"Earning it" is defined differently by everybody, of course, but there are general consensuses. Erring on the over-working-your-characters side doesn't hurt -- a lot of writers do it, actually. Careful with the strained credulity, if you're planning to put your characters on a death march, though.
Physical barriers overcome
I'll admit, I'm biased toward character development being more interesting than physical challenges. I don't mean to slight physically-oriented stories -- they can be triumphant and a lot of fun, and fun is not to be overlooked as part of a story.
Earning a physical win involves making clear how difficult this is, what the potential consequences are, and putting the character through some amount of physical suffering in the process of reaching the goal.
The simple, direct, physical challenge: your character must win a fight, survive what the environment throws at him, or build something. Whether success or failure results, give the effort the weight it deserves. Tell us about the preparations, the problems, the interesting things that happened along the way. OK, we're climbing Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen -- why is that important? What could go wrong? What almost did go wrong?
|Photo by John Evans, available at sxc.hu|
If your character needed more information before making a decision, or if The Answer is itself the solution to a problem, the reader wants to see it. Or at least, if the writer does not show us The Answer directly, demonstrate its impact clearly enough that we can guess at what it was.
Whether your character needed to climb a mountain to talk to the Wise Old Man or had to sort through mountains of dusty books for a bit of data, show us the work. Which leads us conveniently to the next point...
Covering large amounts of time convincingly is difficult in any medium. On TV, you might get a two-minute training montage that's meant to summarize weeks, months, or years. It helps to have a yardstick for progress, whether it's an indication of time passing -- showing the reader seasonal changes in the background, for example -- or in the character's skills increasing -- being able to reach that brass ring their teacher set out at the beginning, maybe.
What are some stories of overcoming physical challenges that you've loved? At what point did you agree the character had earned their win?
Part 2 will be about character-driven "wins."