Last week I brought up the food chain of badassery and how to execute it, but even if you successfully execute it, you can still run into another serious problem. It’s the same problem most Shonen anime/manga run into. And that’s the problem of power creep, where the hero keeps ascending and ascending in strength and increasingly powerful villains are thrown at them and it all just keeps spiraling up until strength and power is totally meaningless.
If we’re going to talk about the anime, a good show in the genre that avoids power creep is My Hero Acadamia, on account of the fact that they introduce a power cap in the first episode and that’s it. That’s the top. It doesn’t keep going after that.
Even if you’re working on a strict food chain that is just to build up your villain (or hero), you can still suffer from power creep, although that starts to go back on what I’ve already said about lower rungs not properly supporting higher rungs.
And power creep is also its own issue that doesn’t necessarily have to do with the food chain. Hate me for saying it due to the implications it has agaisnt many animes, including Dragon Ball Z, but honestly I find a severe issue of power creep to be a symptom that the story lacks any real substance. The story of an obstacle to be surmounted, and the hero who can’t surmount it but then he works really hard and does surmount it, hooray! isn’t a bad story on its own, but either that’s the end, or it’s lacking in substance if it continues on the same way. New obstacle of the same type, hero works hard, yay! New obstacle of the same type…
The other issue with power creep is that it tends to only herald the virtue of physical strength. Perhaps other types of strength might feed into it, like THE POWER OF FRIENDSHIP! ™ but in the end, it’s still physical strength derived from friendship that defeats the enemy. Love and moral support might allow the hero to become Super Saiyan, but it’s still the Super Saiyan who defeats New Bigger Threat #47, not love. And maybe New Bigger Threat #47’s powers are significantly different from all the other threats beneath it, and that’s pretty wizard, I guess, but it’s still just the same stupid plotline over again and you already did that, and no matter how many different flavors of ice cream you serve, it’s still ice cream and I’ll get a stomach ache if I keep eating it.
Also it seems a lot of times writers feel having a new villain who is just more powerful than the last isn’t good enough. You also have to make him more insidous, and that gets to be tough. There is a built in cap on evil, since even if humans can always conceive of new horrendous acts, you get back to the ice cream thing. All of X type of horrible things, each different from each other, is still in the general form of butchery, or Y is violence agaisnt children, or Z is sexual perversions – you might horrify and disgust anew, but you can only max out that horror and disgust so much.
So when you’re building up something as stronger than something else, whether because you’re making a food chain, or because you’re telling a story of power ascension, you need to watch out for power creep. As alluded to, you can insulate yourself from the problem by establishing a hard cap to power and by relying on other types of strength that aren’t just physical, which is a good idea anyway since other leads might not have physical strength. Mostly, though, it’s just important to make sure that your characters’ actions and acquisitions and your story moral all are meaningful, which is the real problem with power creep. Just like if I repeat the word “evil” a bunch of times in the same sentence, it starts to not look like a real word anymore, repeating the moral of “work hard and you can overcome anything” repeated so many times starts to lose all meaning also.