27 August 2009

Role to Hit

I'm working on two new articles for Garb for Guys, which will be put up as soon as a couple of photographs are fixed and/or re-shot.

In the meantime, if you're feeling bookish and/or if you're looking for me and I'm not here, you can find me at my writing blog,
Pages to Type Before I Sleep... I keep an (almost) daily journal where I comment on writing, books, literary culture and the busy intersection of books & technology... the sort of things that might distract me from the book I'm writing if I let them fester. Below is a sample of what that looks like:

Role to Hit
Cross-Pollination Part IV - Lessons Novelists Can Learn from Other Storytellers

I learned to tell stories from my dad, who was quite the raconteur when the mood struck him. I learned to love stories by reading a lot of them. I learned about characterization and what made a story drag you to the edge of your chair by participating in them.

As if I haven't already made it clear that I'm a nerd, today I shall remove any lingering doubts. Today we're going to talk about... (deep breath) role-playing games.

I'm sure I have a pocket protector around here somewhere.

A table in a basement surrounded by young men, soda cans and empty pizza boxes. This raucous gathering was sterotypically the smarter kids from their school who found common cause in their esoterica. Mostly young men, they gather to breathe life back into a faded mythos governed by obscure rules and the chance roll of polyhedral dice... role playing games. About the only legal activity in the high schools of America circa 1980 that had any air of mystery about it. Movies and news reports tried to link role playing games to all sorts of satanic pseudo-mystical nonsense while most of the players viewed it in much the same way their fathers viewed Friday night poker games.

Most people know about Dungeons & Dragons, but there were far more than that: Top Secret, Vampire the Masquerade, Ninjas & Super Spies, Shadowrun, Battletech... the list seems virtually endless and at one time or another and I played them all.

What does this have to do with storytelling?

Everything and nothing.

It's axiomatic that the story looks different from the inside than it will look from the outside. I can tell you stories about things that really happened to me in the back-country during my mountaineering and backpacking days and make you laugh every time. Stories that were frightening, uncomfortable and dangerous when I was living them. I can tell you stories about bad guys thwarted, secret plans stolen and dragons slain in imaginary games and get much the same reaction. But in neither case - the real or the imagined - will it be the same for your reader if you re-tell my story to someone else. It's inherently different because I was there. I was standing in front of that bear or staring over that ledge or slaying that imaginary dragon.

The dramatic tension comes from the experience. The story would not be the same had I not subjected myself to the whims of chance, the roll of the die. And since you didn't experience it except through my narrative, you will tell it differently and with less immediacy than I.

That isn't to say that I want you to run out and throw yourself in front of a bear, or get buried in an avalanche. You don't need to do that in order to write about them. Nor do you need to put together a role-playing game based upon the novel you're writing.

Roleplaying games taught me to have an experience that didn't really happen, to watch it unfold through the eyes of a fictional character. Even if I didn't know what it felt like first-hand to stare down the snout of a black bear or free fall into nothing on the end of a bungee cord, I could create a semblence of that experiencve because I've learned the skill of putting myself into the head of a person that does not exist.

In Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, Lawrence Block talks about how finite even the most compelling life is in terms of storytelling potential. Even if you lived a life of danger as an international jewel thief, you are still - as Block puts it - sitting on a raft in cold waters, chopping bits off the back-end to feed the fire you've started at the front. At some point you will run out of boat. Being able to live through the eyes of an imaginary person allows me to build a bigger boat, feeding the fires with imaginary planks.

One last thing about lessons role-playing games can teach us and then I'll shut up about them...

In Across the Crowded Marketplace, I dwelt on the definitive archetypes, the roles your characters play in the stories they inhabit and how important it is that your readers be able to recognize them on a cultural level. At the core of that is a crucial understanding of your character and what role they fill in the story.

Part of this is the ability to play them consistently through the entire story. On page ten one ear is lower than the other, than on page 220, those ears had better still be assymetrical. I keep track of this using something else role-playing games taught me... the character sheet. Height, weight, eye color, hair color, ethnicity, skin tone, education, distinguishing features, idiosyncrocies... all on an easy-to-reference sheet of paper. This sounds fussy and even anal, and I suppose that it is. It also keeps my legendary absent-mindedness from sidelining my writing while i search the manuscript for some tiny detail from the first chapter.

Role-playing games take place in worlds that are fully-realized entities apart from ours, a shared landscape of the imagination replete with maps, politics and adventures in the offing. they are a place where we can step into other skins and other lives. A similarly-realized world should unfold each time I open my laptop and type "Chapter One" at the top of a page. I owe it to my world and to my characters to know them well enough to be able to tell their stories as if I'd been there too.


Scott Walker Perkins writes literary thrillers and novels of suspense woven from the threads of history. His current novel is The Palimpsest and he is working on another tentatively titled 42 Lines.

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26 August 2009

Celestial Navigation

Close-Up of Galaxy NGC 4826 in Infrared
"I've loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night"
-Galileo Galilei
Yesterday was the 400th anniversary of Galileo's introduction of his telescope to the Venetian Senate.

Contrary to what you may believe, he did not invent the telescope. By 1609, relatively weak telescopes had begun to trickle across Europe. Many claimed credit for the invention and none rightly know who first stuck a couple of lenses in a tube and turned it skyward. It is a matter of some controversy, as laid out in the popular history Stargazer: The Life & Times of the Telescope. The claimants to the title range from an early British surveyor Leonard Digges & Son (who failed to capitalize on their invention if indeed they ever built one) and Hans Lipperhay who has the advantage of being among the first to file for a patent (which was denied, according to Stargazer because even then his was not the only telescope knocking around).

All the same, we honor Galileo's telescope today largely because of the man who built it and how he put it to use. It is noteworthy that when Galileo sat down to make his telescope, it was an artifact of which had had only heard descriptions: Two lenses in a tube that can view far away objects as though they were close-by. With his native intellect and knowledge of optics, the Pisan scholar assembled his telescope as a variable-focus instrument and presented it before the senators.

It was not long before astronomers everywhere were pointing their lenses skyward. It began before Galileo even built his famed stargazer, but as we know it was Galileo who led the way. His observations of the surface of the moon, that other celestial bodies also had satellites and that the sun has a bad complexion forced a reassessment of the received knowledge of the ancients. The moon was - at the time - supposed to be smooth and perfect. The Medician Moons of Jupiter were a shock, for it proved that not all bodies orbited the Earth. Sunspots marred the perfection of old Sol... the Ptolemaic model of our universe was crumbling.

Paired with the precise measurement of the heavens taken by Tycho Brahe (without a telescope, incidentally) it was readily apparent to all observers that the planets did not move in neat concentric rings. And Earth could not possibly be the center of their oblong orbits. The movement of the Earth itself was the only explanation for the aberrations, the movement of Earth around the sun.
"The scriptures tell us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go."
-Galileo Galilei (attr.)
The vastness of space opened before us, a universe that went about its business with little regard for humans. In the end it was not the position that the Earth held in the universe that brought the full weight of church and state down upon Galileo, it was the position of man in that vastness that doomed his research. The orthodox view held that mankind was the center of God's plan and a vast stretch of infinity filled with planets and stars moving of their own accord did not fit into that equation.

We all know what happened next.

In a familiar pattern, the dispute became a matter of politics more than faith and Galileo had made few friends among his peers that would risk all to stand at his side. His views ran afoul of the counter-reformation, a movement fighting to keep Mother Church united against the forces unleashed by Martin Luther and those who came after him. Galileo's views could not be tolerated and he came into the sights of the Inquisition. In such a climate, even his powerful patrons among the d'Medici could no longer protect him. It was all they could do to keep him alive. The orthodox viewpoint brooks no rivals and Galileo was forced to recant his position and abandon his research to live the rest of his life in obscurity.

It was a low point for both church and state, an orthodox viewpoint scrambling to keep enough fingers in the dam to hold back the waters of the coming enlightenment.

Coffee houses soon replaced the taverns and the minds of men, awakened from the (quite literal) drunken stupor* of the previous age were not eager to return to a time when the darkness drove them indoors. The whole of creation had shifted ever so slightly and humanity was scrambling to keep up, to find its place in a universe where mankind was a part of the plan, not necessarily at its center.

The telescope was out of the bag and those whose eyes were turned Earthward could not darken the lenses turned toward the sky.
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use."
-Galileo Galilei

Further reading:
Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel
Stargazer: The Life & Times of the Telescope by Fred Watson
The Galileo Project online at Rice University