“I was tending a garden – an immense garden. And it wasn’t for food or flowers – it was just about the health of the garden. I kept working and working to control it and contain it, and make it healthier… but the garden seemed to fight me at every turn. After what seemed like days of work I finally gave up in frustration – and as I stood there, doing nothing, the garden flourished before my eyes – growing and spreading in every direction.
Because (I realized), the system that the plants were based on was not about me shaping and controlling. The natural system of plants is healthier when they are out of control – when they are free to spread, and intermingle, and cross pollinate, and mutate.
Now, from a human point of view, that may not provide what I want. I get smaller fruit, and smaller flowers, and untidiness. But from the view of the plants, they grow stronger and much more resilient and resistant.”
This is the thesis statement of Obduction, an adventure/puzzle/exploration video game made by Cyan Worlds. [Spoilers for the ending.] In this story, you and other humans have been abducted to a bountiful alien place with no idea why. Cecil, one of the abductees, enlists your help to find a way back home. As you wander and uncover the backstory you begin to learn the intention behind these abductions; you were not kidnapped, you were saved. These characters were plucked from their habitats to preserve them from calamity.
It’s a hard thing to realize for Cecil who has spent years trying to build a way back home to his family. Eventually you are given a glimpse of Earth and you see that your planet has been destroyed. You don’t know if it was a nuclear disaster, global warming, or something else, but you do know that there is no going home.
The only thing to do in the wake of this discovery is to allow this new world to take the characters somewhere unknown. Rather than fighting the progress of nature, you let it happen and everything flourishes. The quote I began with is by Farley, another abductee who understands the purpose behind their new home before anyone else. She calls it un-gardening, the idea that maybe they have to let this change happen, that even if it’s different and scary, maybe it can be good, too.
Now how does this apply to writing? Well, characters and plot need space, too. And when they’re given space to do what they will, the story gets stronger. I have a specific idea of what’s going to happen and how the characters are going to react to it, but occasionally I’m faced with the fact that no, Ana’s not going to respond like that. She’s going to respond like this, which changes the rest of the book. And I have to decide if I’m going to force a character to do something against their personality just to preserve my plans, or if I’m going to see where this new idea takes me. Every time, going for the genuine reaction is better.
Something I’ve had to learn with people is that I can’t change how they feel even if it makes me uncomfortable. If someone is sad, I can’t make them happy. If they’re hurt by something I’ve done, I can’t make them not hurt. But I can acknowledge their feelings, I can validate them, and I can give them support. That’s a very real-world analogy for letting my characters respond to the story, but it holds up. I have to let my characters feel how they feel, not how I want them to feel. I have to let their choices matter and affect the world around them, otherwise why do I even have characters at all?
This past week I started GMing a group of my friends in a Star Wars tabletop RPG. Having never been a Game Master before, I used the pre-written adventure that came in the rulebook and narrated the world and events as my friends narrated their reactions to these events. There was one crucial point where, according to the book, my party of adventurers should leave the cantina to tail a spy. This would lead them to a safehouse with some bad guys there would be a fight and it would further the plot. Instead, two of the players stayed at the cantina while the other two followed the spy.
“This is fine”, I thought. The book provided an alternative for if the players stayed at the cantina, but not for if they split the party. I could use the alternative and tweak it a little. I spend a few minutes desperately hoping that my two players don’t start a fight on their own, and my hopes are answered/defeated when they split up again. One follows the spy and the other follows the gang of bad guys who were going to the cantina to confront the rest of the party. That means I have another thing to worry about, since the only player with decent combat skills is on the far side of town while the three low-strength players are about to get caught in a firefight. But my players had made their decisions and I was going to let them do that, even if it made things more complicated for me.
(“Should I give up tailing the spy?” the player asks, noticing that I’m trying to direct everyone back to the cantina. I’m half concerned and half looking forward to the entertaining disaster, and I give her a toothy grin. “Do whatever your character would do!”)
I should have had more faith. The fight ended up better than I could have expected, with one player remembering that they could communicate with comlinks and calling the loner back, and another using the stun setting on her blaster to take care of half the bad guys. The loner showed up and took out the biggest bad guy in one hit with a nice roll of the dice, and they had victory.
That wasn’t the only time in the three-hour game that they surprised me by going off the preordained path. A NPC (non-player character) was supposed to do nothing but dole out some relevant information; they bought her a drink and made friends with her. I’ll make sure their personal interaction with the NPC pays off later. But when I was reading through the adventure, I didn’t give that NPC a second thought after they had declared the things the players needed to know. The players saw a new potential friend and acted accordingly. Corralling the party to find the right plot threads was sometimes tricky, but they had the most fun when I gave them some space to breathe and be creative. It created some challenges for me as I made up dialogue and personality on the spot for the NPC and altered the bad guys’ strategy to force a conflict that needed to happen, but the story was richer for it. The players’ actions were affecting the world around them, their choices mattered in the grand scheme of things. It was dynamic, exciting.
It’s interesting to watch four of my best friends faced with a situation in an RPG and see each of them react uniquely. One of them held back, observing everything and saying little, cautious and gathering information before she acted on anything, even just playing the game. Another was fully committed to her character in body and voice, both hilarious and a little touching as a droid who might want a bionic heart but would never admit it. Yet another friend was chatting up everyone she could, bringing (dragging) the other players together and making connections, while another was watching the action, picking up on the plot threads even as he was enjoying everyone else’s antics. Even though they were playing characters, it was very true to who each of my friends is. I’d like to include such a diverse array of personalities in my stories.
I have a hard time thinking outside the box, so it’s a challenge for me to get into every one of my characters’ heads and figure out how they’ll react to the scene. I love stories that are really just character studies, I love deeply personal blog posts, I love all of those personality-typing tests, anything that will help me understand how other people think and look at the world. It’s useful for writing, but I also just like understanding people, knowing why they do what they do, even if it’s not what I would do.
Appreciating, understanding, and celebrating differences are necessary if I want to have characters that are fully-formed. If every one of my characters thought and acted like me, it would be a very boring book, even to me. Some of the most dynamic ideas in my book were given to me by other people, things I never would have come up with on my own. My husband is an idea machine (and will heartily admit that he doesn’t sift good idea from bad, he just lets them all pour out) and will give me five alternates for every thought I put on the page. Sometimes it’s hard to stop looking at what I want to do and consider that another choice might genuinely be better, even if it means more work for me. If I change things I have to re-develop this scene or this character or this book, and that takes time. But if I take a step back, remove myself from the equation and give the story room to grow as it will, it starts to spread into what it should be. Just like life, sometimes I have to let go of what I think it should be and just let it be what it is.
What I’m Listening To:
The Last Of Us is a deeply compelling video game, and its soundtrack is mostly acoustic guitar with a lonely, Western feel to it. It’s one of the albums I listen to a lot while writing Lionheart.