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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Kublacon Report '12....as a writer. (Part 1) A Hero Is Only As Good As Their....

I made a few "...as a writer" type observations at Kublacon this year, but I won't try dumping all of them at once.  Perhaps a thought here and there and a few in the coming weeks.

Besides, unsupportive girlfriend kicked open my door this morning and began listing all the things we would be doing for date day, starting with leaving for breakfast right that second.  I'm sitting down to do some writing on a blog I try to update before noon at about six-thirty.  I don't think I have time for one of my killer long posts. 

I was in five LARP's this weekend.  They just kept coming and I just kept getting into my first pick with no difficulty.  One slot I didn't make through the shuffler, but I was early on the overflow and had no trouble getting into the game.  I would come back to the room from one game, fling myself into the bed (either for a quick nap or a night's sleep) and then wake up to do it all again.  I ate food merely as fuel, and drove myself onward.

But here's something I noticed having played so many games with such a diverse range of characters.  The interaction between character and setting made a huge difference.  Technically it's something I've known for a long time, but it's worth using the most geeky tool available to try to explain it.  Joyce Carol Oats likes to describe her setting AS a character, and in creative writing we often use the phrase Setting As Kinetic Landscape.

On Saturday night, I was handed a character that I realized, within about three sentences of reading the description, was Indiana Jones.  It was a Star Wars-esque universe LARP set in a cantina.  I could literally not think of very many things cooler than playing Indiana Jones....IN SPACE.  Well, not without involving 3+ Asian cheerleader nurses, a drop cloth, cooking oil, and some little blue pills.  

But actually turned out to be a very frustrating night.  I'm not a bad role player.  I don't always sweep my goals or "win," and sometimes I even die horribly, but I usually manage to get some things done one way or another.  This time I was just stuck.  I was standard screwdriver surrounded by Phillips screws.  Or whatever version of that metaphor ends up with me being screwed.   

Indiana Jones isn't "high art" or a "literary character" but he is a fleshed out adventure hero who we can play with a little to understand.  

Let's be honest.  Indiana is a badass. (As was my space archaeologist version of Indiana.)  Doctor!  Adventurer!  Badass pugilist!  There's a reason he is one of the most instantly recognizable characters of all time.  Put a whip and a fedora on a silhouette, and many people will recognize instantly who it is. The problem with Indiana is that all that coolness is a product of his environment. We meet this character in a trap-filled tomb, and within twenty minutes he's dodged arrows, blowguns, bullets, hopped a plane, gotten hit on by a coed, solved the first part of a mystery, and is struggling to keep Nazis from getting their hands on divine power.  The dude just reeks of cool.  But Indiana is also coolest when he has puzzles to solve, tombs to raid, big spherical rocks to outrun, and Nazis to beat up.  Indiana in a bar full of people, one of whom has perpetrated a heist to steal a necklace, turns out to be less his element. A lot less.  And that doesn't just make him a cool character in a different place.  It makes him a kind of pathetic character.

At one point I realized my entire "faction" was turnkeys.  I realized that there was not only a second necklace, but a third , and I was mostly sure who had the real one.  (I turned out to be right.)  I had all the pieces of the puzzle in my hand.  I had literally solved every mystery on my character sheet.

But there wasn't a thing I could do about it.  I watched them fly away in a smugglers ship (admittedly because my guess about another plot was very wrong) without having been able to stop them.  No other character cared, and unless Indiana starts doing his beat-everybody-up-within-three-square-miles bit, he often can't get to (or away) from what he needs to.  The last time Indie tried to be suave, social, and political was with Lau Che.  We know how that went.

Towards the end, when the players/characters involved in the necklace heist realized how impotent I was, they didn't even bother really hiding it. I was walking up to conversations about "you sell the fake, and I'll take the real one and we'll book passage on the..." that they didn't even bother to hush as I walked up.  They knew I couldn't do anything, and no one else in the LARP really cared enough about that plot to stop them.  I was Impotentiana Jones.  A bigger plot was more important to all the players with the guns, and if I started just throwing punches, I'd be dead within seconds.

I know it was up to me to find allies...to GET people to care.  I have this problem that Chris is an introvert and I just sort of watch almost any room for about an hour before I feel comfortable in it, but even when I was moving, I just kept hitting brick walls that I couldn't hit back.

The game was really a lot of fun on a lot of levels, had many more plots than just the one I was caught up in to dig into, and many of the interactions were absolutely hilarious, but Indiana Jones away from all the things that make him cool, and unable to really Nazi-punch his way to an optimal solution turned out not to nearly be as epic as I thought when I opened the character sheet and realized what I was looking at.  A hero is only as good as their weapons, their allies, their enemies, their....well you've heard all the cliches, but they have many grains of truth.

As a writer I took a keen interest in watching the fascinating dynamics of how character and setting changed this badass character completely.  I did a pretty good job of being Indianaish. I tried to be intellectual about the ancient cultural artifacts involved in the game. I got terse and gritty when I was frustrated with people.  I punched a guy for information, and even stayed cocky when the entire room pulled their guns on me for doing so.  I even said, "It belongs in a museum!" at least a dozen times.  But in the end, I turned out to be one of the most useless characters in the game just because the Indiana Jones skill set and the problem were so far out of sync.  

That's a great lesson for any writer to understand.  Respecting the dynamic of how setting can change a character is important, not only because a writer has to understand the symbiosis between those two elements, but also because unless one is writing an action adventure, the audience really wants to see the character out of their element.  Knowing where they're awesome is fine, but they also want to know where they fumble and drop the ball and suck and can't get anything done.  Even the original movies knew this as Indies frailties nearly led to his downfall in each film.  (Each film that I am willing to acknowledge, anyway.)

Character and setting are inseparable, and keeping that in mind as a writer is a good lesson to learn as soon as possible.

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