Character Counts

This was written by Merlin Missy in 2007. Some references may now be outdated but the general advice is very good. It is used with permission. — Cygnet


Batman Is Unimpressed By Your Emo OC

Ah, once again the debates are raging. How should canon characters be portrayed? What makes a well-rounded original character? How, when it all comes down to it, can we not screw up in how we make the people on the screen become the people on the page? Leaving aside the problems of those who perhaps found urine in their breakfast cereals this morning, it has come to Dr. Merlin’s attention that some pointers on characterization might be in order.

To begin with, you should choose your characters. This might seem obvious, but gentle reader, many a story has been spoiled by having too little focus or too tight the same. Imagine if you will that you want to tell the story of a romantic candlelit dinner shared by your favorite couple. Simple enough, yes? Two characters, one plan, no waiting. Ah, but then you run the risk, nay the certainty that your story will only appeal to others who share your fascination with that pairing. This may be your goal, and indeed it is a worthy one, but if your hope is to appeal to a broader audience, you may want to add the characters beloved of other fans (and liked by yourself, of course). But of course you must be careful not to include too many characters or the point of your story — the dinner– will get lost in the shuffle.

This is not to say you shouldn’t let your story open its surprises to you over time. Just last month, as I was working with a friend on a story about a particular character, we discovered that in fact two other characters we’d pulled into the story to round out the cast were just as important to the plot. Have a basic idea of who you want; let the others show up as needed.

This is basic, right? You know this, right? Already you’re inching towards the “Back” button. Click it if you must, but then you’ll never find out what we do next.

Next, we figure out what the characters desire.

Ah, you say, here I’ve got it licked! My two characters having dinner desire each other, dead stop. And I say to you, this is why we need to talk.

Characters are people (more or less) and people are human (also more or less). In fandom, we ae generally dealing with characters who are human or human analogues. Occasionally, there will be the rare alien species that truly thinks like an alien, and that provides its own unique challenges while writing, but for now, we’re focusing on the ones who get the most screen and fic time.

Humans have needs. Psychologist Abraham Maslow listed the hierarchy of human needs and they may sound familiar. First things first, people need food, water, air, sleep, clothing, and shelter. Without these, as a rule, people will die. (The clothing requirement may be lifted for the purposes of your story. Just as long as the room is warm, is all I’m saying.) If your favorite couple is stranded on a desert island, their first priority is finding something to eat and shelter from the elements, not finding the first spot of dry ground they can in order to shag. Sex is an important physical need, especially in a reproduce or perish situation, but it comes well after breathing, drinking, eating, and making sure your characters won’t be eaten by tigers. (Note for the kids in the back row: I am not referring to real tigers, as like polar bears, tigers are usually in short supply on desert islands. “Eaten by tigers” is a general phrase I use in daily conversation — really! — to indicate someone has met his or her end due to Darwin’s ideas in action.)

Once your characters have met their basic needs, and indeed, most stories are set in a time and place where those needs are already met, you must then look to the higher-order needs, such as feelings of belonging to a community, affection, respect from others, respect of self, and so on. Your character may or may not have these needs fulfilled. If they are wanting, that’s a desire. Put a pin in it, we’ll come back.

Setting aside the psychology, your characters, being from an established universe, have pre-set jobs, responsibilities, family ties, and any other number of details that make up a character. These feed into your characters’ desires just as much as those longing gazes over the oysters and Cabernet Whatitsface. As an example, my current passion revolves around superheroes. Capes, tights, overblown egos saving the world every ten minutes, pile it on. The characters I write about want to protect people, as many as they can. Sometimes that desire runs amok and we get delicious little AUs where they become fascist dictators. Sometimes they don’t manage to fulfil that desire, and we get angst in heaping spoonfuls from the guilt. If I’m writing Batman, I get both. Yay!

Your character wants to do his or her job, and except in cases of slacker characters, they tend to want to do their jobs better than anyone else, often because other people will die if they don’t, and so we tend to write about people who are Really Really Good at what they do. Some have country-sized egos to go with that (Rodney McKay, I’m looking at you). Some have inferiority complexes because they screwed up once and never want it to happen again.

Know your characters. Know their histories. Know their backstories or make them up in your head if there’s no canon. Find out why your character does what he or she does and what he or she is afraid of. Desires to keep things from happening (again) are just as important or more so to your characters are the desire to get into someone’s pants. If you know what your characters want and you know what they don’t want, you’ll go into your scene with a stronger understanding of what’s going on between the two of them over the soup.

Next, and this is the bit that stumbles many an author: every single character in your story wants something, and doesn’t want something else. The cab driver. The guy who operates the transporter. The lunch lady. Certainly the other canon characters want things, and those you’re at least peripherally aware of (even if you don’t like them or find them boring). Some fanfic writers substitute secondary characters’ desires with the writers’ own desires; to whit, they become yentas, existing only to move the desired couple together. (Yenta!Sue has her own very special category of Mary Sue when she makes the scene: an original character whose sole purpose is to get the author’s OTP canoodling.) DON’T LET THIS BE YOU!

Every character who appears in your story, or moves around backstage in your story, or exists at all in your chosen universe has needs and desires that are independent of and maybe even contradictory to your favorite characters’ needs. For example, in my most recent OTP, the male half of the couple began seeing someone new during the course of the series. This new character’s desires — to continue to see him and perhaps build a future with him — ran counter to the desires of the female half of my OTP (and my own). My temptation as a fanfic writer would be to cast the new character as an interloper, even a conniving one, and present her as intentionally mean to the character I liked more. However, that wouldn’t be true to the new woman’s character, and it would be unfair characterization.

Her desires ran counter to mine; that didn’t make them wrong, just different, and just as worthy of being expressed textually or otherwise in any stories I wrote where she appeared.Shorter: other characters (canonical and otherwise) might interfere with your ‘shipping desires. That doesn’t make them evil characters, or even poorly-written ones, and digging for reasons to dislike them comes across as small-minded and vindictive, and it leads to bad characterization in fanfic.

And again, there are the characters who just don’t care. There are a lot of people who, I repeat, just don’t care. Batman is a useful character for this purpose. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t want to know who’s dating whom (except to keep notes and try to figure out what kinds of power balances will change on his team in case of a liaison or a breakup). He doesn’t want to play matchmaker. If he sees a flying diapered baby with a bow and arrow, he’ll trap it and study it. He might date, he might shag, but at the end of the night, he wants people around who will help him get the job done, because his desire is to never ever let anyone be killed on his watch ever again. (Your characterization may vary. Your Batman may hug bunnies. I’m fine with that. Own that characterization and run with it. I’ll be hiding behind the sofa with the cat.)

Desires inform your characters, and desires inform your plot. (Yeah, I know. What plot? This was supposed to be twenty-six pages of sensual buildup and fifty pages of shagging like weasels.) Okay, so here’s the thing. Plot is easy. Plot is desire -> obstacle -> resolution. Lots of things happen in the middle, and that’s why they call it a story, but if you’ve got your characters’ desires set (if only in your head) and there’s something in the way (for example, their other needs and desires just like we went through), then once your story lets you know whether or not they get the things they want, there’s your plot. The rest is gravy. (In the best stories, the desires tend to change as the characters learn and grow. Some folks call this “moving the goalposts.”)

What about original characters (OCs)? Aren’t they all Mary Sues, author inserts and wastes of time? Of course not. Some are, sure. That’s why we have litmus tests and writing guides and how-not-to lists, because despite the fact that Sues tend to be a “symptom” of the problem of bad writing, naming them and fixing their issues goes a long way towards ameliorating the biggest problem, which is not taking enough time thinking through the story and characters before starting a new story.

OCs are not inherently bad by nature. Not even if they’re the POV characters in stories. Not even if they’ve got the classic violet eyes and gorgeous hair and sad backstories. (Okay, all those things together are probably a good indicator, but hey, colored contact lenses are cheap and everyone’s in therapy these days for something, so you never know.) The chief problem with newbie writers creating OCs is the lack of forethought into the desires of the OCs and the surrounding characters in the chosen fictional universe.

Let us go back to Batman. Batman does not care about your OC’s troubled past, except so far as it helps him solve the case. He is not impressed by her violet eyes, her pretty hair, or her musical abilities. In fact, heap on enough cool features, and he’ll likely start suspecting she’s a supervillain. If she starts dating Robin, he is not going to welcome her into the Batfamily with open arms and show her the Batcave and ask Alfred to make her sandwiches. He is going to set a tracking device on her and find out things like who her family really is and how often she brushes her teeth, because Batman is a big, scary freak that way.

This is important.

If you create an OC and have her/him run around your fanfiction universe, you need to know that the canon characters’ desires are going to be different than hers/his. They still have to slay vampires and outwit Cardassians and so on. If s/he is romantically interested in a canon character, any other canon characters with romantic designs on the same character will be put out, and this does not make her/him a bad character because of it. Presenting the canon character as evil, awful, incompetent or petty does a disservice to the character and will alienate fans of that character, who then in turn will not read your stories.

Think about desires. Think of what your OC desires. Think of what the other characters in your story desire. Think about their needs in the hierarchy, and remember that “vicariously shagging one’s favorite character” is significantly below “not being eaten by tigers.” (Again please note that “eaten by tigers” can also be read to mean “dying of kryptonite poisoning,” “shot by Cylons,” and so on.) Balance the desires of all your characters (keeping in mind that fanfiction readers as a group tend to prefer the canon characters) and also remember that subtext is as good as or better than text when telegraphing desires.

Final lesson: what do you do when canon doesn’t support your characterization? You know in your heart of hearts that at the denouement of your little tale, Batman will lay weeping in Superman’s embrace after they have made passionate love for fifteen hours straight. Okay. That’s your story and more power to you.

Get us there.

You know where the characters start out, what their desires are (aside from the sex). What changes in their situations? What do they lose? What do they learn? What happened to the bunnies? Show us the changing goalposts and show us why those desires changed. (Otherwise call it an AU – which has become fanfiction shorthand for “I like it better this way without all the messy canon.” It can also be fanfiction shorthand for “I’m using the names and descriptions of these characters and that’s it,” though that can be said of non-AU fanfic too. More on AUs in another essay.)

Now read through your story. Can you hear the characters speaking your lines and thinking those thoughts? Would this ever be an episode? “No” is an acceptable answer to the second question; fanfic is about stretching the boundaries of the universe, not always writing strictly within them. Is the character you’ve written recognizable as the character you see on the screen, or are they just wearing the same suit? If they’re different, is there a solid reason why within your story? What about the rest of the characters? Is anyone acting against his/her typical needs and desires in order to move your story forward? Is anyone being presented as selfish and mean in acting on those desires, and if so, is it to make the characters you like look better? Are you ignoring the other characters for the sakes of the characters you like? (Not necessarily a bad thing, but again, will take away readership of your stories.)

Have your beta reader go through your story. Can your beta recognize the characters on the page as the characters from the screen? Can your beta hear their voices speaking the lines?

At the end of the story, do you know if the characters achieved their desires? (You should. Your reader doesn’t necessarily have to, but it helps. Even if that desire is simply to finish up the ice cream before bed.)

Desire is fundamental to understanding and writing characters. Know what the people you’re writing want, and you can make them dance for you. Give them what they want, or give them something else to want instead, and you’ll have them pirouetting in front of adoring crowds. (The image of Batman in the tutu is going to linger. Trust me on this.)

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