As readers, we often experience stories from multiple points of view. Even if a story only has a single POV character, we (the audience) still retain our own perspective. In contrast, as writers we need to experience the story from every major character’s perspective. We play out each scene multiple times, alternating between the different character perspectives to ensure that each one is genuine. In both cases we experience the story from a bird’s eye view. We often know more than any one character, and no matter how hard we try, we can never completely forget “what we know”.
A few years ago, I opted to start larping (live action role playing). Once a month the group gets together to run around in fields and forests, acting out a kind of improvised play. It’s a mix of conversations, puzzles, and mock fighting. And the more I play, the more I recognize the distinction between myself as a character/player, and myself as an audience watching this story unfold. Larping has become a remarkable source of insight for me. I feel I’m learning a great deal about how to portray a character in the game, and in storytelling. (Note, while some of the things I’ve learned are unique to larping, many can also be learned through traditional role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons.)
Tabletop Role Playing
Role playing games are a great way to understand a character, and characters in general. As a storytelling medium, role playing offers two unique opportunities:
- Players consistently portray a single character.
- Players rarely have all the information.
Portraying a Single Character
Most storytelling experiences offer up a host of characters for audiences to engage with. Some may be drawn to the stalwart leader, while others favor the soft-spoken helper, or the enthusiastic “wild child”. But who an audience gravitates towards can’t change the contents of the story. Whether it’s video, audio, or text, the story has already been created. As a result, every audience will read or watch the same story.
For example, in A Song of Ice and Fire, some audiences may like the character of Cersei, while others may not care for her, but that doesn’t change the fact that much of the story centers around her. Some may opt to skip those chapters, but in the process, they may miss crucial segments of the story.
In contrast, when playing a role-playing game such as D&D, players experience the entire narrative from the perspective of their character. Granted, this is a character of their own creation, so it’s a safe bet each player will like their own character and want to focus on them. But what’s really interesting is how that changes the experience for that player/audience.
Imagine a warrior who worships the god of violence, a faith that propones combat as the universal solution and ultimate purpose. Followers are encouraged to fight whenever possible, preferring powerful opponents, ensuring that only the strong survive.
Now imagine that the group of adventurers are fighting a band of goblins. The goblins capture one of the adventurers and retreat into a nearby cave. The adventurers follow them, determined to rescue their friend. Then, while, exploring the cave, they encounter a powerful sleeping dragon.
Most members of the group would tread lightly, not wanting to provoke this powerful but dormant creature. All except for the warrior, who sees a suitable challenge. Perhaps he’d be offended by how this powerful creature has hidden itself away for so long. He attacks it.
From a narrative perspective this makes no sense. This “fight” detracts from the focus of the story, rescuing the comrade and finding out what’s going on with the goblins. From a logical standpoint this makes no sense. The warrior has no chance against something so powerful, and will most likely bring harm to his companions. But from his perspective, this is the only option. And if the player portraying this warrior truly embraces the character, they know that.
Relevance to Writing
This is a clear example of character fidelity. The author (in this case the player) may know what they “want to do”, but they also know what the character would do. Of course, in fiction the author can always revise the character to fit the needs of the story.
However, playing a single character in a role-playing game is a great way to remind oneself how nuanced any character can be. Any change to a character necessitates going back through the story and reevaluating past scenes. Otherwise there’s a very real risk of looking like a puppeteer.
Discussing Incomplete Information