How to write LitRPG
If you are looking for advice on writing a great LitRPG book, then I hope the following five tips will be useful. They are aimed at the person who loves the genre and wants to try writing for it, rather than the experienced writer who is swapping from some other kind of writing and wants to know what goes into a LitRPG book. This isn’t a cookie-cutter approach to writing LitRPG. The tips below are those which I think might be most useful to someone starting out on their writing journey.
Way back in 2006, after the publication of Epic, I was asked by the Irish Writers Centre to give a course on writing novels. At first I declined, because I had no formal qualification in the area and didn’t want to be there on false pretences. Then the director said, ‘well, why not think about the issues that you wished someone had discussed with you when you started writing?’ And so my Finish Your Novel course was created.
Over the subsequent years (in which I was fortunate to work with and learn from writers like Patricia Gibney who have gone on to be million-selling and award-winning successes) and in the light of feedback from those taking the course, I’ve learned that it’s the question of establishing a consistent narrative voice that rises again and again. If you solve this, then irrespective of the strength of your plot, characters, etc. you are half way there.
The other important point I’ve learned in teaching creative writing is that there are no rules that are universally true. Everything I say below can be, and has been, successfully contradicted by authors who have done the exact opposite! Even so, I think it’s helpful to be conscious of the approach you are taking, to accept or reject these tips by choice rather than by accident. Deciding to do things differently having considered them is more likely to lead to successful writing than to not engage with these issues at all.
Tip 1: How to write great LitRPG
Be immersive and consistent with the voice of the narration.
Often when a new LitRPG writer starts out, he or she is so enthusiastic about the story itself that not enough attention is being paid to the narrative voice. Who is telling the story? If you get this question right, then the reader will escape into the world you are creating and have the delicious feeling we get from reading good books, of being somewhere else entirely. If you get it wrong, however, the reader is jolted back to the real world, which is not what they wanted when they settled down with your book.
Your choices with regard to voices involve a decision between telling the story in first person (e.g. knowing I only had one chance at this, I took a deep breath and drew back the cord of my Astral Bow) and third (e.g. he stared at the NPC with a sense of wonder: how could a piece of software be so insightful?).
Hardly anyone writes in second person (e.g. you creep slowly towards the sleeping orc, knife in hand, heart pounding). I’ve only really seen one successful example and that was because it turned out the narrator was, in fact, telling the story to himself as a form of therapy. Funnily enough, second person might actually work in a LitRPG read if the reason why the narrator uses ‘you’ is connected to the game set up (see tip 2).
Writing in first person has the huge advantage of avoiding the danger of intrusive omniscient statements jarring the reader. It’s much easier too, to get into the thoughts and emotions of the narrator. You are not entirely home and dry if you choose to write in first person though. One challenge is that you need to be the character, not yourself, as you write and if you’ve taken on a personality that is quite different to your own, it’s important to sustain that distinct voice and not slip back into being yourself. Secondly, very many plots cannot be told through just one person’s story. You are going to miss out on what is happening elsewhere (even though there are workarounds like watching recordings or reading diaries that are presented in excerpts within the overall first person narration). One solution to this difficulty is to put in other first person voices, but be very careful if you choose to do so: each new point-of-view will reduce the reader’s connection with the main character. Finally, in regard to first person, I don’t recommend writing in the present tense. Even making a cup of tea sounds incredibly intense and breathless in first person present and it’s hard for the reader to sustain this intensity across the whole book. Also, if you use the past tense, you can step up the sense of immediacy for adrenaline-fuelled action scenes by moving to present, a technique you can’t employ if you are already in top gear.
Writing in third person is more flexible because you can tell the story from anywhere. The challenges are firstly, that to get into a character’s mind and emotions takes more of an effort. In the sentence above, ‘he stared at the NPC with a sense of wonder: how could a piece of software be so insightful?’ we get an insight into his actual thought. That’s the goal, but sometimes when you write in third you drift into a series of statements that are, instead, like following a character with a camera from the outside: he did this. He did that. He did the other. It’s important for the emotional engagement of the reader to do something that literature can do which cinema cannot, which is go into the internal life of the character. Secondly, having established a third person narration you now have the freedom to swap character points of view, but just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Frequent jumps between characters can create a dislocating effect. This is especially violent if the jump happens within a paragraph. Ideally, you’d use chapter breaks to distinguish the characters, or at least a few spaces with a symbol like *** to indicate the introduction of a new voice (or period of time).
Lastly, with regard to third person, you have to think about whether to use an omniscient voice or not. The omniscient narrator, like the name suggests, knows everything. And this is useful for LitRPG writers who can employ it to explain the game mechanics, for example. So alongside what the character is experiencing, you can have a voice that says things like: ‘Fire elementals can become pets, but only subdued by non-lethal damage by an Elementalist with the Capture Pet skill.’ This can work satisfactorily if the omniscient voice is boxed off, perhaps literally by a box, perhaps by a different font, perhaps by line breaks. It still begs the question of who is speaking and it’s worth establishing who is the source of this voice if you can (i.e. it is not you, the author, interrupting the story to explain something, but the game’s AI or the help menu) so the reader isn’t troubled by this potentially dislocating contradiction between the actions and thoughts of the main character and the otherworldly interventions.
Another challenge that can arise when using third person is when authors writing in third are trying to keep to one character’s perspective at a time (this is called limited or restricted third and it’s a great way to tell a story because it is nearly as immersive as first person, but more flexible plot-wise) but accidentally introduce an omniscient voice.
‘As she raised her rifle, Amy felt her arms shaking. She had to fight down a desire to run, instead taking aim at Marcus. When he reached into his bag, a cold determination flooded through her and she didn’t hesitate to pull the trigger. If only Amy had known that he was reaching for the gift he’d bought her and not a grenade, tragedy could have been averted.’ Here, we’ve gone from limited third to omniscient and even if you are writing in the omniscient voice and therefore this is theoretically consistent with the rest of the novel, I don’t recommend it in practice. Instead of being rooted in Amy’s experiences we are suddenly detached from them. Even the simple line, ‘her eyes widened with alarm’ can have the same effect, because who is reporting this? If you take the reader from close in ‘her’ thoughts and then abruptly become a camera looking at her from the outside, the spell of the book might break as we are forced to jump across narrative perspectives.
The takeaway here is pick the narrative voice that is right for the book, something that is often determined by the plot. If the story can’t easily be told from just one point of view, then you’ll probably need to write it in third person. But whatever voice you adopt, be consistent with it and sensitive to the challenges of sustaining the immersive experience.
Tip 2: How to write great LitRPG
When it comes to world building, less is more.
One of the defining characteristics of LitRPG is the fact that much, if not all, of the story takes place in a game or a world with game-like rules. Suppose you have an idea for the game (taking one at random) and its mechanics: it’s going to be a fantasy environment in which the route to success for your main character is via making potions. Clearly, there’s a huge amount you are going to have to explain to the reader, if the reader is going to appreciate the choices your MC makes. And the first issue to explain is how come the MC is in this situation at all.
It’s tempting to begin the book with a huge chunk of information about your world, but usually that’s a mistake. The greatest of world-builders, Ursula Le Guin explained the solution (for all fantasy writers) like this. Imagine the information you need to get across to the reader as a brick. If you dump it in the text, it is an ugly, indigestible lump. To incorporate it into the reading experience without causing the reader to slam on the breaks, you have to shave off the grains of the brick and disperse them throughout the whole book, a sprinkle here, a sprinkle there. Ideally, the reader finds out how the world works without realising it.
Patrick O’Brian wrote an amazing series of naval adventures that were not LitRPG but had exactly the same challenge. In order to appreciate that the main character was brilliant in his tactics (and that certain other characters were dreadful officers), the reader has to understand the basics of naval warfare at the end of the eighteenth century. How to manage that very technical subject? Well in each of the eighteen books there is a new person arrived on the ship to whom matters need to be explained in a natural fashion. In other words, using dialogue between a mentor and a new player can work very well. If you adopt this approach, however, be careful that the conversation has a genuine feel and does not come across as inserted only in order to explain something.
‘Why don’t you use a portal stone here?’ Might work well if the characters are being chased and the person asking really doesn’t know the answer. But having a character ask, ‘how do portal stones work?’ without any proper context is likely to come across as a clumsy way of explaining the game mechanics. Even in conversation, Ursula Le Guin’s advice still applies, don’t try to achieve too much in any one scene.
Another observation I have on world building is that the more LitRPG I read, the more I realise I don’t care too much about why the set-up has occurred. Transported to a pocket universe which is like a game? Sure. Aliens invade and create the game environment? Fine. New technology allows for amazing immersive experiences? No problem. Just get me to the game, the progression and the loot. Of course I’m exaggerating, but I’m willing to suspend disbelief and accept any plausible background and I think this is often the case for fans of the genre. Note, for example, how little time Aleron Kong spent in The Land in getting his main character going in the game. A couple of pages about rivalry between powerful figures in a realm with magic, a couple of pages of Earth 2037 and then hundreds of thousands of in-game pages. Also, if you do try to explain in detail about an alien invasion or whatever the context is, you risk raising five new questions for every one that you have attempted to address.
My advice, then, is not to get too bogged down in the set-up. Better to open with the main character and why we should care about him or her, then introduce all the mechanics gradually and as the opportunity arises rather than in a big rush to explain yourself.
Tip 3: How to write great LitRPG
Make the game mechanics meaningful.
There’s a debate about the extent to which a LitRPG book should drill down into game mechanics, which surfaces in the various community channels from time to time. My feeling about this is that as a reader I find myself disappointed by LitRPG books that have minimal engagement with the game-aspect of the environment. I like them crunchy, as it is sometimes expressed. Having said that, though, the opposite can be a problem too. There’s no need to keep updating character sheets to demonstrate minor changes. In fact, there’s no need to do so at all if it is just being done for the sake of it. So it’s a question of balance and a good model is provided by Travis Bagwell’s Awaken Online, where his main character, Jason, recaps in depth only where he has important strategic decisions to make. And this, I think, is the key to exploring your game mechanics effectively. Neither neglect them, nor build some elaborate spread sheet of enormous intricacy that you feel the need to present to the reader. Give us what we need to understand the choices the player is making and demonstrate the consequences of those choices.
Another good example is Kit Falbo’s The Crafting of Chess. Here the main character sets out to dominate the game through a crafting strategy. He therefore works hard to understand where the demand for items will be and how to most effectively get a grip on the market and therefore what progression to focus on. We see how these choices play out and that they really do matter. Or to take a negative example, I recall a book where there was a lot of attention paid to game mechanics that was made completely redundant by the main character getting an ultra-rare drop (and from yard trash too). He could suddenly overcome his challenges regardless of how he had previously planned his character build, made progression choices or played the game.
So the question of game mechanics is really one of integrating the rules of the game purposefully with the plot. Whether lightly touched on or heavily present, they need to be relevant, at least to the extent that we understand what options are available to the character at any moment. You definitely need enough of the rules that a deus ex machina type solution doesn’t spoil the plot tension and leave us feeling cheated (by which I mean, for example, there is a crisis and it’s resolved by the character using a new ability the reader has no previous awareness of). Maybe your story and your portrayal of the main character benefits from a lot of detail on the game mechanics, but maybe not. You might be better writing the book as ‘GameLit’ or ‘LitRPG Lite’, and focusing on other elements. In some of the Russian classics, Fayroll especially but also Alterworld, there is a lot of attention paid to in-game questing and its consequences, rather more so than stat choices and upgrades, etc. I favour this approach to exploring the game, because it is storytelling: stories within stories yet where strategy and tactics remain important.
Tip 4: How to write great LitRPG
Have an overarching plot (and resolve it!).
LitRPG writers sometimes favour the RPG over the Lit. After all, there’s so much you can write about in terms of a game environment which you have created and the way in which characters progress within it. Yet the Lit side is just as important if you want to write a truly great LitRPG read. Your book should have strong, engaging characters, sensuous prose, connection with what it means to be human and, above all, an actual story. In other words, an overarching goal for the character with whom the reader most emphasises. Unlike other genres, I think LitRPG tends to pull away from this obvious point. It is easy to meander from game-encounter to game-encounter and spend pages on RPG progress, losing sight of the bigger picture as a result. I think Aleron Kong’s series provides an example of this but it’s surprising how many good series tail off, especially the longer ones, rather than properly and satisfyingly resolve story lines.
It’s also easy to neglect the inner emotional life of characters (whether seen directly from their thoughts or expressed in their words and deeds) in favour of descriptions of casting spells and swinging swords. Yet it must feel satisfying to launch a beautifully placed fireball, one that does maximum damage to your opponents, without quite reaching your allies, so why not give that feeling to the reader? We are reading your book for the vicarious pleasure of being alive in the game-like world and the pleasure is not just a cerebral one, like watching a game of chess, it’s a passionate one. And related to this, too few LitRPG books leave us with a sense of character development.
I think to some extent as well, authors are allowing market considerations to overrule aesthetic ones. When a book reaches a climax that really should be the end of the story, another twist occurs so that there is a basis for a sequel. Admittedly, as a reader I shall be sorry when certain long-running stories come to end, I’d much rather that though, than lose interest at a certain point, when I realise the author is just stringing me along.
Tip 5: How to write great LitRPG
Write an effective villain, who we love to see taken down.
A huge part in writing a LitRPG novel that readers will love is played by creating a character that we care about, who we feel invested in and are rooting for. But it’s nearly as important to get the other side of the story right too. If we absolutely despise the villain and desire to see him or her (or them) brought down then the emotional payoff for the main character’s victories is huge and satisfying. By villain I don’t necessarily mean an in-game evil mastermind. Very often the LitRPG villains are those behind the scenes of the game (aliens or human) who have created the challenges the main character is negotiating. Whether in-game or outside, what matters is to create sophisticated antagonists. Here, my main tip is to give the villain a philosophy (and don’t give them ugly features unless they are orcs). What is driving them to make life miserable for the main character and perhaps the entire human race? There are no end of philosophies that can lead to the kinds of conflict you want to portray in your book, from beliefs like: ‘I have to look after myself in this world, whatever it takes’; or, ‘they all dismissed me, wrote me off, but I’ll show them’; or, ‘if I win, it will make the realm a better place, we just need to make a few sacrifices to get there.’ And note too that people who behave very badly rarely admit it, instead they build up a narrative to justify their terrible behaviour. ‘Oh, that’s my strength, I tell it like it is, even if it’s not popular’, can sound admirable. Perhaps this is a brave person who goes against the crowd to defend a noble cause. But equally, that sentiment can be used to mask bitter attacks on vulnerable people. Or ‘our country was left in the ruins and would have stayed that way if I had not conquered my neighbours with fire and iron.’ Again, maybe the poor elves were suffering under the rule of the wicked orcs. But these could also be the beliefs of a tyrant. The point is to go deeper than just having a character who is bad for the sake of the plot. They have to have a justification in their own mind and the villain will be stronger the more plausible and credible is their motivation. It’s particularly smart if you can show the reader that the actual interests of the villain are self-serving, despite his or her proclamations about serving a higher goal.
When you’ve established an effective villain, this can go a long way towards providing an effective ending for the book. Not that all LitRPG books need to end on a positive note, in fact I thoroughly enjoyed one recently that was just grim throughout and ended badly for the main character. By all means write tragedy as well as epic. But if you are planning on having the main character triumph over the villain then it’s worth noting something that filmmakers understand very well, that victory can be a moral as well as a physical triumph. Rather than simply overwhelm the villain with force (magical or otherwise) it’s very effective to see how the villain’s own character had flaws that contribute to her or her defeat. Hubris is a classic, so too in LitRPG is the neglect or overlooking of NPCs by a dismissive villain, an attitude that proves disastrous at a key moment. Whatever the characteristics of the villain, often the most powerful way to resolve the conflicts of the book is with the main character and the villain exchanging words as well as blows (and if there’s an audience for this, so much the better).
That’s my five top tips for writing great LitRPG, hopefully you’ll find them helpful, even if discarding them! And speaking of self-serving villains, this hasn’t been written entirely out of the good of my heart. At the time of writing Level Up have plenty of books in the pipeline, but I’m still interested in finding new authors to work with. If you are working on a LitRPG book and are interested in going down the traditional publishing path with it, then I’d be glad to hear from you and take a look at it. You can find the submission guidelines here.