywood) where the new antagonist is just a bigger, badder version of the last one?

Like I said, it works … but only for a while. You can only keep this up for so long before the story starts to collapse under its own weight. Take, for example … oh, what was the name … Aha! Olympus Has Fallen. Now, I never actually saw this movie, but the crux of it is that it’s about a terrorist attack on the Whitehouse wherein a secret service agent (maybe, like I said, I haven’t seen it) must save the President of the United States from a terrorist-held Whitehouse.

Yes, there’s a reason I never saw this film (I instead saw the opposing flick to come out that year, White House Down,  which was intentionally hilarious and ridiculous). Anyway, somehow Olympus Has Fallen was green-lit for a sequel. And they decided to go with the escalation plan. So rather than saving just the President, in the sequel the protagonist had to save all the world leaders from terrorists.

No joke, that’s actually the plot of the film. They took everything from the first and just amplified it. But the problem this brings is: where to go next?

See, escalation is an easy solution. Crud, it’s a good one if you’re only planning on writing a few books, and it’s a great way to show characters growing stronger and more capable over a series. But left unchecked, things can rapidly spiral out of control and into territory that can shatter a reader’s suspension of disbelief. Additionally, while you can get away with it for a while, once a reader spots the pattern, it’s easy for them to predict what’s going to next face our protagonist.

Still, these issues can be avoided. If you have a set end in mind (hopefully stopping before things get ridiculous) this can be a good way to write a sequel. Crud, it even makes it easy to show the readers what “level” the protagonist is at. Anyone here ever read a sequel that started with the protagonist easily defeating a foe that in the prior story would have been an absolute hassle? It gives our reader a clear sense of progression.

But let’s say you’d rather not go that route. Well …

New Territory
Another way you can get around potential problems with a Legacy Character is by putting them into a situation that isn’t quite related to the skills and talents they picked up in their last outing. In this manner, they start somewhat fresh again, and you can actually create quite a fun narrative by exploiting what they had learned in their prior adventures in a new setting or under new rules.

For example, say you write a sword-and-sorcery fare title where a young protagonist takes up a legendary sword, becomes a mighty warrior, defeats the evil threat facing the kingdom, and is given a place in the nobility as a reward. And now you want to write a sequel. Well, if you went the escalation route, the sequel would practically write itself (see why it’s a popular choice?): A new threat emerges, one that threatens far more than it did before, and the rulers of the kingdom call upon their hero … And so on and so forth.

But what if we go the New Territory route? Well, let’s think about it from a moment. If our humble-beginnings protagonist is now a member of the nobility, you can bet their boots (the old worn pair that they like, not the shiny, new, nigh-useless pair that came with their station) that they’re having difficulty fitting in. So why not write about that instead? Rather than a new foe facing the kingdom, the protagonist can be struggling instead to fit into a society and life that they know nothing about, under rules they aren’t familiar with. This means that the antagonist doesn’t have to be some all-powerful invader who’s just as skilled, if not more, with a blade as the protagonist. The antagonist can be a court dandy who couldn’t tell the blade of a knife from the handle … but knows how to hire people that do, and knows how to put them in the right place at the right time.

See where this leads? Your character still has all the same skills and talents that served them well in their first adventure … but those same skill and talents may not serve them best in this new environment. They’re going to have to learn all new ones while trying to figure out how to use the ones they already have in different ways. And thus, though they’re still the same character as they were at the end of the last book they were in, they can’t use those skills and talents in the same way, putting them back on equal and lower footing.

A good example of this can be found in Brandon Sanderson’s The Alloy of Law, which, though a sequel, isn’t actually a direct-character sequel but an in-universe one. Anyway, the book opens with a talented gunslinger tracking down a bounty in a wild, ungoverned part of the world. He shows off his talents and skills, and it’s very apparent to the reader that he is at the top of his game (and really on the top of the foodchain out in these wild “Roughs”).

Then the first chapter starts, and it’s all gone. His uncle has died, leaving the protagonist the sole heir to the family fortune and holdings, meaning he has to leave the Roughs and head back to civilization. To the capital, in fact, where his rough-and-wild attitude and methods are far removed from “civilized society.” A massive chunk of the book is the protagonist just trying to figure out how he fits in.

See? Skilled protagonist, new territory. They have to discover new ways to use old skills, and find some new ones along the way. Thus, you get to keep all their talents and abilities, but without resorting to simply escalating things to have a plot.

Bag of Spilling
This one’s actually a trope, and commonly used in video games, but it works well enough that it shows up in other places as well (and yes, that is a dangerous TV Tropes link above; use with caution).

But just because it’s a trope doesn’t mean that it’s bad. To the contrary, tropes are good and can be useful! You just have to use them well!

Anyway, the Bag of Spilling trope is the idea that your character loses part of what made them so effective at the end of the last adventure. They either lose it during the space between adventures, or even at the start of the current adventure, and then are forced to try and recover what they’ve lost before they can defeat their foe.

Now, this can be used a lot of ways, and some of you can probably think of a few you’ve seen or read before that aren’t quite as literal as “Oh crap, there goes all my cool stuff because I dropped it.”

For example, ever read a sequel where a protagonist ends up with amnesia, thus keeping them from being their capable self right out of the gate? I know I have. Or had a sequel where the successful group/organization/team has been disbanded for lack of need? Again, been there, seen/read that.

But the thing is, it is a trope that works. You come up with a reason for the protagonist(s) not to have all their cool gear and talents right at the onset, and then they’re back on uneven footing with whatever foe or problem you throw at them. Pretty easy, right?

Well … No. And that’s where this has to come with a caveat. See, the problem that many sequels that utilize this trope run into is that they end up becoming carbon-copies of their predecessor. Protagonist W went on an adventure to find a legendary sword and defeat the antagonist … and then the next book starts with the new antagonist breaking that legendary sword and sending them on another quest to find a new sword and … you’ve read this before. Or your reader has, and once they realize that, the whole story takes a dive because they see the pattern emerging as what it is. Rather than letting the protagonists skills advance, you’ve reset them so that you can tell the same—or at least a similar—story. And that can get old.

There are ways to change this up, obviously. One of the most common is to have the protagonist replace old skills/equipment/whatever-they-lost with new skills, abilities, etc, thus giving the story fresh material to play with. Add a new setting and challenges into that, and a “Bag of Spilling” can feel entirely fresh (A good example of this is the Metroid Prime trilogy, which despite having the same basic power curve to the character each game of “you’ve lost your gear somehow, collect some new stuff” keeps it fresh by putting new spins on old equipment and introducing plenty of new tools, locales, and tricks to keep things feeling new). Playing with the plot order can keep a reader on their toes as well (see the New Territory entry above and play mix-and-match).

Overall, it can be a good way to “depower” a character and create a sequel that doesn’t escalate but still feels fresh.

The Stand-In
Of course, what if your sequel didn’t have to star your old protagonist at all? Risky, sure, but that would solve the problem, wouldn’t it?

Well, yes, and from time to time you’ll see stories take this route. A sequel will come along that focuses on the apprentice or descendant or what have you of the original protagonist—or maybe even their unchosen “successor”—nicely sidestepping the power issue and giving your new protagonist plenty of reason to do battle with their struggles.

Or does it? After all, unless you kill off the original protagonist (inviting a whole new slew of problems), they’re still around, so why aren’t they solving the issue?

Well, to be honest, you can probably think of dozens of reasons, and most if not all of them are pretty valid (yes, even the alien abduction, though I’ll admit its a twist in a colonial romance title I wasn’t expecting). The former protagonist can be old. They can be crippled due to their prior adventure. They can be in the dark on things. They can be mentoring the new protagonist but otherwise have their hands tied. Any number of things different tricks.

The catch? Well, trust me when I say that time and time again it has been proven that some readers will not like the shift in characters and will refuse to read or enjoy your work, even if the sequel turns out to be in many ways superior. Sometimes readers get very attached to characters, and by switching channels in a way to a new protagonist, even if it allows you to create a much better story in the process, you will alienate readers who just wanted to see the first protagonist return and kick butt.

So you have to be careful with this one. It’s not always the best solution (though it may be). It can be a wonderful way to see the same world through new eyes and experiences. But at the same time, some of the prior worries can come into play. You’ll have to address why the original protagonist isn’t solving anything, for example. You’ll have to make sure not to make the new protagonist’s journey a repeat of the last, etc. Basic writing stuff, but stuff to be aware of all the same.

These aren’t the only methods of writing a sequel with a much more powerful character, of course. They’re just some of the more broad strokes that you can keep in your toolbox for when the time comes. Like many other tools, they can be used in conjunction with other writing tricks and techniques to bring your story to its full potential, and avoid keeping a Legacy Character from hamstringing your plot. And like many of those other tools, using just one isn’t exactly encouraged. Better that you mix and match rather than focus on one exclusively. Combine a bag of spilling with a stand-in. Or escalate things in new territory. Play around with it a bit. The goal, remember, is to keep your protagonist challenged as they try to overcome so that they’re constantly fighting to progress, and thus, leaving an entertaining story for the readers.

So, when you set out to use a Legacy Character, don’t forget to keep things balanced somehow.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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