All the World's a Stage: Getting emotional about roleplaying

Anne Stickney
A. Stickney|03.20.11

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All the World's a Stage: Getting emotional about roleplaying
All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. In World of Warcraft, that player is you! Each week, Anne Stickney brings you All the World's a Stage with helpful hints, tips and tricks on the art of roleplay in WoW. Have questions about roleplaying, or roleplaying issues? Email me -- I'm always open to suggestions!

One of the most intrinsic parts of roleplaying is putting yourself in your character's shoes to the point that you become the character. This may sound odd to the non-roleplaying population, but consider it in the same realm as acting -- or more accurately, like a free-form improv performance. We've talked a lot about developing your character, figuring out what's important to her, what she holds close to her heart -- but that's really only the first step to creating engaging roleplay.

Everyone loves to be happy, and everyone loves to play a happy character. Interacting with happy characters is generally a fun experience that everyone enjoys. But there are cavalcades of other emotions that go into roleplaying, and it can be a little harder to take those into consideration. So how do you infuse your character with a realistic set of emotions? How do you know how your character feels? More importantly, how do you keep those feelings from leaking into your out-of-character moods?

The basis for emotions

We've talked a lot about building the backbone of your character -- picking memories and moments in time that he remembers in vivid detail, events from his lifetime that have affected him so completely that it colors his perceptions of similar events. This is where the basic draw for emotion comes from. The knowledge of what your character has done and experienced can absolutely be used to dredge up emotions in regards to similar events. Let's look at an example:

Ishinaae is a draenei who was present on the Exodar when it crash-landed on Azeroth. A happy draenei for the most part, Ishinaae finds the races of the Alliance fascinating, largely due to the fact that her people received a warm welcome despite their abrupt arrival. She is polite to a fault and not opposed to cracking jokes where appropriate.

Ishinaae was obviously present during the assault of the Exodar -- but what few know is that she was also present during the original assault of Shattrath City, when the Burning Legion turned the orcs against her people prior to the arrival of the naaru, the Sha'tar that took over the city after its downfall. Her husband and children died in the attack, but she managed to escape. As such, she has witnessed far more horror than any can imagine. Yet day after day, she presents a smile to those around her, composed of a quiet serenity that people draw near to and enjoy being in the presence of.

So here we have a typical draenei with a shattered past. I picked the draenei deliberately because the race itself is incredibly interesting, yet few choose to roleplay it. Ishinaae the character is a nice person, a happy person who enjoys being around other people -- but her past is composed of such horror, such sorrow that it makes one wonder, how exactly is it that she is content? Why is she so happy?

What's behind the reaction?

This is where it gets interesting, because there are a billion different ways you can spin this situation. Perhaps after the loss of her family, Ishinaae went a little mad and doesn't quite grasp what's going on around her. Perhaps she's simply embraced the naaru's philosophy and Light to such a degree that she's learned to move on from sorrow and grief. Perhaps she's built a brick wall between herself and her feelings -- her grief, her panic at the horrors she witnessed have all been locked away somewhere inside herself. Or perhaps that happiness is merely a façade, and anyone who really gets to know her will realize that beneath that serene content is a fierce mistrust of anything different, foreign -- even her Alliance allies -- because the draenei and the orcs were once tentative friends ... and look at what happened in that situation.

So what happens when Ishinaae is stuck in the middle of a raging battle? Does she fight with uncontrolled rage? Does she have an emotional breakdown? Does she flash back to that battle on Draenor, or does she just completely shut down and become an eerie, emotionless killer? What happens when she is placed in a situation when a close friend dies, or the significant other of a close friend dies? Does she correlate it to her loss? What happens when she sees an orc -- does she immediately move in for the attack, or does she flee?

This is how you work emotion into roleplay: finding those triggering moments in your character's lifetime and applying them to the situations your character finds herself in. Though there are only a handful of examples and memories Ishinaae carries, those memories are strong enough to color and influence even a simple interaction between herself and another character.

Letting go ...

It's expressing these moments that becomes a difficult task, in regards to WoW. Sure, there are a ton of handy /emote commands at your disposal, but the question then becomes whether you rely on those emotes or write your character's responses out yourself. These emotes can be handy, but they are the same across the board for every character that performs them -- they may not feel enough like a "unique" response for some players.

Personally, I prefer writing out the responses. It's not that the emotes aren't handy in their own right -- I've given many a /highfive over the course of my character's lifetime. It's that by writing out these responses, I find it much easier to slip into whatever emotion my character happens to be feeling. When you can slip into that instant, that's when it becomes "real," or as real as it can get. That's where those magic roleplay moments that you remember forever come from. It's the same kind of feeling you get from watching a particularly emotional play or movie.

Still, there are players who have a hard time with this concept. What you have to do is completely sink yourself into your character's shoes. Think about Ishinaae above, and think about your loved ones. Can you imagine what it would feel like to watch your loved ones die right in front of you? Can you imagine having a friend suddenly turn around and try to kill you? Can you imagine the loneliness, the isolation that comes from leaving the place you were raised, the place you are intimately familiar with, because that place was destroyed?

You can never go back to the times that were happy; you can never go back to your loved ones, because they don't exist anymore. You can't trust those around you, because in doing so, you make yourself open and vulnerable -- and if you are vulnerable, that means that ultimately, you're going to get hurt again. Does this correlate with something that's happened to you in real life? Grab that moment; draw from it.

Now forget all about what's going on in real life. Don't wonder what you're going to have for dinner. Don't ponder what time you're going to go to bed or what still needs to go on the grocery list. Don't concentrate on real-world distractions. Just immerse yourself in that moment, what you're feeling in that moment, and let go. Let it all out.

... but not too far

Hold up for a minute, though, before you start raging at the world in the role of a war-torn draenei survivor. Letting your emotions into your roleplay can bring all kinds of unique flavor to different situations. It can also be an extremely cathartic way of venting all the unknown frustrations, grief, sorrow, happiness, or anger that you've got lying around hidden inside of you. You can let it all out in character, but the important thing to remember is that what happens in game, those emotions you feel while you're roleplaying -- those aren't applicable out here in the real world.

It's perfectly okay to be angry in character at someone; however, that anger should never translate to out-of-character anger or irritation, whether it be directed at the player behind the character you're arguing with or a family member or roommate that you live with. That sorrow that you feel in character can be heartbreaking, but once you leave the game, you shouldn't let it cloud how you're looking at your day.

We've talked before about in-character romances and what to do if they appear to be affecting out-of-character interaction; the same goes with any emotion you happen to be playing around with when you're roleplaying. That love your character feels for their significant other isn't real love. That anger your character feels isn't real anger; that grief isn't real grief. If you're noticing in-character emotions taking over your out-of-character interactions, you need to take a step back.

When you're roleplaying an extremely emotional situation, take a few minutes when the roleplay is over to get reacquainted with the real world before interacting with people. Maybe check out the local news online or on TV, read the newspaper, take a shower, or get a start on that closet reorganization project you've been stalling on. Sinking back into the mundane day-to-day activities gives your mind a chance to recover from whatever emotional experiences you may have just gone through and helps to disconnect what just happened to your character from what's happening to you out in the real world.

Roleplaying is an intensely creative process; it's a little bit acting, a little bit storytelling, a little bit improv and a whole lot of indulging in empathy with your fictional friend. Letting your emotions work into your roleplay can give your character a new dimension of realism -- as long as you remember that the emotions you're roleplaying have nothing to do with everyday life. The next time you find yourself in a potentially emotional situation for your character, try letting go and seeing where your emotions take you. The end result could be a far better roleplaying experience than you'd ever considered.

All the World's a Stage is your source for roleplaying ideas, innovations and ironies. Let us help you imagine what it's like to sacrifice spells for the story, totally immerse yourself in your roleplaying or even RP on a non-RP realm!
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