More than two decades ago now, before I’d ever heard of role playing games or Dungeons & Dragons™ or the hobby game industry, I took an undergraduate course in creative writing, specifically writing fiction. I suppose I had some distant dream of retiring and writing the next great fantasy novel, and I thought this would help. It was a wonderful class, and I gained much from it.
Periodically we were required to write short pieces which would be as fragments of a story—descriptions of scenes, action sequences, and similar bits. One of these was an internal character sketch. To explain, when we read books there is always a perspective from which we are told the story. It can be an external perspective, as we would have watching a play or film, seeing everyone’s actions from the outside. But books permit us to come to the story from the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of one of the characters, to know not only what happened, but how it affected this individual. So it is possible to describe a character externally, telling what he looks like, how he dresses and moves and what he does; but it is possible to describe a character internally, considering how he sees himself, how he reacts and what goes through his mind that leads him to the choices he makes. This assignment was to introduce a character from the inside, from the character’s own perspective.
I decided that the character I would create would be a young woman. Having observed my wife when she came home from work, I had some idea how she felt on those days when she could not be bothered with where her clothes landed or what there was to eat but only wanted to collapse in her bed. So for a moment I put myself in her place, and considering what she must think and how she must feel, wrote a sketch of a woman much like her as she comes in from work and goes directly to bed.
A few days later the professor, a woman, read it aloud to the small class of a dozen girls and one other boy. Not one of them guessed that it had not been written by a girl despite the professor’s suggestion that they should think about the person who wrote it. I considered that a success at the time. I had managed to think enough like a woman to convince a dozen girls that I was one of them.
Today my first novel is in the final stages of production. One of the three main characters, from whose perspective fully a third of the story has been told, is a woman; and in some ways she is the character most like me. She shares my faith and many of my values, and does what I would do (or hope to do) in the situations which arise. I have commented that I made her female in part because she was more like me, and I needed in some way to distance her from me—although perhaps it is also true that because I made her female I needed to make her more like me in other ways to be able truly to understand her. But whichever is more the case, as I wrote her sections of the book it was necessary for me to think like her, like a woman.
It was also necessary for me to think like the other two main characters quite a bit. One is a young atheist, the other a pagan. In order to have the three characters truly and honestly interact, it was necessary for me to understand what they think and how they feel. Sometimes it was necessary for me to think like an atheist to understand the atheist, or like a pagan to understand the pagan.
But I have had a lot of practice in the intervening decades. I was introduced to role playing games, and over the years have played many characters. I played a young martial artist who was eagerly seeking the true religion; a soldier who was committed to the ways of the Norse god Odin and the values of glory and sacrifice; a lawyer whose only concern was to see that his clients were free to make their own choices in life; a young sorceress wrestling with the issues of good and evil as she faced that choice in her life path; a minister and woodsman who would not permit creatures to be wantonly slain without some proof that they deserved death beyond that they were members of a tribe guilty of such crimes. In each case, I practiced understanding the thoughts, feelings, values, and perceptions of another person. I understood who they were, and so was able to describe how they would act.
There is an aphorism attributed to native Americans which translates something much like this: do not judge a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins. That is, until you have understood what another has been through and goes through in his life you cannot understand why he does what he does or pass judgment on the wisdom of his choices. George Verwer, in Come, Live, Die, similarly suggests that we not pass judgment on older Christians, as the problems we see in their lives might be battle scars, attitudes and aspects which are there because of the battles they have fought over the years. To truly understand someone, you must be able to think as they think and to know what they feel. Inevitably, you must be able to become them, at least for a moment, to know them.
If we can’t know other people, we cannot help them. If we cannot understand their needs, we cannot tell them how Jesus provides for them. If we cannot see the way they see the world, we cannot explain what it is they have failed to see or have misunderstood. If we cannot feel what they feel—if we have no empathy—they will not believe that we care, or even that we can care. You don’t understand, they will say; and they will be right.
When we roleplay, many of us play characters who are not like us. Men play women and women play men, and in doing so we discover something of how others live. We play saints sometimes, certainly, challenging ourselves with the requirements of near perfection; but we more often play sinners, just as all are sinners—but sinners whose faults are different from our own, people who have conquered those sins which easily beset us but have other sins to which we are not tempted. In doing so we often learn that they are not so different from us; that we can find it within ourselves to love and help these people instead of fearing and condemning them.
Some of us play evil characters. There are those in this hobby, Christian and non-Christian alike, who feel that players should never play evil characters, and (remembering our discussion of the weaker brother) I would not tell them that they should do so or allow it to be done in their games. Yet for others, playing the evil character opens our eyes to what evil is and how it gets hold of a person, and perhaps how someone can be freed from it.
There is another level to the roleplaying of characters that is important. I recently examined it in an article in my Game Ideas Unlimited series at Gaming Outpost, entitled Flirting*. By playing other characters, we discover what is in ourselves. As we discover what is in ourselves, we can choose to become better people, in a sense emulating the example of our own better selves as portrayed through those characters, or in the reverse recognizing faults that we share with the characters we play and so looking for ways to correct them. We can by roleplaying discover who we ourselves are and who we can be; we can also discover who other people are, and how we can understand them and better minister to them through that discovery.
*Alas, Gaming Outpost has ceased operation, none of the articles behind its paywall were accessible to the Wayback Machine, and “Flirting” is not available on M.J.’s personal website (as of this writing).
This article was originally published in May 2002 on the Christian Gamers Guild’s website. The entire series remains available at its original URL.