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Using RPG plots in fiction writing

pathfinderrpg1RPG campaigns are great fun, and a lot of work is put into plotting and characterization, rather like fiction writing, but can any of it be used in actual fiction works? Perhaps some of it can, if avoiding common pitfalls in translating an RPG to novel:

1. Class stereotypes
Is the fighter a one dimensional tough guy? Try some twists like Joss Whedon did with Jayne on Firefly, or George R.R. Martin creating Brienne. Combine some of the classes together—what if a rogue was also a paladin? Can’t work? How do you know until you try?

2. Combat stagnates
RPGs do not cover a blow by blow of the battle, and despite all sorts of powers, there are definite progressions that tend to come up in combat. To make it more exciting, turn instead to historical research of actual battles, rather than relying on dice and statistics. That being said, there is something to be learned from a confident fighter who suddenly rolls horribly and is taken out when he shouldn’t have been. It can make a great plot twist!

galadriel-epic-loot-drop3. All about the loot
Characters have complex motivations, even in an RPG, but ultimately you are very interested in picking up new pieces of armor, weapons, potions, and treasure. This can hamper a novel’s story, because in real life, while there will always be those only out for stuff, we are more complicated than that. Academics are almost hit by cars when they walk into the street reading a book, and people might be so driven by a love of baseball that they give up the finer things in life to afford tickets. If characters run around trying to get stuff all the time, it becomes a boring read. Make sure there is a balance of acquiring important gear for the quest, and actual storytelling. Think of Lord of the Rings—other than an epic loot drop from Galadriel, there isn’t a lot of gear hunting going on.

Who has the page presence? They should pay off in the final act

obi-wan-kenobi-oldSome books have obvious main characters, such as a first person POV like Hunger Games, others have so many characters that it is difficult to choose one or two, such as Lord of the Rings. All books have a cast of supporting characters who pay significant roles, such as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars, or Quark in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Look through your book to see who has the most “screen time”. These characters need to play a significant role in the final act and conclusion. Readers will become accustomed to seeing them in chapters, so having them vanish at the climax will feel off and unbalanced. Imagine if Aragorn’s character had no role in the final battle of Lord of the Rings, or Gwen was not in the final episode of Merlin.

cersei-upset-purple-weddingWe saw some of this issue in the finale of Game of Thrones on Sunday. After a season filled with mostly the House Lannister plotline, suddenly it was all about the Wall and Arya, leaving a dramatic life-changing moment for House Lannister to a quick “get it done in five minutes” scene that felt like it was shoe-horned into the episode. It left me scratching my head about why the huge build-up of Lannisters this season, only to ignore the biggest scene for that House in the entire series so far.

Don’t let this happen to your book—keep the character percentages throughout the story. Don’t have a character be in it 50% of the time most of the book and only 2% at the end. Readers will be left feeling dissatisfied and not sure why.

Songs and poetry in epic fantasy fiction—are they necessary?

Some epic fantasy includes poetry that goes on for pages, others are written entirely in poetic verse, like Faerie Queene, and others include no poetry at all. Each form is popular in its own way, so how do you choose what to include when writing epic fantasy? Warning: Minor spoilers ahead

Arwen Luthien Lord of the Rings SilmarillionTons of poetry – Lord of the Rings
The first time I read through the trilogy, I was a teenager, and to be honest I skipped all the poetry. I was desperate to find out what happened to Frodo and Sam, and could care less about a three page song dedicated to some long-dead elven lord. As I reread the books coming at it with a well-seasoned eye that knows exactly what is happening to each of the characters, I now stop to savour the poems, and have even memorized a few of my favourites. They add a richness and depth to the saga, but are are also a massive barrier to first-time readers. I have run into multiple people who told me, “I tried to read Lord of the Rings, but all that poetry…I gave up.” (Apparently they didn’t do what I did my first read through). Is there anything wrong with putting in tons of beautiful songs? No, but remember it will make it difficult for new readers, so be sure to overcompensate in other areas to welcome them in.

legend-of-the-seekerNo poetry – Sword of Truth
Other than the prophesies, I could sit for half an hour and not be able to think of songs or poetry in Terry Goodkind’s books. He takes a Jean-Luc Picard view of epic fantasy fiction (any opportunity to make a Shakespearean speech). Would the books benefit to having more songs in them? I do not believe so—that world is direct, cutting straight to the truth. The main character admits to finding plays on words frustrating. Can you imagine Richard Rahl stopping to tell a three page poem? I think the world would end. Know your characters, and know your world—is it the type of society and people who would sit by the fire to sing about dragons and fair maidens, or are they get it done truth speakers who prefer action?

Brienne and Bear Harrenhall Game of ThronesSome poetry – A Song of Ice & Fire
Instead of having multiple different poems that seem to take up half the book, George R.R. Martin went the path of having two-three short and memorable songs that pop up at significant moments as part of the plot. When characters are conspiring at court, they have a singer loudly shouting out The Bear and the Maiden Fair to cover up their conversation, and at another time a group of nasty blokes set Brienne up nearly unarmed against an actual hungry bear as a matter of sport mocking the song. For those familiar with the Red Wedding, you know the moment the first strains of The Rains of Castamere came on you started screaming and shaking your book (or throwing it into the aisle of an airplane in the case of one fan I know of). These songs are woven so closely with characters and moments that they do not seem like a halt to the plot “wait, it is time for the random song this chapter”. This type of poetry use requires more thought put into it than the other two, but it has the greatest payoff.

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