COLUMN: Original characters and why I like them

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COLUMN: Original characters and why I like them

Postby c_nordlander » Fri May 20, 2011 9:30 pm

Another writing column. As the title shows, it's about my personal ideas, not the eternal criteria of high art. Also, obviously fanfic-specific (which isn't to say that some ideas here might not be relevant to, say, introducing new characters in a long-running series of original fiction).

In my experience, original characters, or OCs for short, tend to get a bad press in fanfiction communities. I've seen people who assume that they're the same thing as Mary-Sues, or otherwise very tolerant fans get up in arms over OCs threatening their precious 'ships (even if the character paired with the OC is single in canon). Some OCs are, of course, Mary-Sues, but that should of course not mean that all OCs should be condemned. I have also noticed a tendency in some fanfics to never use an original character if there's a minor canonical character that could be used. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this approach, but there are times when it seems to be done to avoid OCs for the sake of it.

On a less extreme level, I see many fanfics get criticism along the lines of: "People want to read about the canon characters, not your original character." That criticism has more merit to it, though it is at least somewhat dependent on the reader's opinion. As I see it, the real problem is if the original character overshadows the canonical cast, rather than just being part of the team. Then, we have the kind of fanfic that is set in the fandom's universe, but all the characters are original (on this forum, Mass Effect Digression by Kenneth White is an example). Obviously, this type of fanfic will be more to the taste of some readers than others, but it's still a valid subgenre.

So original characters have their hazards, just like any narrative device. But here is my personal opinion:

I like original characters, because they show that the writer is prepared to take risks.

Like any statement of personal taste, this should of course be taken with a bag of qualifications. Good writing is of course, as always, paramount. Also, original characters shouldn't be shoehorned in (and I hope that this column doesn't come across as me saying that they should); they should be there when the plot requires it.

Even so, a writer who puts an original character in his fanfic when called for is at least taking a risk to make their story more memorable, even if they don't succeed.

All fanfic is situated somewhere on a continuum related to how similar it is to the original work. There's nothing wrong with writing a story that feels like it could easily be an episode of the show (if you're writing Simpsons or Futurama fanfiction) or equivalent: that approach has created some excellent works. But there comes a point on the continuum where you aren't writing in the style of the work as much as creating a carbon copy. Sure, it will capture the spirit of the show, but at the cost of originality and risk-taking. Using one or more original characters shows that you dare to do something different.

As an example, when I reviewed the otherwise well-written and ambitious fanfic The Simpsons Movie: Springfield United (not to be confused with The Simpsons Movie), I said that I would have been more impressed if it had introduced any major original characters. (It did in fact have one original character, the Colonel, but he was very minor.) As it was, it erred a bit on the safe side. In non-fanfiction examples, both The Simpsons Movie and the Futurama DVD movies had the chutzpah to introduce several completely new characters (whatever your opinions on those characters).

In short: original characters can be bad. That is what makes them a hazard. But if they turn out good, they can lift a fanfic a bit higher than it would have flown otherwise.

Here, I should really have a tutorial on how to write good original characters, but that is really too ambitious a topic to tack on at the end. Write them as carefully as you would any character: give them flaws and good sides, give them desires, have some understanding of their motives even if they're villainous. Don't write them purposely to outshine the main cast (for example, being a better martial artist than Leela), unless you intend to subvert that somehow (she's actually a crap martial artist who's using mind control to win her fights) or make them into an antagonist. A good example of a fanfic that has an original character in a major role, without them overshadowing the canonical cast or becoming a Mary-Sue, is Gulliver's Amy Wrong II: The Universe of Evil: it achieves this partly because while the original character, Jamie, is central to the plot, she is more of a nuisance than a hero (the predicament the Planet Express employees find themselves in is her fault to start with).

My message in short: writers, don't be afraid to use original characters in your fanfiction. And readers, don't judge original characters on sight.

Any diverging or complementing opinions are of course welcome. Let the debating roll!
Last edited by c_nordlander on Fri May 02, 2014 11:45 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: COLUMN: Original characters and why I like them

Postby Gulliver63 » Sat May 21, 2011 4:53 am

I like this column! I love to create OC's, I guess because I played role-playing games for so long. I think that OC's are vital to fanfiction...I think when we write a fanfic, we write about things that we wish we could see on the shows, and we write about things we're passionate about. I can get very attached to my characters...I think my absolute favorites are Annie, Amy's daughter, and Sara, Leela's daughter. I can visualize what they would say or how they would react to certain situations. The thing I love the most about Sara is that she is definately not a carbon copy of her mother; it would have been so boring to just make her a clone of Leela. When we write, we try to make these characters as realistic as possible...many experiences from my life have ended up in my stories.
I really like the fact that Jamie Wong was so well received...writing that second story was a challenge, but I think it paid off. I really liked beginning the story with Jamie talking first person to the audience - it gave her a chance to tell her side of the story, and to connect with the readers. What a challenge - she's hardly a model citizen that any of us could trust!
I also think that OC's give us the thing that we wish for most of all...they make us feel like we're actually writing for the show. It's the next best thing to being there. I can't imagine writing fan fiction without including OC's...it's sort of the whole point of writing what we write.

BTW, I'm working on a story for this summer that takes place back on the cyclops planet...Leela is the only Futurama character in it - the rest are all my OC's.
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Re: COLUMN: Original characters and why I like them

Postby missy_misery » Sat May 21, 2011 9:49 pm

As always, you bring up some interesting points, Chris.

Writing an original character is a fun and sometimes frustrating process; Kenneth is actually a good example of how to do it and do it well (Also see: his sprawling Universe of Malice). Most of my POV characters when I write original pieces tend to be from the children of major characters, which is a whole other article.
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Re: COLUMN: Original characters and why I like them

Postby Gulliver63 » Sat May 21, 2011 10:46 pm

I've run across many a person in dA that has added kids to the canon characters...I can vouch for the fact that this is a barrel of fun. I have to admit that "Little Annie" Kroker started as a sketch for an alternate hairstyle for Amy Wong last summer. I have met many people who have given her a place in their hearts...one woman went so far as to take my picture to her hairdresser and tell her, "I want my hair to look like this." I just about melted all over the floor. OC's are the real fun of fanfiction...like the role-playing characters that I mentioned earlier, they take on a life of their own. Annie became the voice against racism, and Sara struggled with getting the same eye surgery as her mother did in the show. The two of them grew up together, and Sara was the closest thing Annie ever knew to having a sister (hence the fact that she calls her 'sis'). If you can stitch these OC characters in with the canon characters, you've really done something neat. Also, the creation of Stephanie Talbot was a deliberate attempt to include another major African-American character into the show - she lives up to this title, as her father is American, and her mother is from Togo. Wouldn't all of us, if Matt called us up tomorrow and asked us to write for the show, jump all over the opportunity? Long live OC's! ;D
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Re: COLUMN: Original characters and why I like them

Postby missy_misery » Wed May 25, 2011 10:46 pm

I think Lilah Fry's my biggest example here, and Daniah from Delicious Surprise (wow, that takes me back).
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Re: COLUMN: Original characters and why I like them

Postby Gulliver63 » Thu May 26, 2011 1:33 am

OC's can come from the most interesting places as well...Sigotha became a very close father-figure to Leela - I had no intention of him being anything other than just a shady, shifty local businessman.

Oh, BTW, let me introduce the kids...I posted this at dA. Here we have Sara Turanga Fry, Phil Fry Jr., and Anne-Elisabeth "Little Annie" Kroker. I chose Turanga as Sara's middle name, and I can bet she hates it to pieces. As you can see, Annie got some of that Kiffy DNA. The backround photo is Glen Este Middle School east of Cincinnati, where I attended the 8th grade. That May I went to see a little movie called "Star Wars."
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