Posted with the kind permission of the loveliest forum moderator in town, Beth / Marauder by Midnight.
OC Development & Characterisation
What To Do & What Not To Do
We're familiar with the usual clichés and 'Mary-Sue' flags that we're told to avoid when writing original characters. However, it's difficult to build a character following rules of what to do and what not, and we often miss some of the broader points.
Here is a short list (with longer explanations) of common pitfalls in writing original characters and posting original character threads -- mistakes made and things forgotten by both the creators of OC's, and those who provide feedback -- why they create issues, as well as how to learn from them.
1. How Do I Look?
For the most part, we're aware that it's a bad idea to start off our OC by describing their eyes as 'aqua' or 'chocolate' as opposed to 'blue' or 'brown', or to describe their hair as 'gleaming waves of gold' as opposed to 'blonde'.
However, it goes beyond the use of glittering adjectives. While having a basic idea of your character's physical appearance is good, and usually necessary, the emphasis of your character is better placed on who they are than what they look like.
There are different options for how to introduce your characters' appearance, and it depends on what you want the reader to focus on. Do you want them to instantly develop an image in their mind, or do you want them focused on who they are before they start building a picture? You do want to try and introduce a description early on, before the reader develops a mental image without your guidance.
You can choose the straightforward, but concise, root that is common in JKR's writing, or you can be more subtle by revealing your character's appearance by flavouring their actions with adjectives to describe them. (Ex, 'In frustration, she chewed on the end of her straggly, blonde hair.' 'He twirled his wand with his short, stubby fingers.' 'She glanced at her tired face in the mirror; their were dark rings under her pale grey eyes.')
When introducing a character, however, keep in mind that their appearance is not who they are. It's not something that needs to be 'developed', unless it's somehow relevant to their story or personality (Harry has his mother's eyes, for instance; Ron is identified as a famous Weasley with just a glance at his flaming hair and face of freckles).
Remember, people will be interested in who the character is, first and foremost, and it is the most important and difficult part of characterisation. Appearance is a useful tool for emphasising personality, but it should not overshadow personality.
When mentioning appearance in a character thread, for feedback, try to talk about it in a way that gives us an insight to who they are, and doesn't give the impression that you're more concerned with what's on the outside than on the inside.
2. The Middle Name
Let’s admit it, we love names. We love naming characters, to the point sometimes we come up with really exotic names, even if they’re not practical. The middle name gives us an additional opportunity to scan name websites for something we like.
However, middle names are rarely used in fiction, just as they’re rarely used with real people. In the HP series, we don’t find out Harry’s middle name until the fifth book, when he’s in court. Most other characters’ middle names are only revealed in either formal situations, or in situations where they’re being reprimanded with the good old ‘full name’ tradition.
Introducing your character by their full name detracts attention from your characterisation, and focuses it on the name you’ve chosen for them. How often, though, do find ourselves thinking more about characters’ names than the characters themselves?
Names can be meaningful without being distracting. It’s nice to have a middle name on hand, sort of like a birthdate or favourite Quidditch team, but more often than not, it’s not important to the characters themselves.
3. ‘I Don’t Like My Name’
Another common issue with OC’s --- none of them seem to like their name. It’s very sad, too, especially since we put so much thought into the process of picking one out. As with the middle name, this has the same problem that you’re bringing the readers’ focus back to the name.
Additionally, it is a cliché. As writers, we know that clichés are best avoided unless a) we have a specific purpose in using them or b) it’s a broad enough cliché that we will be able to develop it in a new or more believable way.
Finally, it’s usually a justification for those rather ‘exotic’ names we’re used to seeing in fan-fiction. It’s good to be aware that a name we’ve chosen for a character is unusual, and if we feel there is something that we do not want to change, it’s always best to have a justification ready. However, it’s become such a popular trend, that it throws your OC into the mold with ‘the rest of them’. And with the number of OC’s around, you don’t want the first thing people read about your character to be something he/she has in common with all the others.
4. I Know Everything About My OC --- Except Why They’re Here
Another problem with original characters is that we’re addicted to them. It’s the truth. And that’s a good thing, because characters that are our own give us a sense of freedom with our writing; they allow us to convey our ideas without being restricted to staying ‘in character’ with someone else’s creation.
However, this often leads to the creation of a character without any real plot for them. We want the character before we know what we’re going to write about them. And we start coming up with their background, their personality, their physical appearance, strengths, weaknesses, fears, desires, and so on. Then, in the character forum, we find more opportunities to expand our knowledge base, as people respond to the thread and provide additional questions to expand and ‘develop’ the character.
However, all this information is just branches and leaves on a tree without roots. The basis of your character is their story. You might come up with the story concept first, or maybe the character concept first – but they must develop together. A character cannot just be an anonymous Ravenclaw, or Teddy and Victoire’s son, whose story you wish to tell. You must know the story you're telling, too.
Knowing your character’s plot will help you decide what sort of elements you must include in their personality and background. Is your story about falling in love with someone you can’t be with? Is your story about being forced to choose between good and evil? Is your story about discovering the truth of the past? If you know your character’s purpose, you can better shape their characterisation in a relevant manner, also making them more realistic, believable and individual.
5. I Have So Many Characters, I Can Hardly Keep Track.
So, you need their family members, their friends, their enemies, their teachers – how are you supposed to make one OC without making at least a dozen others?
To reference Harry Potter, again, many characters are introduced to us over a long period of time. With the beginning of Book 1, the characters that were made clearest to us were Harry, Ron, Hermione and Draco. It took the entire first book to reveal the essence of Neville’s nature, though he was an important character to the series; except for a glimpse, we didn’t meet Ginny until Book 2, and we didn’t see her for who she was until Book 5, which is also the book that introduced us to Luna. All important characters, all continuously developing before us, but it would have been difficult keeping track of all of them at once.
It is difficult for readers to be introduced to too many characters at the same time, particularly at the beginning of a story, and still accept them, just as it is difficult for writers to develop too many characters at once and keep them three-dimensional.
Try your best to keep the number of additional characters of importance to a minimal. In fan-fiction, it’s best to use the canon characters that are available. If you’re writing a fic that takes place in a time or place where canon characters aren’t available, then be careful not to develop more characters than you need, keeping anyone not important in the background as a minor character. Focus on people who have an important part to play in the plot or whose relationship with the main character(s) is important. Shift less important characters to the background, bringing them in when you feel it is necessary, or when you can devote screentime to their development.
To end, I will note that these are my own observations and conclusions based on my experience with characterisation, personally and within the forums. There are few (if any) rules or formulas for characterisation, which is what makes it difficult. We just have to remember not to let ourselves get distracted from believability by trying too hard to expand the world we're writing in, and to first and foremost, always serve the interest of the characters and the ability to connect with them.