I didn’t always think of myself as a writer.
In fact, for a long time, it didn’t even occur to me that it might be a path I’d walk. Which in hindsight is ridiculous because I’ve been writing my whole life.
Once upon a time, I didn’t closet myself in my pleasantly darkened living room with inspirational music and scented wax to set the scene. (Seriously, try writing a forest setting with a pine scented wax melt beside you. You’ll wonder where your burner has been your whole life.)
Instead, I closeted myself in my basement with four of my closest friends, surrounded by stacks of our well-loved books and painstakingly hand-painted miniature versions of ourselves. Our swords and shields were a sharp pencil and a set of dice. Roleplaying was our passion and the outlet for our creativity.
We played everything, from Dungeons and Dragons (3.5 forever) to vampire: the masquerade, to L5R. My group was a little more intense than most, as I have come to learn. We threw ourselves into our characters, embarking on our personal dramas to the sound of rolling dice. Really though, there were multiple times I can remember being moved to tears by a scene I took part in, or watching someone else’s eyes get wibbly. Our characters became extensions of ourselves, and we lived and breathed their lives.
There was one famous scene I remember where myself and another player were on our feet yelling at each other across the table, equally impassioned and certain we were correct. After a few minutes we noticed the room was silent. The storyteller looked at us and asked in a cautious voice, “Er, you guys alright?” We just looked at him like he was crazy. “Of course. Why wouldn’t we be?”
Role-playing was the greatest inspiration of my middling years. But what does this have to do with writing, you might ask.
With each character I played, I wrote my background, the little blurb about who I was and why I acted as I did. Somehow, every background I wrote ended up longer and more thought out than the last. I still remember my storyteller’s face when I handed him a hundred pages of print.
Backgrounds aside, we started writing short stories about our characters, because they had complexities and thoughts that the game’s events didn’t bring to the surface. We called them drabbles.
Then I tried live action roleplaying. That was a different level of inspiration. Crouching in the trees, the scent of pine sap surrounding us while it poured (literally like the sky opened up. Later, we called it ‘rain mod’), waiting for the signal from the main force to join the attack. We found out later they’d been shouting for us for ten minutes, but we couldn’t hear because of the rain. Oops.
Experiences like that bring life to your words like nothing else. Now, when I write about running through a dark forest in a moonless night, I know what it feels like when you’re desperately on the run, enemies howling at your back. I know what a moonless forest actually looks like, which, for the record, is nothing, because it really is pitch black. I know the disorientation of pulling yourself from the treeline after accidentally running into the foliage, branches catching your clothing and holding you back as you’re trying to run.
I know the surge of excitement when you defeat the villain with your brothers and sisters in arms, realizing you’ve won, despite all odds.
Our weapons might have been foam rather than steel, but after three days in the woods it somehow makes less difference.
Finding vicarious inspiration can lead to the most powerful kind of connection to a character. Not only are you giving them life, but you’ve literally walked a day in their footsteps.
In fact, the protagonist of the first book I wrote was a character I played and threw myself into. When the game was done, I wasn’t. So, I gave him a new home and a new life, and I wrote my first novel. (160,000 words of it. *facepalm*)
I think where I’m going with this is that true inspiration comes from experience. How much more meaningful is the dark forest once you’ve stumbled into a couple trees?
So go out, live, play, do things you wouldn’t do. See things (or don’t, in said pitch black woods), and smell things and feel things. Shout with your friends as you charge the enemy forces, then bring that thrill to your pages. If your heart isn’t pounding as you write, you’re doing something wrong.
The words flow easier. The story becomes richer. The characters become real.
Always seek experiential inspiration. If that comes through living vicariously through your character’s steps, so be it. Don’t turn away and call it childish. Embrace it as the source of wisdom it is.
Let the words flow, and storm a couple bases in the process. You won’t regret it, and neither will your readers.