Coming to Life
One of the best parts of writing – and not incidentally gaming – is when your character surprises you. You have an idea of where you think they’re going, they seem pretty predictable, but suddenly BOOM! They come to life, even if just for a moment, and tell you “Actually, I’d rather do X.” It’s a bit of a rush, though truth to be told it can be a little creepy too, because suddenly you realize that this person you created, who is entirely under your control, has just elected to go a different way than you intended.
I know, I know, to some folks out there that sounds more like schizophrenia than creativity, but I bet the artists and the role-players are nodding. As my Creative Writing students will tell you, I am very much not a unicorns and rainbows kind of person when it comes to how creativity operates – it’s a lot more work than wishes – but this is one of the rare exceptions. Because honestly, when it happens, it really does feel a little bit like magic. The feeling that the character has gone from a fun creation to a real personality is pretty spectacular, especially because it tends to creep up on you.
I think one of my favorite stories about one of my characters surprising me occurred about eight years back, when I was playing at Mystic Realms, my very first boffer LARP. It was a weekend centered around battling a giant monster, one that was rarely seen at the game and the subject of much legend and conjecture by those who hadn’t been among the few that battled it the first time. We had been warned of its impending attack, and the staff had done a great job ramping up tension as the town tried to prepare all manner of siege weapons, magical barriers and battle plans to have a hope of defeating it. It was also one of the rare few monsters that had a chance to possibly remove your character from play for a very long time, if not permanently, so the fear factor was unusually high. I was playing a character perhaps best described as a swaggering rogue, but beneath the wisecracks, I was rattled. I had no idea what to expect and I was really excited about what was going to happen.
On Saturday night, the word came down that the creature had been spotted, and the town rallied to battle. We marched into the woods with weapons ready, murmuring tactics in whispered voices and wondering what lay in store. Then we found it. Basically? Chaos. The monster was superbly created, a giant beast operated like a Chinese dragon, and along with its minions it truly gave us hell. (But not unfairly, something that made the whole experience worthwhile – it was never easy but never impossible.) Plans fell apart, desperate fighting erupted in a dozen spots and the woods were alive with fear and danger. I’ve been LARPing for a decade and a half now and this is definitely one of the scariest moments in memory. When we finally took the beast down after hours of hard fighting, the town erupted into genuine cheers – it had really been a thrilling experience. My cocky little arcanist made jokes right along with everyone else, and as we started back to town, it seemed like business as usual, bantering with friends.
Then we were crossing the bridge over the lake, lit up like noon with a full moon in the sky, and without quite knowing why I sat down at the edge, dangling my feet over the side. And I started to cry – not sad tears, but tears of joy. I’d survived, and quite suddenly I realized that my character hadn’t planned on making it back that night. He’d figured he was dog meat, a feeling reinforced several times throughout the fight as I was nearly killed several times over. But there it was – my swaggering, wisecracking, never-show-fear character was glad to simply be alive. A friend of mine sat down and put her head on my shoulder, her normally talkative character also quiet, and we just sort of sat in happy silence for a while.
I suppose in the telling it doesn’t sound so dramatic, but in the moment, I was amazed at the fact that this character – who was usually fun but a bit two-dimensional in his wisecracking nature – actually had an inner life of sorts. He valued his life, and he was simply overjoyed to have made it out of such danger alongside his friends. I didn’t underestimate him quite so much after that, and it actually turned into the core of a superb roleplaying experience later on, a motivation that made him a lot more fun to play.
So what are your favorite moments of characters coming to life in unexpected ways, whether in gaming or in art?