Ever heard of Mary Sue?
If not, you’re lucky. According to legend, Mary Sue was a character in a fan-fiction story that took place on the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701). As Kirk was the youngest captain in Starfleet, Mary Sue was suposidly the youngest ensign. Never the less, despite her lowly rank, on the most prestigious ship in the Federation, Mary Sue saved the day.
If you just leave it as described above, a natural response is, “so what?” What’s wrong with a minor crew-member getting the chance to shine every once in a while? Well…it’s more a matter of how she did it. You see, Mary Sue was so smart and so capable that every little thing she did was magic. She was a master of all skills with and uncanny ability to immediately see the answer to every problem, rendering all other characters (Spock, McCoy, Kirk) totally unnecessary. In short, a smart-assed little know it all.
In role playing games such annoying characters can not exist. Why? Because in RPGs characters are defined by their character sheets and restricted by the rules. A typical RPG character has a set score to tell the player how strong, how smart and how charismatic he or she is. Furthermore, the characters skills and abilities are recorded, giving exact information about what that character can and can not do.
Writers of fiction can learn a lot from role players in general. But specifically right now I’m talking about characters. As a writer, it’s easy to paint yourself into a dramatic corner. Your hero is up against insurmountable odds and you need him or her to resolve the plot somehow. But when “Mary Sue” strikes, and your gunfighter performes brain surgery to save the day; you can expect your reader to toss your story across the room and never pick it up again.
For characters to be believable they must be limited; only so smart, only so strong, only so capable. Treating fictional characters like role playing characters forces you to tamp down your worst “Mary Sueish” impulses and tell a compelling, realistic story.
Readers crave characters that win despite their limitations because that make it easier to put themselves in the hero’s shoes. So do yourself a favor, future writer, play a role playing game.
…I recommend Star Run (see catalog).