Posted by: Jess Riley | September 30, 2008

Youth and Age: Writing What You Know?

When I read Sean’s recent post on older characters, I had two comments to make in response. The first was, “Sean, you know full well that not only do I play a rather old dwarf, but you yourself play a character explicitly in their late 50’s. We’ve roleplayed with grandfathers, for goodness sakes. How can you say there’s not enough oldies around?” I didn’t actually comment on his post with this, though, as he commented on my draenei post with something similar and I didn’t want to copy him.

The second was, “Sean, the reason why people don’t play oldies as much as they play young’uns is because most of the people playing World of Warcraft have never really experienced being old.” I didn’t comment on his post with this, though, because it started my brain ticking.

Sean discusses a lot of reasons for playing youth – youth is sexy, youth is less experienced, and it’s easier to justify. This, I feel, ignores the two main reasons why people don’t roleplay youth very often. To begin with, a young character has more potential than an older character. An older character has already lived most of their life, their personality would be more set in stone, they’ve experienced a lot more things off-camera than a young person would have. You can’t roleplay an old person having a first kiss, or gearing up to face battle for the first time, or anything like that – they’ve already done it. This puts a lot of people in mind to play young people, because they want to play out these experiences.

Second of all is the one I stated to begin with, my very first thought on the subject, was that most players are quite young and want to play someone of around about their experience. This is a thought I’ve always more or less take for granted. People don’t always want to play someone old if they’re very young (not all the time, but this is fairly common), if nothing else because they feel like they can’t do justice to a more aged character. I think this is very similar to the reasons why people typically (again, far, far from exclusively, but typically) play characters of the same gender as themselves, and all that sort of thing.

Something that I think everyone is told when they get into creative writing (and let’s face it, roleplaying comes straight from creative writing), is that they should write what they know. Not that I’m suggesting that the only good books are memoirs, or else that Steven King was in his youth molested by a monster clown, but I know it’s advice that I’ve received time and time again. If you’re a young woman, it’s going to take a lot more research, practice and skill to realistically portray an old man than it would to realistically portray a young woman. This is sound advice, in a lot of ways.

But hold on – I can hear your arguments coming already, and this is the same brainwave that hit me earlier! In real life, Jess, you’re not a rotting twenty-six year old school teacher, nor are you a drug-addicted prostitute elf, nor are you a recovering alcoholic male dwarf. At the same time, Sean’s not a young, female gnome, or an aging lunatic with maggots in his jaw and Dissociative Identity Disorder, or a bigoted priestess. None of the readers (I know this is a generalisation, but please feel free to email me if I’m wrong in my assumption) are tauren, orcs, or draenei – or mages, warlocks, or paladins. If we can get into the mindset of a night elf, why exactly can’t we take that one step further? It’s certainly no harder to go, “What if I were a male?” than “What if I were a gnome?”. It’s really no more of a leap to say, “What if I were old?” than to say “What if I were able to cast fire from my hands?”.

What I’m basically getting at is that while ‘writing what you know’ is a great starting point, when we’re already talking about a fantasy universe, it shouldn’t be any more complicated to realistically portray someone of a different gender, age, or level of experience than to play a character of a different race or species. In order to really “get it”, you may need to research it a little more, but the same is true of being a realistic troll shaman.

In short, a lot of people roleplay things that are similar to them, and this is great to some extent – and particularly, I would recommend that any novice roleplayer start with something that they can grasp easily like this – but we shouldn’t be limited to things like this when we’re already extending so far as to fantasy races and classes.

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