A common trope in fiction is, the hero(ine) goes through some difficulty, then someone appears and tells them that the difficulty was a test, and now they are deemed worthy to be sent on some mission to defeat the villain or whatever. But how would that be done well, or badly?

I’ve always felt like the Goldilocks story was missing something, and my story starts out similarly, but I still feel like the situation at the beginning is awfully contrived.

Maybe I’m being too literal in transposing too hot/cold/high/low/soft/hard into my story.

The hero’s test is the only reasonable explanation I can think of to explain what the hero encounters. Will the readers be satisfied?

The rest of my story seems less contrived.

Thanks.

Stephen

Hey Stephen, thanks for writing in! 

I can’t speak to the specifics of your story, but this is definitely worth thinking about before your next revision pass. Heroic tests aren’t automatically contrived, but they have a tendency to be. It all comes down to how they’re constructed. 

The big question to ask is whether a secret test is actually the best way for someone to figure out if a hero is ready to save the world. Here are four common problems that keep that answer from being “yes.” 

1. The Test Is too Dangerous

If you need an untrained hero to save the world, and your test is to throw them into a blender full of giant spiders, that’s not a good test. The hero will probably just die, and because they’re untrained, it won’t actually show if they could have saved the day or not. This is even more pronounced if the hero has some rare power that’s needed to save the world. Killing them in that test now means you don’t have the power at all!

2. The Test Is Overly Elaborate

Often, writers will reveal that some big conflict was actually a test, but there’s no way the new mentor could actually have set that up. Rise of Skywalker has this problem, when Palpatine reveals he’s actually been behind everything, with the implication that it has all been a test for Rey. That’s just not believable!

3. The Test Is too Alienating

Often, these secret tests are super dangerous or even traumatic for the hero to go through, at which point they won’t be inclined to trust or work with the mentor afterward. If the mentor needs the hero’s cooperation, this kind of test will be self-defeating.

4. There’s a Better Way

Perhaps the most common problem with secret tests is that it would often be easier to just tell the hero they’re going to be tested. If you need to know how good they are at sword fighting, it’s better to send in a fencing instructor rather than a bunch of angry bandits. That way, the mentor can gauge the hero’s readiness in a controlled environment. 

So, if you want to set up a secret test, make sure it doesn’t fall into one of these four categories. I’ve found that the best bet is for the hero to have had some training and is also one of many people who could conceivably do what the mentor needs. That way, the mentor isn’t ruining the results by sending an untrained kid into combat, and if it doesn’t work out, they can always go with one of their other candidates. The test in question also needs to be within the mentor’s means, though that can change a lot depending on the story. 

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

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