Creating Non-Canon Characters that People Will Actually Like

At their worst, OC's are the equivalent of fanfiction booty calls.

Fotolia.com | © sveta

Fotolia.com | © sveta

Poorly written non-canon characters (aka OCs or original characters) account for 99% of all the heavy sighs and eye rolls for lovers of fanfiction. Why is this? Usually these characters are used as insufferable know-it-alls or hyper over-powered panacea characters designed to solve all of the canon characters’ problems (aka make any story instantaneously boring). In the worst case, they are the equivalent of fanfiction booty calls, with about as much depth, personality or consistency. Despite being universally hated, original and non-canon characters continue to thrive. Why? Because deep down it fulfills the deepest fantasies of all fanfiction writers, the ability to contribute in one of the most intimate ways to any story by creating something new within a story world they already love. In a sense, an OC is the quickest and easiest way to either insert yourself or fully experience a fictional place. It is also often the first place that good fanfiction goes south.

Now some fanfiction writers balk at the entire idea of original or non-canon characters. Being purists at heart, they believe firmly that good fanfiction can only be written with canon characters alone. I’ve read a lot of great fanfiction written this way, and when people stay true to the canon characters it’s a surefire recipe for success. But if fanfiction is a portal into experiencing a fictional world, the option to create new characters, new places should definitely be an option. It’s often where I’ve had the most fun even if those stories are never shared or read by anyone else. So I’ve compiled a little checklist for creating original characters that won’t ruin a good story. Think of it as an internal gut check, a little honest assessment as you develop your original characters.

Avoid using yourself as a model
You may want to, it’s often the first instinct with newbie fanfiction writers. But writing yourself into a fanfiction usually makes it incredibly difficult for you to be impartial or rough with your characters the way writers often need to in order to create meaningful conflict. I mean in one of my fanfictions, one of the characters gets poisoned, stabbed, and nearly drowns (and that was just in one chapter!). I needed that disconnect between my identity and my character’s identity to allow me to tax this person and show growth. Also my characters are so much stronger and much more badass than I am. I’d be a complaining mess. These characters shine because they are definitely not me! This rule also goes for friends, family, pets, and any other real-life people…unless that person is Chuck Norris…because let’s face it, Chuck Norris is epic.

Nix the Know-it-Alls
There’s nothing more irritating than a know-it-all, mostly because the word itself is a paradox. There’s no way for a know-it-all to truly know everything. Readers are hyper aware of this, especially those who read and write fanfiction. So when writing original characters that are there to either help or hinder your canon characters, make sure they don’t have all the answers. It’s even better if they are an enigma to the canon characters and they have to work together to solve the OC’s problems.

Skip OC Amnesiacs
It’s incredibly overdone. There are so many more interesting ways to bring an OC into a story. Maybe they get a letter from a canon character, maybe they bump into one of them on vacation, maybe they try to rob the canon character’s home. Maybe they are cursed and come to the canon character seeking help. Amnesia is low hanging fruit. Make your character’s back story unique and readers will love them.

Drop the Dreaded Mary Sues and Gary Stus
Like the know-it-alls, readers are hyper aware of these kinds of characters. Here’s a better alternative. Give your original characters a HUGE personality or physical flaw. One that constantly works against them. Maybe it’s their temper, maybe an addiction, maybe naivety, maybe severe motion sickness! Whatever it is, make it a good one, and then consistently put them and your canon characters in situations where they HAVE to face this flaw. It’s a baby step, but your readers will thank you, because it’s much more rewarding to see characters struggle and overcome than to have someone perfect just solve everything with no effort.

Never Overpower Canon Characters
If our OC character is EVER more powerful than your canon characters, that character deserves its OWN book not a fanfiction. Canon characters are the heroes here. They are why you write the story, if you’re just going to write characters with powers and abilities that completely trumps whatever our canon characters can do then it stops being entertaining and starts being a little ridiculous. Your fanfiction should never de-evolve into a contest of who can create the more super-powerful demi-god character. You love the canon characters WITH their limitations, so make sure you put rules in place for any original characters that have magical or supernatural abilities. Even better if you integrate those rules and limitations into the canon storyverse.

Don’t Be Afraid to Kill Your OC
Sometimes characters don’t have to become permanent fixtures in canon lore. Sometimes they are there to serve a brief purpose or to galvanize your canon characters to take action. So although this is often really hard to do…experiment with killing off your OC by the end of the fanfiction. Be sure that their demise is both meaningful and purposeful to your story, let the canon characters learn something along the way. It could pave the way for a series of fanfictions moving forward. But it’s the ultimate test for fanfiction writers, if you can kill an central, pivotal OC, then congrats, you’ve mastered creating OC characters that will be an asset to the canon, and not a defect.

About Therese Ptak (5 Articles)
Therese Ptak got her start writing fanfiction thirteen years ago. With two creative pieces published and a full-length novel in the works, Therese knows how to keep herself busy but can be bribed away from her writing with a glass of port and some chocolate.

1 Comment on Creating Non-Canon Characters that People Will Actually Like

  1. Overall, great advice! Thanks for summarizing these common pitfalls and offering tips for how to avoid them.

    I’d slightly disagree with the statement “If your OC is EVER more powerful than your canon characters, the character deserves its own book, not a fanfiction.” You do temper this statement with the rest of that paragraph, but the basic idea isn’t necessarily off-limits. Yes, it’s a common pitfall in badly-written fics, but there can be great stories with an OC that has unusually strong powers.

    As a counterexample, I wrote a pair of Babylon 5 stories, One Moment Here, Another Gone and its sequel, Moments Still, which revolve around such a superpowered OC. The key to keeping her from being insufferable, though, is that her superpowers are orthogonal to the essential conflict of the story. In fact, since she is immature and doesn’t have complete control over her powers, she actually creates more trouble than she solves, and her powers isolate her in many ways. Her powers also operate within the rules of the established canon universe, and are a logical outgrowth of events that occurred in canon. The real, interesting conflicts in the story are matters of the mind and heart, as she wrestles with knowledge of the imminent death of her father, a canon character.

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