Perhaps it is just me, but I genuinely think that one of the most divisive issues in fanfiction is the use of original characters. Fanfiction is essentially about using canon to craft your own stories in a well-known universe with characters that are already much loved (or loathed) by your readers. Introducing an original character can be a tricky business as readers will not have the same knowledge of or emotion towards that creation as they may have for longstanding figures in canon. Original characters are perhaps more open to accusations of Mary Sue/Gary Stu-ism than most – although don’t kid yourself, this can be an issue with any character, canon or original. It is something which has always surprised me but there are some fans out there who are extreme in their dislike of original characters, even to the point of refusing to read fanfics which include them.
However, there are also fans, like me, who really enjoy reading about original characters because they can provide a fresh perspective on that particular universe and the established characters within it. Furthermore, I would argue that original characters can also be a valuable tool with which to challenge yourself as a writer. So, in order to get your confidence up, why not check out some of these tips? Some of them are equally applicable to writing canon characters and may be useful if you are trying to get into writing fanfiction.
- Motivation: Before you commit to the idea of using an original character in your fanfic, you should consider your motivations very carefully. This is absolutely key on so many levels. It requires an evaluation of the canon characters, their strengths, weaknesses and the role that they play both in canon and in your potential work. It will help you to determine whether it may be more suitable to use a character from canon instead or if there is indeed a space for a new character. Even if you choose not to use an original character, all of this preparation will still come in useful when exploring those characters later. Understanding your motivation for creating an original character may also help you in terms of plot development. If you understand why you need to use an original character and your goals in doing so then you can develop your plot as appropriate to meet those aims.
- Originality: Try to be inventive about how you introduce original characters or incorporate them into your fanfic. Be careful not to fall into the trap of using a really common plot device such as suddenly introducing them as the long lost relative of a canon character. Okay, I accept that this is done a lot in television shows – Derek Branning/Eastenders, Malik Dracula/Young Dracula – but if you can think of something slightly more unusual then you are more likely to grasp the interest of potential readers.
- Develop: Writing a character, original or canon, can be a difficult process. Before you put pen to paper or fingertip to a snazzy computer device, you should take the time to think about and develop your fictional character. At the very least, you should have a rough idea of your character’s appearance, age, backstory, likes, dislikes and motivations. I appreciate that this may sound like a lot of effort but if you put in the work at this stage it will help you later. For example, understanding that your original character has a fear of snakes may help you explain their reaction to an event later in the fanfic. Don’t be afraid to make your characters rich in detail. Little things like knowing they are a Beatles fan or they drink their tea with honey instead of sugar may help your readers connect with them as a person.
- Flaws: One of the many criticisms made against Mary/Gary Sues is that they are too perfect, they are the most beautiful, the most intelligent, they are gifted at everything they do, they never do or get anything wrong… I mean does that sound realistic and/or relatable to you? You want your readers to empathise with your character, understand their motivations and maybe even reflect on some of the issues that readers are experiencing themselves. A significant part of achieving this is developing your character as explained above. Don’t be afraid to make your characters flawed, to give them irritating habits, to write about them feeling or reacting in a controversial way. You can give your character a unique super power that the Avengers need in order to fulfil their next mission but balance this out by poking fun at their complete inability to cook something even vaguely edible.
- It is also important to consider how figures in canon would realistically react to your character. A canon character who is well-known for being suspicious of other people’s motivations is unlikely to welcome a long lost relative with open arms. Writing interactions between canon and original characters in a balanced way can develop the plot further and make the relationship dynamics more interesting.
- Acceptance: Sometimes, no matter how carefully you craft an original character, no matter how essential they are to the plot, you will receive negative feedback. Some fans genuinely refuse to read anything other than canon. Some fans won’t like your character’s personality or the way they react to an event in the fanfic. You have to accept these risks, take any constructive feedback that people have to offer and keep working at it. Writing a character, canon or original, is a craft which requires time and practice. It can be a risk to use an original character but it can be also be very rewarding both in terms of your development as a writer and the positive feedback that you can sometimes receive from your readers.
Why not share your tips or thoughts on original characters with us? We’d love to hear what you think!
Red Hamilton (once got asked to rewrite an entire fanfic because a reader hated the original character so much…)