"Seek not the good in external things. Seek it in thyself." - Epictetus

It’s over 9,000: Powerscaling, the writer’s crutch


upernatural’s Lucifer. The Walking Dead’s Negan. Breaking Bad’s Gus Fring. Game of Thrones’ Joffrey. Heroes’ Sylar. The Flash’s Reverse Flash. Every great story has its evil, menacing, sadistic, worst and most dangerous of all time villain. And if done right, the writing pulls the reader or viewer in, keeping them on the edge of their seat as the protagonist(s) struggle against the waves of chaos and suffering received at the hands of the ultimate nemesis. And then the great enemy is defeated, and that’s the end. Or not. Often, the story goes on... Only, what’s left, now that the big bad has been stopped? Well, get ready, because here comes Ultimate Enemy 2.0! Bigger, badder, stronger, fast – I’ll stop there, you get the point. Powerscaling. Oh, what a slippery slope...

It’s a compelling enough question. Say you have a series you’re writing, and you get to Book Three, and the villain is finally defeated, thus ending a trilogy? You’d like the series to continue, because when it comes to the protagonists, their stories may not be over yet. There’s still more to explore, there’s more to reveal. These character arcs are ongoing. But who will become the new antagonist? You can’t simply bring back that same villain all over again; unless you can somehow do this extremely skillfully (a million to one odds), it would feel incredibly cheap and utterly defeat the point of the previous story. So why not create a newer villain, even stronger and more evil than the last? Okay, sure. But if you went out of your way to demonstrate just how powerful and how horrific and unmatched the last one was, won’t scaling up to an even worse enemy be a bit of a cop out?

I can give you some examples of books and shows that have attempted this very thing, with results decidedly mixed. Game of Thrones. Once Joffrey was dead, they decided to bring in a ‘roided up, even more sadistic version of him in the character of Ramsay. (This isn’t a criticism of the books; George R.R. Martin may go a different route than the show did.) Ramsay made Joffrey look like an angel in comparison, except that Ramsay felt too over the top. His psychotic behavior felt almost comic book-ish at times, like the writers were just trying to hammer into your head, over and over, “Look, see how relentlessly, fiendishly sick he is? We’re trying so hard to show you how much worse than Joffrey he is!”

However, Game of Thrones then rectified things by introducing the Night King, leader of the White Walkers. This was a completely different sort of enemy. Silent, with piercing blue eyes, an eerily calm demeanor. The Night King was a force of nature, something that seemed almost compelled to kill, and did so almost gracefully. There were hints of amused malevolence, but it didn’t feel like we were simply getting a Hulked up version of a previous villain, and that’s why the Night King is a good example of how you can invent another enemy for your characters to face off against – without reinventing the wheel.

Think about it. You put a lot of thought and time into the first antagonist, right? You wanted to make him a unique threat, something that really puts your heroes’ backs up against the wall and challenges them on every level. Now that they have faced those challenges, how would it follow logically that essentially creating a carbon copy of that villain (however “stronger” or more insane it may be), would be any sort of compelling or intriguing choice? What you’d be left with is a story that hits the same beats, a “new” character that treads the same ground as its predecessor. Readers won’t feel any real sense of danger because there’s a vague feeling of “been there, done that.”

If you want to craft a second villain, it has to be threatening in a way that the previous one wasn’t, and that doesn’t always simply mean stronger or “more evil.” The first enemy was all about ultimate power and rage? Okay. So this one can be disturbingly calm and composed, and rather than physically threatening, this enemy’s weapon can be psychological. Maybe he’s good at manipulating our heroes, getting inside their heads, even getting them to act against their better impulses, essentially making them feel forced to do morally ambiguous things in the name of stamping out this evil.

In this character, then, we see a key difference. Where the first was terror inspiring, this one makes you panic for the protagonists in a totally new way. What if one of them loses himself, and in fighting the evil, becomes part of it? A “road to Hell is paved with good intentions” kind of narrative could be great not only in putting a new spin on an enemy, but also making a character confront a part of themelves and grow, furthering their story arc. This is just an example, but it goes to show you, there are different ways you can do something; as we know, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Breaking Bad is considered one of the best television series ever made for a reason. The writers knew they would be remiss if they simply followed up Gus’s death by introducing another “big bad.” Instead they turned the story inward, thereby also continuing the story arc and development of Walter and the larger narrative the series as a whole had to tell. After killing Gus, Walter was more and more willing to take lives, acting in ways he never had before and transitioning from “dying family man who had to do terrible things for a good reason” into a criminal mastermind who was arrogantly proud of his own growing reputation. In one of the most brilliant followups to an arch-enemy story ever, the next antagonist after Gus became...the main protagonist himself.

Now, let me just clarify. It isn’t wrong to powerscale, if it works. Azazel was a great and dangerous antagonist in Supernatural, but not so all-powerful that it didn’t feel believable to follow him up with a stronger one. Lucifer was a threat that felt more cosmic, the centerpiece of the literal Apocalypse, where Azazel was more “the monster in the shadows.” So in cases like that, it works. It’s up to you, as the writer, to be aware of your own antagonists’ power, their limits, and what drives them. If your heroes stop a petty criminal in Book One, a terrorist in Book Two, and a master killer who leads a cult of assassins in Book Three, the powerscaling is believable, so it works. But if you spend three novels dealing with the “ultimate threat” to the world, the most powerful enemy anyone has ever faced, don’t follow it up with “oh, wait – this new villain is now the most powerful enemy anyone has ever faced.” And if you do, don’t expect that suspension of disbelief to hold; your readers are going to balk.

There’s a saying that a hero is only as good as the villain, and that’s mostly true. Batman needs the Joker. Harry Potter needs Voldemort. So on and so forth. Put as much thought into the bad guys as the good guys, and you shouldn’t have a problem. But just as with any other character in your story, each antagonist must be unique and believable. And even better – get your readers to empathize against their will with the villain. Because they’re not simply “evil” for no reason. Most well written villains believe they’re doing the right thing in their own minds, and just as with the good guys, they have wants and needs, things that drive them and cause them to engage in wicked behavior. As William Faulkner once said, “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” Words to live by – and write by.

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