It’s happened to all of us at some point or another.
You stumble upon that perfect new fandom where everything is shiny and chrome except for that one character. Whether he or she is poorly acted, underwritten, or jarringly clichéd, the appearance of this character instantly poisons whatever scene he or she features in—what’s even worse, sometimes he or she is the main character.
But maybe you kind of like this character regardless of the fan community railing against them. Maybe you think he or she deserves more of a chance than they are being given in the canon. Maybe he or she is the weaker half of a favorite ship that you secretly devote yourself to and are determined to make work. You’ve put pen to paper with a great fic idea, but you’re already starting to sweat with the thought of the kind of reception you’ll receive for adopting your unlikely and unlikable muse.
First off: relax! The people who will be reading your work are most likely on your side. What’s more, they may hold the same dubious regard for the character as you do, which is why they are now looking to fandom and writers like yourself to satisfy them. They want to like this character or at least see your take on why you consider the character worthy of the ink you are about to spill.
Take a look at some pointers below and think about how you might apply them to your own writing.
Isolate and expand character patterns presented in the canon.
Does the character have a catchphrase? Does he or she have a nervous tic? Pay attention to repeat details, and then let them inform your writing of the character. A reader will recognize that you have noticed the small stuff and immediately start to pay attention. Patterns to look for might include:
Catchphrase and sentence structure. There’s a reason writers can get away with rapid-fire dialogue without having to always identify who the speaker is. Does the character speak floridly or communicate in stilted sentences à la Rorschach? Does he or she bookend phrases with words like guy, buddy, or friend?
Your character might be from Canada.
Physical tics and habits. Here’s a fun drinking game: Pop in the movie Pacific Rim and throw back every time Raleigh (played by Charlie Hunnam) enters a scene with his hands slung down the front of his pants. Twenty minutes in and you’ll find yourself laid out like a Kaiju on the streets of Hong Kong. Live-action actors are great for this sort of thing—they love informing their characters with all sorts of tics and habits.
Appearance. Does the character favor one color over another? Is their wardrobe cartoonishly predictable? What is it about their physical appearance that readers will recognize and what might it say about them?
Take perceived faults and find new ways to spin them.
What about the character do you find specifically annoying? What is it about them that makes the fan community rally against them or even ignore their existence completely? Nine times out of ten, you will find that the character is problematic, because they are clichéd or underwritten—not because they don’t have potential.
Find real world causes for the behavior. Selflessness, promiscuity, unexplained weapons expertise are all examples of character traits that the audience is expected to accept without explanation. A character’s perceived lack of depth can often feel like an insult to intelligent audiences. Dig deeper and try to humanize these clichés.
Address the fault or issue. Whether you decide to tackle it in your overall plot or a parallel subplot, you have the option of directly addressing the behavior in your narrative. How might the character react to being confronted about their poor decisions, their waffling opinions, or their mistreatment of another? How might their behavior set events in motion for better or worse?
Play a fault for laughs. Advance the canon characterization but be self-aware in your writing. Make the annoying trait a joke that other characters acknowledge or make it a reoccurring hindrance. Own your meta knowledge and don’t be afraid to drop the reader a wink once in a while.
Pay equal attention to what is happening around them.
A sure way to establish credibility in your characterization is to nail everything else in your story. This will improve your work overall and make your interpretation of the character seem more believable by proxy.
Setting. Don’t be afraid to devote time to description! While the reader doesn’t require ten pages describing the trees in Mirkwood, a few sentences here and there that evoke the overall tone of the world can be very satisfying. Observe how the original work is storyboarded, structured, or filmed—what descriptions can you use to convey a similar feeling in your writing?
Supporting characters. Always pay attention to characterization! Even if he or she is not the muse for this exercise, these characters all occupy the same world. Getting the supporting characters right will make your dialogue and interactions that much more authentic.
Relationships. If you manage to nail the above, this will unfold organically. You may discover invisible links between characters that you never noticed before and develop richer reasons for established connections. Sometimes the links will not become apparent, in which case…
Don’t be afraid to improvise.
You have examined the basics of the character. You’re pretty sure you know the canon inside and out, but there are still some questions left unanswered. The good news is you’ve already hooked your readers with your exhaustive research, and like Leo DiCaprio in a cool black suit, they are now willing to follow you into the next level of the dream.
Backstory. Maybe the character is lacking in this department. Maybe the thought of giving them a fleshed-out backstory is the inspiration for your entire writing endeavor. Hold what you know about the character in your mind and give them the history and reason for how and why they are.
Developing relationships. How might the new dimension you’ve given this character affect their interactions with others? Would some relationships strengthen or would others fall apart? Would new and unexpected romances blossom?
Everything else. This is fanfiction. Chances are you’re going to have to make something up!
Poll readers for feedback.
Regardless of what biases your readers may enter with, they are there because they are interested in what you have to say. A quick “how’s my driving?” at the end of each chapter not only encourages a reader to leave that coveted review, it invites constructive feedback, and even behind-the-scenes discussion. Let those interested know that you’re interested, and you create a positive feedback loop that only strengthens the fandom you both love.
Give it a try.
One of the great, even necessary things about fanfiction is that it gives participants in the fandom a chance to fill in the blanks for writers and showrunners. A great fan interpretation of an unpopular character can strengthen the core story and even the overall perception of that character. It can promote good writing over the lazy and encourage the idea that characters deserve more than to fall into an easy pre-established niche of pop culture writing.
Take that brooding hero, that wilting ingénue, that virginal nerd and femme fatale, and give them the dimension—and the second chance—that they deserve.