One criticism that fanfiction authors get all too often is that we aren’t “real” writers because we are using someone else’s characters. I would argue with that in many ways, but like other criticisms in life, there is a grain of truth involved. We can take characters which already exist, have personalities and backstories, and reimagine them in any setting we choose.
When I tried my hand at writing original fiction over the past few years, I realized how challenging it is to go from writing familiar characters who aren’t my own to creating new characters without recreating the same characters I’d already been writing about. At the same time, I wanted to take aspects of characters that I enjoyed and incorporate them into what I was creating. It’s been a rough ride, and I still consider character creation an area I need improvement in.
The Ease of Using Familiar Characters
I will not make the mistake of false modesty and say that I have issues writing characters as a fanfiction author. Reviewer after reviewer has left comments about how well I do with characterization. I recognize that, with existing characters, I’m able to get into their heads. I’m able to take what exists and have them remain true to canon even in situations that aren’t remotely close to what occurred in the original story. It’s something that comes naturally to me, but in a way that has made creating original characters more difficult.
I’m ridiculously used to digging into an existing character and what makes them tick, but unfortunately, a lot of it is instinctual. They reacted XYZ way during these episodes or this film, so I can easily extrapolate how they will react if I have them experience ABC. However, despite a couple psychology classes in high school and college and a semi-distracted interest in personality types and mental disorders, I’m not great at figuring out the “why.” I seem to understand it at a level that didn’t need explaining previously, but now I feel like I need more. I need to know why a character will do something, and I need to keep it more in the forefront of my mind than I ever did while writing fanfiction.
Finding out the “why” with a brand new character you know almost nothing about other than what you want to happen to them in your story is daunting. I have taken to writing elaborate backstories that might as well be short works of fiction themselves for most characters in one in-progress series. That worked fairly well, but it still didn’t get me quite to the point of knowing how the characters would react in various situations. It didn’t give me confidence that I will write them consistently throughout one or more books. I suppose only time, and my readers, will tell on that one.
I plan on having developmental edits done as much as I can afford for at least the first book in each series I’m writing. I want that reassurance that I’m heading in the right direction with my characters, especially the main ones.
Copy But Don’t Copy
Another roadblock I’ve experienced in creating original characters is that I keep wanting them to be like what I’ve written before in various ways. I have a “type.” A female main character who’s a little sassy (or more) and a lot damaged by her childhood. A male main character who’s sarcastic, maybe gruff or emotionally distant, but with a heart of gold despite a checkered past. In at least two of the fandoms I write for, those two character types lead to one of my favorite tropes: enemies to friends to lovers. Obviously, I love it so much that I want to continue writing that sort of story for them, even if I change the setting.
What I’m having a problem with is how to keep from making original characters into carbon copies of the existing characters I’ve already written. I want my original characters to have elements I liked without being the same characters. But what do I take away? Do I not take away but instead come up with something entirely new and then add in what I liked? These are questions that have plagued me for years as I tried, over and over, to create characters that weren’t just B’Elanna Torres and Tom Paris from Star Trek: Voyager or Rogue and Wolverine from X-Men remade. I’ve had more or less success as I went on, but many of those initial characters will never see the light of day.
Getting Around Character Creation Difficulties
As practice, I’ve created characters just to create them, without having a story in mind, giving them entire backstories. I’ve tried out types of characters I’m uncomfortable with, which is not at all easy when you’ve gotten yourself into a bit of a rut with what you’re writing. At first, I wanted to give up. I thought it might just be better, easier, if I stayed in the fanfiction world and quit trying to write original stories.
However, I realized that wasn’t fair to me or to the stories I wanted to write but didn’t have characters for yet. For better or worse, I tend to get an overall idea for a story first and then need to populate it with characters. Many of those stories just wouldn’t fit the existing characters I wrote about, even as an alternate universe fanfiction. If I tried to shoehorn them in, I’m not sure I would even have had an audience, either. Those stories needed their own characters, and I needed to make that happen.
Resources for Character Development
With all the effort I’ve put into creating original characters in order to get a feel for that instead of writing about characters someone else created, I’ve read books and scoured the Internet for clues. Some of the best resources I’ve found include:
– How to Develop Characters (I don’t necessarily agree with everything she says because follow-on books for secondary characters are often a mainstay of genre fiction, but she brings up interesting points!)
Someday, it would be nice not to need any of these. I have a feeling I’ll need them for at least a few more years as reference, though, especially the books!
Overall, creating engaging characters is just as challenging as I expected it to be when I took my first steps into original fiction. I hope, going forward, I will have learned enough over the past years to keep things interesting and present readers with characters they’ll love. Only time will tell!
© Allyson Pauley 2021