I’ve just returned from the 2010 WriterCon UK event at Coventry. It was immensely enjoyable and gentlemen (and women) in England now a-bed should think themselves accursed they were not there. Well worth the 9-hour journey each way. Anyone, from any fandom, who enjoys good company and has a sense of humour should definitely consider attending next year’s event – which will be held in the same place.
I was, appropriately, one of the speakers. I had given presentations at two of the previous three writerconuk events but, because I was working from very sketchy notes and improvising as I went along, I didn’t manage to reproduce them in post form afterwards. This time I was better prepared, with a detailed script, and so I present a transcript here for everyone to read (also posted, with a slightly different preamble, at the writerconuk community).
We Don’t Need Another Hero…
Or, How to write Original Characters readers don’t hate.
Prejudice against a story featuring characters created by the author is a purely fandom phenomenon. An original character making an appearance in a fanfic story, in any role more significant than that of a Monster of the Week or an innocent bystander who needs to be rescued by the heroine, tends to be greeted with about as much rapturous enthusiasm as the announcement of a comeback tour by Gary Glitter.
If this attitude had been the norm, throughout history, then there would only ever have been one fandom. We would all be writing Epic of Gilgamesh fanfic, the only divide in fandom would be that between the Enkidu/Shamhat shippers and the Gilgamesh/Enkidu slashers, and quinara’s role at Stop Plagiarism would consist mainly of looking into certain accusations levelled at parts of the Book of Genesis.
Of course that’s not how it is outside fandom. No-one refuses to read the Discworld novels because Rincewind, Vimes, and Granny Weatherwax were created by Terry Pratchett. There wasn’t a mass boycott of Being Human because Mitchell, George, and Annie are the creations of Toby Whithouse. Storytellers have been creating original characters for thousands of years, from Homer’s Achilles and Odysseus, through Ivanhoe and Sherlock Holmes, to Bob the Builder and Spongebob Squarepants. Many of them have become rather popular.
So why do a lot of readers have a problem with original characters appearing in fanfics?
I’m not talking about original stories set in a fandom universe, such as my 11th-Century Slayer story The Cloak of Mist or quinara’s Ancient Roman Watcher story Propugnatrix Pollia, where the entire cast are original characters, and neither am I talking about original characters filling in humble but necessary roles such as shopkeepers, bartenders, and hairdressers. I mean conventional fanfics, set in the environment of the book or TV show, in which one or more original characters appear in roles comparable in importance to the roles of the show characters in the story. Often those author-created characters are unappreciated, resented, or even positively hated and despised.
Why? A lot of it is to do with the very reasons people are reading fanfic in the first place. They want to read stories about their favourite characters. An original character, taking up ‘screen-time’ that could have gone to one of the canon characters, is regarded in the same way as a man regards lettuce in a bacon and egg sandwich.
DO NOT WANT!
So, if you plan on using an original character in a significant role in a story, how do you save him or her from getting that reaction? How do you get the readers to see her, not as lettuce, but as mustard or HP Sauce?
When I’ve seen advice elsewhere on this issue it’s always been about how not to write a Mary-Sue. Keeping your original character reined back, downplaying her, making her ‘realistic’. Actually that’s of no importance whatsoever and is probably even counter-productive.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with awesome characters. We’re in fandoms which include ultra-powerful characters like Buffy and Willow, stunningly good-looking characters like Legolas and Galadriel, living stores of knowledge like Giles and Daniel Jackson, and technological geniuses like Tony Stark. And don’t even get me started on The Doctor.
Even real life is full of examples of exceptional and multi-talented people. The Renaissance sculptor, painter, and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini, renowned for his exquisite works of art, was also renowned as a master swordsman and a lethal knife-fighter. Similarly Cyrano de Bergerac was a poet, playwright, the father of Science Fiction, and a swordsman without equal. Albert Camus, the philosopher and novelist, was an excellent football goalkeeper until he contracted TB. Brian Cox, the TV personality and particle physicist who is part of the Large Hadron Collider team, used to be the keyboard player for D-Ream. Bruce Dickinson, lead singer of Iron Maiden, competed for Britain internationally in fencing and is now an airline pilot who flies Boeing 757s for Astraeus Airlines. Hollywood movie star Hedy Lamarr was the co-inventor of frequency-hopping spread-spectrum wireless communication which was the basis for the technology used in Wi-Fi and mobile phones.
So, feel free to let your original characters off the leash. Readers will not automatically be turned off by a powerful, knowledgeable, or ultra-cool original character. The only caveats I’d give are that the OC should not outshine the canon characters in more than one or two disciplines – don’t make her stronger than Buffy, cleverer than Willow, and cooler than Spike – and, if the OC has violet eyes, it might be an idea for her to let slip that they’re really tinted contact lenses.
There’s a site which has a checklist of the tell-tale features of a Mary-Sue. I ran my original character Sorkatani, from Tabula Avatar, through the checklist and she ticked almost every single one of the boxes. Yet no-one has ever accused her of being a Mary-Sue and, when I mentioned the result of the test on my journal, a lot of people rushed to her defence. She’s a larger-than-life character because she has to be to fill her role in the story. If she was toned down she couldn’t carry it off and she’d have died before she even made it to Chapter One. Therefore she isn’t hated and, in fact, a lot of people love her. She is appropriate to her setting, and the role she plays in the story, and that’s how she gets away with it.
And your characters, handled correctly, can get away with it too.
Once you decide to use an original character in a fanfic the first thing you have to do is to look at the role the character will play in the story. That’s the first point where things can go wrong. Those dreadful Original Characters who are responsible for the whole Mary-Sue genre don’t really have a role in the story; except to be awesome, and for the canon characters to gasp at their awesomeness – and, all too often, for one or more of the canon characters to fall in love with the OC at first sight. Cue instant reader resentment and character hate.
Now, I’m sure that none of you here would make that mistake. It’s the error of a beginner, and not just someone who’s a beginner at writing, but someone who hasn’t done a lot of reading either. The trouble is that it’s poisoned the water for everyone who comes after them and we have to live with the results. Consequently we have to watch what we’re doing when we write original characters to avoid them being tarred, justly or unjustly, with the Mary-Sue brush.
In fact it’s always worth considering whether to use an Original Character at all, because of that prejudice, or whether to use a crossover character instead. The positive side of using a crossover character is that you’ll completely avoid any prejudice against original characters. The down side is that you may lose some of your potential audience. Some readers simply won’t read crossovers, or else only read them if the crossover show or book is one that they follow, although then again you might attract readers from the crossover fandom; swings and roundabouts. You might not know of a crossover character who fits the bill for the role, or you might not be able to think of a logical reason for a suitable crossover character to be present, but it’s an idea worth keeping in mind.
If you do decide to use an Original Character in your story it should be to do something that can’t be done by a canon character, or that will fundamentally change the story if an original character takes over the role, or that will enable you to take a look at the story from a new perspective. Let’s take a look at some of the possible roles and how to handle them.
The most obvious role for an Original Character to take is that of the villain. However that’s outside the remit I’ve set myself for this talk. It’s okay for readers to hate the villain.
Obviously it’s better if they hate the villain because of his Evil Plan, and the suffering he has inflicted on the heroes, rather than because he’s a poorly-written character who comes over as one-dimensional and unbelievable. That’s just a question of making sure you do a good job of creating him. Put some thought into the villain’s characterisation, and make sure the Evil Plan has a reasonable amount of internal logic, and you’ll be fine. The particular problems of writing an Original Character in a fanfic story don’t apply to the villain.
A closely related role, however, is that of non-villainous opposition. Someone who works against the heroes, possibly even poses them a lethal threat, but for good and noble, or at least not evil, reasons.
It’s a role that avoids some of the potential pitfalls inherent in some other roles. Interaction with the canon characters, the trickiest part of writing an OC, is automatically restricted to a narrow range. All you really need to do is have some degree of mutual respect develop during the course of the story and the readers will be happy.
Examples from non-fanfic sources would be the US Marshall pursuing Dr Richard Kimble in the TV series, and more recent film, ‘The Fugitive’; King Thranduil and the Elves of Mirkwood in ‘The Hobbit’; in ‘The Mummy’ there are two such groups, the rival group of treasure-hunters and the Medjai Brotherhood; and in ‘Buffy’ Season 5 there are the Knights of Byzantium trying to destroy The Key to save the world.
The Knights of Byzantium didn’t really succeed in that role in the show. That’s because Joss Whedon didn’t do a good job of creating them. They’re just cardboard cut-outs, with almost nothing about their background being shown, and as a result we don’t really feel much for them. They might as well just be straightforward villains.
This does give them certain advantages when it comes to writing fic. With so little about them defined in canon they can be tailored to the requirements of a story. That’s why I used the Knights as the starting point when I created my own prime example of a non-villainous antagonist; Anna, from Access All Areas.
She had to pose a deadly threat and yet be a sympathetic character. I didn’t want the readers to be baying for her blood, waiting eagerly for the protagonists to kill her, but rather for them to hope that a non-terminal way of resolving the conflict would be found.
The easy part was portraying her as formidable opposition. I created her as the daughter of the General of the Knights of Byzantium, indoctrinated with their beliefs since childhood, and trained as an assassin since her teens. That also gave her all the necessary motivation. She’d been brought up to believe that the cosmic artefact known as the Key was a creation of evil, and posed a threat to the entire universe, and had to be destroyed at all costs. When the Knights find out that The Key is Dawn Summers, and order Anna to kill Dawn, that immediately sets up the conflict.
Making her a Slayer, by the Buffyverse rules, gave her extraordinary physical abilities. A couple of scenes showing her putting her abilities to use, and displaying utter ruthlessness in wiping out a group of gangsters, made it very plain that she posed a very formidable threat.
The tricky part was making her a sympathetic character. I took pains to show her doing normal things. Enthusing over Indie music, engaging in joking banter with her parents, etcetera. I had her display severe qualms at the prospect of assassinating someone who was, to all intents and purposes, a young woman like herself who wasn’t responsible for also being a dangerous cosmic artefact. Just a few little details to make her a living, breathing, human being and not just an archetype.
And I cheated slightly. I revealed that she wasn’t, strictly speaking, an Original Character but was a very minor canon character; the girl who appears in the opening sequence of the first episode of Buffy Season 7. Actually all I took from the on-screen character was her appearance, the fact that she was a Potential Slayer, the Istanbul connection and an affinity for rooftops; everything else about her was my creation. Even so, that tenuous canonicity is enough to automatically defuse most reader prejudice against OCs. I’ll return to that point later but for now I’ll move on to the next category.
Extra Muscle (or Extra Brains).
Someone to provide the heroes with additional firepower to face a situation, or an enemy, which would otherwise be too much for them.
That particular role is a potential minefield, fraught with difficulties, and shouldn’t even be attempted unless you’re an experienced writer. Always give strong consideration to using a crossover character in that role, instead of creating a character of your own, if at all possible. And make absolutely certain that there isn’t a canon character with the necessary skills or abilities to do the job (“But surely Spike can speak Fyarl?” “Gibbs is a trained and experienced sniper; they don’t need to bring in anyone else!” “Carter can fly an F-16!”) or your OC will be rejected out of hand.
The danger, in this type of role, is that the OC will overshadow the canon characters; after all, someone specifically designed for the scenario has significant advantages and could well take over. Readers will hate that.
You should ensure that the OC is support and back-up, rarely taking the lead or saving the day, or make it clear that the canon characters are the driving force and the inspiration behind any Original Character heroics.
Make sure that the OC is not significantly superior to the canon heroine in more than one or two specialised skills. If he’s an expert gunman then make sure that his prowess at unarmed combat is nothing out of the ordinary; or, if he’s an all-round combat expert who can field-strip an assault rifle with his teeth and gave up competing in mixed martial arts championships because winning all the time was getting boring, then he should be deficient in social skills, blind to pop-culture references, or be sadly lacking in some important field of knowledge. Conversely, someone brought in to provide specialised expertise in an intellectual field, such as a lawyer, an archivist, or a magician, should not be an expert in hand-to-hand combat.
Instead of making the OC as sympathetic as possible, as you would when writing most characters, consider giving him or her a few unpleasant characteristics instead. It’s counter-intuitive but it can work. Don’t overdo it, of course, but in moderation it can be very useful as a way of defusing potential criticism.
Someone who is totally mercenary, and has to be bribed or blackmailed into helping out, or who is a glory-hunter who ends up getting the characters into a sticky situation or has to be rescued by them after taking foolish risks, will be resented far less than someone who does a better job of being the hero than Buffy, Aragorn, or Jack O’Neill. The ideal, in fact, is someone who helps out the heroes and dies in the process.
‘Corpse’ is, after all, the prime example of a role that an Original Character can play as well or better than any canon character. However, as they say, “Die? That’s the last thing I’ll do” and so I’ll leave the topic of killing off your Original Characters until nearer the end.
Moving on, a closely related role to that of Additional Firepower is that of Native Guide.
That’s one of the classic uses of an Original Character – a Guest Star, in TV series terms. You see it all the time on TV and in films. The NCIS team are called in for an investigation on an aircraft carrier and they link up with the resident Agent Afloat. SG-1 gate to an unexplored planet and they befriend one of the locals. Imhotep is freed from his millennia-long imprisonment, finds himself in Twentieth Century Egypt, and he recruits the treacherous and cowardly Beni to be his guide. The Doctor’s Companions usually start out in the Native Guide role and then get promoted to a regular cast position.
There is a lot of scope for the role in fanfic. Sending the cast into an unfamiliar environment is much more common in fic than in most TV shows – after all, we don’t have any budgetary constraints. And a cast who are normally tied to one small area, such as the Buffy cast who almost never venture out of Sunnydale except for occasional visits to Los Angeles, will be even more in need of some assistance when they travel to the Czech Republic, or to Moorish Spain in the Tenth Century, or to the Cleveland Hellmouth in Stockton-on-Tees.
In fanfic the Native Guide role is often played by a crossover character. There are times when it’s almost compulsory. If, for instance, the heroes are sent back in time to Victorian-era London, and need the assistance of a Consulting Detective to find the device that will enable them to return home, it pretty much has to be Sherlock Holmes or the readers will feel cheated.
Sometimes, however, the setting is one that isn’t part of an established fandom. It might be a historical period, or a country, that you know well but that has never interested any screenwriters. Or you might be writing a story set in a crossover environment but where none of the established characters there are really suitable to act as a Native Guide to the visiting characters. Or your plot requires the Native Guide to die and you don’t want to kill off one of the core characters from the crossover universe. So you have to come up with a character of your own.
How do you do that successfully?
You tailor the character to fit the environment, of course, but you must also tailor your creation to the canon characters. By that I don’t mean that you should come up with a babe or a hunk who is the ideal partner for an unattached member of the show cast. I mean creating someone who complements their abilities, and provides valuable support, without outshining them.
If, for example, you send your characters back to the Hyborian Age (the time of Conan) but you decide to have them link up with an Original Character rather than with the invincible Cimmerian barbarian, then don’t make your OC a Conan clone whose mighty muscles and deadly broadsword will sweep aside all obstacles and leave nothing for the heroes to do. A much better choice would be a young barbarian, just starting out and hoping to win renown as a warrior, who can hold his own in their company but who won’t eclipse them.
Or a Zamoran thief, subtle and stealthy, who’ll get them a good deal in the markets but who, when it comes to hand-to-hand battle against the cannibal Gray Apes or the blood-crazed followers of the Stygian High Priest, will hide behind Buffy or Teal’c. Hmm. Actually I think I’ll write that one myself.
When I created Sorkatani, for ‘Tabula Avatar’, I took care to make her inferior to Buffy in at least a couple of areas. Not quite as strong, not quite as fast, and not quite as skilled at unarmed combat. She’s a little better than Buffy with a sword, significantly better with a bow, and therefore a fair match overall. Neither overshadows the other and so, after some initial friction, they developed a relationship based on mutual respect between equals. It went down very well with the readers. Also, very importantly, she respects the other Scoobies.
Respect is crucial. And plenty of opportunities for the canon characters to be at the forefront of events.
As an example, in my Stargate SG-1/Neverwinter Nights crossover Debt of Blood, Jack O’Neill and the SG-1 team are held captive in a wizard’s tower and subjected to torture. The OC Native Guide character, together with a couple of Neverwinter Nights canon characters, turns up to rescue them – and finds that they’ve already broken out of their cells, killed their torturer, and are well on the way to completing their escape.
They’ve done what they do best, in their usual style (although with a little more gore than on prime-time TV), and their fans can be well content. Nobody is going to feel that the Original Character, Cierre, has stolen any of their glory. So, when she goes on to play a major role throughout the rest of the story, earning the admiration of all the members of SG-1 for her courage and indomitable spirit, the readers don’t mind.
That’s actually the key point. More important than the characterisation of Cierre, or the way I write her; it’s that she isn’t taking away any of SG-1’s glory. She respects them from the start, as they’ve proven themselves to be tenacious and formidable warriors, and that respect is soon reciprocated.
I paid plenty of attention to characterisation when I created Cierre; I made sure that she had a distinctive personality, her own particular code of honour, and a well-developed back-story. None of it would have mattered, however, if I hadn’t made sure that she didn’t take the limelight away from Jack O’Neill.
A Native Guide who is the protagonist of a story in his or her own right can be a very useful plot hook. The visiting characters get caught up in that story in addition to their own. Either it becomes a secondary plot thread or even takes over as the main focus of the story. Sorkatani, and to a lesser extent Cierre, are examples of that trope but the classic example comes from outside fanfic.
H. Rider Haggard’s novel ‘King Solomon’s Mines’. Alan Quatermain and party, searching for a missing explorer, recruit a Native Guide, Umbopa, who they think is a Zulu. It turns out that Umbopa is really the rightful King in Exile of the Kukuana tribe and the rest of the story becomes, primarily, the tale of his restoration to the throne. It was a very successful book and has been filmed five times. Part of the success is, no doubt, down to the author’s skilful use of Umbopa.
Now, obviously you’re not going to get your fanfic filmed five times, no matter how skilfully you use your Original Character, but if you can make good use of the potential plot hooks offered by the Native Guide role your OC might pick up a lot of readers and perhaps an award or two.
But always give the canon characters plenty of opportunities to shine!
And remember, when using an Original Character in a crossover setting, that the ideal is to blend the Original Character in so well that a reader who isn’t familiar with the setting, but who reads the story anyway, won’t be able to pick out the OC from the characters who are canon to the setting. If you do that well enough then you might miss out on some Best Original Character nominations, or mistakenly get them for the wrong character, but at least you’ll avoid the Mary-Sue accusations and the Original Character hate.
Moving on, the OC role that is perhaps the exact opposite is Damsel in Distress (or ‘Handsome Man Tied to Tree’).
The Damsel in Distress can be extremely annoying if you’re not careful. She shouldn’t be helpless and passive, merely waiting to be rescued and perhaps screaming in terror at appropriate points, if she’s to play any significant role in the story other than that of the Maguffin who needs to be there to make the plot work.
You should make her someone who is a strong personality, and able to cope perfectly well in most circumstances, but who simply doesn’t have the physical abilities or the resources to deal with the particular peril in which she finds herself. Someone who, when they take her to the altar for sacrifice, has to be dragged all the way and who will kick the Evil High Priest in the balls if she gets the slightest chance.
Once the heroes have rescued the damsel she’s a prime candidate for the next traditional OC role.
It’s hard to pull this one off successfully. You’re going to alienate all the readers who are invested in an existing canon ’ship, or a non-canon ’ship with another canon character, involving the character you’re pairing with your OC. It’s pretty much impossible to convert a dedicated ’shipper and, in that respect, you’re in a no-win situation.
Sometimes, however, there isn’t an obvious canon pairing and an OC in the role can work.
You have to write someone who can be convincing as a potential partner. This is an area in which ultra-realism is counter-productive. She has to stand out from the crowd. On the other hand making her too attractive, or giving her super-powers that aren’t strictly necessary for her role in the story, is liable to leave her open to accusations of being a ‘Mary-Sue’; it’s a balancing act that requires a delicate touch and fine judgement.
One writer who has a very successful track record in handling this trope, in the Buffy fandom, is enigmatic_blue. She has written OC love interests for Wesley, for Dawn, and for Spike, and mostly does it very well indeed (although she does, occasionally, tremble on the edge of one of the potential pitfalls). If you read her stories Friends and Strangers, Man of the World, Useless Desires, and the Cast Me Not Away series, you’ll see Original Character love interests handled very well indeed.
Her OC Nika, in ‘Cast Me Not Away, is a particularly well-balanced character (barring one small point with which I have a minor issue). She acts as a catalyst for a lot of plot points without taking everything over. The story isn’t all about her and her relationship with Wesley; a lot of it revolves around the tangled Buffy and Spike relationship, and Nika plays only a minor role in the non-canon way that the Slayer and the Vampire get together in the story.
That’s the heart of the matter. An OC who becomes the centre of gravity, about whom everything else revolves, will be resented no matter how well-written she might be. Give the canon characters plenty of scope to do things that don’t involve her, make sure that she earns their respect and affection rather than being given it as if by right, and you’ll defuse most of the hate.
Of all the OC roles the trickiest, in my opinion, is the one that would seem, at first glance, to be the simplest. Someone to give a fresh perspective, to show the canon characters in a new light, to offer an alternative viewpoint.
Where it goes wrong is when the OC becomes the voice of the writer and a way of presenting opinions, about the show characters, as objective fact.
The worst examples of this occur in stories that are almost a genre in their own right; what I call ‘Lecture Fic’. The OC, who is given a position of authority for some reason, turns up and lectures most of the show characters about the way they are (allegedly) mistreating another character. Usually the character in question, in the Buffy fandom, is Spike.
The ultimate expression of this genre is a certain Buffyverse fic, the title of which is a pun on the OC’s name, by… well, let’s call the author ‘Knave of Chopsticks’. The titular OC is transported from the real world into the world of the show, given some useful powers, and introduced to the show characters, by the demon Whistler, as an authority who has the knowledge to solve all their problems. She then spends 51 chapters lecturing the characters on how Spike is a poor, misunderstood, woobie who is Buffy’s True Love. Eventually they all either accept her views as fact or else are cast out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.
It’s not a total disaster. There are quite a few good lines, some passages are very funny, and at least the author avoids the temptation to pair the OC off with Giles and has her end up with a minor, rather unattractive, character instead. In all other respects, however, it’s an object lesson in how not to do it. Readers who share the author’s opinions exactly may well love the story but to everyone else it will never be more than a Guilty Pleasure read at best.
Don’t do the same thing, even if you are convinced that you have a valid point to make, or you risk being mocked.
Don’t use characters as your proxy voice; they should speak from their own viewpoint. Don’t give them a spurious claim to authority. Those with different views aren’t going to change their beliefs just because some random stranger tells them to do so. Your OC can offer her own opinions, certainly, but they’ll have to be backed up with hard evidence for them to be accepted. And the OC shouldn’t always be right.
Outside the ‘Lecture Fic’ genre there are plenty of much better ways to shed a new light on the characters by the use of an Original Character. The OC can be an external observer, never a part of the central group, but simply showing what the show characters look like from the outside. The classic example of this, in the Buffyverse fandom, is Not Even Jimmy Olsen by Blair Provence. A look through the eyes of one of Buffy’s classmates at Sunnydale High, seeing the weird events without the benefit of getting an explanation from Giles, and trying to make sense of it all. The OC’s interaction with the Scoobies is peripheral, just the same as that of anyone else in the school, and it works wonderfully well.
Another good example is Agnes Pringle in lilachigh’s Business As Usual. She gets on with her own unlife, striving only to run a successful tea-shop, interacting only peripherally with the Scoobies. She shows us them from an unusual perspective but doesn’t change the story at all.
A totally opposite approach is taken in one of my favourite ‘Lord of the Rings’ fics; The Last Temptation of Legolas Thranduilion, by jael_the_scribe.
The Original Character barely appears in this story and yet is totally pivotal to everything that happens. At the Council of Elrond Legolas does not offer himself as one of the Fellowship; instead another elf, named Indavir, speaks up in his place.
The story is told from Legolas’ point of view and so we only hear odd pieces of what transpires for the Fellowship. It doesn’t take long for it to be obvious that things have not gone well.
Indavir is a competent enough warrior but he’s not quite up to Legolas. Really he does only two things wrong. He misses with one bow-shot, whereas in canon Legolas scored a hit, and he takes too long to get his horse under control at the entrance to the Paths of the Dead.
As a result the Battle of the Pelennor Fields is lost, most of the Fellowship die, and Frodo is taken by Sauron. With the One Ring in his possession Sauron swiftly conquers all of Middle Earth. All due to Legolas making a different choice.
The author, by subtracting Legolas from the Fellowship, shows just how big a contribution he made to the War of the Ring. And gives a great example of how to use an Original Character to maximum effect; shedding a light upon the canon character instead of usurping that character’s place in the light.
The character Indavir is perhaps not totally an Original Character. In the film version of ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, in the scene where the Fellowship is being chosen, there is an elf standing nearby who has no lines and is not named in the credits. Fandom has nicknamed him ‘Figwit’, for some strange reason, and he has become something of a cult figure. Indavir is specified as being this ‘Figwit’. It’s the most tenuous link possible to being a canon character but it still brings me back to a point I made earlier.
Building what is, essentially, an Original Character around an extremely minor canon character.
It could be considered to be the coward’s way out, evading the Mary-Sue issue on a technicality, but it offers a way to link the character to the canon environment while still giving you almost total freedom to design the character to fit your requirements.
I did it with Anna in ‘Access All Areas’, as I mentioned, and I also did it with Cierre. In the original material Cierre is mentioned in only one paragraph of an obscure sourcebook. There’s virtually nothing about her other than her height, her religion, and where she lives. There is an indistinct picture of her, showing her fighting with sword and axe, and that’s the lot. I noticed that she’s described as being five foot nine, incredibly tall for a Drow and possibly an error that slipped through the editing, and I built the whole character around that. So, she’s an Original Character in everything that matters and yet I can, if necessary, claim that she’s a canon Forgotten Realms character and definitely not a Mary-Sue.
The classic example of a minor character used as the framework for creating OCs comes from ‘Lord of the Rings’. Lothíriel, of Dol Amroth, daughter of Prince Imrahil.
She doesn’t appear in the books or the films at all. She’s merely mentioned in the Appendices as eventually marrying Éomer of Rohan. That hasn’t stopped her from becoming a major character in fanfic; in fact there’s an entire genre of Éomer/Lothiriel fic with
She’s a blank slate. I’ve seen stories in which she’s a spoilt and pampered noblewoman, a skilled and dedicated healer, a strong and independent warrior, and even one (perhaps my favourite) in which she’s blind. All of these interpretations are equally valid. Most of them work; the ones which fail do so because of deficiencies in the plot, or the writing, and not because of anything wrong with the character.
All the stories could be written with a pure Original Character with almost no difference. The Prince Imrahil connection is the only thing that would need to be changed. And yet we all know that a story described as an OC/ Éomer romance would probably sink without trace, almost unread, regardless of its quality.
There are only two ways to get around this wall of prejudice. Use the canon connection, giving your OC the name and position of the minor character but then giving yourself free reign, or else sneak the romance into a story that is ostensibly in another genre; action/adventure, for instance, with the romantic bit being sidelined slightly. That’s a hard trick to pull off; taking the canon way out has overwhelming advantages.
It’s always worth considering that option if there’s any suitable blank-slate character in your fandom. If there isn’t, well, you’ll just have to hope that potential readers won’t reject your story out of hand without giving it a fair try.
It’s nearly time for the end of this talk and so an appropriate place to discuss killing off your Original Character.
First let’s look at the OC as a ‘kamikaze canal lock’; dying to open the way for a ’ship.
This is what happens to the OC love interest Rachel in enigmatic_blue’s ‘Friends and Strangers’. The Spike/Rachel relationship opens Buffy’s eyes to Spike as a potential partner but also means that he’s out of bounds. Conveniently, however, Rachel dies at the end and frees up Spike for a potential post-story romance with Buffy. It’s a lot more subtle than I’ve made it sound but that’s the gist of it.
It can be a neat trick, if done well, especially if it’s combined with one of the other OC roles. For example the Native Guide could have a romance with one of the canon characters, inspiring jealousy in the other half of your desired canon ’ship, but then is killed in the final battle. Or, less cruelly, the characters simply return to their own time or place and the Native Guide stays behind. The way opens for your OTP to forge ahead.
It works best if the death comes as a horrible shock. The warnings customary in fic can telegraph it; ‘Spike/OC, Spike/Buffy eventually’ is a bit of a give-away that the relationship with the Original Character is doomed. Better, perhaps, if the OC romance never gets beyond the flirting stage, just enough to inspire the required amount of jealousy, before being tragically cut short.
Of course there are other reasons to kill off your OC.
Making it brutally clear that the villains are a deadly threat, for instance, sacrificing the OC for that purpose so that you can spare the canon characters. Or to make things more difficult for the characters by taking away one of their sources of help and support.
In ‘Debt of Blood’ I pulled a switch on the readers by introducing a character who, it seemed, was going to be the Native Guide for the duration of the story. She stayed around just long enough for the SG-1 characters, and hopefully the readers, to develop a liking for her – and then I killed her off. This gave SG-1 a motive for revenge– if ten days of imprisonment and torture wasn’t enough motivation – against the villains, demonstrated the lethality of the environment, and set up the conflict for the rest of the story. Killing off one of SG-1, for instance Teal’c, would have served the same purposes but I doubt if the readership would have accepted it.
Original Characters are expendable to a much greater extent than canon characters. You don’t have to give Character Death warnings, and so you can bring off genuine shocks impossible to achieve if you stick to the canon characters, although it’s a tactic that mustn’t be overused or the readers will come to expect it and you’ll lose all the shock value (and get nicknamed Joss the Second). If you do a good enough job of characterisation the readers will resent you killing off the OC – and if you achieve that, Grasshopper, you have mastered the art of writing Original Characters Readers Don’t Hate.