The other night I was having dinner with a few friends, one of whom is who is a big gaming fan. He had a copy of a magazine called White Dwarf (Aug. 2011), which, if I remember correctly, is published by Games Workshop and covers the Warhammer gaming system. I’ve never been into gaming, but I do enjoy flipping through these kinds of magazines because I love the photography; the exquisitely painted models and figurines shot in close-up is an art unto itself. Yet for some reason I found myself reading and enjoying one of the articles (no, not the best of dinner manners, but then I’m not the one who brought the magazine into the restaurant in the first place 😉 .)
I got the impression that the piece was a regular column–“Standard Bearer,” by Jervis Johnson– and it was about game mechanics and game design. And in this case there was an element to what the author was saying that I thought related exceptionally well to writing fiction. He was talking about something he called “associated game mechanics” and contrasting it to “disassociated game mechanics.” Disassociated game mechanics is “rules where the game mechanics is thought of first, rather than the mechanics being based on the game’s background.
“The alternative to this is to create the game’s background first and then write rules that are based on that background. This process creates associated game mechanics because the rules [of the game] are associated with the units that receive them.”
The column went on to say that “Disassociated mechanics are great for creating challenging yet rather abstract games. Because the rules are separated from the background, the designer can concentrate purely on the game mechanics, creating a clinically precise game system. Chess and bridge are two examples of games that use disassociated mechanics to great effect. Associated mechanics, on the other hand, are great for creating games where players become immersed in the story that is unfolding before them…”
I’m not sure why I started reading the column in the first place, but I do know that I read the whole thing eagerly and then borrowed a pen from the waiter so I could write the pertinent parts down because it was so easy to translate this columnist’s thoughts on gaming into good advice for writing. Basically it boils down to this: if you want a world/story/book where readers “become immersed in the story that is unfolding before them” you need build it in such a way that the pieces fit together, using associated story mechanics, rather than forcing things to go in a predetermined way. This is accomplished largely by knowing the background of the world you are writing about, as well as the background of the characters you are writing about. Then you write your story with the background providing rules that “are associated with the units that receive them”–in this case the “units” are your story’s characters. That way things grow organically, from the roots up. The background provides the rules that are those roots.
I know many writers hear the word “rules” and balk. “Rules stifle me,” they say. “They stifle my writing.”
Poppycock. The only thing stifled by these kinds of rules is laziness. Making things go in the direction the author wants them to and still adhering to the character’s past requires the greatest kind of and degree of creativity. It’s the difference between planting a tree into fertile ground and letting it grow, versus buying one at a nursery and putting it on top of the ground, still in its pot. It most certainly takes more time and work to properly prepare the ground, to dig a hole, and to cultivate around it, but which tree is going to stand up the best when the storms come and the winds blow and the rivers rise? (That’s a rhetorical questions; I know you know the answer.)
The alternative—writing with disassociated story mechanics—results in work that creates “challenging yet rather abstract stories… creating a clinically precise story.” You’ve read these kinds of tales before, where the characters seem to move in exactly the way the author wants them to. The problem with this approach is that the characters never really come to life; they are pawns and rooks and bishops to be moved about at the author’s discretion. I don’t know if there is a chess or bridge equivalent to literature, where it is used to great effect, but if there is, I can’t think of it.
And let me be clear, this isn’t a plotter vs. pantser argument. Regardless of which approach you favor, your stories will always benefit from having a well-thought out background. Knowing who your characters were will never impede you from discovering who they might become during your story, just as knowing the world around them will only aid you in discovering where they are going (literally and metaphorically).