Over on the new /r/progressionfantasy section on Reddit, someone asked for advice on writing progression fantasy. I put together a basic list of some things that I thought were worth discussing, and I figured I’d copy it over here in case anyone is interested.
Notably, not everyone is going to agree on these points. There are plenty of different ways to write an effective story – these are simply things I’ve found that work for me.
Character Roles in Progression Fantasy
As a general rule, I have a strong preference toward systems and settings that allow for different characters to progress in different ways. This allows for multiple characters to be relevant, even if some of them fall behind in terms of the overall power scale, as long as they have a sufficiently unique niche.
For this reason, it may be a good idea to have an underlying system that supports diverse character styles. A classic example of this is character classes in RPGs. A 20th level fighter is vastly more powerful than a 5th level wizard, cleric, or rogue, but the other classes still offer things that the fighter might not be able to do on their own.
It’s also wise to consider whether important character attributes like speed, strength, and resilience should advance separately to some degree. For example, in Dragon Ball Z, a character’s overall “power level” increases all of these attributes – which often leads to the more powerful characters being better at virtually every relevant factor in a battle. There are still some techniques that can be game-changers, but I think a story like Dragon Ball would have benefited greatly from having some characters being specialized in different areas (e.g. Yamcha is high speed for his relative power, Trunks is high physical damage for his relative power, Gohan is high energy damage for his relative power, etc.)
For this reason, I often have magic and advancement types that explicitly only improve one or two things at a time (and often with downsides to other attributes). In Six Sacred Swords, for example, Keras’ “Body of Stone” technique makes him stronger and more resilient, but at a cost to his speed. (Notably, a technique like that does exist in Dragon Ball, but it’s outscaled to uselessness almost immediately because the speed penalty is so large. It would have been more interesting, in my opinion, if someone developed a variant of that technique that was actually useful.)
This is all for stories where you want multiple characters to be progressing and relevant – which, as a general rule, I personally find more compelling than only watching the growth of a single character.
Weaknesses in Progression Fantasy
Weaknesses can both be a good way to enforce the relevance of multiple characters and to show growth as a person gradually learns to overcome some of their weaknesses.
Notably, weaknesses that are irrelevant to the character’s style are (in my opinion) less compelling than weaknesses that are relevant. For example, physical weakness as a wizard has to be fairly extreme for it to serve as a major detriment. Physical disadvantages for a close-range physical fighter are much more immediately relevant, and thus, in my opinion, more compelling.
I would also resist the urge to “solve” or “fix” these weaknesses immediately. Working through a weakness can be a good long-term goal, and it can (in my opinion) feel unsatisfying to see it just wiped away without much difficulty.
Don’t Skip to the End
A part of what makes progression fantasy compelling, at least to me, is seeing the gradual process and the difficulties a character goes through on their journey. If a character jumps from Level 1 to Level 99 in a single book, that doesn’t really serve the same purpose. That can still be an interesting story for some readers, but it has a different sort of appeal from watching gradual growth.
Effort = Reward
A big part of the core of progression fantasy is, in my opinion, the feeling that the power increases are being earned. It’s okay if a character gets some kind of advantage from time to time because they’re clever, or hard working, or just barely survived. It’s less satisfying, in my opinion, if it feels like they get everything for free or simply because of good luck.
Other People Should be Competent and Believable
A common trope in some forms of fantasy is for the protagonist to excel simply because they found something that would very likely be immediately obvious to any number of other people (from our world or otherwise). If possible, avoid this type of thing.
For example, if someone gets super popular because they’re the only one playing an “unpopular” character class in a game with a million players…that doesn’t really make any sense. People data mine statistics and theory craft about every class in MMOs, often long before the content even sees a public release. And in cases where things aren’t super public yet, that’s an even greater reason for people to be trying whatever they feel like (and thus not having any “super unpopular” classes).
Any Power Available to Society Should be Applied by Society
Similarly, think about the common applications of the types of magic and technology that exist in your world and how they might be applied by the average person.
Resurrection, for example, would have a huge impact on cultural and religious views of death. The conditions under which resurrection can occur would be important, and you’d expect that important people would try to make sure that they can meet those conditions if they’re ever threatened (e.g. having powerful priests on retainer).
Teleportation could have potentially huge impacts on things like trade and the flow of information.
Elemental magic could have tremendous impact on crop growth, influencing weather, power generation, and even simple things like city lighting at night.
This is more of a “general hard magic” thing than just a progression fantasy thing, but it’s especially important here because progression fantasy often allows for unlocking potentially society-altering abilities over time. This means you should be prepared to address how the already powerful are utilizing their power, as well as how any characters that gain power might use their power.
For example, if no one has ever reached a high enough level in space magic to unlock teleportation before, the main character learning teleportation opens up a lot of options for them. They can choose how they want to trail blaze in terms of using teleportation for things like mercantile, spreading messages, etc.
This also applies on a moment-to-moment level. If a character has an ability that clearly would “solve” the situation, they should at least consider using it. (No author will be perfect at this, but keep an eye out for abilities that offer easy solutions to a lot of situations, like super speed, teleportation, and time travel. Be extremely careful giving these out.)
Interactions Between Magic Types
Similar to the above, but also consider things like how teleportation might interact with another character that is learning to make spells permanent, or another character that learns how to increase the area of effect of spells, etc.
If you don’t want certain things to be combined, establish why they can’t be early on.
Influence of Power Increases on Plot and Pacing
Consider the places and times in the story when you want things like this to “unlock”. If characters uncover these abilities too early, it may influence your narrative significantly.
For example, if you want it to take a long time for the heroes to return home after a quest, you may not want to let them get powerful enough to learn teleportation or flight magic before that point in time, or you might want to have a reason why they do not learn those specific spells.
Reliable Progression vs. Dramatic Moment Progression
Something to decide on early on is if you want a clear, linear method of progression or something that allows for more spontaneous “moments of awesome”. It’s absolutely possible to have a middle ground, but think about this ahead of time and how it will impact your story.
If power increases feel completely arbitrary, you run the risk of readers losing immersion in the believably of the story. If your progression is too steady, however, it may also feel boring or uninteresting.
Another element of this whether or not you want to tie progression to emotional catharsis. This is extremely common; a character has some sort of breakthrough, generally about their own inner struggles, and suddenly powers up. (See: Stormlight Archives, Dragon Ball, Sailor Moon, etc.) This kind of thing can be extremely satisfying if utilized effectively, but it can also be super cheesy if it feels arbitrary and unearned. If you choose to go this route, try to spend some time setting it up beforehand to make sure that the character’s path makes sense to the reader.
Methods of Progression
Think about which types of progression feel the most applicable to the story you want to tell, and which ones you want to explicitly exclude. Try not to change these mid-way.
For example, early on in Dragon Ball Z, the Saiyan characters learn that they grow significantly more powerful any time they get close to dying. This is a progression mechanic, and one of the characters figures out how to “game” this by getting badly injured and rapidly healed.
After this, that form of progression is largely forgotten for a long period of the story. It’s only relevant in a few patches, and explanations of why it isn’t used again are largely retroactive.
Avoid doing things like that. If you introduce a method of rapid progression, expect that people will try to use it repeatedly, unless there’s a good reason for them not to.
It can also be interesting to give different methods of progression to different characters. When yo do this, those characters should, at points where it may be relevant, be shown to be considering those types of progression (even if they choose not to). To go with the easy Dragon Ball examples again, Piccolo can gain power by fusing with other members of his species. He rarely seems to consider doing this, however, even when presented with situations where it might be relevant or useful (e.g. the most recent tournament arc).
Keep in mind that if progression exists, your antagonists may also be progressing. This can offer challenges to your protagonist that aren’t often found in other forms of fiction, because they might have to find unique methods of progression that outpace their opponents.
Elements of Choice in Progression
When a character has to make a choice in the progression process, this can make it more interesting. This both helps ensure that niches are maintained and helps the reader engage with the story by thinking about what they would do when presented with the same choice. Even a disagreement with the protagonist can help with reader engagement. Just try to make sure that any choices offered feel at least somewhat reasonable; if the choice is too obvious, or the protagonist makes a choice readers might strongly disagree with, you could potentially run into trouble with your audience.
Options vs. Linear Power
As a general rule, adding something new to a character’s list of abilities that they can actively take advantage of is more interesting than just a straight power increase.
For example, adding a new special attack that has a condition – like, say, a Backstab attack that requires hitting an opponent behind – is generally more engaging to a reader than a +2% additional bonus to critical hit rate.
Similarly, when a character already has a bunch of attack spells, adding a utility spell is probably more interesting than just another larger (or different) attack.
That doesn’t mean straight power increases can’t happen. Rather, I would recommend interspersing them with adding new abilities so that the power increases themselves can be larger and more relevant when they do happen. And, once again, those power increases do not need to be global; a character can get a boost to speed without it increasing their strength or resilience at the same time, for example.
My TLDR version is that the key elements are variety and internal consistency. Allow for characters to be interesting and distinct from each other, and give them different progression goals and paths. And when powers are available, make sure people at least think about using them when they’re relevant.