I wrote my first poem when I was seven or eight years old. It was during a late dinner, I had just seen Carmen at the opera and was bored during dinner with my mother and my grandfather. On a napkin I scribbled a short poem. Thinking back, I don’t believe it was a coincidence that the creation of this first poem happened in close relationship to a very strong theatrical experience. Of course I had been in love with language long before that. Making up poems before I could even write, enjoying the feeling of stringing words together, making something beautiful. That this first actual written creation happened after my child self had experienced a very strong artistic performance made sense. I was filled with emotions I hardly understood, that needed to be expressed, and in that vacuum, poetry happened.
As I grew older I would write poetry based on my own strong emotional experiences, a way of process perhaps? I would change my creative outlet from poetry to larp creation. Sometimes letting years go without writing a single poem. But it was always there as a way to gather my thoughts in moments of emotional turmoil, and strong emotional dissonance.
Thankfully my life is not that filled with traumatic emotional experience these days, so my poetry writing has become much more rare. The most drama I experience these days is as a character at larps. However, I missed writing, and so I started experimenting with playing characters that expressed themselves through poetry. I quickly noticed that this was not only an excellent way to fuel my creativity, it also made my voice different. I might be the same person, but my style of poetry is not the same style as that of my characters, even if some similarities are unavoidable.
Even more interesting, writing as a character, in-game meant I could sit alone in a room with a notebook, completely immersed in my character. Finally, I understood Finnish immersion closets; all I needed was some paper and a pen!
I started to wonder, what happened there, in the meeting between me as a creator and the character? Could the written text change and influence play, but maybe more interestingly, could my character influence my own writing and creativity? Was this something more than I had experienced?
In this little essay I will both use examples of my own writing, case studies of characters I played and how the diegetic poetry influenced the larp, but also of how the character influenced the writing style. I have also collected testimonies from other writing larpers or larping writers, since I wanted to know if this was more than a personal experience, asking them to reflect around their own diegetic writing experiences.
Lastly I will talk a bit about larping through text, and how – if at all – using the writing medium changes the way we can interact, and the importance of writing style in our play.
Three Examples from My Own Larping Career
Below I will give three examples of larp characters I played and poetry they created. My focus will be on how creating these poems:
- Felt in the moment
- Changed the projection or story line of my character
- Differed from my ordinary writing style
I will also ask:
- Did the larp experience change my normal writing?
- Did design choices affect my use of writing in the larp?
At Harem Son Saat (2017), I played the princess Samara. The larp designed by Muriel Algayres in itself did encourage writing. As a part of the larp all players got a small diary in which we were told to write either as our characters, or make small off game notes if needed. For me playing the sheltered young princess of the Harem, poetry became a natural way of self expression within the frames of female culture portrayed in the Harem of 1913.
Harem Son Saat is a larp of the Romanesque tradition mixed with techniques from nordic larp. The romanesque larp style is much more narrative in its design elements, Muriel explains:
[In] the French romanesque tradition . . . characters are quite frequently given as subjective diaries (and almost always written in the first person). This is in keeping with the literary origins and inspirations of this specific scene (tapping a lot in serialized novels of the XIXth century and Victorian melodrama), and also presents the characters through their subjective views, which allows for misunderstandings, play on prejudice, different readings of situations, etc.Nast Marrero. 2016. “The Last Hours of the Harem.” Medium, June 26.
As a part of the design the players received a small diary for their character. It both contained subjective notes prewritten by the organizers but did also contain empty pages for the players to fill out in character during the larp. It was also to be saved afterwards as memorabilia of the larp experience if you wished.
That we were given this physical artefact that encouraged us to do diegetic diary entries made it an easy choice for me to also start to write poetry in it, since poetry was one of the acceptable ways for my character to self express in a more or less safe way. The art of poetry became an alibi for her to speak her mind.
Preparing for the larp I also read a lot of Rumi, a famous mystical Turkish poet from the 13th century, to try and get some of the flavour of Turkish and Ottoman poetry, a style very far from my own personal writing. I also wrote poems in advance, marking important situations in her backstory.
As the story of the princess born into a Harem longing for modernized western society progressed the poetry she wrote started to tell her story in it’s own way. Pivotal scenes documented in-game by her poetry. As a woman in the Harem she had limited possibility to communicate with men, even her father. She did however have the possibility to declare poetry or sing a song after dinner. This she did, as a way to communicate with her father and brothers.
These are some examples:
In this example Samara tries to make amends after some arguments about her future with her father, by writing this poem to declare to him during a poetry competition. Her secret lover Inayat, touched by her feeling of hopelessness, continued the poem with a verse of his own which he smuggled to her. A lot of this love story took its place in smuggled poetry and hidden glances.
To sit and write the love poems, or the poems to my father in character helped me channel my character. It was a truly immersive experience helped along by the game design in itself that encouraged this type of diegetic writing.
The Runaway Mother
Another example of a larp were writing poetry in character had a huge impact both on my way of understanding my character, my characters self expression and my immersion is The Quota that ran in the UK in 2018, organised by Avalon Larp Studios and Broken Dreams larp. The larp takes place in a dystopian future where refugees try to get from England into Wales. It is set at the holding facility for refugees seeking asylum in Wales.
The poetry also became acts of rebellion, creating play for others. I would hang them on the walls of the venue, and others would read them and get emotional. At one point I even delivered a poem to the overseer of the holding facility who responded with an intense scene of physical and emotional violence. Still most of the poetry was written for me. I would spend down time in the larp (which there was a lot of since it circled a lot around waiting and feeling powerless) writing and expressing myself through my poetry. At those moments I could become even more immersed than in actual scenes were I played with other larpers.
I count the days until judgment
Knowing the odds are against me
There must be a better way out he said,
Fresh eyes, hopeful smiles
The key to survival is to survive the boredom
and when you cannot wait anymore find a quick death
Not too messy, think of the cleaners
You can count many things in a prison
Your friends, your enemies, your sleepless nights
your pointless fights
And when you run out of counting
spread your wings and fly into a grey sunset
The silent scream is the loudest
The yawn of desperation
“You are not a good mother” they said
Well you are not a good motherland
I mean not to offend, but you need to amend
Your view on humanity
Bring back a little sanity
A little decency, a little love
I am not fooled by your rethorics
I know your true nature mother England
You eat your children, I only left mine
Amanda’s poetry was a way for her to process her experience and after the larp I felt very little need for debrief writing, something I often do otherwise during an intense larp experience. I believe this was because I had already been processing the experience through words as it happened.
The language also is a bit harder than in the case of Princess Samara. The subject is quite similar, both characters were women confined in space, by circumstances outside their control, and both characters had a rebellious streak, using poetry to not conform. Still Samara operated with her poetry within the confines of her situation, and it is in a way seen in the way her poetry is more bound by rhymes and rhythm, where Amanda’s poetry is more like spoken word, and flow rather than a set form.
The Waiting Woman
When Covid-19 made larping in real life impossible this year, I started up a letter larp called My Dearest Friend (2020), running from the 1st of April to the 30th of November 2020. The setting and the idea was simple. Taking place in the middle of the First World War it centered around a boarding school for girls, and the men in their close acquaintance, many of them off at war of course. The parallels between the feeling among people during the beginning of 2020 and the characters in 1916 were deliberate. There was a feeling of life being thrown upside down. A new strange normalcy, the eager following of the news for updates. The feeling of being separated from loved ones as we practiced social distancing. For many participants the letters sent became something to look forward to in the dull normalcy of self isolation, much in the same way they would have been for the characters. In this larp I play several different characters but one of them, Millicent Struthers, writes poetry. This was something that I started on a whim, but as the larp has progressed the poems of Millicent have been a great way for me to process intense feelings of bleed in character.
Though the format is low intensity, since you only are in character in your head while writing the letters it has for many become an intense experience where the borders between character and player easily get muddled due to the longevity of the larp. On top of that, many of the players, including myself, have introduced chat play as a part of the larp experience. It is not unheard of that I play my character on low intensity in these chats for weeks on end, without much break. This means that the immersion into character, although low in realism, becomes very emotional. By writing a poem when my character has a strong emotional response to a letter she received, or a situation in a chat, I can sort of debrief continuously while still in character.
The style of Millicent’s poetry is romantic, on verse, and a bit naive just as her character is. One example is “I Have to Try and Go Alone,” written as an homage to her twin brother missing in action.
Where are you; my brother now?
In foreign land an unmarked grave
In mud and rain and twilight gloom
Where only foreign flowers bloom
They cannot whisper any tales
Of dear old britain’s glens and dales
Where is that little daisy pray
I gifted you to make you stay?
Where is your smile, your beating heart?
Your liquid tongue always so smart?
Why were we so torn apart?
My darling where are all your jokes?
Your teasing and your ruthless mind?
Where is that soft and tender side
That so sorely hurt your pride?
How am I to now be strong and bold?
To laugh and live and then grow old?
How am I to learn anew
to be a person without you?
I hear your voice as you scold me
You are alive, you are set free!
I am wherever you will be!
But darling brother, life is hard
When every step you ever walked
Was hand in hand with you so dear
Together always brave no fear
Those unsaid words that still you knew
Those dreams you wanted to come true
Your reckless way of always running
You complete lack of thought or cunning
Your way that made me feel allowed
To be strong, and clever and proud
To stand tall and be unbowed
I know you want for me to smile
To live and love for both of us
I try to find my heart again
A tender voice a loving friend
I listen to your voice these days
You scold me in familiar ways
And wild grass grows above your head
And all the words we left unsaid..
Your dear beloved smile is gone
I have to try and go alone
I have to try and go alone
These poems were very different from my personal writing style, and much more dramatic and filled with adjectives.
In the larp the poetry has been a good way to address hard subjects without saying things straight out, subtlety being much harder in a larp only taking place as a written media. The poem about the dead brother was for example sent to another character whose brother was missing in action, in an attempt to get him to open up about his grief.
Summary of my Experiences
In all three examples above gathered from my own larping experience there are some common threads. The writing was all influenced by the character and the setting when it came to both style and quality.
The moments I wrote diegetically made immersion stronger, sometimes creating a feeling of flow more pure than while larping with other people. At times I felt like I was more channelling the character’s voice more than anything else, and seldom did I have to consciously alter my writing style to fit the setting or the character’s voice.
I do believe that the diegetic writing has in all instances influenced the narrative of my larp, albeit not changed it completely. With Samara the ways she could communicate through poetry with her father and her love interest definitely steered the overall narrative arc in a certain direction. With Amanda her poems being put up on the walls of the prison became a way to rally the other detained refugees, but also created a sub plot of conflict between her and the management that created an even stronger tension and friction between her and the confines she was living under. I don’t believe the poetry has been as strong an influence in the letter larp with Millicent. Perhaps because it is hard to see what effects a choice like sending a poem has with your co-player’s story when you don’t see them react to it. Instead it becomes more like all the other letters sent out into the void, a way of communicating equal to any other mean used.
I don’t think in-game writing influences my off-game writing much except for being an inspiration to write more. As a way of processing emotions created by bleed, or as a way to use the allegory of the larp to process my own emotions in real life. However I do believe it does make me a better writer, as the skill to intuitively change voice in your writing is very useful.
How a larp is designed can also of course influence how useful ingame writing is in developing narrative or deepening the relationships between characters.
In Harem Son Saat, not only were we given diaries and encouraged to use them, but the way female and male characters were separated and forbidden to communicate with each other that then in very structured ways meant that the use of poetry as secret communication was a natural development. Having a prompt to make the character creative, such as the archetype Poet that was given in The Quota also makes it a natural choice to make the character creative.
However I was interested in finding out if other larpers who write diegetically had the same experience or if this was just me.
Preparing to write this article about diegetic writing and its power for immersion I asked any larper that wanted to send in their answers and reflections around my basic questions of reflection as well as these four questions:
- In what way do you write creatively as yourself?
- How many larps have you on purpose incorporated your writing into your character?
- Did writing diegetically change how you immersed into your character?
- Did your style of writing change in regard to the type of character you portrayed?
My real question was of course, does writing diegetically change your larping experience, and does your larping change your written expression? It seemed like this was the case. Out of the ten people that replied some common denominators could be found.
All but one stated they wrote different kinds of lyric or fiction outside the larp realm as well, many in a professional capacity as poets, authors or journalists. It makes sense after all, that people who already express themselves through writing would feel inclined to use that medium to bot process and create emotional intense experiences in-game.
For others it wasn’t so much the writing in itself that contributed to the larp experience but more the act of embodying a writer with the added alibi for interaction that gave ingame:
Did writing diegetically change how you immersed into your character?
How often was more varying, some had only consciously done it once, others had a hard time remembering the amount of larps where diegetic writing had been a prominent part of their experience. Sometimes this had been designed into the characters, and helped propelling the plot. At other times it was a private decision. In some instances it is actively used as a tool for deeper immersion into the character:
This was not true for everyone though. Toril Mjelva Saatvedt said that the writing in character didn’t change the way she immersed herself. However the act of writing, and the product of that writing added to the character embodiment and became a tangible part of who they were. It was something that could be performed in character, or something that could be shown to other players, a way of portraying the character’s thoughts and feelings.
Another part of diegetic writing is when the larp in itself takes place through a written medium.. In some larp communities pre-larp in text chat is implemented. Another example of larp performed in the written medium is letter larping, a genre that is quite common and has had an upswing during the Covid-crisis when physical larps have had to be cancelled or postponed. Chris Hartford talked about the impact of pre larp in order to get a stronger connection to characters and plot:
However it is an important distinction here. Preplay is not diegetic writing. It is written in a meta space, where you describe actions and conversations in written form. It is not written from the headspace of the character. The resulting text is not a prop that can be used ingame. Letter larps on the other hand is a larp solely played out through diegetic writing. Where the words filtered through the characters is the only means of communication between characters and therefore play. In this format the diegetic writing becomes the playing, and the creations of poetry or diary notes outside of the letters might be a way to develop your own emotional connection to the character. Especially since the letters written diegetically might not always be as honest as a conversation, since the character has time to filter through what will be said, and how it will be said.
In the interviews Lolv Pelegrin addressed a very important question when it comes to diegetical writing on the international larp scene. When discussing if the writing style changed in regard to the type of character they played, they reflected that it did, but that the change was bigger if they wrote in their native language. However, with English being their third language meant that the nuances in the writing were less prominent. This is an interesting point that is important to note. In our international community, fluency of language does create an invisible barrier between player and immersion. Not only in diegetic writing, but in larping in general. If you are not comfortable with the English language the fluidity of immersion will always be hindered as the player will need to struggle to formulate themself in a foreign language. Diegetic writing will therefore naturally not be as beneficial for immersion as it would be for someone fluent in the language.
Writing diegetically at larps seems to be a way to enhance immersion and get closer to the characters inner feelings for most of the people who have done so. Most likely this would not be true for players who aren’t naturally inclined to write in their everyday as well. It takes a predisposition to express oneself through the writing medium for this to be a seamless action that enhances play. However, for those that already use the written language to process emotions and thoughts, writing as a character will often not only immerse the player on a deep level but also inspire the player to create in a different way than normally. In many instances the act of writing in itself can create meaningful moments for the player, even without the input of other players in that moment. It also is useful as a way to communicate a character’s emotion openly even when the setting or the character traits means that such displays of strong emotion are inappropriate. Diegetic writing can also when done as an active choice and displayed to the other players as in Jukka’s journalist that gave him an alibi to interact with other players, or in my own examples described above, influence the larp on a bigger level. Creating moments of emotional connection, and meetings between characters who might not have communicated in that way with each other without the written text.
Even though diegetic writing is something you as a player easily can implement in almost any setting, there are things that will make this choice more natural. Characters that are already written as prone to creative writing is of course a motivator to take that route. Perhaps more so is when the organizers themself press upon the written medium as a way to communicate and self reflect continuously through the larp experience such as the diaries and the poetry competition at Harem Son Saat.
When it comes to larp that singularly takes place through the written medium, such as letter larps, this creative writing might be a good supplement to process emotions within the character that cannot be expressed in letters addressed to others. It might help in immersion and in processing emotions diegetically although letter larps by nature have low levels of immersion due to the format.
The skill of larping in your own head, the finnish immersion closet is hard for many players that need the input from others in order to completely let go of their off-game meta reflections. By forcing oneself to write in character you engage your character’s thoughts and feelings in a lonely environment. It’s a tool that can help you get to grip with what the character really is feeling and thinking that can enrich both your own larp experience and by extension, in spreading the written text, the larp experience of others.
As a writer, or someone who enjoys writing in their everyday life it can also act like a motivator to explore different formats and styles of writing. By channeling the character’s voice you push yourself to experiment with tone, format and voice. It is a playful act in and of itself, in stretching your creative muscles. The writing itself becomes its own kind of documentation of the larp experience, and a memorabilia of an experience that often is hard to capture by other means. Although pictures are a good way of capturing the larp from the inside. The written text becomes a documentation of the larp from the inside, and can be saved and relished for a long time afterwards as you as a player look back at the larp experience.
However it is a tool that is not easily accessible to all players. It depends a lot both on the aptitude for writing in the player as well as their comfort level with the language used at the larp; something you might want to keep in mind if you want to try it out yourself.
Gouliou, Elina, ed. 2020. The Book of The Quota: A Larp about Refugees. Avalon.
Marrero, Nast. 2016. The Last Hours of the Harem. Medium, June 26.
Cover photo: Image by Digital Content Writers India on Unsplash. Photo has been cropped.
This article will be published in the upcoming companion book Book of Magic and is published here with permission. Please cite this text as:
Sandquist, Siri. Immersion through Diegetic Writing in Character. In Book of Magic, edited by Kari Kvittingen Djukastein, Marcus Irgens, Nadja Lipsyc, and Lars Kristian Løveng Sunde. Oslo, Norway: Knutepunkt, 2021. (In press).