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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