How Quickly Can My Hero Gain Power?

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Hi! How are you? I have a character who starts out knowing very little about magic (as they just got theirs), but by the end of the story, I want them to be one of the best magic users in the story (even though they’re a very late bloomer). However, they’re also on a trip to get a MacGuffin, and although they are a protagonist, the MacGuffin is kind of the priority plot. But I don’t want to make it seem like they suddenly got better. How can I balance this? And is there a way to make their learning sort of.. exponential? Thanks!!!


Hey Atlas, great to hear from you!

In situations like this, I find it helpful to express the problem as a math equation. You have the amount you need the protagonist to improve by (M) over the time they have to improve in (T), and the answer gives you the average rate they need to improve at (A). M/T=A

I’m not sure how long your story is, but since you need the protagonist to go from a total novice to the most powerful mage around, it sounds like A is going to be pretty steep. In a very long story, perhaps even a multi-book series, you could have them slowly improve until they finally get where they need to go. But in a single novel, even a long one, that’s gonna be a tall order.

The other way to make A easier is to reduce M. If they just need to become a decent mage and not the most powerful mage around, that’ll be easier. If that’s not an option either, things get trickier. In a work of fiction, you can of course make your hero gain whatever power you like. The question is, will the readers buy it? If the hero suddenly discovers a whale-sized reserve of power just before the climax, it’ll feel contrived and unsatisfying.

In this scenario, the best option is to lean on character karma so your readers will feel that the hero deserves their new power, regardless of how they get it. You’ll mostly likely need to put your hero through the wringer, so that readers will build up a deep sympathy reserve. You can then spend that sympathy on boosting the hero’s power very quickly in a short amount of time.

For an example of this principle in action, check out none other than Luke Skywalker in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. At the beginning of Empire, Luke barely knows how to use the force, but by the end of Jedi, he has to surpass Darth Vader, a super powerful force user. First, Luke goes through some intense training with Yoda, but the real action is when Vader kicks his ass in the Cloud City duel. Not only is Luke totally defeated, he loses his hand! The makeup department also does a great job making him look like a mess.

After a defeat like that, the audience is cheering for Luke to win. So when he’s suddenly a better fighter than Vader in Return of the Jedi, no one is questioning whether it’s realistic for his skill to have grown so much in such a short time. By adapting this principle to the specifics of your magic system, you should be good to go.

Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your writing!

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  1. Cay Reet

    I think it would make more sense – and be easier for the story – to lower the amount of magic your MC must be able to do in the end. Becoming a powerful mage should, by rights, take years – and I would guess your story doesn’t take years. Lowering the amount of magic the MC must be able to do means they won’t have to make such a big jump in power level. Perhaps they need to be able to do some specific magic (such as a spell to waken the MacGuffin) and they can work towards that. Perhaps it’s more about controlling the magic and you can give them chances along the way to practice so they get better. Otherwise, nothing short of a miracle or a powerful artefact would be able to do the trick – or heaps of good karma.

  2. Kit

    Aw, come on, Oren, we’re writers! You can’t just trick me into doing maths!

  3. Dave L

    First thing I would ask:

    WHY are they one of the best magic users? WHY are they so good, so much better than almost everybody else?

    Natural ability? They can practice and suddenly have a major level-up when they realize how to use that ability

    Fate? They level up when fated to level up

    Trying harder, working harder, than anybody else? They’d level up slowly, improving all along, starting from when they first get serious. But they could still have breakthroughs, as long as you foreshadow that they’re looking for those breakthroughs

    Some special type of training, artifact, insight, or other that is not generally available? They level up as soon as they get this whatever, or as soon as they figure out how to use it. Maybe the MacGuffin itself levels them up?

    Old saying:

    Look for the WHY behind the WHAT

    • King Atlas

      Hi, Dave! Thank you for the advice, I’ll be sure to keep this in mind!

  4. Runewritten

    Maybe the protagonist has a specific key to the MacGuffin that accelerates their power as an effect. However, part of getting the MacGuffin requires using the key and giving up that massive advantage as a finale.

  5. Eli

    I think Avatar The Last Airbender does this really well if you look closely. Specifically with katara, going from accidentally freezing ice to stopping rain and being a blood bender (though reluctantly) each time she ‘levels up’ its due to something in the story. From what I can remember most of it happened in season 1 with the waterbending scroll and then learning from Pacu. Then you see her learning a few more things here and there and testing out different theories and seeing what does and doesn’t work. Both of these on their own would have worked fine but together they create a seemingly natural progression power that is very gradual and can be hard to spot but when you do see the progression it’s always the next step: apprentice, journeyman, master (using terminology of guilds and the like. A journeyman is basically just normal level, got out of training and their ok.)

  6. ramiro

    well it deppends on “the rules of magic”
    If it work on “inteligence/virtue = magic power” show us the character using his “brain/heart” more often than others,
    Make him a “specialist on a world of generalists”
    think “the flash vs any metahuman with superspeed + something else”
    or the hulk vs any guy with super strength”
    that way you can say “he is the fastest spellcaster” or “the strongest” winout making him “overpowered”
    Or you can make him/her a “generalist in a world of specialists” that way you can have a “balanced character capable of most stuff” in a world of “minmaxed 1 trick ponies”
    you can always go with “there are X schools of magic each one taught by x group” and you just have to make your character a “traveler searching something across the land”.

    sorry for the bad english

  7. Cody Rapp

    Something else to consider, maybe instead of being the best mage ever, they have a talent for the specific magic necessary to resolve the story’s conflict. Or perhaps something they learn along the way makes them see things in a way that the more experienced mages don’t think of because they just know “magic doesn’t work that way”.

  8. silverware

    An idea – allow the character do the super-magic that’s needed to be done, but add a heck of a consequence for doing something above their level.

    • silverware

      Or, if they must be just the strongest, you can make them strongest by artificial means and make them not ready for the power by adding grave consequences. For example in My Hero Academia, the MC has the strongest power in their setting, but he wasn’t born with it so his body isn’t ready to use it. So he uses only a fraction of the power, and if he goes above that he breaks his bones and muscles.

  9. Bellis

    When you said your mc was a late bloomer, I immediately thought that you could connect that to how they gain such power. Maybe they spent the time when others played around with magic slogging through mundane chores only to find later that the attitude of persevering through unrewarding work is what enables them to use magic in more powerful ways than their easily frustrated peers who grew up accustomed to solving every problem quickly with a flick of the wand. Or maybe they had to develop other skills to get by without magic, like social skills or academic knowledge, and can apply these to magic in a way that hasn’t occured to any of the other magic users so far.
    Of course you’d have to find a believable reason why they are the only or first one to think of this, but it is at least an explanation and could even be a nice character arc.
    Basically, my idea is that since they are already an unusual mage (by virtue of being a very late bloomer), to tie this into their other unusual characteristic, namely how fast they gain power. Maybe I’ve taken in some lessons about consolidation from Mythcreants recently

    • Bellis

      Or mabye the reason the power only manifests later in life is BECAUSE it is so much power all at once! It would have been overwhelming or uncontrollable for the character at an earlier stage in life and so the subconscious mind or the magic itself (depending on your magic system) created this defense mechanism and only surfaced once the character had learned enough life lessons to handle it. It could still be difficult to handle!

      Or contrary to my earlier (admittedly kind of cliché) idea of the magicless character slogging through mundane chores, they could be free of the strict discipline and study that those with earlier manifestations of magic are pressured into (maybe for safety reasons) and this relative freedom could enable them to be spontaneous, carefree, or think outside the box easier.

      I guess you could also go about it from the other direction: If you know what quality they’ll need to master the magic and/or solve the main problem, you might find a connection between that quality and their late-bloomer-status. Ask yourself how being a late bloomer might help someone end up in that place.

  10. Eitan Margalit

    I don’t think you want a LINEAR rate of power growth. That’s too predictable, and makes us able to extrapolate how powerful our hero will be at the end.

    Have you heard of a Bezier curve? It’s basically a cubic equation, and I think it’s what you’re looking for.

    The hero starts gaining power slowly, picks up speed, hits a point of inflection wherever he is the most confident…

    But, after that, d²/dx² is negative. He keeps getting more powerful, but he’s plateauing. The hero is less sure now. The READER is less sure now.

    It’s the darkest hour…
    … Then comes the dawn. And with it, victory.

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