Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Role Play to Better Writing

To become a better writer and student of the craft, many writers take to buying books on character, plot, voice, and setting; take to attending workshops; and take to consulting with writing coaches.

None of these things are bad; in fact, I do many of these things, and I also coach writers and write articles to help them in many of the areas regarding writing and publishing.

However, there is something that we all can do that doesn’t cost much, if anything, except for our time and will give us opportunity to develop our writing: role play.

The connections between role playing and creative writing can be fairly obvious. Both contain the following elements: setting/worldview, conflict(s), characters/players, context, action/enactment, resolution/outcome, and rules. To be a good role player, you have to be able to understand and work within these elements; the same holds true for the creative writer.

I’ll talk about each of these elements briefly below.

In its basic definition, setting is a story’s time and place. Setting can help illustrate an historical moment or create a story within a particular social context. Setting can also create mood. A story set in Maine in January has a different feel than a story set in Louisiana in August, or Paris in the spring. The first could help create a mood of entrapment as piles of snow fall upon the state, closing people in, perhaps giving them cabin fever. In the third scenario, a writer might find the perfect opportunity to illustrate a romantic story as Paris in Spring “gives off” a romantic air. In some way, characters have to interact with the story’s setting, and their interaction can reveal characters’ traits. Oftentimes, setting is developed within narrative description; however, writers can show setting through character’s thoughts, action, and/or dialogue.

For any good story, in role play or in fiction, there needs to be conflict. A character has to want something but not be able to obtain that want. This usually propels the story into action as the character works to leap obstacles in order to resolve the conflict.

Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary [http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/character], there are over twenty definitions of “character”. Here is one that is particularly important to us writers and role players: “the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing.”

Throughout the course of a story, your character [main character(s)] will undergo change(s), and it is through his/her features and traits (the things that make up the character) and his/her actions and speech that will illustrate the change(s) for the reader.

Context is slightly different for fiction and for role playing—kinda. In role playing, context involves what a participant learns about the game; this can include background on the world, on the inhabitants, on the conflicts and issues that are currently being played out in the world—information that helps to inform the participant of the playing space he or she is about to be a part of. In turn, a participant can develop his or her character so that the character seamlessly fits into the world and its goings on.

In fiction, these same things apply, but as a writer, it is your job to develop the space in which your story will be told so that the characters can do what they need to do within that story.

The Writer’s Process/Enactment
This element is interesting in that it’s an ongoing process for the role of writer/role player. In regards to enactment, there are activities that players participate in that entrenched them into the game and also develop their expertise and connection with others within the role playing community. A role player is only as good as his or her connection to the world and the players within it: to be a part of that world, the player may have to research the world, research his or her character and may have to participate on Web sites and blogs or in discussion forums during his or her time within the world.

In regards to fiction, I liken this to the writer’s process. Even while writing a story, a writer is constantly tapping into other sources and venues to gain insight into how to write better. A writer may join online writing communities for support, they might head to websites, such as The Blood-Red Pencil for great writing advice, they might share their writing with other writers for editorial assistance, and they might definitely have to do research, especially if say they are writing a historical. They would research the time period to understand its context.

One difference that can occur between fiction and role playing is that fiction typically comes to an end. There is a beginning, a middle, and an ending to a story; whereas, many role playing events are continuous stories with multiple layers. Having said that, both forms have resolutions and outcomes. In fiction, we read the resolution and close the book; in a role playing event, we see the outcome of a particular conflict only to find many others left to explore or new ones cropping up.

Initially, I wasn’t going to place this here, but I realize that rules are integral to role playing—not to keep participants from being imaginative, but to keep the story and storylines that have been created in place. Fiction has its set of rules, too, and we often find them within the genres we write. The structure of say a romance novel typically wouldn’t flow like the structure of a mystery or thriller. The rules are not there to keep a great story “out,” but to let the imagination bloom within the story you want to write or the role you want to play.

There are many virtual worlds that offer role-playing and fantasy sims to explore all of these components. I've been an active member of Second Life since last October, and just creating my online persona there has led to interesting thoughts and angles for story ideas in general. I'm about to start visiting RP and fantasy sims in Second Life to see other worlds, other characters, other storylines that might also further develop the way I think about those fictional concepts.

My SL persona, Shon Charisma, is the one in red.

Considering most virtual worlds are free to join and cost little to nothing while in-world, you only need to bring some time and imagination to the party.

As writers, we need the imagination, so that's a good thing.

As for the time, you can at least call it research for your writing endeavors.

Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator, whose biggest joys are writing and helping others develop their craft. She has published both creatively and academically and interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her official website, and you can get information about her editorial services and online programs at CLG Entertainment.


  1. Good advice, I'll check out the site you suggest. Thank you.
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  2. Shon, neat ideas! I'll add them to my always boiling pot!
    Sylvia Dickey Smith

  3. You mean we don't already live in an imaginary world? :-) Seriously, thanks for the suggestions. Good advice.
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  4. Great suggestions, Shon. As I read your post I couldn't help but think of how similar what you're suggesting is to what I take from my acting and apply to writing. Whatever helps us get into that imagination zone is good.

  5. This long post is well worth the time it takes to read and cogitate on its content. It's a mini writing lesson with maxi information and application.

    Excellent, Shon!

  6. You've got me remembering those role-playing murder mysteries I used to run for our kids' birthdays. Players would "dress" the part, often by adding one telling detail to their regular clothes. Role-play, but not role-play overload.

  7. Most people just indulge in game playing. But you use it for writing inspiration. That's great.

    My Darcy Mutates…

  8. Thanks for this great article. It's good advice - and I've been taking it for years at the collaborative writing and RP community site http://www.panhistoria.com. I would love you to come give it a try and see what you think.

  9. Thanks for the comments!

    I do a lot of stuff on Second Life, and have started reviewing role playing sims there and writing about how RP can help your writing. It's been interesting because it allows me to get into character, to immerse a body within a particular setting and figure out how I am to talk, to interact with others while in the setting. It's actually helping me get back to the basics of good writing.


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