In college, my friend Chandler told me about this new thing called “cooperative storytelling.” He said it was an online platform used to write a story with friends, each of you telling the story from the perspective of one character. A narrator added all of the non-character action, like the weather, and reactions of characters who weren’t played by someone else in the group.
Cooperative storytelling. Wow. That sounded awesome! How had I never heard of such a thing before?
As it turns out, one of the participants in my friend’s current campaign—er, story—had to drop out. The GM—somehow, I wasn’t sure how, this was a synonym for the narrator—asked if I could take on the PC—I mean, character. At one point, someone said something about dice, but I had no idea what they were talking about.
So I signed up to take over the character, and, as it turns out, I had accidentally joined a roleplaying game, or RPG, as it is more commonly called by people who aren’t trying to deceive their female writing major friends into getting past biases and giving it a try. (Shoutout to the Windcaller Studios crew. Also, I refer you to this post if you want an overview of RPGs because this whole thing sounds intriguing.)
My favorite part of the cooperative storytelling process is always creating a character: creating and describing the personality, family, backstory, and abilities of a hero or heroine.
Under the system I was part of, you were allowed to give your character one superpower, called a legend ability. There were limits, of course—the narrator had to approve your ability so you couldn’t give yourself, say, the ability to sneeze bullets or something. Powers typically went along the lines of being able to paint visions of the future or teleport or shoot two arrows at once with perfect aim.
Of the characters I actually got to create, my first character’s legend ability was Scapegoat. Meaning that if she wanted to take the blame for something she didn’t do, everyone would automatically believe her.
My second character’s legend ability was Fathom Awfulness. Meaning that she could understand the worst parts of the people around her, which tended to make her extremely cynical.
My third character’s legend ability was Intentional Amnesia. Meaning that she could decide a memory was too painful and make herself forget it…along with large chunks of events happening around it.
It became kind of a game to give myself the worst, most incapacitating legend abilities I could think of (don’t even get me started on the once-off campaign where my skill was Heroic Embroidery).
There were always negative consequences to this. During the course of the stories, my first character made a near-mortal enemy and almost got expelled multiple times for what others had done, my second character abandoned her husband, and my third character erased entire days of painful-but-important memories and was constantly waking up in places with no idea how she got there. So why did I choose those abilities?
Because they made a better story.
I’m not saying that you can’t have a story where the hero is outstanding at something. (Though if they’re outstanding at everything, everyone will probably hate them. This is why Superman isn’t as compelling as pretty much any of his fellow heroes.) But I knew most other people in the RPG would have super strong, super charismatic, super powerful, or super awesome characters who could blow up bridges, shoot fire cannons, or make things disappear. I figured their powers could make up for mine…and maybe mine would make up for theirs, but in a different way.
RPGs are significantly more fun when they are not a game where you beat the other players, but a story where you work with the other characters for the best ending. Good stories have conflict. Conflict comes from many sources, but a lot of the good stuff is internal. Probably most of your favorite characters are compelling not just because of the things they can do well, but because of the things they do terribly, or have to overcome, or make them not play nice with others.
This is because, in fiction as in real life, failures change you. Flaws give you something to work on and fight against. Weaknesses force you to depend on the people around you, and there is something uniquely compelling about needing others and being needed by them.
While I’m really good at appreciating this aspect of “cooperative storytelling,” I have a harder time applying it to my real actual life.
I do not like to be weak. I want to have all the legend abilities all the time. I will often avoid doing something if I don’t think I’ll be immediately amazing at it. And above all, I hate asking for help from others.
This is why I’ve always secretly been uncomfortable with fan-favorite Bible verse 2 Corinthians 12:9:
As the storyteller in an RPG, I can easily appreciate that my character should be weak to create a better story. As a person, I have to admit: I do not want to be weak because I want the glory to go to me, not to the storyteller.
It looks ugly, said straight out like that. But it’s true. There are times when I want to be sufficient for me, and my power to seem perfect in contrast with others’ weakness.
I recently read an interview where an author was asked, “What’s one thing you’d go back and change in your life if you could?” And the author said, basically, “Nothing. Because even though there have been some very difficult and painful moments in my life, God’s sovereignty means this is the best possible story. If I changed anything, it would be the wrong story.”
That, my friends, is beautiful. And also convicting, because I don’t think that way very often, even though I know it’s true.
God does not need me to be super strong, super charismatic, super powerful, or super awesome. In fact, when I try to be all of those things, I am distracting people from the storyteller to bring attention back on me, the character.
It seems a little crazy, but it’s when we are weak that God gets more of the glory—when we’re the first to apologize and the last to judge, when we serve and mourn and love our enemies, when we ask for help because we can’t do it alone.
That’s the better story.