Creating a Character in Fan Fiction

by JoHarrington

The canon personae are already established. Your original characters need your help. Your imagination breathes life into both.

Writing fan fiction involves a fusion between a well-known world and your own inner dwelling.

There's something very thrilling about being taken into this universe. It already created a fan of you, now you get to go there in your mind.

It can also be very cathartic to put pen to paper. Your own feelings won't look so frightening, once your favorite character is carrying them.

As an experienced fan fiction writer, I've highlighted ways in which you can approach canon and original characters. There are also exercises to help develop your skills.

Lauren by Miyamashi
Lauren by Miyamashi

How to Create a Character

You can do this, equipped with just your memory, mind, imagination and the world in which you live.

Anyone can create a character for fan fiction. We do it all of the time. Walk down the street, or sit on a bus, and look at the people around you.

They are strangers to you, or maybe familiar faces without names, if this is a regular route for you all. Yet your mind will have already sketched an outline of their stories. The whole weight of social conditioning is behind you. Your snap judgements might be sharpened by survival instincts, or stained with inadvertent prejudices.

There are individuals to whom you warm immediately. Perhaps that old lady looks like your gran; or you see your younger self in the attitude of that teenager. Compassion born of shared experience might spark at the sight of a young mother struggling with a pushchair; or a school-child carrying a pile of study books.

Bit by bit, your imagination fills in details. That worried expression on that middle-aged man, as he turns his wedding ring around and around on his finger. Does he even know that he's doing that?  Subtle body language there to betray his thoughts. Maybe he suspects that his wife is playing away from home; or he's lost his job and he doesn't know how to tell his family, nor how he's going to put bread on the table.

He's not the only one with dark thoughts. Look at how that older couple gaze pensively out of the windows, as the bus slows down outside the cenotaph. They probably knew the bright, young faces behind every name. The man's hand tightens almost imperceptibly over the knob of his walking stick. He could well have been there, fighting alongside them, watching them die; and a million memories harden the lines around his wife's eyes.

But look! They glance at one another and exchange faint smiles. Her hand moves to cover his and he whispers something. Whatever they went through, they've survived the aftermath together; and they're as deeply in love now, as they were in the Blitz. Only the years have made that quieter.

No guesses necessary for the stories of the loud gang of adolescents at the back. Every nuance of their banal lives is being screamed at volume. Not one of them can keep their seat. They're constantly fidgeting! Turning against the back-rests to speak to the friend behind; or leaping across to peer into a Smartphone. 

It's Lady Gaga this; Toby off YouTube that; and 'Oh my God! Did Iggy just fart?!!' Until you're developing a headache by the time you reach your stop.

But it was a good journey and look at the cast you now have in your head. Did you picture them all? What details were there? What back stories filled in the gaps behind the lines? And more to the point, what did they look like?

None of these people actually existed five minutes ago, when you began to read. I painted them with a broad brush, so anything else that you thought was pure character creation. There wasn't even a bus.

Writing exercise: Take a walk, ride a bus or visit a crowded area. People watch; and day-dream their stories as inspiration for your writing.

Make an especial note if you automatically start mentally grouping people into 'types' or 'groups'. Ask yourself what they have in common and why you think they're so similar. These are the subtle details which will really bring your characters to life.

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Rewriting the Canon Characters

Prepare to face the biggest challenge in fan fiction! Standing on the shoulders of giants makes you awfully visible.

This should be the easy part, right?  You and your readership are already familiar with this individual.

Another author has already envisaged how they look, act, speak, think and react in certain situations. You know their stories and what they like to eat and drink. You have their idiosyncrasies and traits already laid bare. Their favorite music, hobbies and fashions are there for the plundering. You can deduce the sort of people they love, hate and who becomes their friends.

You know all of that, but so do your readers. Fandoms form around personalities (fictitious or otherwise) with whom enough people identify. They are all seeing something here, which chimes with something inside themselves.

To spell this out: whatever you write about their favorite canon character could easily be framed as a commentary upon themselves. Tempers could get frayed accordingly.

Moreover, everyone's an expert. Each one of your readers will secretly believe that he or she is this canon's number one fan. If you interpret the character in a vastly different way, then you should be prepared to defend it with endless reference to the original source.

If you can't, then the next accusation will be one of having written out of character (OOC). If you're doing that, then you're not writing fan fiction. It's an original story with stolen names. That's false advertising again!

There are only three ways to avoid that:

The first is to simply rewrite the canon without changing much at all. Not only is that boring, but you've immediately placed yourself in a side by side comparison with the original. That's the one with the fandom and the sales. Good luck there. Shakespeare pulled it off with Romeo and Juliet, so there is hope.

The second is to openly state, in the author's notes or introduction, that you're being experimental. It will be OOC, but you wanted to see what would happen if some details were different. If your pride can stand it, then this will head off any criticism and render fans more open to your interpretation.

The third will demonstrate precisely why rewriting canon characters is not the easy part. It involves sitting for hours, days or weeks scrutinizing every bit of every scene and taking notes. You need to justify every fact, every inclusion, every whim of characterization.

Not only will this result in a person on your page which should be recognizable, but it will be your defense against OOC characterization. Actually become the expert that everyone thinks that they are; and be ready with chapter and verse to refute all comers in the comments.

Recreating canon characters is like walking in somebody else's footsteps across a snowy field. Everyone can see precisely where you should step, and will know instantly if you're out by just an inch. Why on Earth would anyone assume that's easier than simply forging your own path to the other side?

Do you really understand your favourite canon character?

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows | Death Eater Poster

Take a very good look at this picture. Now look at it again and again and again.
Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 1 - Deatheaters Photo

Writing exercise: Everyone in that poster is a Harry Potter canon character. J.K. Rowling created them; and the actors and actresses brought them to life. Now it's your turn.

What do you see?  What do you really see? If Bellatrix was to get changed, what sort of clothing is she likely to choose? How is that different to what Narcissa would wear? Are there any themes amongst Death Eater outfits?

Why does Bellatrix wear black nail-varnish, while her sister chooses red? Why does Lucius also paint his nails black?

Look at the body language between Narcissa and Lucius. What hidden messages are you reading into how one of her hands reaches towards him, while he stares straight ahead. Is that comfort or consolation? Where do her loyalties lie?

Why does Lucius hold his cane in that way? Why is one fingertip poised as if to hold it down? Is that a ring on his middle finger?  Yet a married man's left index finger remains bare. Why's that? How about his other hand? What is he subconsciously doing with that crack in the table? What is his non-verbal communication telling us about his thoughts?

Draco alone doesn't have his hands in full view on the table. He is half-hidden beside his father. What are you reading into this? His father is looking away from him; one arm is acting like a barrier between them. Is that paternal protection or rejection?

What about the four minor characters in this snapshot? Are they all wearing the same uniform? Look at their sleeves. Who amongst them looks confident, arrogant, nervous, disdainful, afraid? What can we tell by where they chose to sit?

Examine the background and the furniture. Not much to see here, but who precisely scrubbed that table so hard and why? It's polished fit to be a mirror.

Now write the scene.

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Of course, these tips aren't just appropriate for Harry Potter fans. Simply take the principles learned here and apply them to your own original source.  Have fun!

Creating a Believable Original Character for your Fan Fiction

You're aiming for an individual who fits seamlessly into the canon world. Do that and half of the battle is already won.

Imagine again that Death Eater gathering. Now insert someone wearing a cerise pink, polka-dot bikini, rattling on about Justin Bieber. It wouldn't quite work, would it?

Luna Lovegood IS canon and she would look out of place in that picture. The reason is that everything about her doesn't blend in with the overall ethos. Herein lies the clue to creating a brilliant original character.

Start with the name. Nothing seems real until it's been named. Is there a common theme running through the canon names?

If you're writing manga fan fiction, then I can tell you straight away that there will be. That's a known manga device, so that readers can quickly group the good guys against the bad guys.

This is also true of literature like Harry Potter. All of the Death Eaters have names which sound deadly or arrogant, or else hiss with sibilance. Bellatrix sounds like a poison (belladonna); Narcissa is a feminine form of Narcissus, a God known for falling in love with himself; Draco means dragon, but also invokes 'draconian' in its harshness; and so forth.

You could not write a convincing Death Eater called Rainbow Sugarsweet. They'd get kicked into Hufflepuff just for breathing.

Your original character needs to not only carry an appropriate name, but also dress, act and speak in a way which slots them seamlessly into the canon universe. Once you have identified the 'type', then the rest will quickly follow. Simply combine your knowledge of canon characters with your insights picked up while people watching.

Your readers will be far more accepting of someone who reads like they were there all along. They were merely in the other room, when the original author was writing about this one.

Then again, there is another trick. That is to write the semi-canon original character.

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Death Note's Glimpse into The Wammy's House

Study the nameless characters in this picture. The vast majority of them were never seen again in canon.
Wammy's House
Wammy's House

Writing Exercise: This is a crowd scene from Death Note. The purpose is to show four named canon characters in their full environment.

We know that every child pictured is a genius and an orphan. They are in a children's home for the gifted and talented. They are each being raised to be detectives and fight crime. The laptop is conveying a message from their idol and mentor, hence everyone in the Wammy's House is present.

We also know some names. In the foreground is Near. Standing against the wall is Mello. Peering into the laptop, in the striped shirt, is Matt. They are being overseen by Roger Ruvie, the warden of the children's home, who is sitting behind the desk.

So what about the other children present?  What names would slot onto a register, not looking strange beside Near, Mello and Matt?

Who is over-excited about the communication? Who is quite nonchalant or reserved? What do their choices of clothing tell you about their personalities? Which of them have formed friendships or cliques? Who sits alone? Can you tell by the items around them, what they were doing before the call came through?

But for the four people identified and named, the rest are fodder for original characters. So write them! Then go away and look for similar crowd scenes in your own source to exploit in this same way.

More Tips on Writing Fan Fiction

Fear of writing a Mary-Sue (or Gary-Stu) might put people off becoming authors. It's the stop word which destroys a story all too easily.
Original characters can make or break fan fiction. Discover tips and tricks for writing people who complement the canon.
When you take someone else's characters and fictitious world, you are effectively plagiarizing. So why put in the effort on tales that can never be published?
Updated: 07/11/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 05/21/2012

I'm glad that you liked it. :)

I think that another key is to read, read, read. Once you can see how other people write, then you just nick all of their tricks too.

I agree with you that practice is vital. Very few people get to be Shakespeare on their first story (Shakespeare only managed that because he bore the name!)

Fan fiction is an excellent training ground; and, you're right, the skills learned here can be transferred.

Thank you for commenting!

Tolovaj on 05/21/2012

Some very good ideas here. I come from environment where a lot of people still believe writing is matter of talent, inspiration, act of muses etc., but younger generation already showed most of tricks of the trade can be reproduced and difference between great writing and good enough writing is only in details.

Most of the details can be learned with practice. I see fan fiction as very very good sort of exercise. For writing fan fiction you need understanding of characters, logic, settings and a pinch of imagination.

Just like for every other sort of writing.

JoHarrington on 02/28/2012

Ann's made it into fanon?! :o My jaw is literally dropped here. I had no idea! Thanks for letting me know!

Thank you too for your kind words about my writing. I'm glad that it's interesting, even to someone who has no intention of writing fan fiction.

Ember on 02/28/2012

Writing is an art you really have such a talent for. I'm enjoying your writing an OC series, even thought I don't write. Its like little insights into how creative writers do their thing. I can see how one small detail can end up crafting a scene for you. Nifty!

You know something that points to the success of your OC's, apart from the welcoming and love in the form of fans groups and fan art they get, is that I've noticed here and there recreation of your OCs in other peoples' Death Note fan fiction. I'm sure that I've run across a few Ann's in stories with younger versions of cannon characters, and one where they may not have actually been your OCs but some names of your OCs were definitely adopted. Ann was the most common one I ran across though...I think.

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