Setting and Characters

I’ve been writing settings for roleplaying games for a little over 10 years now, and I like to think I’ve gotten decent at it. I have a pretty good sense for suspension of disbelief, and conflict intrinsic to setting is something that naturally makes sense to me. As such, I’ve applied this pretty well in the gaming sphere, and my players typically like my settings, or the adjustments and framing I use within other existing settings.

Writing for gaming requires both setting and characters, so I assumed I had gotten somewhere with both. This ends up being partially true, as I can come up with supporting characters very quickly, which is most important for gaming. But more developed characters? Not really.

My best developed character in a gaming context was insane, or at least a bit of a sociopath. In a very (almost too) true sense, he was my Id. It worked out very well, partially because of the metagame crutch that came into play where I thought to myself “what can I do to screw with these guys now…” and about 98% of the time it made sense for the character. That sort of character empathy is ultimately what you need in any fiction, but it’s hard.

Gaming makes it easy in multiple ways. You’re playing off of your players…they provide you and your characters as much stimulus as you’re providing them. This makes it a lot more natural because you simply think like the character and then react. Additionally, the nature of the game is that you throw a whole bunch of stuff at the wall and see what sticks. My memorable characters were often never intended to be memorable, or even recurring…but if things clicked, I went with it.

So maybe in conventional writing I need to throw more stuff at the wall. A game is meant to be reactive storytelling, so any successful game masters will learn how to be comfortable with not knowing what’s going to happen. That’s a lot more daunting in fiction, when it’s all ultimately coming from your brain. I mean, how exactly do you learn how to surprise yourself? Now that I’ve actually gone through the act of writing through my process for running a game, it becomes a lot more clear what I’m missing from my creative process vis a vis writing.

I think one major problem is that, due to both my job training and my academic background for writing, improvisation is fairly anathema. When you’re in school, outlining is required before writing, whether it’s creative or just an essay. And while I can vouch for the efficacy if not pure necessity of outlining in technical writing, it’s surprisingly unhelpful in fiction, especially when you’re going to be ripping things apart in editing anyway. That’s not to say prep work isn’t required, but fiction will rarely take the form of 1a. through 5c.

So this may be why everyone just talks about getting word count up. Writing can’t happen in a vacuum, and yet I think I’m going to plot out a setting and come up with some imaginary dudes for a novel and then just go from there. It doesn’t seem to work for my way of thinking. So now whether it’s defined as “shorter works” or “background material”, I think I have a better idea of what my process needs to look like.

And that’s ultimately the thing. This isn’t a car or a computer, there aren’t manuals available telling you what to do. If someone thinks they know better than you what’s going to work best, they’re wrong. And sometimes that realization comes late. I’ve written a manuscript and a half, been a paid technical writer for the better part of 4 years now, and have been trying to write fiction for about a decade. But I still found something new about how I work.


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