Being a Better Writer: The Hard Road of Original Characters

This post was originally written and posted April 28th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Welcome back everyone! It’s another glorious week, which means it’s time for another piece on writing! This week, I’m picking a topic that’s been suggested by one of the readers, which if I remember correctly was “Original characters are hard, how do I go about creating one?”

Well, the first thing I had to do was consider how to separate this post from my earlier piece on how I design characters, although there will probably be some overlap due to subject matter. After all, no one wants to read a rewrite of the character creation process I spoke about already. Which means that this post needed to go a different direction. So today, we’re going to look at something that is a little closer to the fanfiction side of things than usual: the choice that goes into choosing, creating, and using an OC if you’re writing fanfiction set in someone else’s universe.

So, we’ll start with the basics. What is an OC?

OC is a popular abbreviation among fanfiction creators that stands for “Original Character,” meant to identify a character that is not a product of the series or world that the fanwork is based on, but of the author’s own creative mind. So, for example, if someone creates a Star Wars fan comic starring a Jedi that they came up with, that character is “an OC” because the fan created it, not the creator of the original universe.

It also has a very large negative connotation. This because a lot of times, as many fansites and even popular culture sites like Know Your Meme will tell you, “original character” is a very broad term. According to most, if it’s not part of the original canon, then it’s an OC. Some of you might recognize the meme “Original the character, do not steal,” but even if you haven’t heard of it, the connotation is pretty clear. Most people hear OC and immediately think of art-traced recolors of series characters, Mary-Sue self-inserts, and flat, one-dimensional “romances,” all of which are fairly cringe inducing.

As a result, a large amount of many fandoms vocally decry OCs on principle, There are people on online fansites, for instance, who admit to automatically downvoting any material they find with an OC tag because “OCs suck.” The term has become synonymous with low-quality, craptastic work.

And you know what? That isn’t right.

The problem is, what everyone thinks of when they hear the term “OC” is incorrect. Everything I just posted for the last few paragraphs? It’s just flat out wrong. It’s a misconception created by groups of people who don’t realize what they’re claiming.

So, let’s ask again: What is an OC? An original character. A fleshed out, thought out, character, created by a creative mind. Given life, history, and personality. Twilight Sparkle? Harry Potter? Gandalf?

All original characters. When people lash out against “OCs,” what they’re really lashing out against is flat characters. Shameless recolors (or character copies). Mary-Sue or Gary-Stu fiction. And would you like to know the truth? These show up just as often in original works as they do in fan-creations. It’s not hard at all to go to a local library and find a book that is clearly a near cut-and-paste retelling of The Lord of the Rings, full of characters that are only different from the obvious inspiration in name and a few minor tweaks. These are not “original characters.” They are recolors. Self-insert fiction is not limited to fanfiction. It happens all over in “original” fiction as well.

An OC is nothing more than what it says: An “original character.” A character created with their own likes, personality, history, and detail. Luke Skywalker is an original character created by George Lucas, even if he is a bit of a trope character (tropes exist for a reason).

For those who want to create their own “original characters,” this may be the first step to doing so: Realizing that they are something that is completely created by you. Be they characters for the new novel series you’re writing or a fanfic about a shopkeeper in some fantasy city, your creation process should be the one and the same. I don’t view Steel as being any different from some of the other characters I’ve created for my other works. He’s a creation of my mind, pure and simple. He and the rest of Rise stand enough on their own that if I wanted to, I could rewrite the entire Dusk Guard series so far as its own, marketable world. I could strip out all the elements of it that are fanfiction and make it its own fantasy world, and sell it. But you know what? The characters would still act and talk the same. Because they aren’t defined by the world I choose to place them in as much as who they are. There would be minor differences, but the characters would still be themselves.

An original character is a character that you create. They can be rich or poor, a hero or a coward. They can be a fit, active, individual, or a lazy but brilliant inventor.

Where we go wrong is when we set out to create a character that is “like this character, but just a little different.” This is why we get so many recolors of characters that everyone knows. The Sonic fandom is infamous for creating characters that are quite literally recolors of title characters with backstories that are cut-and-paste from the series lore with a few words changed. This, no matter how much a user might call it an “original character,” is a recolor. Nothing more.

So, what is an original character? It’s a character that you create. You build them off of their history, craft their personality, give them life. They’ll have bits and pieces that are similar to other characters out there (sort of like how Captain American and Superman share the same “boy scout” idealism), but they are a character you’ve created on your own. Be they flat or three-dimensional, you created them.

Ok, so with that cleared up, why write an Original Character? In the context of what I’ve written above, they certainly might seem more appealing now that you realize that every stick-figure you’ve ever sketched is technically an OC. But why write them? Why create them?

First and foremost, because of the creative freedom that comes with it. You see, characters can be very freeing, but they can also be constraining. How often have you seen an episode of a TV show where one of the series characters is forced into a position that has them acting completely different than their normal self? We call theses “out-of-character moments,” and they happen from time to time. The reasons is that once we understand a character, we’re limited by what they can and can’t “realistically” do. Had I tried to write Rise starring the primary characters of the fandom the story was set in, or even including a single member of their number as a member of the team (something initial alpha readers kept expecting to happen), it would have been a far weaker story. Those characters are not going to act/react in the same manner as the Dusk Guard when faced with the same plot-line. In order to achieve even a semblance of the story I wanted to write, I would have had to change the characters … had them acting unlike themselves, or out of character.

Creating a new character gives you an enormous amount of freedom. It’s been said that your story is only as strong as the characters that support it, and there’s truth to that. If you want your story to have impact, you need a character to travel through it that can work with the story, not against it. When you create a character from scratch, you’re effectively starting with a blank slate. You can go in any direction. You can create a character that is headstrong and adventurous, or timid and shy. You don’t have that freedom with characters that are already defined. There are expectations. If JK Rowling writes another Harry Potter book about Harry himself, there are expectations and limitations to what she can do.

Additionally, hand-in-hand with the creative freedom comes the thrill of the new. How many of you have read or watched a series for a while but have gotten tired of it? For example, I love Redwall and its sibling books, but after a while the stories began to grow very tiring to me because the author was stuck. He’d established certain characters as having specific traits which lent themselves to certain stories, but the problem was in going back to those character types, you got the same story. Even though the later stories were just as well-written (in some cases even better), they never held the same impact as the first few did, because they lacked the thrill of the new. Setting out with new characters (and possibly a new scenario) is a way to once again experience the thrill of new content.

So, if you’re going to set out and create your own character, what are you going to do? Well, first, realize that there is no “magic bullet.” Everyone creates and forms their own characters in different ways. You might want to think about what you’re looking for. Are you going to create a character and then find a story to pair them with? Or are you going to create a story and then figure out what characters would best fit the plot you’ve laid out for yourself?

In either case, there are two things that I would urge. First, don’t be afraid of letting the creative process take time. Sometimes characters take a while to crystallize. It’s been pointed out by many a creative thinker that sometimes we do other things that don’t look like work when in fact we are working (immortalized in a particular comic strip I can think of). Don’t be too afraid if you spend some time figuring your characters out.

Second, I find that one thing that really helps me narrow down what a character is like is asking myself what that character would do in a given situation from my day-to-day life. What would Jacob Rocke buy when he goes to the grocery store? What would Nova be saying if forced to run my mountain bike route? This might seem odd, but knowing what a character of yours will do in an ordinary, day-to-day event is all part of what makes them who they are. The more time you spend answering little questions like this about your character, the less time you’ll spend trying to figure out the big decisions they’ll make over the course of the story.

So, is it more difficult to come up with your own, original characters? Of course. It totally, completely is. It’s also, totally, completely worth it. It’s a hard road to sit down (or lie down) and think up a completely different person with different likes and dislikes. But the freedom that comes with that new character, the thrill that comes with doing something new? That’s a the payoff, for you and for your readers. New material, new horizons, and new stories unlike those we’ve seen before.

To look back, every character we create is, in some way, original. The task lies in moving past recolors or self-inserts to create characters that are unique and projects of our own imagination. To realize that any character we create, flat or full, is an “original character,” and to see that for the freedom it can bring. We must be willing to put in the time, the experience, and the effort to craft characters that stand on their own.

It’s certainly not an easy road, especially in a fandom. But it’s one that brings with it the rewards or hard work well done.

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