I was in a car accident this week. I don’t know how Wymore was involved, but I’m sure that he was. Somehow. I’m watching you, Wymore.
So the guy doesn’t have insurance. And I’m a bit injured. And I’m not thinking clearly. In addition, a kind soul gave me Fallout 4 about five hours ago and I really want to try it. Not Wymore. If it was Wymore, we’d all know it was a trap. (Watching you, Wymore).
What I’m saying is, I’m not all here and I am fumbling my way through this post.
I was going to write about that accident and the effect on my writing (let’s call it “bad”), but I noticed something today and I think it has application for writing in general, so let’s work it out together.
Once a month, I do a playtest for my game company. Right now we are running through the Moving Shadow Campaign for The Echoes of Heaven Campaign Setting in an attempt to be ready in case a license for 5th edition ever presents itself.
In this adventure, they are slowly unraveling the mystery of five-month-old events through a series of magical flashbacks. Central to the story is one of two young lovers and how one of them came to lie on her death bed.
The flashbacks can happen in different orders, depending on how the party does things. In this run-through, they came, very early, on the young man’s long night of the soul. He had found to location of cattle thieves who were plaguing the village, he was outnumbered and outgunned. His lover was about to be killed, and he knew that if he tried to save her they’d both die. So he collapsed in terror. Hysterical terror. In the flashback, a group of villagers found him, realized that he wasn’t getting a grip on himself, and moved on to try to take down the thieves.
The party, after experiencing this flash back, hates him. One of the players was doing a bit of a rant on how worthless a human being he was, and I noted, offhand, that every time I’ve had a non-player character display any human weakness in a game, at least half the players have despised them. This isn’t an exaggeration. It’s probably more like 80%. And I mean any weakness. If they aren’t in any way perfect in their character and their actions, some or all of the party will hate them.
I’ve spent some time thinking about this, and it’s made me think about point of view. These players don’t know what came before his breakdown, and they don’t know what came after. They just saw him at the second lowest point of his life.
After, they saw an event that happened sooner, where he sprained his ankle. They hate him for that even more, because they don’t know that the next thing he did was run more than a mile on that ankle to get to the place where he finally broke down. After that they experience a later flashback where he tries to commit the fantasy equivalent of suicide by cop (that’s the actual lowest point in his life), because the events that happened on that day have broken him.
So they hate him more.
Now this happens in many playthroughs of the adventure, and certain aspects like how tired and uncomfortable the players are have effects. Many of the players will stop hating him at the end, when they see the entirety of his story, and learn the horrors he accidently unleashed upon his life by trying to do the right thing. Others will never stop hating him.
But the matter is context. I’m pretty sure at least 80% of my players wouldn’t be able to live up to the heroism that character displays throughout the course of the story, if it were to happen in their real lives. But won’t have sympathy for him because an RPG means that they will never see inside his head.
Often, when we get notes back from writer’s groups, they aren’t that stringent, although I have one book submitted at Baen where multiple readers despised the main character. But usually our notes are somewhere in the middle. They don’t care about the character. They don’t feel his pain.
These readers are having the same problem the gamers have, but on a lesser level. They have the context of the problem, but they don’t have the feelings to fully resonate.
Usually when you get this one, you haven’t lived deeply enough in the characters brain. Readers need to feel the pains and the joys of a character for their journey to make sense. They need to laugh and cry alongside. You need to get deep into the character’s self, experience all their reactions, and live there to really feel it. Otherwise, it’s all just watching a character be weak.
That’s it, I think. If you don’t inhabit the characters mind, all you can see is the weakness. You can never see the strength.
One caution, though. Don’t go too far with the despair. I once depicted a character’s grief and guilt after the loss of a loved one. It was about two pages long. I thought it was a rather light touch. It was nothing like the grief I felt over a real death. Maybe 10%. It thought I’d given it short shrift.
My notes back on that scene were that they couldn’t believe that the character would do anything next but commit suicide. I was a little stunned. I’d barely touched on what it felt like to suffer a loss. But the readers didn’t want to suffer a loss. They wanted to pull back from that experience, see the character grieve, but only feel a hint of it themselves.
I’m not sure that I found any great wisdom in today’s post. But I didn’t force you to experience the pain of a car accident. So I suppose that’s something. :)
And. You know. Curse Wymore. I’m sure this is all his fault.
The next installment awaits...Slouching Towards Amazon: LTUE Post Mortem