In today’s spotlight interviews, we ask two celebrated authors—both with acclaim in the steampunk genre—about the role of roleplaying in their literary careers.
New England boarding schools in the early ‘80s were a hotbed of dice rolling, dungeon crawling, and dragon-slaying. Think about it: A bunch of bright kids living in close quarters with no TVs or cell phones. A jug of cola hanging out the window on a string to keep it cold. Care packages full of cookies and banana bread from home. If you didn't show on campus up already playing D&D, you'd surely be hooked by graduation.
As a diplomat's son, speculative fiction writer Jay Lake had already travelled the world before arriving at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, CT. He'd lived variously in Nigeria and Taiwan, Greyhawk and Blackmoor. All this moving around sharpened his sense of place and his sense of alienation.
Lake is the author of more than 250 short stories, five collections, and eight novels, including Mainspring, Green, Madness of Flowers, and Death of a Starship. Whether set in an equatorial village or a steampunk New Haven, Lake’s work tends to explore themes of personal responsibility, justice, and choice. These days, Lake writes alone, but he will never forget those glorious hours rolling dice and spinning yarns with his gaming buddies.
Meanwhile, novelist Cherie Priest may have taken a strange turn on her way to the gaming table. Dice and paper were not enough; she needed more. She needed to fully immerse herself in her character.
Soon she was wearing odd clothes and speaking strangely. What many tabletop gamers do in their heads or maybe even at the gaming table (the voices, the props, sudden thrusts of imaginary swords that knock over soda cans), Priest was doing all out, all day, once a month. Yes, Cherie Priest, who has been nominated for or won just about every major speculative fiction award… Cherie Priest was a LARPer!
Anyone who has read her steampunk Clockwork Century series will see the positive influence live action role-playing has had on Priest’s ability to develop startling real and unfathomably deep characters. Spend a couple hundred pages with her creations Briar Wilkes (Boneshaker) or Mercy Lynch (Dreadnought) and you, too, will long to don Victorian finery and take flight in an airship.
What has playing RPGs taught you about writing fiction?
Jay Lake: It taught me a lot about plot and character. RPGs, especially the old school pencil-and-paper kind I was playing back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, were essentially exercises in collaborative storytelling. We rarely used miniatures, our maps were graph paper and pencil, and it was all in the head, so the ability to visualize, to extend continuity over time and distance, to remain in character for multiple PCs and NPCs, were all critical.
Cherie Priest: It definitely forced me to consider character motivations in a way that I hadn't bothered with before. When I first took up LARPing, I just wanted a character who showed up once a month and wore great clothes while sipping someone else's faux bubbly. But once I'd been involved in the scene for awhile, I had to flesh things out—to give the characters I played a good excuse for the things they did and the things they wanted. It was an odd sort of education, but not an invaluable one.
Are there any similarities between the act of playing an RPG and the act of writing fiction?
Jay Lake: Absolutely. To my mind, the most basic similarity is world-building.
You have to create a physical place and an associated continuity that remains interesting, diverse and dramatically satisfying. Without a world, the story takes place in a white room. Add black curtains and the sound of a railway station outside, the world begins to come to life. The world of an RPG builds constantly in play. The world of fiction is set by the time the story is done. But the processes? Very similar.
Cherie Priest: I'd say that there are parts in the process that are mirrored, in some ways, for some people. I rarely compose any two projects in exactly the same fashion, but every now and again I'll sit down and do a brief character sketch to serve as a reference—noting the general appearance, motivations, skills, problems, and relations to other characters. I think the way I've come to structure that part of my own process—even though I do so very loosely—probably stems from my roleplaying days.
How is the relationship between writer and character different than the relationship between the player and character?
Jay Lake: The writer is the only one influencing the character in fiction, while the player is being influenced by other players and the game master, at a minimum. So again, the sense of collaborative extension is different. This points to the most profound divergence between RPGs and fiction, which is not just the collaboration (there's plenty of collaborative fiction out there) but the continuous extension of the collaborative process in RPGs, which is very difficult to parallel in published fiction. Stasis versus dynamism, if you will.
Cherie Priest: Well, at the most basic level—I suppose it's the fact that any fictional character I manipulate on a page is infinitely more flexible than one I'm forced to inhabit for a few hours. Powers of the imagination notwithstanding, it's simply different to be constrained by the social realities of a situation that features real life friends and frenemies... playing LARP-life friends, frenemies, villains, heroes, and gods. It's much easier to explore possibilities and try unexpected actions when the whole of the scenario is contained in my head, and not in a buddy's basement.
What hasn't playing RPGs taught you about fiction? Or, what is a significant difference between playing and writing?
Jay Lake: Playing is collaboration, writing is ultimately solitary. Many of the same tools are used, many of the same objectives are met, but the process is simply different.
Jay Lake earned the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, has received multiple nominations for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards, and his bibliography of published work runs from A-Z, leaving out only Q, X, and Z. Look for him at: www.jlake.com.
Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula Awards—set in Seattle, it thus holds a special place in this editor’s heart. She can be found at www.cheriepriest.com.