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!