Storytelling: passing the mantle

Especially in coming-of-age stories, but not limited to them, comes the time when one character passes down his role (usually leadership) to someone else. Sometimes it’s planned act, sometimes a necessity. Today, I’ll look into this story element.

Part of the whole

One of the main aspects of an character arc is progression. The main characters start somewhere and, as they go through the story, gain new skill and experiences. All they go through affects them and shapes what they’ll be later.

And because stories are (or, should be) dynamic, it means that ‘no king rules forever’ – or, in other words, no character can stay in the same role forever. And they don’t necessarily have to be a king. Whether they’re leader of a faction, an heir of a long-standing family, or even CEO (in present-time stories) – they’ll have to step aside sooner ot later. And it can happen in several ways, each with some specifics.

Father and son

Varian and Anduin Wrynn, World of Warcraft – an example of son forced into leadership role.

This scenario is common in coming of age stories, probably regardless of genre. Such a story usually features some differences between them and a different approach, which may sometimes put them at odds. What tends to happen is that the story forces the characters through something that forces the son to grow into a leader and eventually take the mantle of his father. How exactly? There are many ways – the most direct would be a trial by combat, if it fits the setting and the son believes his father is not taking the situation seriously enough.

Yet, there are ways that are harsher on the son, because he’s not given a choice – such as his father being captured or killed in combat. Both options have their advantages and disadvantages and those are dependant on several aspects of the story, including the son’s personality (would death or capture be a better motivator in the long-term?) In either case, it usually forces the son to not only become a leader on a short notice but also to act in that position before he can have a full picture of the situation and while dealing with the expectations.

Capture/MIA

If the father is captured, it allows the story to see what the son is willing to do for his rescue – and possible more about the way he thinks. It’s a chance to reflect on both of them (can I do something my father could not), on the challenges tied to freeing him, and what could happen if he succeeds – after all, such an act would mean growing in skill and respect to the point he might keep the (unwillingly inherited) mantle of leadership even after the captured leader is rescued. The challenges in this case feel more dynamic to me.

Death

Death is a very direct option that presents quite a static challenge. There will be a period of grief and maybe a desire for vengeance (epending on the character) but that fact that the leader is dead eliminates the potential plot of rescuing them with all the challenges it brings. On the other hand, it means the character can’t just keep hoping they’ll return one day and thus they have to become a leader on a short notice – especially if there are enemies around who would be willing to strike while he’s weakened.

Villanious takeover

While ‘passing the mantle’ is a story element often seen from the ‘good’ side, it’s not limited to it. As I’ve once said in a post about positive traits of bad guys, they often tend to be ruthless and ambitious, among others.

What that means is that even when they’re not the main antagonist, they might have their own plans, waiting in shadows to act on it. And should their master stand in their way, they’ll wait for the chance to either rid of their (now former) master or take over their faction.

Whether they leave their former master alive – and in what situation – can further show the level of their ‘evilness’ as the options are on a wide range. A very evil character could, for example, exile the former master to a faraway place where they’d struggle to just survive.

Deposing a tyrant

Technically, this might fall into the topic as well. In a setting where someone rules with absolute power, a plot element might be the formation of a resistance that will try to depose such a ruler. This, then, presents some challenges as well: what will the leader of this opposition do to assure the new situation is better?

Just deposing the leader is not the end of it: the tyrant’s minions might either try to get their revenge or strike the revolutionaries down while they’re trying to see the situation from a new point of view and realize how far the corruption reached – and what they’d have to do to clean up the mess. If there’s a conflict on the horizon (and their motivation was to approach it better), they might be stretched for time and such a moment would make their new position vulnerable.


I guess that exhausts my ideas on this matter. I’ll welcome your thoughts and opinions. Do you know about a story that deals with this topic well – or poorly? Are you writing one? Feel free to share.

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