On Saturday night, I went back to my Vampire game (after a long time off) so I'll also resume my series of articles about some sort of writing insight I glean from these sessions.
Having run into the game's national politics with my last character––essentially sacrificing a "powerful" character who could be badass at the meetings in favor of giving myself too many of the types of tools that can be used to solve established mysteries and problems BETWEEN games (it's called "downtime"), and then turning the full force of those abilities onto a national plot, the answer I got back was "You had enough to crack this twice over, but we're not ready to reveal it yet. Sorry."
This time I picked a character who can do VERY little during downtime––mostly just look pretty and run around seducing everything and rousing rabbles. But I didn't just want to be a stompy bashy character either, and I'm always looking for ways to keep my role-playing interesting. Most vampire role-playing involves intense spoooooooky personas or deeply affected speech patterns (and I'm not even talking about the accents) or power brooding or long pauses as everyday Bay Area folks try to channel Lady Grantham levels of subtext to their interactions.
So I decided to play the most authentic, agreeable, genuine, and personable character I ever have. So I'm in there with a bunch of ancient predators who will insinuate that they are going destroy you (politically, socially, maybe literally) every other sentence, and I'm just....super fucking agreeable with everyone. So far, I've already thrown a couple of the players WAY off as they try to figure out what my angle is.
And while I think we could probably stop there and have our "writing lesson" be about genuinely authentic characters inside of nests of vipers, and why that relief of contrast causes what is almost banal to POP, something happened that I want to talk about.
About half-way through the game, there was a massive earthquake. And it wasn't because one of my seductions had achieved a critical success.
At first we roleplayed the "Woah!" stuff and "What's going on?" but then most people went right back to talking. Most people in this game who knew they would be directly affected by whatever had caused the big earthquake went right back to talking about whatever they were discussing before. It was only some of the characters with the appropriate skill sets or information gathering tools that were suddenly buzzing around trying to dig their hooks into what was going on.
For the rest of us it was just too big. We didn't have the ability to affect it.
And that made me think about people and characters and why we like superhero stories right now and why a certain genre of farmer vs. dark lord type trope can be so comical when handled badly. Even in our modern political landscape.
A lot of characters in that moment immediately assessed what was going on and what they could do about it and just decided it was too big. It was way too much. There was nothing they could do so they went back to what they COULD deal with.
And this is a VERY human reaction. We see something too big and it's not a moral failing or that we don't care. We just....can't. I think it's why we are so apathetic when it comes to anthropogenic climate change even though it's so big and so, so urgent. How do we stop multibillion-dollar corporations with the most powerful PR firms of all time from dismissing it as even a problem that only crazy people worry about? How do we act collectively when every collective action that even tries to pump the breaks on environmental exploitation is whack-a-moled as being "the REAL destructive force"? How do we stop something so huge? And that's why so many of us see that we have a smidge over a decade to reverse the worst of our emissions or BILLIONS of us will die and society as we know it might collapse, but our reaction is to turn around and wonder if our social media strategy is going to work well enough that we will recover from the pre-taxes losses.
No one grabbed the family sword and decided to head to where the mansion is and take down the dark lord oil tycoon. Not one person in seven billion did that.
We know that there are second-in-commands who would just take over. That we would be framed as the evil one. That the security forces for your average billionaire will kill us before we cross the grounds to where the mansion is. We know...we can't do this. So we go back to what we CAN handle. We know that collective action will be more effective, so we join groups, and support leaders (with five bucks and a letter writing app) who are starting to prioritize climate change. Collective action isn't dramatic, but it works, and a leader who gives people a small thing they CAN do and a little bit of hope is far, FAR more powerful than a well-sponsored politician scrutinizing the polls for what they should care about.
What does this have to do with your writing? Well, if you want things to be big and dramatic (instead of just someone who learns they have a knack for cold calling and being a community organizer), you have to either give your characters the power to conceivably, plausibly, maybe-with-great-difficulty-but-still-feasibly DO something about what is happening (like magic or The Force or whatever) or you have to give them a more plausible goal. (Or you have to make them part of a massive group effort but they are the sole survivor or something.)
I think that's also why the superhero or "chosen one" genres are so satisfying right now. The "odds are stacked against them" is different than "this is literally, laughably impossible." We want to imagine characters with the power to make real change, and kind of avatar ourselves into a role where we're not just some person WAITING to be rescued.
And it's also why the farmer vs. dark lord stories can be really clunky if they're not handled right. The farmer isn't going to just set out one day to stop the dark lord. That's bananapants. The farmer doesn't have the power to stop the dark lord and the stories that have them take off as if they know ahead of time they'll be leveling up like they're in an RPG are bad writing. The farmer needs to go looking for his oracular pig or try to deliver a message from the princess to the old wizard beyond the Dune Sea or to just take the ring to Rivendell...and then things kind of domino out of control. Once they're stuck or have no choice, then their actions make sense.
Some of us have visionary ambition to see that we are capable of what the world thinks is impossible, but even those folks have a really good sense of when they are absolutely not equipped to PLAUSIBLY affect something. Your characters should be written this way too, and if they charge off willingly to face challenges that aren't just overwhelming but LITERALLY impossible, you probably want to explain what the hell is wrong with them.