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Storyboard: Grieving in character

Eliot Lefebvre
Grief is not the same as being sad. Being sad is something I've discussed before, and it's a temporary emotional state. Grief is a filter, something that colors your whole perception and pushes you into a holding pattern of regret and sorrow. Real grief colors even things you do that make you happy so that even as you're smiling and laughing there's a pall over what you do.

It's the way you feel when you lose a parent. Or a lover. Or a nation. Or almost anything profoundly important that you can lose, that you weren't ready to lose, that you don't know how to exist without.

The point is that it's a very important human emotion, one that is going to come up in roleplaying. But it's also a problematic one because you have to convey what is in large part an internal sensation externally. So how do you get the sense of grief across without just making your character into a constant font of moping?

Nothing yet has really sunk in - looks like it always did.It's the empty page

When my father passed away, it was after I had already done most of my shopping for Christmas that year. I had placed my gifts to him in the same place as the other ones I needed to wrap. So it was a week or so before I started wrapping, and I came across his presents, and I found myself starting to wrap them anyway, even though it was literally pointless. I knew it, in my mind, but my brain hadn't yet fully made the connection that he was gone and not coming back.

Part of grief is that when you lose something big enough, you can't process the loss. You start going through the motions of things that would have made perfect sense back when the person in question was still around, stopping yourself partway through. It doesn't necessarily end in tears, but it does end in your stopping and pulling yourself back when you realize unexpectedly that this isn't a thing any longer.

You can convey this easily. Have your character talk about things that would have made sense to do with her lover, then stop short when she realizes, "Oh, that's not relevant." Give her the space to think about things that would have happened before she realizes that's not how the world works any longer. She moves on, and she accepts, but she still keeps making plans for someone or something no longer involved.

This flesh and bone is just the way we're tied into this.Life carries on

Despite the grief, your character should still be feeling joy. But there's a sort of joy that makes perfect sense in context, one that seems like fun while it seems like intentional catharsis.

You've seen it in action before, probably. Drinking to excess without drinking to forget. Running or dancing with more fervor than is even remotely necessary. Throwing yourself into gardening or crafting or something similar. My wife once described it as a point when your body hurts so that your mind can't, and while you don't hate what you're doing, the goal is to just throw yourself wholly into one activity until you can't focus on anything else.

The key here is not much addiction as it is excess. Your character isn't doing anything unhealthy in the strictest sense, but he is devoting a worrisome amount of his time to a recreational activity that isn't totally healthy. He's driving himself to the point of exhaustion in a calculated move to avoid letting something sink in, and any onlookers will have a vague sense that something is very wrong, which is most certainly the case, albeit not for the reasons that said onlookers are likely thinking.

Playing up that intensity conveys the idea that this is a drive to avoid feeling something. In many ways, it's even a healthy reaction to the situation, trying to move on through extreme behavior. But it's also not normal activity, and that can be played up.

Now there's no one home... I grieve.Loving what's gone

When you lose someone close to you, a lot of the time you find yourself clinging even tighter to the people still near you. You feel the loss, and so you try to do whatever you can to avoid further loss. And just as your activities take on a certain added intensity, your fears and feelings get an edge that isn't really commensurate with what's taking place.

No one is ever running just a little bit late to your character. Nothing is an innocent comment, nothing is friendly ribbing, and no jokes are jut kind of funny. Some emotion is just keyed up to a million, and it means that when your character feels even a trace of that emotion, she feels it to the extreme.

The trick is that it isn't necessarily sadness. It's not that anything will send her on a crying fit; she knows she needs to move on. So instead she just shifts that intensity to something else, something that she can feel to excess with no fear of drawbacks. Maybe she's unusually nervous or joking more than normal or getting angry over minor disagreements. She's up at the top and she can't come down, can't relax, can't let things be. And she isn't even really aware of it.

I grieve

At its core, grief is something extreme, and it should feel like it's something with a big and lasting impact on your character. But it's also not the same as just moping about being sad all the time, since that quickly veers into melodrama. You want to create the impression of sorrow without being locked into repetitive motions.

Or at least, not overly repetitive motions.

Feedback is welcome in the comments below or via mail to Next week, I want to talk about determining how much pre-planning is too much or too little. The week after that, I want to take a look at sustaining your interest during long events.

Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did. If you need a refresher, check out the Storyboard Library.