Satisfying Character Progression

This overlaps a bit with my Writing Progression Fantasy post, but I was replying to a topic on /r/progressionfantasy today and I felt it was relevant enough to repost here.

The topic of discussion was how to write progression in a satisfying way, and I’ve got a few pointers from my own experience.

Character-Specific Abilities can be awesome, as long as they feel properly earned. A good example of this would be the Iron Bodies in the Cradle series. Everyone who reaches “Iron” level gains a permanent enhancement to their body, but people who do specific training can get more specific benefits, like greater bonuses to strength, dexterity, regeneration, etc. Because there’s a personal component to this stage of progression, this makes the Iron Body feel more meaningful than most other stages of progression in that setting (and in many other settings in general).

Note that these do not truly have to be “unique” – having multiple people with the same Iron Body is fine. The main goal is to distinguish the main cast members from each other, which leads me to my next point.

Abilities that Distinguish Party Roles are useful for making a character feel awesome, but in a way that doesn’t invalidate the rest of the group of protagonists. This is easy in RPGish settings; character classes are an extremely common way of handling this, by creating a structure where each character advances, but in different ways. (The attunements in my Arcane Ascension series serve this function.) In a more open-ended style of setting, it’s often easier for character roles to overlap, and an author should be conscious of when they’re giving characters overlapping abilities.

Notably, overlapping can be fine when multiple characters share a theme, or when cooperation between them is a part of the story. Multiple characters with stealth characters makes sense if you’re writing about a group of thieves or ninja, for example.

Branching choices, when well-executed, can make a character’s progression feel more meaningful. In cases like this, it’s not necessarily important that the protagonist makes the same choice that the reader would have – the protagonist’s choice simply needs to make sense for the character. Then, once the choice is made, demonstrate the coolness of the choice. There can (and often should be) downsides, but we should see why the protagonist’s choice was valid and will give them interesting options for the future.

A great example of this is in Forge of Destiny, where the protagonist has key choices about certain elements of her path appear as abstractions in a dream.

Metrics for Improvement are a huge way of giving satisfaction to a reader. Rather than just having a character train and get “better” at sword fighting, it’s clearer when there’s some sort of structure to it. Numeric levels and named titles (ala xianxia) both serve this function. Having multiple different categories of progression can help distinguish between characters. In RPGs, this is easy because you can have things like Hit Points, attack power, etc. as separate values. In other settings, different types of advancement (e.g. physical cultivation level vs. spiritual cultivation level, or character level vs. equipment level, etc.) can help.

Comparisons Between Characters can help as well. Some readers really enjoy seeing a character surpass people who used to be far ahead of them in power, especially in things like revenge-focused stories. This can also be done with non-specific entities, like showing how a character can easily defeat categories of monsters they used to struggle with, etc.

Upgrade Frequency is a tricky subject. Stories with extremely frequent upgrades, like Forge of Destiny, are probably the clearest examples of this genre – but there’s a saturation point where it becomes harder to care about individual benefits if they’re coming super quickly. I think it’s important to find the right balance for your particular story between making upgrades frequent and meaningful.

Interesting and Distinctive Upgrade Methods can help make a particular boost feel more meaningful. This can be a very specialized form of training that makes it memorable (e.g. Goku training in high gravity) or it can be a risky choice on the part of the protagonist. Most people have seen the more traditional stuff like killing monsters to level or sitting around and Cultivating – variety helps.

I’d also like to recommend reading Cradle and Forge of Destiny for some clear examples of progression, for anyone who hasn’t checked them out already.

I hope that any aspiring writers reading this find it useful!


5 thoughts on “Satisfying Character Progression

  1. Thanks Andrew! I’ve actually tried to write a few novels myself. two finished, but both were really “meh” books. I did a second and third draft for one of them but the other I kinda just gave up on after 150k words. I’m keeping these posts of yours in mind as I outline my next attempt.

    I don’t think I’ll ever produce something worth publishing, but it is definitely fun to try and make something that you know you personally enjoy. So thank you for these useful writing posts!

    1. I wrote six books before I actually published one. It’s very common to take some practice to get there. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. I just hope you enjoy the process of writing them!

      1. Thanks Andrew! Glad to know it took you six books. I’ve heard Sanderson wrote 10, though Elantris, the first one published, was actually his sixth book as well.

        I noticed that you have a Mother of Learning cameo and a Traveler’s Gate cameo in your Arcane Ascension books. Would you be alright with me putting in a Keras or Corin cameo in one of my books, should I ever publish one?

      2. I’d be flattered! Just keep it subtle (probably a description, rather than a name) like my own cameos to avoid any intellectual property issues.

        Best of luck with your writing!

  2. 2 things: Where are travelers gate cameos?

    also, it has good examples of progression

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