Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Detachment

Near the end of my last post, I made reference to some of the trials my player's characters have been through, that has helped establish, for them, not merely a set of events but a living, breathing history.  They view their characters with a great deal of sentimentality; they identify with them, and like any character from a show or a series of films, where there has been time to get to know the character well, the loss or disappearance of the character would leave an emotional hole.

Several of the people who have read my book Pete's Garage have remarked on the characters in the book, how real they seem or how interesting they are ... and some have asked if I would write another book with the same characters, recognizing that this would only be a matter of creating a new situation, that would in turn affect them.  I imagine there's not a serious writer anywhere in the world who hasn't had to field this question.  No matter how many Harry Potter books there might be, no matter that the author who wrote James Bond is dead, the characters go on, and on, because people love them.  That is how my players feel about their characters.

Why?  What is it that compels them?  Why is it that some players fall in love with the characters they run, while others are indifferent, even contemptuous, of the fighters or mages they create?  What is the formula?

Detachment is a willing or unwilling disassociation with the emotional demands of living as a person in society.  There are those who are simply unable to do so - they are psychologically disordered, to the extent that they cannot make an emotional connection to any other person.  Everything they do, and all their relationships, are managed from a strictly operational perspective.  In many cases, this results from some form of trauma the individual has suffered, compelling them to draw back in order to protect themselves; in other cases, it is simply that the presence of emotions in others overwhelms the individual, to the point where they are too stressed to operate at all if they acknowledge the presence of emotions, no matter the source.

Alternately, there are those who are free to choose between detachment and connectivity - and they have chosen the former.  They prefer, from experience, to deal with matters from an outward perspective; to view emotional motivations as something not to be pursued or desired.  It is often a practical solution to operating in situations where there is a great deal of human suffering, such as in a war zone or a hospital, or where a cool, level head is more important than giving in to the immediate demands of emotion, such as in law enforcement or rescue.  Spending a long portion of one's day putting emotions on the back burner can produce an habitual attitude towards said emotions, so that it becomes difficult - or undesirable - to let those emotions in even when one is off-duty.

It would be the height of foolishness to presume that detachment is an all-or-nothing matter.  Individuals may be very emotional in many circumstances of their lives, while deliberately detached when participating in one specific activity.  A chessmaster might be emotionless and hard when playing; and a complete disaster emotionally otherwise.  Moreover, the degree to which one detaches from the present emotional environment is completely circumstantial.  I am probably more likely to get exhuberant or angry at home, where I can be assured that no one will misunderstand, than I am at work; I might scream things at a hockey game I'd never say in any other setting.  I might be willing to drop gloves and fight while playing hockey ... whereas in any other situation I would never contemplate raising my fists.  Detachment is wildly variant.

From that, we can assume there are those who deliberately detach themselves from their characters for reasons that are satisfactory to them.  One question would be, however, why that particularly?  Why would someone resist any identification with a fictional being?

I had a friend who was infuriated with the movie Cast Away, because of the relationship that developed between Chuck Noland, the main character, and the volleyball he began to call Wilson.  Her specific issue was her disbelief that anyone, ever, and certainly not her, could conceivably delude themselves to the point where they became emotionally attached to an inanimate object, which was so clearly inanimate.  A discussion after the movie - which I had shown her - did not in any manner change her mind, and it became clear after a time that she was operating from a position of supreme denial.

What's funny is the clear evidence that many people, not having been trapped on an island for four years with Wilson, are more than ready to identify Wilson as a legitimate character.  The volleyball has 'his' own IMDb page, and appears in the cast list of the movie on IMDb.  A bio for Wilson begins,

"Wilson the Volleyball is one of Hollywood's most loved volleyballs. His glittering career started when he became the only companion of Tom Hanks' Chuck Noland in Cast Away. Many say this is Wilson's best performance and he couldn't have given a better effort. He has made notable guest appearances on shows like Family Guy, where he was able to poke fun at his role in Cast Away ..."

So where is the disconnect?  From where does it derive?

My personal feeling is that everything boils down to fear.  My erstwhile friend (gone for other reasons) was probably more affected by the movie than she was prepared to accept.  Players who refuse absolutely to identify with their characters - very often on principle - are no doubt concerned that an emotional investment in the character would preclude them from having the freedom to simply walk away from the table without guilt or emotion.  Or, the obvious alternative, if the character dies, they just don't have to care.  Better to keep that detachment firmly in place than to find oneself going to a session because one can't bear that the loved character is now on a shelf, where it will never be able to play again.  More to the point, it would mean having to bend or shape oneself to other players, in order to keep their goodwill, so that the loved character isn't booted from the game along with the player.

The gentle reader may laugh at that proposal, but I think it is a very real concern.  It is much easier to walk away from a job that one hates than be fired from a career that one loves.  The world is full of people who deliberately resist 'getting involved,' because it would mean putting themselves in a situation where their happiness depended on the sympathy, even the tolerance, of others.  How many times have you seen someone suddenly spaz out, incensed at something inconsequential, when it wasn't hard to tell they were really just looking for an excuse to get out from under all that joint-participation?  One has to expect that a D&D party carries with it all the same expectations on a person's participation as any other association ... and it must be easier to stop showing up at a game when the character is just a sheet of paper, and not a person deeply cared for.

I've had many people appear at a session wanting to play some character they love, who came from another campaign, wanting that character to live and breathe again.  Presumably, the DM whom they played with is no longer playing, or in another city, or doesn't care about players and their characters.  It is doubly hard when the players choose to care, but the DM does not - but that is another post.

I don't let such characters in.  Everyone in my world starts fresh.  And I have had players view their characters with indifference, or deliberately run characters so different from themselves as to be unrecognizeable as human beings.  Detachment takes a lot of forms.

The best playing, I have always found, happens when the player identifies the character as themselves ... not in the sense, necessarily, that the character has the exact behavior of the player, but rather that the player is participating as they would if they were that character.  In other words, if they were transformed into that person, like the kid in Richard Corben's Den.  I name that particular series because Corben perceived himself as the kid ... and because Corben surely recognized as a writer that he could never BE Den except in fiction.  Nevertheless, there is a strong living sense that Den is a real person, because Corben infused his own personality into the circumstances and conditions of Den's strength and presence in that world.  That's what I think players should do with their characters.  "If Mary were a half-naked muscled male monk, what would she do?"  Not what would a monk that no one has ever met would do.

If a player who practices detachment towards their character steps into a game where all the other players are prepared to invest, the balance is usually fucked ... and strongly against the player who refuses to embrace.  After all, by refusing, that player does not only detach his or her self from the character, but from any point or drama set by the campaign itself, since their perspective is always unemotional ... thus the campaign, and those in the campaign who have drunk the kool-aid, are disposable.

Thus, detached players don't last.  I will go one step further, as a DM who loves emotionally involved players: detached players aren't wanted.

Too bad for them.