Today, Neyla brings us his second Community Article contribution - an eloquently phrased argument for minimalism in terms of roleplay and, in particular, character descriptions.
Working towards his English major, he comes at the topic with not only a roleplay background, but an academic one as well!
As a reminder - anyone is welcome to submit a Community Article! We'd love to be able to feature more voices on our front page!
A Pleasure to Make Your Acquaintance: Tips for Introducing Your Character in Roleplay
Written by Neyla
One of the most challenging aspects of roleplaying, as well as writing, is the balance of scene and dialogue. Both aspects of writing are critical to pulling the intended audience into your character and making them want to come back from more. While I'm not too concerned about dialogue for this piece, suffice to say that I will probably try and cover it later. I consider it one of those things that everyone sort of "knows” instinctively from simply being social animals but it does never hurt to brush up. For now though let's talk about scene and what scene means to RP.
First off, there are two types of scenes' (also called exposition) in writing and roleplay: action and description. Action is any form of exposition that progresses a storyline while description is any form of exposition that gives greater detail to the current location of the storyline. Simply put for roleplay, action is what your character is doing and description is what your character is.
In my observations the most common problem regarding description is a process known as "info-dumping”. Info-dumping is where the author or roleplayer gives the reader too much information in a single burst. An example of an ingame intro post that might be considered an info-dump:
"The Bosmer walking into the bar was tall for her species, though she was only of average height for a human. She wore simple leather armor accented with various bones from a boar carcass, such as the ribs hugging her waist and the skull severed into two parts and mounted on her shoulders. She had a rugged and firm build, and even though her skin wasn't exposed you could tell she had hardened abs and well-sculpted arms. Her sword was of Akaviri design, though not of Akaviri origin. It was long and narrow with a slight bend in the blade, sharp along its whole length. The pommel and grip was wrapped in leather and soaked in red dye giving it a ghastly appearance. Her face was rugged as well with various small nicks and bruises on her cheeks -the signs of a weary adventurer. Along her belt were healing potions and known salves and powders. She wore an amulet of Mara hung off of her belt buckle but one could see she wasn't looking for a husband.”
And so on and so on and so on. The first immediate problem of info dumps in a roleplaying environment is that they're loooooong. That introduction was 177 words, or 954 characters, or 6.8 text messages. Depending on the character limit of the MMO an introduction post like this takes up to 3 messages, completely monopolizing the chat window for some individuals. I've seen bigger introductions than this, and I've seen them in the middle of a crowded tavern. Whether or not this is good etiquette or not is debatable, but it is certainly not good writing.
The second problem is that it's simply too much information. Gritty hyper-realism has it's place, but I personally don't see that place being in roleplay or most forms of writing. One of the many qualities of a good writer or roleplayer is the ability to give the audience exactly what they need to know when they need to know it, and not a detail more. In the above example, I'm giving way too much information about my character. There's no need for the majority of the details in it or the long exposition about her sword and what's on her belt. By adding all of these details into a single massive post it actually causes the post to lose focus and dim the image of the character and can come off as jarring and overloaded.
Take the following example:
"The Bosmer walking into the bar was average height for a human, and rugged and dirtied in appearance. She wore leather armor accented in bone and had a Akaviri sword clamoring at her waist along with healing potions and the tools and ingedients of a temple healer.”
Here I have achieved nearly exactly the same imagery of the Bosmer, while also cutting the introduction down to 47 words and 265 characters -small enough to fit into a single chat message. In tavern roleplay this can be critical to maintaining the flow of conversation, because having to split a message in two will surely cause others to post in between each half. Optionally I could even take it a step further and just only describe things not rendered on her character model or armor, since its already viewable to the player.
Later in the roleplay I can always trickle details about her armor and sword or face to my partner, and it'll be far less jarring to do that than to front load all of my character's detail in the first two posts. Not only is it jarring but in many cases it can cause a reader to start skimming and possibly just infer the rest of the introduction without even reading it. As a general rule though I should leave out description of anything that isn't relevant to the story or conversation though. If her sword isn't going to be used in the story, just leave it out then. If someone is appraising her armor though, I should oblige and give out those details.
Another small tweak one can do with character description is to try and avoid describing the character at all in scene. To do so 100% is both impossible and can diminish the quality of the writing, but minimizing it can increase the presence of your character. By reducing exposition of your character, you will have to use dialogue to get your character's description out there. If my Bosmer walks up to another character and tells them that they've just gotten back from a campaign, I've already said a lot about my character in just a single sentence. Not only that but I've opened up a door of conversation that could potentially lead to a whole other tangent. If my Bosmer walks up to someone else and says they're seven months pregnant, one can intuitively piece together a description of my character's appearance and mannerisms without me having to spell it out for them. Of course, this is highly dependent on your character and if they aren't the talker, then description is important.
Finally, and this is important to action as well as descriptions, one can overladen their messages with adjectives and adverbs. Like the challenging and rewarding art and science of cooking, one should only use their powerful and delicious spices sparingly to avoid accidentally and tragically drowning their would-be savory and well-prepared gourmet dishes. Just say what you want to say, and leave the adjectives at home. The only time an adjective or adverb is really needed is if there is a profound (and I mean profound) difference between the unmodified word and the modified word: Bloodied sword vs. sword as opposed to sparkling ruby necklace vs. ruby necklace. Otherwise, season sparingly.
As with all aspects of writing: stay true to your voice. If you have a particular way of writing and it works well for you, then there is no reason to change it. If you have a particular paragraph that is running a little long but you can't find any more fat to trim, then it's probably just fine. Just always keep in mind that in writing and especially MMO roleplay that less can be more and walls of text aren't the only or even the best way to get the image of your character out there.