The Roleplayer: Does Gender Matter?

2009 August 15 § Leave a comment

The suspension of disbelief.

As I reader, I know this phrase well. My favorite genres of literature are fantasy, and historical fiction, and science fiction – I promise to believe the unbelievable and the improbably because there is a promise of a good story, of entertainment. I am not often disappointed – because while there is a lot of the fantastic in a fantasy novel, what isn’t fantasy is real. The human psyche. The mind. Love and adventure; tears and laughter, hope and despair. These are real things, for all that they are but words on a page; as a reader, I let myself become carried away to a different world, and suspending my disbelief.

As a roleplayer, I also know this phrase well. In a one-on-one roleplay, where two people are writing opposite each other (often from vaguely different narratives of two individual characters), I not only have to put myself into my own character, but I need to believe my partner’s narrative. It’s hard to do, sometimes – posts don’t often get longer than a few paragraphs, as opposed to the novel, where you have hundreds of pages to become acquainted.

Suspension of disbelief. It means I have to see past the person that my partner is, and see a character instead.

Is it the fault of the roleplayer, or the fault of his or her partner, if suspension of disbelief is not achieved? There might well be a fault on the part of the roleplayer, if his or her writing ability is such that drawing the partner into the writing and the narrative is difficult, but I believe that the partner is also culpable.

Think about it. This mysterious roleplayer – lets call him John Doe – has no problem believing and enjoying a story with elves, and fairies, and dragons; he is a cop, a pirate, a druid or a ranger, any number of professions that might not only be unbelievable (modern-day assassin, anyone?), but impossible (unless there has been recent technology that allows instant transformation into a drow elf). Suspension of disbelief has been achieved, because John enjoys the roleplay and feels the characters come to life. It’s no longer a story, but a living tale of excitement and adventure.

And yet, John claims that he would be unable to enjoy the roleplay – achieve suspension of disbelief, as it were – if his partner is a male.

Why should the person behind the character matter? So long as my writing is convincing, why does it matter if I’m a male, a female, or a space alien? Is it not the fault of John Doe for being unable to let go of the fact that his partner is a male – for being unable to separate the character from the writer?

Obviously the line blurs slightly when you’re roleplaying a sex scene. But unless you’re aiming to achieve sexual gratification via roleplay… why would it dampen enjoyment of the story at all?

Suspension of disbelief. I would write the character of a sylph, World War II soldier, or vampire, but I would never claim to be any of the three. They are characters, but only that, and John Doe would not have a problem separating me as a writer from Siovan, my street-rat-turned-merchant-princess. So why the hangup over gender?


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