This is RPG-ology #43: Muscle Memory, for June 2021.
We are interrupting our restoration of the Game Ideas Unlimited series for this new game and story idea.
I was tying my shoe—something many of us do every day without really thinking about it, but for no reason I paid attention as my left hand looped the one string around the thumb of my right hand, and my right hand passed around the bight that I had created, and together they pulled to tighten the knot. This, too, was something I don’t really think about but which I do constantly. I am doing it right now as I type this. I will do it again in a few minutes when I stand up and walk out of my office.
Many of the knots I learned to tie as a scout I still tie without thinking more than that I need to tie a knot and this is the right one; some of them I have to think about how to tie because I don’t use them often enough to remember them. Yet obviously this doesn’t just apply to knot tying. Already I hinted at touch typing, that I don’t really think about where the keys are on the keyboard, nor indeed what letter I need next, but simply let my fingers produce the words that are in my mind. I also mentioned walking, an extremely complex collection of muscle movements in which we shift everything from our toes to our spine to our arms to balance our weight as we move it from one foot to the other and back. We learned to chew and swallow food, our tongues performing the important task of shifting chunks between our teeth to be broken into more digestible bits, then moving the prepared mash down our throat. There are things almost every one of us does every day that we do without thinking how we do it, because our muscles know what to do. This is called muscle memory, that parts of our body have been trained to know the pattern of the task we want to accomplish so we need not think about it.
Most of these may seem like fairly ordinary tasks, but the ability goes into specialization. It once was that people would be able to dial frequently called phone numbers that they could not so easily recite without imagining the dial. That has mostly vanished from the world—but those with password patterns on their phones do much the same thing when they sign into them. When I cook, many of the “simple” things I do, from stirring salads to flipping burgers, are done largely with muscle memory, and the same applies to washing dishes and scrubbing pots. Moving far beyond that, it is obvious that many combat skills are largely trained muscle memory, from Oriental weaponless fighting to S.E.A.L. team snipers.
The list could easily be expanded. Acrobats are an obvious example, but lock picking shows clear signs of involving muscle memory, along with other “thief skills” such as stalking. Operating a small boat alone or in concert with others clearly falls into this category, but also many of the skills involved in operating a larger one.
How, though, does this matter to your game, or your writing? The thing is, nearly any physical activity can become a muscle memory skill, something you can do without thinking; it can certainly be done by careful consideration of the steps involved (think of Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes planning each movement in his attack run before he attacks), but it is not as easy to do that way. This is why Daniel-san paints the fence, waxes the car, and buffs the floor in The Karate Kid: muscle memory is created by repetition, practice. What the character does repeatedly over time becomes more natural, not just because the muscles are strengthened but because they learn how to move in sequence to achieve the desired result.
It’s too easy to say that that can be applied to almost anything, from turning pages in a book to operating an M1 Abrams tank. The truth is, it is difficult to imagine any skill to which it can’t apply. Thus if you want your character to become better at something, demonstrate that he does it frequently, and if your character appears to be doing something repeatedly, show that he gets better at it. The fiction takes on more of a sense of reality if there is a connection between repeated use of a skill and improvement in it.
And that sense of reality is what makes fiction work.