Have you ever played a tabletop roleplaying game (RPG)? Think Dungeons and Dragons or something similar. If you haven't, here are the very basics:

  • There are no computers or electronics involved (unless someone wants to use them for images or sound effects). The entire game takes place in the players' imaginations.

  • Depending on the specific game you're playing, one player is designated the Gamemaster (GM) or Dungeonmaster (DM). This person is in charge of creating the general outline for an adventure and acting out all the sidekicks, bad guys, animals, and random passersby in the story.

  • The remaining players each act out one character, known as a Player Character (PC). These are the protagonists of the story, and their decisions are the key factor in determining how the adventure proceeds.

  • During a gaming session, the players tell the GM what their PCs want to do, and the GM explains the results. Most actions require someone to roll dice to determine the outcome.

It's a lot of fun, and I've learned a lot about writing by participating in it.

For example, there's a common joke among GMs: "No plan survives contact with the players." Considering that I've GM-ed for or been a player in various groups in which players/PCs . . .

  • decided to get into an enemy base not by sneaking in but by hijacking a scout walker and blowing open the front door,

  • kept getting such bad dice rolls during a fight that they almost surrendered to a bounty hunter they should have been able to defeat,

  • recruited not just the prisoners they were rescuing but also their guards,

  • set a dragon loose on the countryside without considering that he might set things other than the PCs' enemies on fire, and

  • accidentally used a way-too-short fuse on a barrel of gunpowder

. . . I'd have to agree with that joke. 

As you might guess, one of a GM's most important skills is making things up (that is, writing!) on the fly. After all, the GM's number-one job is to make sure everyone is having fun and the game doesn't fall apart just because someone did something unexpected. 

Similarly, when you're writing fiction, no plot survives contact with the characters. Even though you create and control all the inhabitants in your story, they can surprise you. As you learn more about the characters and their arcs, some aspects of your plot might have to change in service to those personal journeys. 

For instance, in one of my screenplays, a princess and her friends try to rescue her father, who's been kidnapped by an old enemy who wants to seize the throne. In the first draft, the villain captured the whole group and left them imprisoned while he went off to conquer the now-leaderless kingdom. But in subsequent drafts, I realized that the villain and his allies wouldn't have the numbers to take the kingdom by force, so they'd need some other way of forcing the king's subjects to submit to them. Just as importantly, as I fleshed out the villain, I realized that he doesn't merely want to take the crown; he wants to hurt the king as much as possible in the process. And both the villain and I knew that the king's breaking point would be losing his daughter.

So, in the current draft, things proceed quite differently. Instead of simply locking everyone up, the villain forces the king to watch while the villain springs a death trap on the princess and her friends. Then the villain takes the king back to his own kingdom as a hostage. Not only does this version of the plot provide a logical way to overcome the villain's lack of manpower, but it reinforces his character and forces the king into the most painful part of his arc as he confronts his worst nightmare.

So the next time you realize that your characters and your plot are at odds, try thinking like a GM and changing the plot to accommodate the characters. It'll make your story that much richer and more satisfying.

Write on,


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(Thanks to Alperen Yazgı for sharing their work on Unsplash.)