Monday, March 8, 2010

Fantasy role-playing saved my writing

Okay, well, maybe not, but it did give me a distinct advantage when it comes to outlining my novels. Thing is, I always wanted to be an author. From the tender age of thirteen, I harboured a secret wish to write novels, fantasy, SF, horror… you name it. Fantasy role-playing was merely a stepping stone.

But of course it kinda took me a while to get to the writing bit, mmmkay? And, like many geeky “boff” kids who listened to Nine Inch Nails during the mid-1990s and painted their nails black, I spent inordinate amounts of time role-playing.

Back then it was the first incarnation of White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse and I spent hours daydreaming about characters. It’s with some fondness that I look back at my first character ever. His name was Eric Bodin and he was a punk-rocker-turned Brujah who’d taken a short fuse as a personality flaw. (Yes, a Brujah with a short fuse. Stop laughing!)

For the life of me I cannot remember what I called my first Garou, but she was sweet and proved to be a far more versatile character in game-play. She was a Fianna Galliard (Lupus) and our group of intrepid role-players actually succeeded in playing that campaign to a close.

'nuff with the geek-speak.

Since then I’ve played a number of campaigns, everything from post-WWIII military strategy through to contemporary Cape Town by night. I’ve indulged in live-action role-playing (larping, for short) and still routinely read action-packed urban fantasy novels when I can lay my hands on them.

Okay, I was pretty weird for a chick. I mean, how many grown women role-play? Not many. As we grew older, I noticed my gaming partners were still the same introverted computer types (mostly) but some of them also had an active interest in military history, weapons, combat and the Society for Creative Anachronism. Apart from also being voracious readers of all things fantasy and SF, these boys knew their stuff when it came to facts, and our biggest debates during games were always about the logistics and possibilities of certain occurrences.

So, where does this tie in with writing?

One thing I’ve noticed is that regular role-players who’ve crossed over to writing, tend to have had more practice outlining their plots, character-building, creative visualisation and a better handle on cause and effect. And, while a background in role-playing may also bring with it some baggage (as in the “I’m writing my campaign as a novel” kind), I still think it’s an excellent training ground for would-be genre fiction novelists.

It’s the cause and effect that I’m going to discuss briefly. One of the biggest flaws in plot that I see (often) is authors who do not have a good idea of what happens under certain circumstances. When last did you kick down that door? Have you gone more than a day without drinking or eating? How did you feel? Have you ever been stabbed? Have you drawn a bow and nocked an arrow?

Too often, in my role as an editor, I see authors writing about these things in ways that are unrealistic and don’t ring true. As a gamer, I’d have to roll dice to determine whether my character could perform certain tasks and, based on his/her stats I’d have a very good idea of what is possible and my character would behave accordingly. (Have you ever seen a small thief try to slug it out with the biggest barbarian in a bar-room brawl?) Aware of my character’s limits, I’d make sure they did what they could when they could.

Authors need to look at their characters in that kind of light. They are not just place-holders for a narrative, who can do anything and everything.

If you run through dark city streets you stand a very good chance of tripping… and after a while will become really tired, perhaps even with a stitch. If you’ve been keeping watch all night you may grow bored, tired or cold, if outside. What if you become a vampire? You may struggle emotionally with a sudden allergy to sunlight and coping with the need to drink blood… How does being able to shift into a werewolf affect you? Does it hurt when you change?

So many times I encounter protagonists who seem nonchalant, blasé even, when their “normal” world turns to a pile of chaos around them. Then, when they take control and act, these situations seem to be resolved almost effortlessly. (Where’s the fun in that, eh?)

My suggestion: inform yourself. If you’re going to write about guns, take some time off during your lunch hour to visit your local gun shop. Speak to people who own guns. Complete a course in handling weapons. Make it real. Know how it feels when you have to experience the recoil. If you write a lot of action-packed novels, go for a few basic unarmed combat or self-defence classes.

If your novels take place out-of-doors, go camping in a forest or environment similar to that of your novel. Try to imagine what it must be to live out there 24/7. Read survival manuals. If it’s winter, what is the weather like? Ditto for summer? What do you do if there’s a veldfire or flash flood? Engage your senses.

Trust me, truly knowing how it is to engage with your environment, be it as a motorcyclist, archer or martial artist… it’s going to truly bring your writing to life with a ring of authenticity few can rival. Why? Because you’ve been there and done that. Or, at least you’ve spoken to enough people who have that interest that you can fake it really well.

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