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Monday, February 27, 2012

Six Ways LARPing (at Dundracon) Made Me a Better Writer--Part 2

Go back to part 1

4- There are a myriad of interactions and points of view

Want to hear a neat story? In the weekend between writing the first part and the second part of this article, the players who played Freeze and Panzer let me know that I’d misjudged the dynamic of their interactions. My take on their relationship was completely wrong. They weren’t hot for each other, but they knew alternate versions of themselves had been.

But this illustrates a great point.

I only knew what I saw from my point of view and I put that information through my own biases and filters to come to a conclusion. This is one of the beauties of LARP’s. We can only ever experience them from one point of view, but there are anywhere between a dozen and forty others. And unlike most of life, where we don’t really care much about roughly seven billion of those other points of view, in a LARP it’s kind of fun.

(Allow me to take an artsy fartsy moment here to suggest that a genuine artist will care very much about those seven billion points of view. It’s one of the things that sets us apart from most others who are content with their existing concepts of “the other.”)

We often get to find out how others experienced the game—how they may have even experienced the same conversation—from a totally different perspective. LARPers lovingly call this a “No shit, there I was...” story, and many of the games have “No shit...” time scheduled in to the end. I have heard the same moment retold from a dozen different perspectives before; each person explaining how their character viewed the events and what went through their head to cause them to act how they did. (“Okay, so I saw this random dude pull out a nuclear powered cheese grater, and I’m thinking ‘Not on my motherfucken watch!’ So I quick-drew my sentient-potato gun....”) Knowing why another character just beat you with your dead girlfriend or fired an implosion missile at the new Empress five seconds after her coronation can really add to the flavor of the game once it’s all over.

For an attentive writer this discrete consciousness is a gold mine of characterization tips. In a broad sense it’s up to an artist to remember a few things about life, about other perspectives, and about humanity. With seven billion options available without even starting to exercise one’s imagination, you can quickly see how keeping things myopic can stymie expression. Political causes, didactic themes, and ideological supremacy kill that artistry dead.

 If you don’t believe me, read anything Ayn Rand ever wrote. But bring a bucket.

A writer can watch these fifteen, twenty, even thirty-five or more people who all engage and then experience the world with their own unique take on the situation, and glean marvelous insight into their own characters and how to portray them.

Guess what? Not everyone instantly appraises a situation correctly. This doesn’t mean you have to have a Three’s-Company-caliber double-entendre fest for someone to get their signals wrong. (Not that I much mind seeing Suzanne Summers open her mouth ever wider.) But just having a character think two people are madly in love when they aren’t renders that character the humanity of being WRONG once in a while.

 You have to have characters get it wrong sometimes! You know the characters that notice everything? Holmes (or House), Monk, Father Brown, Colombo, or Poirot--every one of them has huge blinders about certain things—social graces, emotions, manners. Characters should experience everything through the filter of their own biases and the frailties of their blinders. If a character is no more than a mouthpiece for exposition, they are a stupid character. Characters should misgauge situations, misunderstand interactions, be unaware of everything going on around them, have some moral failings even if they are the protagonist, and always interpret things through a filter. That filter helps to describe and characterize them.

The careful writer can also watch these interactions (or hear about them in “No Shit” stories) and get a sense of how persona but also of circumstance work together. Even the most archetypical character will  sometimes size up a situation and modify their tack. Sure, if someone’s personality aspect is a hammer, they will probably see all their problems as nails, but even a hammer has the ability to be a lever.

A character might try to intimidate one character, negotiate with another character and be obsequious with yet another. Consider not only how unique each character is in their perspectives, but how each interaction forms its own unique dynamic.

One of the characters in one of the games got belligerent with everyone. Always. And it wasn’t long before everyone sort of got his two-dimensional shtick and left him alone for the rest of the night, secretly hoping for something to fall from a great height and hit him in the head—something like a missile. Your readers won’t find such a one-hit wonder any more compelling. In fact, the more you have a character that is singular of disposition, the more your readers probably want to know what it would take to crack that shell.


5- LARPs know tropes.

Many LARP’s emulate a story that will generate interest in them from a player base. We might not go to a Lots of Politicking People With Swords LARP, but many people would be interested in A Game of Thrones LARP just by name recognition. LARPs might be based on Torchwood, Dresden Files, Babylon 5, or some sort of generic form of a genre, and that means they take the job of emulating those shows or genres very seriously. One thing LARPs are keenly aware of are the tropes of a particular show, a genre, or of a medium in general. A writer who pays attention to these tropes and the metacognition that surrounds them in LARPs can hone themselves to be wary of them in their own writing.

It’s not that tropes are always bad. A well placed trope can make for great satire. But the more serious the work is, the more they have to be handled with great care.

Remember how the dynamite worked in LOST? Okay, tropes are like that except instead of your guts all over the place if you mess up, it’s your artistic integrity, and the smoke monster is a literary reviewer coming to tear you to pieces for being so predictable. AWOOOOOOOOOOOOO!. Chk-chk-chk-chk-chk-chk-chk-chk!

 One of the reasons genre gets so much flack from the literary community is that a huge chunk of it relies on tropes. A lot of speculative fiction breaks this mold, but a lot does not. A LOT of it does not.

Now it's true that you want to bring something new to the table. No one is really impressed anymore by a seemingly unstoppable alien force invading Earth. Since War of the Worlds it’s been done a couple of times...maybe. Unless there is something new and interesting about this one, we’re out. (The aliens…have to sing rock opera to make their weapons work....yes!)  Trope awareness can go too far--for there is a limit to how unique you can be. Ever. But it's good to pay attention to.

Both the dueling swords larp and the heist larp were laden with deliberate tropes. In one case two of the characters—brother and sister—were based on an anime and it’s poorly dubbed American counterpart. In the heist game every character literally had a single “flashback” card so we could reproduce the flashback scenes in the TV show Leverage. (“Last night I showed up in a janitor’s uniform and rigged the door latch with a small shaped charge.”) As a writer it is good to know both how overdone such a technique and how it instantly creates a specific genre flavor. LARPing may help you to identify tropes when you’re writing one, and then you can decide if you need to do something to get out of tropeville, if you want to be there, or if you need to work to earn it.

6- Every character in a LARP is a main character

Writers of LARPs know this all too well, but even a player can look around and see it in action. You hand out your character sheets to the players. Like I’ve said before, these players are not there to act out your preconceived plot. They’re going to screw with every idea you had about what might happen inside of ten minutes.

The reason for that is that they aren’t there TO DO something. They’re not fulfilling a role. Every single one of them is there as the main character of their own story.  There might have a few “lower intensity” characters for players who know they might have to go feed a baby or are a little tired from staying up all night playing five games of Dingos Ate My Baby, and you might have a couple of not-so-important characters so that your game won’t fall to pieces if you get 18 players instead of 20 (or you won't have to turn players away if you get 20 instead of 18), but no one will be very happy to get a character with nothing to do but be someone’s thug body guard. And if one person is cast as the hero, and everyone else is in a support role, that would be a pretty damn boring game.

That one person might enjoy it, but only until everyone else pushed them down an elevator shaft...on to some bullets. LARPs don’t work that way. Every character has to be written as the main character. Everyone is the star. They have deep motivations, dark secrets, and interesting goals. They have things they want very, very badly to achieve, and reasons why they want to achieve them.

This is human nature. We don’t run our lives as a narrative where we are extras in our neighbor’s story or a bit role in our boss’s story or even a minor role in our friend’s story. We are not the supporting star of our partner’s opus or the special guest star in our parent's saga. I may only get to talk to my friend Michelle for five hours a week, but I don’t go into a closet and stop existing for the other 163 hours. And neither does she. We are main characters in our own narratives. This is true of all of us. Every single one of us sees ourselves as the central role in an unfolding story about us.

This is perhaps the most important lesson a writer can learn from LARPing. Look around. See twenty main characters and not one. How can this deepen your fiction? You have to treat every human that strolls onto your page with dignity, respect, and their own humanity. When writing characters, there IS no minor character. The role in the story might be minor, but that character has to be the star of their own story and portrayed as if they are such. If you make them minor, they immediately stop seeming real. They have to have wants and needs and goals and fears and secrets just like the main character. Because nobody is REALLY a minor character—not to themselves.

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