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Writers aren’t people exactly. Or, if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Love of the Last Tycoon

For me, writing stories is an exercise in crawling into fictional skins. I inhabit each character for a little while at a time, jumping from host to host like Azazel in Fallen. (Hey, no judgment! I was an obssessed Denzel Washington fan, okay?)

Unlike a case of total possession, though, I usually have to do some business with my host. There's some back-and-forth, some negotiation on what the character will do next. Sometimes characters just flat-out refuse to do what I want them to do, and sometimes they'll do what I want but in unexpected ways, and with unexpected results. It's a big part of the reason why writing is often a surprising process, even when I've planned everything, or so I thought, in advance.

I'm not alone, either. According to the paper "Narrative Empathy" by Suzanne Keen (in the collection A Cognitive Theory of Narrative Acts), 92% of novelists surveyed had the experience of characters they've written seeming to have a life and will of their own.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, I (and 92% of novelists) fail at having complete control of imaginary characters. Writers are a pretty pathetic bunch when you think about it, when they can't get even figments of their own imagination obey them.

Still, maybe that's the way it should be; after all, the most interesting stories come from the choices characters make and the ways they interact with each other. The more the characters come to life, the more vivid, dynamic, and unexpected the story is likely to be.

This is where my experience in roleplaying, and particularly gamemastering, shaped my writing a lot. One review that was particularly insightful in this regard was one by CrazyDyslexicNerd (not calling names, that's the actual handle) which said:

How do you keep track of all the different plots going on at once? Seriously, I swear most everyone one has their own agenda! Making it very realistic.


The comment warmed the cockles of my cold black heart, seeing how it's pretty much the way I work. I mean I don't write separate timelines for all the characters or anything, but each character is distinct in my head and has her own desires, methods, and limits. Then I let them loose in a conflict situation and off they go in a series of Brownian Motions, crashing into each other and each careening in different directions, only to crash into others, and so forth.

When I GM, I let the player characters be the first movers, creating new collisions through their choices. I'm terrible at writing game scenarios and no longer try because it's too much trouble to shoo the players to the appointed path; I just set up the world and non-player characters, make sure the player characters have reason to engage with them, and improvise from there by roleplaying the NPCs, jumping in and out of characters.

When I write I run the characters' multiple collision simulation, as it were, in my head and put it down in an outline. Then I write much like I roleplay NPCs, except this time I play all the characters. Who is this person? What does he want? What does he say? What's his plan?

In the process, more often than not, situations and characters head in ways I did not anticipate at the planning stage, or I discover things about the characters or background I hadn't realized before. I compensate accordingly, sometimes at the scene level, sometimes altering the outline itself.

The whole thing can start feeling schizophrenic after a while. When I'm Zuko, I'm so sure I'm right and I'm filled with righteous anger at anyone who disagrees. Then I'm Azula and I see how thoughtless and self-righteous Zuko is, how dangerous and self-serving his course of action. And then I get to Ozai and I watch my children threatening to tear up the Nation I have worked so hard to stabilize these past years. They are my children, yes, but they are a Prince and Princess of the Fire Nation first and foremost and immaturity is no excuse once they have chosen to enter the game. And then I'm Iroh, Mai, then Jee across an expanse of ocean, and...

I think writing and roleplaying, more than anything else, gave me a way to recognize different and often conflicting truths. Being different people, if only in made-up ways, taught me to hold these truths side by side and to see how much richer life is when I can see more than one perspective.

It's probably no accident, again from "Literary Empathy," that writers as a group score unusually high on empathy. This isn't the same thing as being good people individually, as Keen is quick to point out, and there's no way to be sure if the people who become writers are predisposed to empathy or whether writing increases empathy. I personally think it's a little of both in a feedback loop.

Of all the ways roleplaying can inform writing, I think the most important is to spend some time in the shoes of each character, especially the least likeable or less interesting ones. Robert McKee put the same thing in different words when he exhorted his readers in Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting to "fall in love with all your characters." (Emphasis mine.) This includes villains, and in fact he especially emphasizes giving villains their due.

Each character has a reason to get up in the morning or to wish she really didn't have to. All characters have motivations and lives of their own. It's the job of the writer as their creator, or maybe their temporary abductor in the case of fanfic, to figure them out. That's what makes for a richer story, and roleplaying was my path to start figuring that out.

This post was inspired by a discussion with [personal profile] loopy777 on gamemastering and writing. Thanks Loopy!

Comments

( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
loopy777
Nov. 27th, 2012 02:42 am (UTC)
It's funny how my friends and I found RPG's. We started out in middle school playing "paper games," which we thought of as video games drawn out on paper. This was back in the 16-bit era of gaming, and all we had to go on were either top-down games or side-scrollers. Side-scrollers were easier to replicate on paper, because it meant we could draw the "characters" in profile and so make them more distinguishable. The characters were straight out of arcades games: the players could choose from Robot, Wizard, Ninja, Soldier, and Superhero. They could cross rivers of lava, get through crushing spike traps, and use their powers to fight gatekeepers.

Then they banned backpacks in the lunchroom, so we were left without a sufficient supply of paper and pencils. So we upgraded our hobby to "mind games." Because we had to imagine them, you see. They started out as the same old sidescrollers, but we quickly realized we could really blow the special effects budget now that it was all fueled by imagination. Characters became real characters, the environments expanded to 3 dimensions, and the genres expanded to fighting games, exploration games, etc. We were still very tied to video games, as you can see.

Then, in our first year of High School, I got an idea.

Me: Okay, you're a character in the Star Wars universe. You can be a rebel, Imperial, or neutral. Write down your character's history so we know how he got to where he is now.

Player: Gotcha. All done. Now, what do I do?

Me: Anything you want.

Player: What?

Me: Sure. Go help the rebels fight the Empire, if you want. Or buy some cargo and get it to a planet surrounded by pirates. Or just decide that you like the look of that star up there, and get in your spaceship and go see what it looks like up close. Do whatever you want. I'll make sure things stay interesting.

Player: .........cool.

(1/2)
loopy777
Nov. 27th, 2012 02:42 am (UTC)
And so I invented the RPG. We had already been using dice to add randomness (possibly inspired by real RPG's, but I'm not aware of anyone of us knowing about them at the time), but now I kept stats, items lists, money count, and current location all written down. I added characters who weren't just placed in the maze to block the player's path; my NPCs had jobs, or rebel passions, or Imperial cruelty, or whatever got them out of bed each day. Just like you described, I set all these characters off as marbles spinning around in a bowl and let my players collide with them. I'm still a bit weirded out by the time that one of my players decided he was attracted to an NPC and tried to seduce her, because, really, that NPC girl was me, and I hadn't constructed her to be an object of attraction.

Not too long after we got things really rolling, my friends discovered D&D, but they preferred the leaner approach of my system. Still, I liberally stole any D&D mechanic I liked, although I typically preferred the simpler equations of Customizable Card Games (such as Magic: The Gathering) that were all the rage at the time.

That game lasted all four years of our high school, and it was hugely popular among my friends until we all scattered to colleges across the country. Out of five days at the lunch table together each week, three were reserved for my game, the other two could either be games from other people or else random conversation.

The article you linked does a great job describing how GM'ing teaches you storytelling, but I think I got an extra lesson out of my fairly unique experience:

As we went through high school, we didn't all end up with the same lunch period. Also, we didn't have the coordination to arrange an after-school meet-up. So, I wound up running my game across lots of sessions for just one or two people at a time, sometimes at lunch, sometimes between classes, sometimes on the bus, and sometimes on the phone while I did my calculus homework. The players still managed to interact, but meetings between the characters were now an event instead of an everyday occurrence. One player even became a super-villain to the others, and they were all running through their own plots to try to defeat him, even as he had multiple plans going to kill all the others.

And I never wrote down more than the characters' basic stats and backstory.

So yeah, keeping track of lots of characters, plots, subplots, mysteries, and recurring elements is no big deal. I used to have to do it while dealing with eight goofball players. XD

I still remember the day I went from just running the game to being a true Gamemaster storyteller. One player informed me that two other players had decided that their characters were in love. My first reaction was, "It's my game, and people can't fall in love unless I tell them they're in love." Then, I went to study hall, and thought about it for twenty minutes. By the end, I had decided, "Eh, if they want to be in love, they're the ones running the characters. Besides, I can use that..."

I'm surprised it took me so long to start writing, after that.

(Thanks for the opportunity to look back at good memories.)

(2/2)

Edited at 2012-11-27 02:43 am (UTC)
ljlee
Nov. 27th, 2012 12:54 pm (UTC)
You reverse-engineered roleplaying games from CRPG! That is the best thing ever. XD

I've often used side sessions when I had less than a full complement of players, too. I've used them to explore different aspects of the setting, delve into the characters' pasts and so on. It was always an awesome feeling when the side story looped back into the main story, and it usually did in an organic way even when no one planned for it.

I definitely learned a lot about plot complexity, many-faceted stories and the organic growth of story from those experiences. One campaign in particular, a Star Wars EU setting inspired by the loading screen setting info in the Knights of the Old Republic video game, was a huge epic of political intrigue and internal strife in the Republic. I consider it a precursor to Dragon King in style and aspiration.

How about on a more micro level? Does roleplaying experience influence your scene-by-scene writing, too?
loopy777
Nov. 27th, 2012 11:31 pm (UTC)
You kids and your Old Republics. My players were all Rebel beserkers. One even evaded Imperials who tried to arrest him in a tavern by diving behind a bar, tossing free drinks to all the alcoholics clustered around, and making a gun'n'run while the Stormtroopers tried to escape the resulting mosh pit. Feh on your politics. ;)

Back on topic, I'm not aware of any influence on my scene-by-scene writing, except perhaps in crafting my interplay between serious moments and comedy. It probably comes as no surprise that while the situations and storylines I ran were pretty much taken as seriously as space opera can be, I also added as much comedy as I could without ruining the tension or integrity of the setting. The intersteller chain of "Honest Lou's Bargain Buys," with its guaranteed cheap but stolen merchandise, was both the most absurd and most tolerated because all my players had trouble holding on to money. I also had my catch phrases: in response to a "Can I... ?" question, I'd always say "You can try;" and I started far too many scenes with the phrase, "When you wake up..." So that was even paying attention to my narrative language. XD It was invaluable getting realtime feedback in how far I could push comedy without descending into farce.

Another possibility is my sense of "traps." More than once, I buried my players so deeply in trouble that they really had no choice but to die. (Fortunately, Lou's Bargain Buys offered "item insurance" that would be delivered to the holder's beneficiary.) It's of course a fine skill for GM's to create the illusion of danger without going overboard, and a lot easier when you can control both the characters and the setting. When doing straight-up audience-pleasing action scenes, it's important to obscure the solution from the audience, but not make it so obscure that it feels like the hero pulled the answer out of their rear. It works the same way in an RPG, with the players usually having the advantage of getting to stop and think things over. Like the characters I write, it sometimes seems like my players' characters were very observant people. XD

And, of course, there's the matter of POV. I tend to write in tight 3rd person, which in what may or may not be a coincidence is pretty much excatly what a GM "writes" in for their players.

That's all speculation, though. I think, on the micro level, GM'ing and writing really start to diverge. Players usually dictate the length of the scene and how much of the setting they want to explore, unless someone starts shooting at them, whereas I plan my scenes out like I'm filming a movie, with each scene having a point to make, and/or a scene shifting the second I get bored with it. Hm, on that note, perhaps GM'ing and writing aren't so different after all; neither a player nor a reader cares about the unimportant stuff like the details of a long walk to the next plot point, or dialogue that isn't either interesting or amusing. Lean and mean, that's the spirit, but not so sparse as to feel empty. Description should lean more towards a feel than details, unless the details are requested or become important. And cameos from the main franchise characters can never overshadow the player characters or their actions.

Yeah, I guess there are similarities.
ljlee
Nov. 28th, 2012 04:47 am (UTC)
Yeah, there are some similarities, but influence is trickier to determine. The parallels are really interesting though!

Interactivity is a definite difference between GMing and writing, but for me framing isn't that different. As a GM I'm generally pretty aggressive about framing scenes; I have some back and forth with players, such as: What's the point of this scene? Didn't we have something like this already? I think we're about done here, don't you? and so on. I find myself using those same techniques when I write, with the difference that I have a much tighter plan when I write and not so much for GMing. Oh, and I have an editor when I write, of course, which is a vital difference.
loopy777
Nov. 29th, 2012 04:37 am (UTC)
Ah, I never prodded my players that way. Honestly, it wasn't until after I started writing longfic that I decided I need to plan scenes, and then I had to teach myself how to do it.

That said, I really do think I would be a much better GM now that I've honed a lot of these skills via writing. And not just because I've gotten even sneakier and insidious.
fairladyz2005
Nov. 27th, 2012 11:52 pm (UTC)
I never RPG'ed much, always thought it would be fun to try, but I can see how it lends itself to writing. I think a lot of my own writing process comes from my acting background, which is similar to role playing, only instead of just one role being a writer is like being the director which I guess is what a GM is too. I tend to get my characters to stick to the script in terms of plot. Sometimes they have fits with me or i leave it up to them as to how they arrive at point B from point A but they WILL get to point B because I have to final word. The characters may go off and sulk for a few days, but I will often say to them, if you don't like it you have to give me something better. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't but they often come back ready to work with an interesting motivation I may not have thought of before. Scenes to me are like blocking as a director, I tend to work from where one character enters a scene to the time another leaves and act out each character their motions and dialogue to get the right emphasis. Dialogue is pretty easy for me. The hard part for me is often describing those visuals that I see in my head. I hate not being able to just leave it to the costume and prop department.

The book I am reading now Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park has between each chapter of the audiobook an ongoing conversation/interview between the author and her main character that reveals how she came to write the book and the "input" she allowed her main character to have and when she had to "limit" the main character telling her what to do for the sake of the story as well. it's making for a more interesting read.
ljlee
Nov. 28th, 2012 05:59 am (UTC)
I heard there's overlap between improvisation actors and roleplayers, which is unsurprising since the two seem pretty similar. I've also heard, though, that RPGs are hard for actors because most roleplayers are not actors and stuff like timing and interval are going to feel off to actual actors. I guess actors could play some cool RPGs with other actors at any rate.

The parallels between acting (and directing) on the one hand and writing on the other are fascinating, too. One of the best pieces of writing advice I read came near the end of Robert McKee's Story where he advised screenwriters to leave room for the actors--that is, not to go overboard with the directions so the actors can fill in the blanks with their craft.

While the book is about screenplays and not novels, that sparked an idea in my mind: Hey, the same thing goes for novels! The readers are perfectly capable of "acting" the scene in their minds, and they're going to fill in the blanks with the details that have the most resonance with them, just like actors can (and the costume and prop department, as in your analogy). It doesn't mean there should be no description, but rather that my writing should be a hook for others to hang their dreams on, not the entire wardrobe. Okay, bad metaphor, but you know what I mean.

I actually talked to another fanfic writer who had the opposite problem as you. I commented that her descriptions of character actions seemed excessive and were hurting the flow of the dialogue, and told her about the McKee advice above. She confessed that she struggled with descriptions because she wanted to control the reader experience very tightly, which was why writing for the stage never worked out for her.

I can sympathize, because if I wrote for the screen or the stage the final production is likely to be very unlike the vision in my head. I don't know if I could stand that. I think Ursula K. Le Guin's distress over the TV and animated versions of her A Wizard of Earthsea had something to do with this issue. She had every right to feel as she did, and I think her points are valid; I just think it's harder for some writers to give up control over their vision than it is for others and that affected her reaction.

In the end I don't think there's a sweet spot of description but rather a sweet range. If the readers are lost about the action taking place, the description is too sparse. If they're slogging through irrelevant details the description is too dense. Any reasonable in-between value seems a valid stylistic choice to me. For myself, though, since I know I tend toward too much description rather than too little, I try to remember not to micromanage reader perceptions and to let them use their imaginations.
ljlee
Nov. 28th, 2012 06:01 am (UTC)
And Project Mulberry sounds great, what a fun way to mess with the fourth wall. XD I know now where my next Audible credit is going...
loopy777
Nov. 29th, 2012 04:31 am (UTC)
I have no acting experience, but I try to treat my characters like actors. I say, "Okay, you're sad. Express that in body language and the way you speak, but you are not allowed to say that you're sad." I imagine that if I really had ever acted, or worked with actors, it'd be a lot easier, but I really struggle with it and have to work to avoid recycling actions and tics.
loopy777
Dec. 6th, 2012 12:42 am (UTC)
I can't believe we were talking about RPGs, Gamemastering, writing, and Avatar and I failed to link this. Goes to show how much fondness I have for the project, these days.
ljlee
Dec. 6th, 2012 12:57 am (UTC)
BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA. You win the internets. Forever.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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