The value of taking tea in story writing and RPGs

A reader emailed me after the initial release of “The Sauder Diaries – By Any Other Name” and commented that one of the things she enjoyed so much about the book was that “the camera” followed the characters even into their “quiet time”. Little amusing jabbs between the characters about how they took their coffee, how they conducted their private lives and implied whistfulness at “roads not taken”. This style of exposition was inspired by two individuals I respect in their given fields, Scott Westerfeld and Nicholas Jequier.

At a meet-the-author evening in Vancouver, BC,  with Scott Westerfeld of “Uglies” and “Leviathan” fame, he commented that most of the fan art he received for either set of characters had nothing to do with scenes in the books themselves. Instead, it was the characters in their down time. The “scenes between the scenes” as he called it; whimiscally, one fan drew a scene of Volger and Barlow having tea together in Paris within sight of the Tower. He observed that the fans seemed to want to “know the normal” of their book heroes.

Indie Role-Playing Game (RPG) Designer and publisher Nicholas Jequier of “Providence” and the in-development “Wyrammar” games commented that a common mistake of RPG game masters (GMs) is to focus on action, action, action and then be puzzled why a group of players seem to have issues remaining a group. The solution, he suggested to me, was “taking tea”.

“Taking tea” refers to scenes where the characters are just relaxing at a tea house, coffee shop, bistro, swimming hole or some such place that they are implicitly free from attack and free to talk about whatever is currently on the characters’ minds. In effect, by GM setting the scene to ask the question “so what is on your character’s mind”, the player is forced to stop and ask that question as well. That is what forces the character’s personality, hopes, secrets and even quirks out in front of the rest of the other characters. That, in Nicholas Jequier’s eyes, is the fount of good role-play.

When I set out to write “By Any Other Name”, I decided I very much wanted this to be a book about the people of the pirate airship “Bloody Rose”. I wanted to surround the main character, Hans Sauder, with a group of people that each had a life and a story. It was through “taking tea” that Hans and the reader would get to know them. From the relative privacy of the “Tank Hold”, to the forepeak Rope Locker, to a swim at a moonlit Belgian lake, and so on, the biggest moments of character exposition are in periods of relative down time, when the characters can drop their respective guards, take a deep breath, and say what is on their minds.

So, when you are planning your next scene, either for your story or your RPG, something to keep in mind:

In the hearts and minds of your readers and players,
Action scenes make characters heroes, but ;
Coffee-shop scenes make characters human.

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