As far back as I can remember I always wanted to write a story about roleplaying games -- not one where RPG mechanics drove the story (e.g., the "LitRPG" trend now in vogue), or one about a gang of friends getting together to play every so often. In re that last, The Four-Day Weekend felt like it covered similar enough territory, for a different shared enthusiasm, that I didn't feel I needed to throw another bucket into that well. But instead I wanted to write something about roleplaying, about how the longing to be someone else, somewhere else, could become either a boon or a bane, and without making it into a modernized version of moral-panic dreck like Rona Jaffe's Mazes And Monsters.
I had no idea at first how to approach the story, in big part because several of the most obvious ways to do it (see above) were already off the table. Then one day I was driving back from somewhere with a friend, and I got to talking about the idea, but in an oblique way. The way I mentioned it was that I wanted to do a story about "virtual reality", but not the kind where you put on a headset or plug something into your temple. When kids play make-believe, I said, aren't they engaging in a kind of virtual reality, one just as powerful for them as those goggles and gloves are for the rest of us?
This last bit of it stuck with me, and then I realized I had at one point written down and deep-sixed an idea that seemed suited to the premise. I dug it out and reread it. It had originally been intended as a screenplay, and I'd written it at a time when my chops were nowhere nearly as polished as they are now. It was absurd and embarrassing, not remotely plausible, although there were individual elements of color in it I liked. But there was no salvaging the story as such, I felt, and so I set it aside.
Then, sometime later, I pulled it out again and asked myself: what is it about it specifically that is not plausible? It wasn't the events of the story, but the way they were justified and supported. The story was full of extreme behavior, but extreme behavior that is examined with empathy and insight is more worthy of a story. What I had didn't work not because it was in itself implausible, but because I hadn't tried to make it happen to people worth caring about, and as a result no plausibility attached itself to it. The people were ciphers, and even the most ordinary things that happened to them meant nothing because of that. Surrounding them with the absurd and the extreme didn't get them to exhibit their character; it just left them hapless in the face of it.
We can have crazy things happen in a story, I told myself. All successful science fiction and fantasy attests to this. What matters is that those things have a context, that they are things we can make sense of on our own because we have been giving the viewing equipment to do so by the rest of the story.
At the heart of the whole thing was a story that, I felt, really deserved to be told: about people who, despite having all the best of what modern life can give them, feel unfulfilled and empty, and who look for something to fill them back up again, something that promises to do this by taking away what they are and replacing it with something better, more exciting, more heroic. And once they have a taste of that, they don't want to give it up, even if it sickens them.
In the next part I'll talk about the influences that went into making that premise take shape.
Other Lives Of The Mind