When people hear about roleplayers in WoW for the first time, some get the impression that we take our little game of "let's pretend" way too seriously, that everything we do in the game has to be some sort of mind-blowing expression of our innermost true feelings. But the truth of the matter is that only a portion of what we do in the game involves stories and character -- a lot of what we do and say to other players is not "in character" at all. In fact, our out-of-character (OOC) communication is essential in order to properly enjoy the in-character (IC) elements, and good roleplayers do a lot of cool things to help make both sides complement each other.
Much of what roleplayer does is out of character, and rightly so. Even just pushing buttons in order to activate abilities could be considered "OOC" -- in a way, the only character you can ever totally immerse yourself in is... yourself. Any time you play a role that isn't yourself, there's always some part you which is there in the background, knowing that it's all just a show. You can't really ignore your true self -- you have to let it guide and inform every part of the role you play.
The same is true when roleplaying in WoW. Roleplay is strengthened when you open up and accept OOC communication with others, establish real relationships in addition to those your characters create. Actors in a play have to support each other as real people or their play will fail, and in the same way, the honest communication we open up with our roleplaying friends can sometimes be what defines our roleplaying experience and gives it true meaning.
I once wrote an article about total-immersion roleplaying. At the time, I was in a guild that practiced this very strictly, and I was trying to decide if it could work for me or not. I tried to write that article in an unbiased way, suggesting both advantages and disadvantages of total immersion and letting the reader make up his or her own mind.
But I have since decided that one way really is much better than the other -- not only is it impossible to totally immerse yourself in any role other than "you," but trying to do so is counterproductive and defeats the whole purpose of roleplaying. We don't roleplay to be other people, we roleplay to become more of who we want to be, and part of that means sharing aspects of your true self with others too.
Experienced actors will tell you that every time they take on a new character, they must put something of themselves into it, and they must learn many of the skills and qualities their character possesses in order to portray them well. Some people say that if you want to improve who you are, one of the best ways is to act like someone who already is the way you want to be.
But one thing you don't do is just ignore who you really are and go about pretending that you don't have learning to do. Actors who want to properly portray someone go and interview the person they are portraying, they discuss with people their ideas about how to portray them, and they go through a genuine learning process about their target character, all without playing any role at all.
In the same way, roleplayers should have an opportunity to talk with each other outside of the roles they play. Their real communication, real sharing of ideas and thoughts, give their in-character stories a context of real life learning and expression.
In last week's article about roleplaying in a "guild hall," I wrote about how the guild chat channel can actually become more than a walkie-talkie device though which members of a guild scattered all over the world can keep in touch with one another -- it can become a place in itself, and open doors to all kinds of interesting shared experiences for your characters.
One essential element I didn't talk about was the out-of-character channel that all guild members should join in order to supplement the in-character roleplaying going on. Establishing such a channel is essential, partly because sometimes even the best roleplayers don't feel like roleplaying, but mainly because it provides a way that the guild members can discuss the roleplaying they've done and make better sense of it: they can clarify or correct what they just said in the guild hall so as to avoid confusion; they can recap what happened when some of the other guild members were not around; and they can comment and encourage one another about the story they are roleplaying, even as they act it all out in the regular guild channel.
If your character gets angry or behaves rudely for example, your OOC communications can let your friends know that you know your character is wrong and flawed and you're eager to see whether or not your friends will correct his or her mistakes. Many interesting roleplay experiences come about by playing out our characters' flaws, and many roleplayers are more than willing to play them out as long as its clear that it's all just a story.
Likewise, if your friend comes up with an amazing idea or roleplays things in an interesting way, you can comment on it out-of-character, and support what your friends are doing, even if you are not taking part in it yourself. Just the other night, my character got a chance to privately share a bit of her own personal experience with another guild member in a way that every player in the guild could listen in on, even though they were roleplaying that their characters weren't actually in the guild hall at the time. My character shared how her children had died during the Exodar crash, and how she had struggled to make sense of it; she missed them dearly, but she refused to give in to despair in the face of loss. When I finished, another player said, "Awwww!" in the OOC channel, and brought a smile to my face. My character's experience was touching for me, and she let me know it was touching for her too, in a way that her character never could have done in a roleplaying situation. My character might not have liked her listening in like that, but in real life of course I was happy that the player herself could.
In the end, it doesn't matter as much what character you play or how well you play it -- what matters more is what you take away from your roleplaying experience when you go back to real life. Your OOC relationships with guild members and friends can be pivotal in helping you frame what your roleplaying experience means, both in little ways and in big ways. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your roleplaying is to put roleplaying aside for a little while, and just be yourself.