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Writers on Roleplaying: Elizabeth Bear
Spotlight Interview
Christopher Dinkins & Jeremy Jones

If you’ve read any of Elizabeth Bear’s Edda of Burdens novels, such as The Sea Thy Mistress, you’d probably say that Bear does her best writing alone. Of course, if you picked up copies of A Companion to Wolves or The Tempering of Men, both co-written with Sarah Monette, you might be inclined to say Bear does her best work when collaborating.

Either way, you’d be right. Each of Bear’s novels or stories is her best work—beautifully layered, richly textured, and so full of that grand old sense of wonder that your chest will probably ache—in a good way, of course—when you read it.

You may be surprised to learn that it was at the gaming table, playing RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, that Elizabeth Bear learned the ins and outs of collaborative storytelling and refined her ability to respond to unexpected twists and narrative turns. In the following interview, she talks about the connections between gaming and writing.

What has playing RPGs taught you about writing fiction?

Elizabeth Bear: You know, they're both storytelling, but I find the skills don't always cross-pollinate. Because role-playing is interactive and reactive, it's much more of a collaborative process.

I do think that role-players are more comfortable writing collaboratively, and they're also much more comfortable dealing with unexpected plot twists. But they may get bogged down if they expect writing to work the same way.

Are there any similarities between the act of playing an RPG and the act of writing fiction?

Elizabeth Bear: Yes, there are—especially when something in narrative forces you to be reactive. And the things that make a good story—character development, adventure, tension, revelation—are the same. But the methods of accessing them are often not equivalent.

How is the relationship between writer and character different than the relationship between the player and character?

Elizabeth Bear: Well, a player inhabits his character. There's an ego-link; the character is "I". It's more like acting—although it's common to actors, when not portraying a character, to speak of that character in the third person—and often not very familiarly. "Mister Brown," for example.

Some writers do inhabit their characters in a very personal way, become very ego-invested in them. And I too have some characters I channel or role-play—these are often the ones we say "write themselves." But I'm hesitant to let myself ego-invest in a fictional character the way I would in a character I am playing because I need to be able to do to those characters what the story demands.

In an RPG, if I am playing and not running, I am my character's advocate. When I write, I'm more like the Game Master.

What hasn’t playing RPGs taught you about fiction? Or, what is a significant difference between playing and writing?

Elizabeth Bear: What makes a good RPG is not always what makes a good narrative. Because players are ego-invested in their characters, it's okay when the world revolves around them. But a narrative that revolves around the protagonist becomes Mary-Sueish very quickly.

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