by Chantal Boudreau
Power, or lack thereof, can decide where a story will carry a character, or even where a character will carry a story. All you have to do is think about a classic story and reverse the position of power of the protagonist to see what I’m talking about.
If Bilbo Baggins had been an influential, confident and heroic hobbit member of the nobility instead of a humble ordinary member of the shire with little influence to speak of, think of how that would have changed his story. He probably wouldn’t have been selected to play the role of “thief,” too important for such a lowly and suspect role. Had he gone along, he would have had enough political clout and wealth to travel with the dwarves well-guarded and unimpeded. More than likely, he may have decided to keep his nose out of the entire affair for diplomatic reasons and been able to stand his ground on the matter in the face of coercion from Gandalf and the other questers. He certainly wouldn’t have let the dwarves push their way into his home and ransack his kitchen.
On the other hand, look at the tale of King Midas and the Golden Touch. Part of the heft of the story comes from depicting the King as greedy despite vast wealth, a man elevated who has that much farther to fall than say a successful merchant or tradesperson experiencing the same greed and consequence. Perched on his high roost, he manages to lose everything without actually losing his wealth and the message as a result carries more meaning and greater impact – a lesson on appreciating what we have and recognizing the true value of things in life. A lowly servant stricken with the same affliction wouldn’t carry the same warning. He would be more likely to already value what he possessed and while he might opt for a golden touch, it would be out of despair and real need. It would make the reader more sympathetic to his plight and poor choice, marring the message in the process.
When writing a story I try to consider how the protagonist’s position of power will play into the story. Sometimes it will be important to build on power as the character becomes more competent and confident, so it makes sense to start them at the bottom. This way, there is more room to depict the character’s struggle and rise. It also helps to get the reader on board, rooting for a character who has received an unfair lot in life but who persists thanks to a heroic spirit and a resilient nature. It’s a great way to build investment. This is commonly seen in stories involving reluctant heroes like Bilbo or what I like to refer to as the “mouse that roars” type of hero, like Anna in my novel Prisoners of Fate – characters who don’t recognize their own potential for power until the pressure is on.
Other times it is important to allow a character a lofty position at the start. They already have wealth, status, strength or political power and are either abusing these things or failing to appreciate them. More common in tragedies, it serves the purposes of allowing for a greater decline and a demonstration of hubris, like Midas. This is why Far-Runner in my Snowy Barrens trilogy begins that story with so much. He has friends who support him, status within the tribe and physical adeptness. When the incident happens that begins his decent into madness and powerlessness, he is set for a comeuppance, a punitive counter to his jealousy and arrogance.
It all comes down to what a writer is trying to say with their story. A character is a vehicle and choosing the right position of power for that character will drive the point home more effectively. If the writer makes the right choice, the story will be that much better for it.