On Writing: Magic Systems and Handling Power Escalation [ Mistborn l Last Airbender l Naruto ]

so your main character as a wizard let's call him Graham Graham the wizard who likes cats and throughout a story he's going to grow in magical power he starts off pulling bunnies out of hats not a hugely useful combat ability and he's gonna end up shooting lightning bolts from his fingertips instead of bunnies his abilities are going to escalate and it's the writers job to make that escalation believable and avoid some of the many pitfalls so let's take grain the wizard who likes cats on a journey and discuss character alkaline power escalation escalation and tension power creep power ceilings and comparables and character challenges and today's video is brought to you by my magical patrons if you want to see more of this kind of writing and world building content then please do consider supporting me down at the link below plus one new patron who signs up this month will win a copy of on writing and we're building signed which compiles a whole bunch of this kind of stuff into a easy to reference easy to read book thank you I'll see you on the patron discord the first common way that writers handle parry escalation is by integrating it with character arcs this trope goes way back to stories like only their true noble and honest King Arthur is able to pull the sword out of the stone it is everywhere that gaining abilities or mastering certain technologies requires specific character traits such as in Brandon Sanderson's storm line archives where the characters of Dylan are and Caledon slowly attain new abilities like those of the mystical order called the Knights radiant but they can only do so in accepting and living up to certain moral ideals Caledon gains new abilities when he accepts they're protecting others means he should even protect those that he hates this technique usually means that Paris collation aligns with the growth of your characters and this can be a really great way to not only ensure that character development is always front and center in your story but that abilities feel earned part of Paris collation is giving weight and meaning to gaining new abilities and here overcoming obstacles means overcoming personal issues the flow of the tension in the story becomes more cohesive because the internal and external conflicts are fundamentally connected and some writers don't just do this to give external conflicts emotional weight but also to manifest internal conflicts in a really visceral whay legend of korra actually has some amazing imagery in this and her dealing with PTSD and part of the strategy is structural stories that use character arc aligned paris collation will usually mean that failure to defeat the antagonist or master certain abilities is caused by or happens at the same time as failures in one's character evolution for example Zuko finds himself unable to generate lightning in Avatar The Last Airbender and Iroh attributes' this to him being unable to resolve the emotional turmoil inside of him choosing between good and evil but it is not as simple as giving a powerup to your characters whenever they become a better person like the universe hands out Good Samaritan coupons although maybe to be fair maybe your universe does that who am I to say this is because allowing characters to fail in using powers at crucial points in the narrative is important because just like morale struggles and failures throughout the story I want make their eventual growth at the end all the more empowering failure to use parts of the power system are what make their eventual mastery so satisfying this is especially true if failure has major consequences for their emotional journey though character arc aligned Paris collation is sometimes inverted where Paris collation is actually a failure of character consider mellitus in seven deadly sins who holds the ability to counter any attack thrown at him it has virtually unlimited power at his fingertips should he give in to hatred and rage these sorts of stories often featuring overpowered characters or characters with somewhat uncontrollable magic allow the author to explore a unique tension between gaining the ability to defeat the antagonist and remaining a good person or even human it's a thematic idea that power costs your humanity and their character occurs often focused around overcoming the temptation of power and finding a new way to defeat the antagonist another example of this is where becoming a better person actually deep how is the character like Zuko loses the ability to firebend when he lets go of his rage and hatred which previously fuelled it and they have to find a new way to gain power where normal Paris collation where the character grows and power as they grow as a person doesn't usually affects their relationships too much the power escalation and these kinds of stories is give a narrative weight by seeing how it affects the relationships of the protagonist and how they view themselves because it's usually in a negative way becoming a great source of internal and relational tension and I feel like there's a lot to kind of mind there that we haven't seen in fantasy stories yet and while character arc aligned Paris collation has its benefits it will not fit for every story extremely hard power systems tend to stay away from aligning with character arcs because emotions and character traits aren't strictly definable or predictable really quantifiable if handled badly the escalation and power can amount to these tropa scenarios where Graham the wizard who like scared succeeds because let's take the power of friendship or just getting really angry and yelling louder than his opponent here's looking at you Dragon Ball Z overall it's a more useful technique for soft power systems if you wish to have a power system where the only factor is how creative and intelligent a character is and using it then incorporating character elements is going to undermine the dramatic tension that you're going for and that's totally fine it's not gonna fit for your story that's not a problem you can still have really powerful character arcs and there's a lot to be said for emotional beats of a story that stand on their own that don't need that sort of propping up and where authors don't want to do this it mostly comes down to two principles predictability and consistency two principles that make powers logical and believable as they grow in the story however they gain them I will refer you to my series on hard magic systems because I kind of talk through this for the entirety of the video and this is specifically about power escalation but basically make sure that evolutions in your power system are predictable and consistent that's what makes them feel earned in a hard magic system but let's talk about to escalation and tension it's almost universally true for the power system to escalate as the tension escalates this allows Graham the wizard who likes cats to face a bigger stakes do grander things and defeat more dangerous threats as the story progresses something that's completely natural in both a single book or a series of books consider leave Crossman's magician series the first book has Quinton and other characters using moderate magical abilities to take down the beast a creature killing students the second book scales up these stakes and their powers as they face old gods whoever turned to get rid of magic and the third does this yet again scaling up these stakes and their powers with the entirety of the magical world about to be destroyed and the characters having to learn bigger and more fantastical spells to resolve the plot like literally recreating the magical world it's really fascinating to see what the magic system is capable of and whether throughout a single book or a series scaling up these stakes the threat and escalating the power system with it is exciting to a point some writers fall into the trap of thinking there because either each story in a series or the arc of their single book is continually bigger better bolder stronger faster hashtag more with continually grander displays of the power system that will be more exciting and emotionally investing but no of course not this is called power creep and it's when power escalation eclipses story and undermines narrative tension one reason for this is stakes one symptom of power creep is exponentially growing stakes to match the Poway escalation book one gram the wizard eyes katz is concerned because we have to save this family book to graham the wizard relies Katz is concerned because this entire city will be destroyed book three Graham the wizard relies Katz is concerned because this entire planet will be destroyed at some point readers just stop caring because we have no real grasp of that kind of scale in Animus foul the Last Guardian the possible loss of Butler a character that we have known for eight books now in the climax has more emotional weight than the possibility of the world ending and this is especially true if this kind of scale is used over and over again in a series which continual power escalation tends to lead to because the writer thinks that they could easily solve small problems now a second reason is immersion there is a lot of Paris collation in Sanderson's Mistborn series but it never loses the foundational rules and framework that made it unique and immersive in the final Empire the first book skilled people doing very smart things with the element ik magic system in contrast Shonen anime like Naruto are often criticized for losing what made their original stories unique and immersive with characters shooting energy blasts into the moon and the strategy and ninja training that used to be at the core of the show hardly even measuring anymore and with Sanderson's narrative remained immersive because the escalation of elemental powers always felt possible within the world from the beginning Steve Perry escalation risks losing immersion and a degree of what made the original story special especially if some of the nuances of the magic system for the sake of grandeur abilities and this is why power ceilings are important establishing the magnitude to what your power system can go early in the story in which house keys The Matrix the power ceiling was established to using the antagonists the agents with one very specific and clear ability this was the peak of one's abilities within the matrix and it's what we knew neo could be hitting towards power ceilings not only helped how us feel earned though because the escalation didn't come out of nowhere but it helps the story remain immersive because you don't undermine the rules you created as the power system escalates of course necessarily don't break this power ceiling which is exactly what the Matrix sequels did as well as season two of Legend of Korra Korra had already mastered all four elements and the Avatar state by the end of season one out of four this was the power ceiling and then fighting the embodiment of chaos with the laser beams this was a bizarre fight that was difficult to care about and this led to the FMH and criticisms losing some of what made the original story special for the sake of spectacle because they think they have to do this to raise tension though I am happy to say that the writers of Korra recognized this for the most part in contrast Remini faced rift war saga worked because despite massive power escalation with fireballs in the first book and fighting ancient dragon gods in the third book it established a power ceiling with matt cross the black and Feist stuck to it so it wasn't surprising that by the third book we were at that level that we are briefly seen before and it's here we get to the heart of the issue how do you maintain or continue building tension when the author does not wish the power system to escalate any more say the author wants characters to become as powerful as they will ever be partway through the book maybe Graham the wizard who likes cats reaches his peak by the end of the second act just like kid in Ursula wins a wizard of Earthsea what then the assumption is that because the greatest tension is at this point in the story then their powers must escalade continually till that point otherwise they would be powerful enough to resolve the plot right well no or a second scenario would be an ongoing series the assumption is that because Graham the wizard who likes cats needs to become more powerful than villain one to defeat them in the first book thus to maintain tension villain two must be more powerful than villain one and then Graham must become more powerful than villain two ad infinitum otherwise grin the wizard who likes cats could resolve the plot instantly right well once again no we'll talk through two primary techniques which address this and are arguably most effective when they're used together in comparables and character challenges firstly in comparables in comparables our abilities that don't work on the same scale as the protagonists in Marvel's Jessica Jones series the protagonist has super strength and each of the three seasons are self contains stories with new antagonists in each arc in the first series joins us to face down against a man who can force others to do anything with just his voice second season she faces down against a family member with these same powers as her and in the third season the antagonist isn't even powered he's just an extraordinarily cunning serial killer of these three powers only one exists on the same scale as the protagonist and they weren't even technically an antagonist the tension dynamic and obstacles to taking down someone who can mine control are vastly different to taking down a manipulative cunning serial killer with the law on his side despite no escalation in Jones's powers with her being essentially as strong as she ever will be right from the start tension is steadily maintained because villain 3 isn't stronger than villain 2 or villain 1 they just pose a different challenge for Jessica Jones the obstacles our hero faces are incomparable and even if she does get stronger as the story goes beating kilgrave in season 1 does not make her automatically equipped to defeat Sellinger in season 3 in comparables mean that the threatened antagonist poses does not have to be measured against the previous antagonist and a protagonists power is escalating even to the highest point does not mean they're automatically stronger than the person with that incomparable ability Patrick Rothfuss is the author of name of the wind that Kingkiller Chronicle which involves Kavitha continually becoming more powerful within the magic system across the books in talking about handling power creep he said –kavitha learns things and become slightly more powerful but he solves all of his problems not through the application of power but because he's clever and if you're clever once you have to be clever again there's constant tension and it's this idea that is really at the heart of stories that use and comparables attaining power alone won't defeat the antagonist because the powers of your protagonists and your antagonists are not on the same scale they've got to have something else like maybe the hash tag power friendship secondly character challenges in a similar way to how incomparable abilities mean that power escalation doesn't really matter creating antagonists who challenge the protagonist in a personal way does the same thing the Joker of Nolan's The Dark Knight is arguably the weakest antagonist ed Batman faces and the stakes are even the smallest in this story it's just two boatloads of people compared to a whole city but it's arguably the most tense of the trilogy power escalation matters little here because the tension of the story is derived from moral choices that Batman is repeatedly forced to make no matter how powerful he becomes not that Batman has powers like gray in The Wizard of Oz cats as mentioned before though these two strategies are best used together an antagonist whose abilities require them to not just be powerful but smart and they challenge them in a personal way one example is Daredevils adversary kingpin he exemplifies this a blind athlete against a cunning criminal with super-strength where much of the tension is really derived from not matching him but where the kingpin can force him to kill a moral lion that he has refused to cross these techniques also work for overpowered characters or stories about people whose powers don't escalate at all handling Paris collation is difficult and it's been done badly a bazillion times it's also been done really well a bazillion times it's really more about allowing the story to grow organically without it losing the spectacle that ultimately the magic system while a really cool part of any of the world building and how it is used in the story is there to support the rest of the story to support the characters their growth their relationships and the tension they have with the antagonist spectacle of the magic system by itself isn't necessarily that engaging as much as we love the magic systems that we create so to summarize all of these points one way to escalate power systems logically believably and make powers feel earned is with character arc aligned power systems this helps with a narrative creation by tying internal and external conflicts together whoever it is less suited for hard magic systems – it is natural for power systems to escalate as the tension Rises throughout a single book or a series however taking this too far results in power creep which in turn undermines narrative tension through our lack of believable stakes and a loss of immersive elements 3 power ceilings not only help house feel earned because the reader sees capabilities beforehand but it helps maintain immersion because power escalation doesn't under the world that you originally created for one way to maintain tension without Paris collation is through incomparable abilities meaning that Paris collation is not necessarily required to defeat them and each antagonist to need not be measured against the last and five a second way to maintain tension without paris collation is through character challenges and taking us who challenge the protagonist on a personal level and the tension is derived from difficult more choices that they're forced to make these two strategies are best used together though and that's me this video has been held people on the discord you would know normally I'm done by like around Wednesday with the script took me to Friday morning it's like Friday afternoon as I'm filming filming it now so I'm gonna have to really muscle to get all the editing done the topic changed bazillion times I really enjoyed doing these kind of technical videos ones which kind of look at writing techniques more than tropes tropes are fun to talk about but techniques are ultimately going to be more helpful like the two videos I did on delivering exposition which if you haven't seen go check them out are some of the best videos I feel have you ever done in this series and III really liked them because they feel a lot more grounded and helpful and like broadly applicable to every writer but yeah so what what tell me about tell me about your stories what's the power escalation like what's the magic system and how does it grow where does it start where does it end how big can it get let me know down below in the meantime stay nerdy and I will see you in the future you

47 thoughts on “On Writing: Magic Systems and Handling Power Escalation [ Mistborn l Last Airbender l Naruto ]

  1. So, my week has been kind of crap. Sony just went through my channel and claimed every single Avatar video I have nearly. I don't know what this will do to my income, but if you'd like to support me and this kind of educational content, please consider heading over to patreon >>> https://www.patreon.com/hellofutureme <<< or getting my book at the link in the description. Stay nerdy <3

    ~ Tim

  2. "At some point, readers just stop caring, because we have no real grasp of that kind of scale."
    Infinity War and Endgame have entered the chat.

  3. hunter x hunter focuses more on how characters individualize their powers and abilities more than any power scale. a fantastic power system if some of you havnt watched the anime or read the manga.

  4. Dragon Ball is not a bad example of power escalation, it's the prime example. That's the whole point, the theme, the motif, the draw. It's fine to measure a piece of media based on these standards if they act as though they should meet them, but not when the piece had no intention of doing so.

  5. So, your * magical patrons * are responsible for your income.
    Which means, that in talking about your money,
    A wizard did it

  6. I have a character a who will become a physical god and conquer all of their personality flaws, gaining a new transformation each time that all come together in the end.

    Each form gained does not cover a power based weakness everytime, but they are all required to reach perfection.

  7. I have two power systems in my short novel I'm working on, one are rocks. Literal rocks that can take in force, such as heat, cold, light, darkness, and of course life force. Then one can release it and to a extent control it. Then I have a power system called the Abyss, you can go into the abyss but most of the time your soul is sucked out but if you come back a ability usually is branded on you by the Abyss.

  8. Great vid. One thing I gotta ask: Is it wise to use DBZ as an example of bad power scaling when you didn't watch the series? I know people are just gonna call me a dbz fan boy, but to give credit where credit is due, it wasn't all screaming and powering up. They did a lot of things right as well.

    I dunno, it's just to me if you're gonna use dbz, you might as well use the hulk, supes, galactus, the silver surfer, etc.

  9. thumbs down. how can you have the last airbender in the title but show that shit known as Korra. korra kept getting weaker with each season. terrible avatar

  10. I love your channel, it's helped me to think about things and improve what I've been doing. I've had a sorta unique type of dnd campaign that's been going on for about 4 years now, however everything is built upon a mix between a hard and soft magic system, all numbers come from my own head and not any book, and your videos on both systems helped me to consider how I want the end game to be, seeing as if you wanted to put the campaign into perspective it'd be like a 4-5 book series and we're only now reaching the end of the first book. However as with this video I thought about the end game, and thankfully so I'm thinking I might dial back the scaling and turn it into more of a ok you've hot the peak and you've all seen why the peak is, why not use more knowledge and creativity than just simply numbers which I'm sure would make reaching that end goal a much more satisfying experience than what it would've been. But thank you for another great video as well as the knowledge and tips!

  11. I see your constant shots at Dragon Ball’s narrative, but Dragon Ball isn’t really about its narrative.

    It’s about spectacle!

    Its narrative was never good. The characters were never clever. The plots of Dragon Ball has ALWAYS been fighters fighting, and the reason for training was for fighting and fighting is all the group who are bred as warriors to fight just were never happy unless they were fighting! The problem I’ve personally always had with critique is that the simplicity of spectacle is ignored because nothing can exist to a critic without it having a narrative purpose.

    Dragon Ball has no narrative purpose! At all! None. Zip. Zilch! Nada! It is purely about badass spectacle and how can you make the new fight more hype than the last!

    I really like your videos, but please, stop looking for narrative in places that clearly have none at all! Though I agree with your berating things that clearly fall into the power creep issues, like Legend of Korra and Naruto, Dragon Ball started out that way in the beginning.

    You might as well not use it in comparison to either, however, because it had no narrative weight from the very beginning!

  12. Why do you think so many movies and tv show writers are not able to realize how these short comings negatively effect the stories? I am sure there are many reasons. Maybe worth doing a video on that. Unless it is what I assume the simple answer of time and resources, they just have to put something out because people will consume the content either way. Anyway great videos, I have had this idea in my head for a fantasy story and you are helping me to want to make it more and more.

  13. I clicked "On Power Escalation" because I thought it was power like a leader has power, and I really need help on that. That being said, I LOVE this video. So often in books I read lately, a character never seems to fail, but weirdly gains power at the exact moment they need to do something more powerful than they have.

  14. You know, I always see the criticism of ridiculously growing Power Creep as a bad thing. And for the most part I agree, but I never see anyone talk about the one series that somehow handles this perfectly: Tengen Toppa Gurren Laggan.

  15. I just start with nigh omnipotent characters. It saves the hassle of power scaling and writing challenges.

  16. Excellent video! If I may add a nice example of Power Escalation reference, I highly recommend checking out Dragon Age Inquisition, specially a DLC that goes after the main story called Trespasser, that expands the ending. I have never felt more thrilled about the danger my protagonist faced when the power grew out of her control, and the culmination was shocking to say the least, because of course it had been building up after hours and hours of gameplay. All the while accompanied with a soundtrack that gave me goosebumps all over at the ending https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3qc7Xzi0e4M

  17. One of the best examples of incomparable powers I’ve seen is in Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure part 5. After part 3, the writer learned to not have the characters get stronger, but smarter. That makes the main villain so much scarier because there’s so much less the protagonists can do to affect him.

    Seriously go watch Jojo part 5 it’s so good.

  18. 2:46 My novel actually has magic system that revolves around a character's mental state. When they evolve or grow as a person their ability changes with them. Not necessarily a powerup, just a slight shift from what it was before.

  19. I absolutely love your work, dude! Can't stress this enough – whenever a friend of mine talks about writing, I recommend your channel haha.
    I was wondering whether you've read the Demon Cycle books by Peter v. Brett? And if so, did you like them?
    To me, they are one of the best and most well-written fantasy series of recent years & I think they could be nice reference for many writing tips and themes – but I never heard you mention them, so I'm kinda curious as to why that is – hoping for an answer 🙂
    Have a good day! <3

  20. I'm confused about the The Matrix example. The bullet-halting doesn't come out of nowhere. I feel like it escalates to that point the entire movie. And it was Morpheus' job to get Neo and the audience to have a revelation: this world is not real, "I'm saying when the time comes, you won't have to."

    I get it feels like an escalating power system. But the point was it had no meaning, that entire world is a fantasy. No amount of power in The Matrix ever mattered. I thought that was the truth Morpheus had to teach…

    By establishing and breaking the rules of The Matrix, just like DBZ, you show the world has lost any meaning. But that was the entire point of The Matrix. In subsequent films, the protagonists' reality shows them to be weak humans running through a dead world. But because of what you saw in The Matrix, you began to believe Neo was special… like The Matrix was a fantasy prophesied by The Oracle, and showed Neo's potential…

  21. Hey Tim, would you review shadow of the conqueror? I loved it and I just want to hear what other people liked and are critical of. I can't wait for my friends to read it, they're slow with books.

  22. I love how the book is written exactly how you do your videos, it's like listening to a chapter you're reading for us

  23. Why would character arcs and escalation not work with hard magic? It seems the opposite is more true. That a soft magic system is unfit for character arc based escalation

  24. I get that a power ceiling should never be broken once set. However, do you think it's possible to not necessarily break said ceiling, but instead expand the reaches of the power system as a whole. For example, say someone sets a power ceiling at the beginning of their story, but later on wants to make things more spectacular than what they originally set before. How would they go about this without betraying what they originally thought of?

  25. This is why i love seven deadly sins, all if the characters are ridiculously OP from the start, so there's no need to increase spectacle

  26. I'm really happy you bring up Shad's book. Draw with Jazza, Shadiversity and Hello Future Me, 3 of my favourite channels, linked in some way together!

  27. Didn't you forgot one. Repowering your main character due to age or hilness. Usually combined with personal stakes.

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