Information management is a cornerstone of any good story. Authors dole out information in precise increments. This helps audiences to absorb the information gradually, preventing them from becoming overwhelmed. It also allows the author to control how audiences perceive the story at any given moment. Revealing new information often prompts audiences to rethink earlier scenes, encouraging their engagement with the story.
But that’s the audience. Characters are another matter entirely. Sometimes characters know more than audience; often they know less. Many stories hinge upon characters making the wrong choice, while a helpless audience is forced to watch, wishing they could tell the character that one key piece of information that they’ve overlooked, or never learned.
Imagine that a group of adventurers stumble upon a ritual, an artifact designed to draw in the souls of the dead, using them as energy for some dark purpose. The adventurers fight off the evil spirits defending this foul box, and after expending a great deal of energy, manage to free the captured souls, and seal it. One member of the group, a quiet character who rarely speaks, insists on holding onto the object. The others pay it no mind.
Later that same day, the adventurers come across a powerful guardian. He tests the adventurers, pitting them against powerful monsters, but when they emerge victorious, he reveals himself to be their friend. The quiet adventurer suddenly steps forward, speaking to this unknown being. She asks him if he has “the key”, and without further explanation, receives another artifact, then promptly hurries off.
Now if this were a novel, audiences might know what this “quiet adventurer” was thinking, why she wanted these two artifacts, and what she was planning to do. But the characters do not. And when an NPC (non-player character) shares information about a legendary “key”, suspicions grow. The group fragments into those that trust this quiet adventurer, and those who do not. Of course anyone with all the information would see the mistake for what it was, but the characters don’t know who to trust.
Relevance to Writing
As a writer (or an audience), it’s easy to lose track of what everyone knows. Portraying a single character in this way serves as a reminder of how important perspective can be. There’s a classic saying that goes something like “Whether a story is a comedy or a tragedy depends largely on your point of view.” In almost every story there are characters who triumph, and characters who falter. Most tragedies double as an upbeat success story for the antagonist.
One of the more interesting exercises I learned from college was to try rewriting a story from the perspective of another character, particularly if that character either enters the story late, or leaves the story early. A character who dies or departs before the resolution will have a very different perspective than one who sees the story to completion.
As authors/audiences, we are used to experiencing a single, formalized story. But in a role-playing game every character is creating their own version of the story, which in turn changes the experience/story that other characters are creating.
Discussing Being “In the Moment”