Just finished watching Season 2 of Orphan Black. I like the show pretty well, but there are a couple things that frequently seem off. Specifically:
- Everybody always seems to be an hour’s drive from everybody else. (no matter how far away they seem to want to flee)
- All the bad guys know Felix’s address, yet everybody keeps treating Felix’s loft as safe.
- For a kid that tends to do things like wander outside at night with random strangers, Kira is left unattended way, way too much.
There are other problems, too, but they’re a little more conceptual than this stuff, and I don’t think Orphan Black is unique in any way, here. Lots and lots of books, stories, shows, and movies do stuff like the above. They are choices made by the writers for narrative convenience, and they are necessary in many ways, but there is a point at which they become silly. Sussing out exactly where that line is strikes me as rather important, so let’s talk about it.
First off, there is a lot of boring things that happen in daily life. You take the train to work, you eat breakfast, you go to the bathroom, you wait for a
bus, you read through a bunch of random e-mails, etc., etc.. People sitting down to watch a thriller don’t want the pace to get bogged down by the details. So, when the DA slaps down a plea deal on the table in front of a suspect, we don’t sit there for half an hour while the suspect’s lawyer goes over it and then discusses it with her client – that’s dull. So, instead, we just sort of gloss over the fact that those things happened. Yeah, they read and discussed the deal at some point. James Bond has to eat occasionally. Yes, Frodo and Sam pooped in Mordor.
It is frustrating, for a writer’s perspective, to have people point out these little gaps. Stuff like “When does he change clothes?” or “Why didn’t she get change for her coffee?” or “I never see this guy ever cash any of his paychecks!” Had a friend of mine kindly agree to critique a story of mine once in which two survivors of an apocalypse were riding their bikes down an empty interstate highway and his question was “what happens if they get a flat tire?” So, okay, yeah – that could be explained (lot of abandoned bicycle shops out there!). All of this stuff could be explained and pretty easily. The question is, though, whether you want it explained and whether that would be a good use of limited space and time. Do we want to have a pee break on the way through Mirkwood? Do we have to watch Bruce Wayne spend his days popping in and out of charity fundraiser after charity fundraiser and shake hands and make nice and so on and so forth? Or, you know, would you rather we just skip past a lot of that and get to the Batman part? When faced with the choice, a lot of these so-called “important” questions suddenly look like the hair-splitting silliness they are.
There is a point, though, were streamlining can go too far. Getting back to Orphan Black for a second: Sarah knows Dyad is after her and her child, so she goes on the run. She hops in a car and drives…not very far, as it turns out, since when she decides to come back again she’s back in less than a few hours. Now, okay, okay – if Sarah drives clear to the other side of Canada, she’s basically left the sandbox of the world the writers have set up and she can’t be part of the story anymore unless she pulls a Varys and basically teleports across oceans and continents with ease. Viewers don’t really want a whole sideplot for half a season where Sarah tries to start a new life in a new place with new characters, etc, etc.. She needs to be close by so the plot can advance.
But, at the same time, having her stick around that close makes no actual sense. Nor does Felix spontaneously bursting into tears and going back to his deathtrap apartment (sweet a pad as it is). Sarah’s primary priority has always been her daughter above all else and Felix knows going back to his place endangers everybody (chiefly himself), otherwise he wouldn’t have gone with them in the first place, and yet they all do these silly things anyway because, if they didn’t, the plot wouldn’t work. This is sloppy, because it shows the authorial hand too nakedly in the unfolding of events. It’s pulling back the curtain on a magic trick. It’s the writing equivalent of a missed note in a recital. It maybe doesn’t crash the whole thing (as mentioned, I do like the show), but it knocks you out of the dream for a second.
Now, we can argue about how bad an offender this or that story is in this sense, but the fact is that stories often use the Idiot Ball to control action. They make characters stupider or less competent than they should actually be in order to force the plot to fit. This is a different problem than just cutting out the boring bits, but it comes from the same place: things need to be streamlined, to connect, or otherwise you wind up with a crazy unwieldy plot that you can’t handle anymore (hat tip to a lot of epic fantasy authors out there). Streamline the wrong parts, though, and you wind up with Orphan Black‘s tendency to have everyone they meet to be part of some conspiracy of some kind to track, capture, or destroy clones (which, while understandable from a structural point of view, starts to get a little silly after a while).
So what to do? Well, that’s the trick – there’s no easy answer here. The fact is that you, the writer, need to come up with plausible and reasonable ways to make sure the story doesn’t spin off its axis or mutate into the wrong kind of story. I’m struggling with this myself in the next Saga of the Redeemed novel, and it is no cake walk. However, I recognize that I need to do it and do it well if I want my story to transport and be acceptable. I don’t want to knock people out of the dream, if you follow my meaning. I have to separate the important parts from the unimportant, the easily plausible from the implausible. And I don’t ever need to explain to you when and where and why my main character needs to take a leak.
Okay, let’s try this again…
I just finished Patrick Rothfuss’s The Slow Regard of Silent Things.
It is not a normal novel (or novella) by any means. I’ve been trying to pin down, exactly, what to say about it or how to think of it. I think, in the end, it is this inability to articulate its wonder that makes me love it.
And I really do. It’s wonderful.
As we follow Auri through her lonely world, a lot of conventions get thrown out the back door. There is no dialogue. There is only one character, essentially. There is relatively little conflict. All of these things, or any of the individually, would be enough to get an author laughed out of a publishing house or roundly panned. And yet, through his beautiful prose and just a little sparkle of magic, Rothfuss makes this story riveting.
Much of the magic at work here is the mysteries that wrap around little Auri and her home. Secret books, hidden passages, a cistern with no bottom, a door never opened. Auri is a shattered creature – like many of Rothfuss’s characters – but the tool that did the shattering is hidden from us and her scars deeper. We pity her, but also do not. Auri fits here, just so. Nestled.
I think, as readers and as writers, we get stuck in a prison of our own making. This prison is called “stuff we like” and we all too frequently are confined there without parole. The Science Fiction reader scoffs at the Literary Mainstream. Mystery fans turn their noses up at Romance readers. The Lit Mainstream sneers at everybody. And yet there is so much more. We don’t see it. Reading A Slow Regard of Silent Things reawoke that part of me that appreciates modernist literature and experimental story structure. It made me realize how blind I am (and how blind we are) by our own conventions. If all you read are thrillers, you don’t see the conventions as conventions, but as truths. As Gardner says in Grendel:
That is their happiness: they see all life without observing it. They’re buried in it, like crabs in mud.
Now, Gardner is talking about dumb animals here, but the humans hardly make out any better. They construct for themselves myth and theory to make their blindness acceptable and rational. It has always been thus, and, thusly, shall it remain.
Rothfuss, though, doesn’t tell us the story of the Day Auri Was Broken or the Day Auri Got Fixed. No. He breaks the cycle. He tells us about Auri’s life and nothing more. A slice of it, one week long. We spend a substantial number of pages making soap. And yet…wow. It’s beautiful. It works. It is incredibly difficult to tell a slice of life story and make it interesting. This one, though, is the proof of concept. This is as much epic prose poem as story, as much painting as wordplay. Like that big brass gear Auri lugs around, it is a cycle with a missing tooth, but perfect for all that. A sign of how, even if we are no longer what we were meant to be, we are still what we are meant to be. No beautiful story can be so broken that it does not sing.
I highly recommend you read it.
EDIT: So WordPress, in its infinite wisdom, ate this post. I will need to rewrite it later. Sorry!
I just finished Patrick Rothfuss’s The Slow Regard of Silent Things.
That is their happiness: they see all life without observing it. They’re buried in it, like crabs in mud.
By the way…
The Iron Ring is still on sale for a mere 0.99 on Amazon! Go and buy it now while the sale lasts! When you’ve finished, leave a review (and remember the story is completed in Blood and Iron, also on sale now! Don’t want halves? Buy them both as The Oldest Trick!)
Plot and story derive from conflict – anybody who’s tried writing anything has figured this out at some point. In order for something to happen, you need the character(s) to do something. In order to make that something they do interesting, there needs to be something at stake. Things are only at stake if there is some situation in which Option A is preferred over Option B and yet, with inaction or failure surpass some obstacle, Option B will come to pass or remain. That state of affairs is called “conflict” – I want A, but I have to overcome (whatever) to achieve it, otherwise B.
So concludes your really, really basic lesson in plotting stories.
The idea of conflict is simple enough, but how to go about creating it is infinitely complex. You need things to be at stake, yes, but what constitutes that? Furthermore, how large should the obstacle be preventing the character from achieving their goal?
To present an example:
- Bill needs to go to the store to get some milk.
- Bill cannot leave his house, or else his neighbor will see and then he’ll be stuck discussing lawn care for half an hour.
With #1, we have our stakes: Bill wants milk. With #2, we have our conflict: in order to get milk, Bill needs to figure out how to avoid his neighbor. In this particular story, the stakes are not very high and the obstacle not too dire (if Bill doesn’t get milk, what’s the worst that can happen to him? If Bill is caught by his neighbor, how bad are the consequences, really?). The conflict, in other words, fits the situation. It seems realistic. But what happens when you mess with that formula?
- Bill needs to get to the doctor or he will die.
- Bill cannot leave his house, or else his neighbor will see and then he’ll be stuck discussing lawn care for half an hour.
So, obviously, Bill leaves his house. The obstacle (talking lawn care for fear of being rude) no longer seems significant. Bill just points to the giant gushing wound in his side (or what have you) and blows past the neighbor. Here, the obstacle isn’t sufficient to match the stakes, and the conflict doesn’t really work. Let’s try this again:
- Bill needs to go to the store to get some milk.
- Bill cannot leave his house, because if he goes outside he will be eaten by Great Cthulhu.
Here, the obstacle is far, far too great to make it reasonable for Bill to leave. He can go without milk for a little while if the alternative is certain death and madness in the tentacled maw of a Great Old One. The stakes just aren’t high enough to justify the risk.
In order to have a good conflict, you need to know how to balance the stakes and the obstacles appropriately, or the plot begins to break down and become nonsensical or absurd. Things can’t be easy for the characters nor can they be impossible to the point where nothing would happen. As a writer, it is your job to ride that line between the easy and the impossible. You need to be what I think of as cruel.
Your characters must suffer for their goals, yes? Well, it’s your job to make them suffer exactly the right amount to make their victory seem worthwhile. Make it too easy, and there is no payoff. Make it too hard, and everything becomes dismal and sad. You, the writer, are in a certain sense a torturer – you need to rake your main character over the coals just enough that he talks, but not so much that he dies. As any torturer will tell you (well, I presume – I don’t actually know any torturers), that’s a fine line to tread.
I got much of my practice doing this by running role-playing games for my friends and playing in RPGs run by others. The best GMs, I’ve found, are the ones cruel enough to make victory seem impossible but also kind enough to make it possible for you to succeed. I played in one campaign once where our victory was clearly, obviously assured – the GM would not kill us or even maim us terribly, and everything always worked out in the end. It was boring. On the flip side, everybody’s played those Call of Cthulhu games where everybody dies inside of two hours and the monsters win – also a bit boring after you’ve done it once or twice.
The best games? The ones where you’re counting every hit point and scraping the bottom of the barrel as far as ammunition and special abilities go and yet still, somehow, you’ve got to save your PC’s father from the clutches of the Liche King or he’ll be lost to you forever. You’re sitting there on your buddy’s couch, heart pounding, because you know your character could die and everything could go south and, whaddya know, you actually care what happens (stakes!) but the obstacles seem so impossible (conflict!). What you don’t know (or maybe don’t always realize) is this: your GM is scared, too. He’s sitting on the edge of his seat, because yeah, he’s made it crazy impossible and, no, he won’t back down. If he backs down, he loses everything – you lose everything. So he throws you a line here and there, he encourages you, and he prays that the dice go your way just enough so you can win. And what a win that is!
Conflict – writing – isn’t too far off from that. At least, that’s what I think.
Just a reminder to pre-order your copy of The Oldest Trick from anywhere fine e-books are sold! It releases 8/11/15 and is the absolute best place to start if you’ve yet to dive into the Saga of the Redeemed yet. Go check it out!
So, I’m getting towards the very last act of All That Glitters, my sequel to The Oldest Trick (which is due out next year from Harper Voyager). For those of you who haven’t written a novel (or perhaps those of you who haven’t written one all the way through yet), the end is an unusual and difficult time. See, you’ve spent all this time working in the exposition, introducing the conflict, raising the stakes, and suddenly there you are: the end. This is where all the birds come home to roost. This is where the whole thing is supposed to explode. We have to reach the climax, here – no more noodling around. Get it done.
This can be a surprisingly complicated affair.
The funny thing is that I spend most of my time daydreaming about the climax – about how awesome it will be, the cool pithy one-liners I’ll have Tyvian say, the things I’m going to have explode, and so on. When I finally get there, though, everything seems to be in the wrong place. I mean, sure, I’ve set the stage for all the right stuff to happen, but assembling it so it actually happens is tough. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, but the puzzle pieces are scattered throughout 200-some-odd pages of text and it’s up to your sketchy notes and foggy memory to track them all down. If you put it together wrong, well…remember when you and your dad spent an entire Sunday afternoon building that volcano that was supposed to explode lava and stuff? Remember how you felt when you got it to school and everybody crowded around in breathless anticipation and then nothing happened? Yeah, it’s kinda like that.
I think the most about the endings of my books. Beginnings are pretty easy, middles are my honeymoon period, and then comes the end. That’s where I sit, staring at the computer screen, trying to figure out how to manage the explosions in just such a way that they remain sensible and engaging rather than simply crass and boring. The problem doesn’t just apply to exterior conflicts, either – there are those emotional explosions to manage, too, which are probably more important. We’re getting to the point where the guy is going to have to kiss the girl, to where the young man is going to have to mature into adulthood, to where the hero is going to have to have his moment of epiphany – again, hard to manage. Go too far one way or another and you break the illusion; the reader sits back and sneers ‘that would never happen that way.’ Booo! Bummer!
So, back into the fray. The precise path to the end will become clear soon, I’m sure. For now, I’ve got to figure out how Character X is going to steal that kiss from Character Y without it being creepy. As you may imagine, I don’t exactly have a long history of being a masterful kiss-stealer (just ask my wife), so this is proving challenging. Anyway, be seeing you all on the other side.
Or when I can’t stand all the thinking and I come crawling back to blog-land for a breather. Whichever comes first.
I just finished reading Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone. I really enjoyed the book (the pacing at the start was a bit frenetic, but I’m quibbling), but one of the best parts was a simply brilliant twist at the end of the novel that I genuinely didn’t see coming. As I usually see these things coming, I thought it was incredibly cool. I refuse to spoil it – go out and read the book. It’s about necromantic bankruptcy lawyers, but rather than resurrecting businesses, they resurrect dead gods. What I’ve just described is just the barest sliver of the originality of the book, so if that sounds intriguing, go and read the whole thing.
Anyway, back to twists:
A good plot twist or surprise ending has to fulfill two requirements:
- The audience must not see it coming.
- When it arrives, it should be obvious that it was there the whole time.
Think of that moment in The Shawshank Redemption – you know the one – and go back to that moment if you can. You’ve got this big, gaping, awestruck look on your face, because it’s been in front of you the whole time, and you never saw it. Now that you see it, you can’t un-see it. With a simple flourish, the author has changed the way you understand the entire work from now until forever. It’s a magic trick.
These tricks are hard to pull off, let me tell you. I’ve tried to do it a lot, and I’m uncertain if I’ve been truly successful yet. I mean, sure, anybody can put in a twist, but most of the time those are twists that alert readers see coming. That’s fine, of course – they’re still fun – but what we’re really going for is that completely, flabbergasting-ly amazing twist that catches us flat-footed. I think of it as a derivation of Chekhov’s Gun: not only must the gun go off in the second act, you must also make certain nobody pays any attention to the gun even though they can plainly see it. Sleight of hand (or word, if you will) is needed to make this happen.
This is very hard in a novel or a story. In order for your to tell someone something is present, you need to write about it in the text. If you’ve written about it, the audience, by definition, has looked at and thought about it (however briefly). Your job as the author is to get them to temporarily forget that they read about the thing (by misdirecting their attention elsewhere) but not have them forget about it so completely that, by the time the payoff comes, they won’t remember having read it. It’s a delicate balancing act of how much and in what context to mention a thing so that it sits there, just on the periphery of the audience’s mind, waiting to be summoned. Telegraph too much and they’ll see it coming, but not enough and they will forget all about it and your twist won’t seem earned.
Anybody who can do this to me has my admiration as a writer. I (and my wife) have a pretty incredible track record of predicting things will happen in shows and books and movies before they do. Character deaths are particularly easy to predict by using what I call plot calculus. It works for other things, too: add up all the story elements that need to fall into place and, by process of elimination, you can see what will happen next with alarming accuracy. Gladstone, in Three Parts Dead, though, does such a good job of involving so many different factors and interests that you won’t see the twist coming a mile away. That is very hard to manage and it is, to my mind, the difference between a writer who is merely good and one that is legitimately great at managing audience expectations. I’m not sure I’m there yet, but I’m working at it. In the meantime, I’m going to keep reading Max Gladstone, and so should you.
Stumbled across a review of Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies the other day, written by none other than Patrick Rothfuss. In it, he attests:
…in a first book (or movie for that matter) everything has the benefit of being shiny and new. Every revelation is fresh and exciting. Every character is a mystery unfurling.
That’s not the case in a second book. In a second book, you still have that problem. PLUS you have the problem that some of your readers read the first book two days ago, and some of them read it two years ago. Some of them haven’t read it at *all.*
On top of that, a lot of people want nothing more than for you to write your first book over again… because that’s what they know and love. But you *can’t* do that, because you only get one beginning.
When you write the second book in a series, the honeymoon is over. Now you’re in a whole different type of relationship. And love is harder to maintain than infatuation.
That’s why, in my opinion, shifting gears from first book to second book is THE most difficult part of being a new writer.
I found this review particularly interesting in light of the fact it involves two of my current favorite fantasy authors, both of whom wrote second books that I didn’t like as much as the first. Of the two, I would even argue that Rothfuss’s second book was the more disappointing of the two in the context of the series. I did not think either book was actively bad, mind you – they are both great reads, if not as tightly paced as their first offerings – but they don’t gleam as brightly as the initial outlay. Of course, to again quite Rothfuss’s review, “But you won’t find me bitching, because the only thing I could say was something along the lines of, “O! Woe is me! I was expecting pure untrammeled brilliance and all I got was mere shining excellence! Also, they didn’t have any loganberry cream cheese at the café this morning, so I had to have blueberry instead! Alas! I shall now weep and write poetry in my journal!”
The point Rothfuss makes, though, still stands regardless of Red Seas, Red Skies‘s relative quality and is really worth considering. Since most of your average aspiring fantasy or science fiction authors are looking to write a series, some notion of how that is going to work out is important to realize. So how do you do it well? How do you top yourself?
I’m not Rothfuss or Lynch – pretty far from it, really – and I’m not really here to offer a critique on their work. I don’t have any good answers on how to write a second book because I haven’t successfully done it yet. I’m in the process of writing two separate sequels to two separate novels, and one is going pretty well while the other is something of a disaster at the moment. The only thing I can say that is helping me in one and hurting me in the other is this: know what the series is about.
At some point in writing Red Seas, Lynch had to ask himself ‘what role does this book play in the series as a whole?’ Now, given that he hasn’t finished his series yet, one can only guess at what the answer is/will be. For Lynch, it involved pirates. Pirates, to some extent, fit thematically with some of the larger forces at play in Lynch – issues of freedom, rebellion against authority, and sneering at the rule of law – but it departed from the operative action and mood of the original book. That becomes disconcerting for some readers, not as much for others. Likewise Rothfuss has Kvothe wander off up north to learn swordsmanship and combat. Very much in keeping with the building legend of Kvothe, but it served as a major tangent from the motivating storylines of the book thus far (Denna, the University, Ambrose, the Chandarain, etc.) even if we did get some goodies in the end. Was it worth the slow down in the plot?
I don’t have the answers, as I said. I suspect that Rothfuss is very much correct about the difficulties of continuing a series, if for no other reason than (1) he’s done it and (2) the statement ‘the sequel is always worse’ is so commonly understood to be true, it is practically a truism. All I know is that I need to find a way to tell a new story at the same time as advancing an old one, and that’s a pretty unique balancing act. Maybe someday you folks will have the luxury of judging my success or failure in the endeavor.
Of course, in order to do that, I need to get the first one published first.
Lately I’ve been trying out a variety of contemporary sci-fi authors that deal with various aspects of the Singularity. I think it’s sad to admit, but I have yet to be able to finish one. The last one I tried was Charles Stross Accelerando, a book which I recommend you do not read unless you find long strings of technobabble to be as hip and cool as Stross seems to. My current battle is with David Brin’s Existence, bought when I heard an interview with him online in which he had a discussion about the future of humanity that I found intriguing. I read the description of the book and it also sounded interesting. It is interesting. So was Stross, honestly. So what was the problem?
None of these books seem to have characters. If they do have characters, the characters exist primarily as mouthpieces by which the author can convey all the interesting thoughts they have and that they speak about at length in NPR interviews. The thing is, though, that such discussions, while interesting, do not make for a good story. At least, they don’t for me.
A story is about a person or, more rarely, as small group of people. They can live in as bizarre a universe as you please, but ultimately I, the reader, am interested in them only insofar as I am emotionally compelled by their conflict. The emphasis there is on their conflict – as in the character(s), individually. I am not really motivated by the plight of humanity in general. Am I interested? Sure. Believe me, I have many of thoughts about this myself, but I know that I can’t just write a novel that does nothing but talk about humanity at large without weaving such a discussion into the idiosyncratic problems of a specific individual. To do otherwise makes your novel didactic, preachy, evangelical. It wears on me when I feel that I’m reading a book that’s trying to do nothing more than engage me in debate. If I wanted that, I’d read non-fiction or attend conferences. When I’m reading a novel, I expect entertainment. I expect a protagonist with a problem I want to see resolved, not a series of placeholder people meant to do nothing more than paint a picture of what they think humanity is/will be like.
Now, this doesn’t mean I object to stories with defined and discernible points or arguments to be made (I prefer these to the completely ‘pointless’ stories that populate fantasy and scifi), but it does mean I expect your message to be a little more subtle. If I’m reading a book with a rotating cast of 6 main characters, none of whom have anything clearly to do with one another, and all of them apparently present to act as expository mouthpieces for your new universe, I am going to get frustrated. I am not reading speculative fiction for ‘slice of life’ scenes in imaginary worlds; I’m reading it for the exploration of character and conflict in unusual circumstances. This connects, if indirectly, to my frustration with certain long-running fantasy series (The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, etc.) that have decided to put an emphasis on a persistent world rather than on the resolution of conflict. There is only so long I am going to wait for catharsis/denouement before I get bored, no matter how fascinating the subject matter of the fantasy/scifi world. If I suspect that there is no catharsis to be had because there is no dramatic tension to be released (because there are no characters that I am attached to or interested in), I am going to put the book down. If, however, you keep all that stuff in there and weave your issues into that conflict with a degree of subtlety, then you’ve just written a pretty damned incredible book.
Of course, I’m just one guy talking, here. I suppose there are a lot of folks (particularly in scifi) who really love those stories where all they really do is watch the world turn according to the author’s whim and various characters just kind of pop in and out. Come to think of it, I can think of authors who did this fairly well (Asimov and Clarke chief among them), but in all of those instances the plight of the hero was still central to the plot, no matter if the author was less interested in that plot than in the themes they were exploring. Anyway, I’m still fighting with Existence and, to its credit, it’s starting to improve a bit. If I have to keep sitting through radio talk-shows in the novel or attend conferences and actually listen to the speeches the guys are making, I don’t know if I’m making it through. If you wanted to publish a lecture series, Mr. Brin, you could just do that. I’d read it. Just don’t dress it up like an adventure story and expect me to applaud.
Been a while since I waxed philosophical about RPGs, so here we go:
You know that moment in (almost) every D&D campaign where the PCs all bump into one another in some roadside inn and then, a half hour and a tankard of ale later, they’re running off with these near-total strangers to slay dragons? Did that ever rub you the wrong way?
It’s ridiculous, right? Who does that? I mean, most people don’t run around with total strangers in real life, and we live in a world devoid of roadside trolls and murderous death cults (well, okay, mostly without the death cults). I mean, it would be one thing if they all had compatible personalities, but the dwarves never get along with the elves, the wizards are always mocked by the fighters, and the thieves are always, always dickheads. How do these folks suddenly decide to risk life-and-limb together?
I mean, we all know why: it’s metagaming, pure and simple. PCs have that ‘new PC’ smell about them that draws adventuring parties like bug-zappers draw mosquitoes. You all have to hang out together or you don’t have a party. If you don’t have a party, you don’t have a game. We just tend to close our eyes, suspend our disbelief, and roll with it.
How to Deal With It
There are, of course, a variety of ways around this; ways to justify the all-important meeting and have the PCs hang out together long enough to plausibly build actual friendships. Here is a brief (and doubtlessly incomplete) list:
Option #1: They Need Each Other
This is the easiest and most straightforward method to do things. The PCs have to stick together to survive for a certain period of time. Perhaps they find themselves in a town that is under attack by horrible (whatevers) and find themselves sticking together simply to survive. Maybe they are all prisoners in the same dungeon and have to rely on one another to escape and then, of course, find themselves stuck together as fugitives from whatever force placed them in the prison to begin with.
The options are numerous, but most of them are in medias res type beginnings. This is a bonus or a drawback, depending on the kind of campaign you’re running, since an episodic game with a rotating cast will resolve the issue that is keeping them together rather quickly and then, in the next session, you find yourself back at square one. Furthermore, even in serialized games with long plot arcs, sooner or later the thing that brought them together is going to get resolved. Then we are either left closing our eyes and assuming they stick together or watching them shoot off in various directions.
Option #2: It’s Their Job
This is an easy one and can very quickly build long-term party cohesion: all of the PCs are employed by the same (whatever) and are, essentially, coworkers. They need to put up with each other whether they want to or not. They might be mercenaries, in the military, part of the same secret society, or any number of other options – all of them can work.
I’ve used this one a lot, and I can tell you a couple things. First, this set-up leads to automatic intra-party bickering. Since the characters aren’t required in any sense to like each other, many of them don’t and your players will engage in entertaining-but-time-wasting arguments with each other just for fun. Second, this an ideal set-up for a game with a rotating cast, since you can easily have this or that PC ‘transferred’ for a session or two without straining anyone’s imagination. The primary (and only) drawback of this situation is that you are relying upon external forces to keep the players together. Some players might chafe at this and, furthermore, if the external force gets removed somehow, you are back to square one.
Option #3: They Are Already Friends
This is another easy one that requires just a little background work for each character. All you need to do is have each character start with a positive relationship with at least one, but preferably two, other characters. Your PCs are already buddies, have already been through hell together, and they should join up without squabble or reservation. Give them a collective motive and bingo – you’re on your way.
There is, however, a drawback to this set-up. It is, primarily, that it limits the kinds of characters that can be plausibly connected without straining the feasibility of the relationship. If you are playing in a campaign were Fizziks and Gurkles have been at war for centuries, and one guy wants to play a Gurkle Chieftain and another guy wants to play a Fizzik Enforcer, it’s going to be a tough sell to explain how they’re friends already. You can probably make it happen, but it’s not a natural fit and will require a lot of backflips and contortions. Now, if this doesn’t bother you, then go ahead. It might bother your players, though (after all, that guy making the Fizzik Enforcer made it specifically so he could hate Gurkles and the Gurkle Chieftain had his whole family enslaved by the Fizzik Empire…).
Option #4: Don’t Even Try
There is no law in (good) RPGs that states that parties must stick together all the time to survive. I mean, that’s the case in D&D, but that is more video game than it is RPG, in my opinion, anyway. Use Option #1 just to give them an initial stick-together period and then loosen the reins. Let them go where they will, do what they will, associate with whomever they chose. The characters that most naturally would associate with each other, will. Those who wouldn’t, won’t. No biggie. It’s their game, let them explore it.
The drawback here, though, is a fairly substantial one that has two parts. Firstly, it is pretty daunting managing 3-4 storylines at a time as a GM. It takes a lot of prep, a good head for improvisation, and a sharp memory. Second, and related to the first, you’ll wind up with long periods of playtime where some players have nothing to do. When I used to run long-run campaigns, this kind of thing would happen from time-to-time (sometimes too often), and I’d have six PCs in four locations. If you were Group A, you’d be playing only 25% of the time, and the other 75% was just sitting around and listening. I was fortunate enough in most instances to have my players really engaged in the action of the game, so they often didn’t mind listening. Some, though, got bored, and I don’t blame them. If you try to use this method, make sure to keep it under control and plan on bringing the party back together sooner rather than later.
Anyway, that’s my bit on this. I should note that I mix and match all the methods fairly liberally in my game. No matter what, though, I strive very hard to keep the artificial and the meta-gamey out of my party dynamics.
The 7th Sea campaign I ran from 2001-2004 was an exceptional thing. It produced a greater concentration of fantastic characters than any other campaign I’ve run and, to some extent, forged the gaming group I still play with today. This campaign featured Helmut Dauben Kohb, the statistically improbable, unkillable Eisen, as well as Lord Edward, the shamelessly hilarious rake. But they weren’t alone by any means. I have yet to tell you about the Vesten.
The first thing that is amazing about the Vesten is that it was, in reality, two separate characters. The first was named Ruin, played by my friend Bobby, who was a towering viking goliath of the Vesten people, a reincarnation of a hero of legend named Valkar, who was fated to slay the Great Wyrm. The second was his friend and countryman, Galdar (played by my buddy DJ), a powerful rune-mage and a man who, at various points in his life, was priest, warrior, pirate, and merchant. The two of them–both powerful, savage northmen who struck down all who opposed them–managed, unintentionally, to find themselves doing things in different places at different times. The common people of Theah could not divorce the two (how many blonde barbarians could be running around destroying Montaigne ships or crushing Vodacce merchant fleets at the same time, really?) and so rolled them into one immortal folk hero/terror called, simply, the Vesten.
Both characters were very different from one another. Ruin was garrulous, reckless, guileless, and without fear. Galdar was vengeful, brooding, careful, and stern. Ruin was a wrestler; Galdar was a boxer and pistollier. Ruin became the master of his own school of hand-to-hand combat, Galdar became a living embodiment of the Rune of Fury and was lightning incarnate. Both of them tread the line between myth and reality: Ruin wrestled with a grendel and answered the riddles of a dragon (one of the most tense sessions ever, incidentally: no rolling, just me asking riddles and Bobby having to answer them correctly or see his character plunged into a fiery abyss). Galdar fought with Krieg, the Vesten God of War, and turned down his proposals and, at the conclusion of the campaign, sacrificed himself to become a five-hundred foot pillar of lightning and storm clouds to destroy the Ultimate Evil. Their battles and their choices built reputations for their characters that topped those of even the most famous heroes and villains of the game setting. They had a little race: the player who had the highest reputation at the end of the campaign would ‘win’. It was a close thing–they had reputations of 135 and 130 or so. To put this in perspective, few characters manage to top 50, even in a long standing campaign. When they took action, the world shook.
This is, ultimately, what made them such amazing characters: Bobby and DJ’s actions through their characters actually changed the campaign setting. They diverted the paths of nations, they destroyed long-standing terrors, and uncovered new knowledge and new ideas to change what the world would become. What is exceptional about this is that I didn’t make them do it. They had the choice to take the easier path–to be, like most RPG characters, drifters in the stream of the world–but they refused. They wanted their characters to change the world, and they did.
Managing this as a GM, you can imagine, was challenging. I had to loosen the reins a bit, let them do what they wanted, and allow the plot to form itself in reaction to their decisions. It forced me to let go of my preconceived notions of what the story ‘was supposed to be’ and let it become something else equally awesome. I confess to trying to rein them in from time to time (if for no other reason than to let the other players step up to the plate more often), but overall I think I allowed them a lot of freedom and the campaign was better for it. When Galdar (or one of his aliases–Galdarus or Gillis) wanted the Vendel to build him a great warship, they did. It was the best damned warship in the world, and they used it, dammit. Did it break the campaign? No–it changed it. Change is not bad, or at least not necessarily so. Losing control as a GM doesn’t always mean ruining your campaign. Sometimes, with the right players, it means making the campaign one your players will be talking about for years and years to come.