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Witty Wordsmith: Eavesdropping For Better Character Development

In the real world, it’s a forgone conclusion that no person knows everything.  It’s a day to day frustration that every person carries for their entire life.  This is why it is, in writing, a tempting trap to use the information you are reading in other sims to guide your character’s actions.  If writing is your fun escape from reality, what’s so wrong with having a character who is always right all the time?

This is a problem that is common between all role-playing games for the exact same reason.  It feels good to be right and we feel good portraying our characters so we want to use all the information at our disposal to make the best decisions, even if our characters wouldn’t know that information in their situation.  This could be called metagaming, power-simming or god-modding depending on your role-playing platform.  But whatever you choose to call it, using information that you know as a writer but your character would not know in the story is a habit we can all work to break ourselves out of.

We have in previous articles discussed why metagaming or power-simming damages the narrative and hurts your collaboration with fellow players.  But in this episode of writer’s workshop we’re going to explore why doing the opposite – purposely having your character overhear something and interpreting it wrong can be a fantastic source of entertainment and drama, as well as a stepping stone to breaking the habit of metagaming and enjoying using your characters in-scene knowledge more consistently.

How fun would it have been to read the first Harry Potter book and see Harry immediately target Professor Quirrell as the source of all the mishaps that befell Hogwarts that year?  There wouldn’t have been much of a mystery that kept a reader turning pages.  Instead Harry eavesdrops on Snape, finding he was injured by the three-headed dog and assumes that Snape is the bad guy trying to get the philosopher’s stone.  This leads Harry and his friends on all sorts of misadventures and ends up with a thrilling reveal of the true bad-guy at the end of the story.  All of this is focused around our protagonist overhearing something and making an incorrect assumption.

This works as a dramatic hook because misunderstandings in communication create conflict.  Conflict is the source of drama and possibility in writing and therefore conflict is good thing to have in your narrative.  Imperfect communication also means that you can focus on your character making what they feel are good and rational decisions – based on bad information.  The hero character is still doing what they believe to be the best course of action and making the best decisions possible, but they happen to be on the wrong course.

How might you use this in a sim? This is a great tool to use when trying to create alliances with groups that make be indifferent or neutral to your group, or when trying to stir up some conflict between characters.  You can break this concept down into a few simple steps to help you add more drama into your writing:

    1. Your character is placed in a situation to eavesdrop.

This could be accidental or intentional.  As Starfleet officers rather than impressionable child-wizards it’s more likely for our characters to linger outside a doorway, hear a colleague from across a lab or catch a commline that someone forgot to close than actually sneak up on someone, but there are many creative ways that characters could overhear something from technology mishaps to staying late at their station.

    1. Your character sees adversity

Again, as Starfleet officers it’s unlikely to assume your colleagues or an allied force are outright bad guys, but what if your characters is a junior officer and you hear an NPC colleague talking about the department head role you hope to get promoted into after this mission?  Or you overhear the group of civilian scientists you are working with talking about the profit margins of the important antidote they are working on?  These smaller sources of conflict are still great possibilities for character drama.

    1. Your character makes an incorrect assumption

This is the crux of conflict.  Most communication can be interpreted in a variety of ways and sometimes in writing you get to choose how to interpret something.  Maybe your NPC colleague doesn’t really want to be a department head but your character now sees her as a rival.  Maybe the civilian scientists aren’t cutthroat profit mongers, but now your character is suspicious of all of their negotiations.

All of this puts your character onto a path that not only creates a source of conflict and drama in the story, but gives you the opportunity to develop them into becomes a better communicator as they struggle with these crossed communication wires.  Maybe you decide you like the rivalry between the NPC colleague and your character and work to further this relationship, having them eventually become friends who push one another.  Maybe over the course of the mission your character learns how the profit-centered scientists grew up on a resource poor world and remember not having enough food or blankets and creating medicines for profit brought them stability and comfort.  Or maybe in either situation your character finds out they were wrong, the colleague isn’t a rival and the civilians aren’t focusing on profit but they had recently negotiated with a group of Ferengi and are still in that mindset and the focus is on your character building better communication skills.  No matter which path you choose your writing and the story get better!

And if you need any help you can always brainstorm new ways to eavesdrop and create some fun conflict in our Writer’s Workshop forums.

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