Introducing an Original Character into Fan Fiction

by JoHarrington

Original characters can make or break fan fiction. Discover tips and tricks for writing people who complement the canon.

'No man is an island entire of itself,' wrote the poet John Donne, but in fan fiction, you'd be forgiven for thinking that he has to be.

Readers are looking for the further adventures of canon established characters. They are not there to indulge your personal fantasies; nor to be a springboard from which to launch a writing career.

The creation of character will be treated with suspicion, even if he or she ultimately enriches the story.

Learn here three major tips for painlessly incorporating your original character.


The Dangers and Rewards in Inserting an Original Character

Prepare to parade your creation before a tough panel of judges. Fandoms are notoriously hard to crack.

It can be hard work inserting an original character (OC) into your fan fiction. Your readers tend to be much more unforgiving of them than the cast borrowed from somebody else.

They are there to read expansions upon the canon. There are personalities, whom they know and love, living again in the out-pouring of your prose.

Familiarity is the key. Any company trying to launch a new product against the competition of a well-known brand name could tell you that. Adding an OC requires breaking exactly the same mindset.

Moreover, there is easy ammunition already piled up and ready to hurl at your work. Just one person commenting with an accusation of a Mary-Sue and your story is sunk.

Yet, if you can get it right, then your original character can lift your fan fiction into another level. You will have successfully written something that stands out amongst the same old, same old. It's a risk worth taking, if you wish to produce a rich storytelling, which doesn't seek to mindlessly reproduce the canon.

After all, that's already been done and better. It's the reason that you're all here.

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Tip 1: Introduce your OC Properly Using a Canon Member

Getting your character accepted into the storyline in the first place is half of the battle.

Many ardent fans will immediately shriek and run away at the barest sniff of an original character in any fan fiction.

Too stung by Mary-Sues, for some it's a reaction born of bitter experience. Too many bad original characters have ruined what could have been a beautiful addition to the fandom library.

For others, it's the mere presence of someone not conceived in canon. This was not what they came here for; it's false advertising.

Make no mistake, your first and biggest hurdle is seamlessly allowing your character to gain entry into the tale, without your readers closing ranks.

The trick is to look at this as you would a real life scenario.

Who are you most likely to warm to:

  • a stranger off the street, who just barges into your house?
  • a stranger who arrives with your friend, who enters at your invitation after being introduced?

Unless you're extremely trusting, my guess is that the majority of people would have opted for the latter. This is good etiquette for both your home and your fan fiction.

Original characters will be accepted more readily if they are first viewed through the eyes of an imported canon member. It doesn't have to be a big deal; in fact, it's probably better that you don't make a huge fuss.

Allow the familiar person to look at them, speak to them, check them out or interact with them. If you have plans to make your character play a substantial role in the story later, then a more complete introduction might be appropriate.

But the longer you spend on that, then the more likely it is that alarm bells will sound in the minds of your readers. Baby, gentle steps will win the day; then the stranger in the house has a chance at becoming an old friend too.

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Tip 2: Don't Bombard Readers with Dozens of OCs at the Same Time

No-one can grasp a cast of thousands all at once. If they don't particularly want to, then it's even harder.

Anyone walking into a crowded room might scan them en masse, but they will identify with nobody.

It's a general melee and a back-drop to a scene. The people populating that crowd are like extras milling around the screen in a television show. They will be forgotten a second later.

If you want your original characters to blend effortlessly into your fan fiction, then they can't all appear at once. There's no empathy for a mob here nor anywhere.

Your great storyline might demand it though, so some preparation is clearly necessary.

Allow for several paragraphs, if not whole chapters, where your readers are led by the hand into meeting all of these newcomers. Your canon character will need to be in some situation where people arrive, singly or in small groups, to be gradually drawn into the narrative. A party is good; or an interview process.

Bear in mind that the more people being introduced, the less likely it is that they will individually stick in your reader's mind.

I once had thirteen significant original characters to insert into a fan fiction. It took me about a third of the novel to maneuver the majority into the cast.

First I had two main canon people looking at an internet forum. They encountered three of the OCs there and discussed them. My readers met them through the eyes of familiar protagonists, which served as the aforementioned introduction.

Next my canon characters visited a launch party, attended by the three newcomers. By now, those reading could fix them as acquaintances and position them in the world of this story. I was able to use this setting to sneak in a couple of other OCs. They stayed on the outskirts of the narrative, until the canon people could draw them in.

Thereafter, each time the group met, another person could be added to the encounter. The others were alluded to in conversation, which meant that it wasn't a shock when they turned up. Never, at any time, did I allow any of them to run away with the storyline. The main characters were always the focus around which the supporting cast orbited.

By moving a mention into a meeting, then an acquaintance into a familiar face, my readers were gradually able to recognize the new names. After a while, they could even empathize and identify with them.

It took until the very last act before the final OC turned up. He had been talked about throughout, so the reaction was unanimously one of welcome. By the end of the novel, I had a much wider scope for story-telling, than the restrictive world bequeathed to me by the canon's author.

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Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes never said, 'Elementary, my dear Watson'; nor did he wear a deerstalker hat. Victorian fanon inserted both elements.

Poll: How do you react to OCs in your fandom?

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Tip 3: Don't Treat your OC like a Minor Character

Viewing your creation with disdain, even in pre-emptive self-defence, permits everyone else to do the same.

If you want your people to live and breathe on the page, then you will have to write them with passion and soul.

They don't have to agree with canon characters, nor even like them. They certainly shouldn't be carbon copies of anyone already well-known amongst the cast. They should absolutely possess their own minds.

This doesn't mean that your OC has to take over the story. There would soon be a readership rebellion if they did that. But it's the kiss of death for any character which appears woefully two-dimensional.

They're not there as wall-paper, but as important figures there to enrich the scenes that are unfolding on the page.

Everyone should be left with the sense that we've merely touched an otherwise full life, which just happens to have momentarily run parallel with your canon-based world. They populate the universe through which familiar fan fiction personae move. Done well, their realism reflects back upon the main characters, enhancing them too.

This advice holds true regardless of the intended role of your creation within the narrative. It might be a brief encounter, perhaps someone behind the counter selling goods to a canon member; or it might be an individual destined to seriously impact upon their lives. In both cases, your original character needs to be written as a fully-fledged, animated personality.

Believing in your person is the first step towards your readers accepting, then identifying with them. Soon it won't matter that they weren't in the story that inspired it all. You will have formed your own fanon cast.

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A Note About the Artwork

Did you like the pictures dotted across this article? I know that I did. I bounced over every one of them.

The images illustrating this page are all based on my original characters. I'm a writer, not an artist, so naturally I didn't draw a single one of them.

The credit must go to just some of my wonderful readers, who have all accepted my own OCs over the years. They were each kind enough to put brush to canvas to bring them even more vividly to life.

The artists are:  Spoiled-kitten; Miyamashi; BrookeStardust; A-pseudonym; Melissa; and Jenn.

I've been writing fan fiction for four years and I've managed to gain hits in the hundreds of thousands reading my work. Last night, on one of my forums, people lined up to tell me that they really wouldn't mind reading spin-off stories about my original characters.

I tell you this solely so you know that it's possible to create OCs that work.

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.
The canon personae are already established. Your original characters need your help. Your imagination breathes life into both.
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?
Every historical and current scrap of fan fiction has disappeared from the world. Should we be cheering?
Updated: 07/11/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 02/27/2012

I was planning a follow-up all about fan-fiction no-nos, including Mary-Sue. She's not alone. There's Gary-Stu too, but he's less famous due to the fact that it's mostly women who write these kind of stories!

I've certainly seen a LOT of Gary-Stus in original stories though, as opposed to fan fiction. Too many!

I am ridiculously proud that I inspired those pictures. These are just a sample. Usually, I gush my thanks all over the artist, then save a copy in a folder. It was only when I came to write this article that I opened that folder and saw them all together for the first time. I had tears in my eyes. I'm very grateful to all who took the time to draw them; and quietly thrilled that I was their muse.

Ianjames on 02/27/2012

Well, I now know what a Mary Sue is, thanks to a bit of searching. Its an interesting concept, particularly the gender politics around the issue. I've certainly seen a lot of wish-fulfillment characters in my time... possibly written one or two as well :) Interesting article. You must be so proud that people drew your characters in this way.

JoHarrington on 02/23/2012

Thank you very much. :) Yes, I learned a lot of lessons the hard way!

RichLeigh on 02/23/2012

Interesting post, you obviously know what you're talking about and provide some good advice here for people to take on board.

JoHarrington on 02/22/2012

Ember - Vent Girl sounds amazing! I was giggling all of the way through your stories about her, and I'm glad that you ended up with such a sound friendship. I'm guessing that a few people will be looking back on a certain novel of mine with fresh eyes now. ;)

Silvia - Original characters get inserted all of the time without incident. For example, if a canon person buys something at the shop, no-one blinks at the assistant giving him/her their change. It's only when an OC takes a bigger role that questions start being asked.

Thank you for your insight and pointers. I've encountered the first one. I was once shouted at for not properly listing something on one of my AFF stories. All it took was an edit to make things right; then the person said they'd got into my story anyway! LOL

I hadn't realised that about characters over-ruling set and setting, though I suppose I must have subconsciously clocked it. I've not been in trouble for my extensive AUs.

In some ways, you have helped create my OCs. I'll write them, you'll draw them; I'll write something a bit deeper, drawing inspiration from your art. I'd love to see your art OCs, if you ever decide to create any.

SilviaAm on 02/22/2012

I can't really pick an option on the poll. When a non-canon character is intruduced, I just don't give it too much thought. It is later when I start thinking if it is being weirdly handled, or if it is suspicious.

Good article. I don't know if that's how it works or not, but I think it's an interesting topic.

I know little about writing fanfiction, and I've never created an original character (but that's probably just that I'm not a story-teller), so my advice would not be very valuable. But I've read fanfiction for the last 10 years, for different fandoms and in 2 different languages (and yes, it makes a difference sometimes). I've seen people following authors through different fandoms even when they were not familiar with the canon story, just because they liked the writer's work, so I wouldn't say all fans hate new things.

But, as a kind of 'expert' , or at least experienced reader , I'd say three things should always be kept in mind:

a) Fans hate, as you called it, 'false advertising'. They like surprises, but just to an extent. They want all the warnings, the characteristics, the gender, the romantic pairings involved, etc clearly estated. And that obviously means when reading a fanfic, they want a fanfic. An original story disguised as fanfiction is rarely welcome.

b) Fans love the characters more than they love the story or settling. That's why AU's are not seen as a no-no (quite the opposite). That's why BBC can take Sherlock Holmes away from his usual Victorian world and they still manage to gather a large fanbase (haven't seen the show, so forgive me if I'm wrong, that's what I've heard).

c) I remember that, as a child, I loved to draw new characters (sorry, I lied a few lines above; I created OCs, it seems, just never as an adult). They were a lot of fun: I had the chance o draw new hairstyles, new clothing, give them new names, etc. Some weiters have this same 'syndrome' and they just love to create and create and create new characters. It's more common in some fandoms than others, but I once was in one were it was done way too often and, instead of enrichening the story, it made it superficial and childish. And, as you also said, it's hard for OCs to grow on the reader when there are loads of them (this happens to me both in fanfiction and original fiction, btw).

Not sure if those are actually useful while writing, just felt like giving my 2 cents as a reader.

Ember on 02/22/2012

"This is good etiquette for both your home and your fan fiction." lols for days.

It just so happens that I have one of my closest friends today because I just barged into her apartment one day. I did happen to be friends with someone who lived with her, and was passing by and wanted to stop to say hi, but it was still strange that I just walked into their place. The person I was wanting to see wasn't actually there, but my (now) friend was. I realized what I did almost as soon as I did it, as I'd sort of just burst through her unlocked front door and we had a moment where we kind of just started at each other awkwardly. And so I apologized, turned and left, shutting the door behind me. In all fairness, we weren't complete strangers, because this happened at my undergraduate college, which had a very small student body, and we were in the same graduating class; everyone in the same class knew who everyone was on some level.

Also, the girl (who is now my friend) who I burst in on at the time was famous at my school for being the 'vent girl,' a prank involving her climbing in these very creepy below-ground ventilation systems. The end result was interrupting an intro to psych class, a 6 ft something burly basket ball player running from a class room screaming in absolute horror, and her just nonchalantly grabbing her bag from one of the tables and saying 'sorry, late for calc, gotta go!' after climbing out of the vents.

It became a habit to burst into their apartment after that, and every time I'd say something strange or informative, or I'd just scream 'hello!' into the apartment if no one happened to be in the front room. One time I did tell her that her door made a sound just like from a horror movie, moments before someone dies, and so she should watch out because I wouldn't want her to get murdered. That day she screamed after me, 'you're really not normal!' But she was vent girl, so she had no room to talk. One time after coming in, I was told that it really was okay if I stayed, and so I said I would after dinner. Her apartment that year was a haven of somewhat inexplicable, occasionally semi-supernatural events, and banana grams. We've never looked back as friends.

Also, you write OC's very well, and after reading this I have to say, I see what you did there.

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