If there is one thing that makes a story, its the characters. Far too many series have made the mistake of thinking that fans come back for the plot line, when in reality the loyalty lays with the plot pushers.
Now, you might be in the mood for creating an original character for a fanwork, or you might be writing your own novel and looking to staff it with the best your brain can provide. Either way, you are set before the arduous task of making characters that can stand the test of time and earn fan loyalty. How does one do this, without falling into the despairing pit of a despicable OC?
The proof lays in the pudding, or rather, the building. Good characters are not created, sprung out of your head like Athena from Zeus. They are shaped, lovingly, and often take several rough drafts before they fully develop. For the sake of simplicity, I will be dividing this article into two sections, one for original fan characters and one for characters in your own novels.
Original Fan Characters
A good original character in a fanfiction is easy to pin down once you let go of the illusion of grandeur. People are not searching out your works to learn about your original character, they are reading to see how you develop their favorite character. With this in mind, your biggest obstacle at the moment of your original character's creation is to answer the question "What need is this character fulfilling?"
Observe the niches that the creators of your preferred series have left. Where do we find that the cast is in need of support? Where do we see need for improvement? Is it the perfect antagonist that will push a character over the edge? Is it emotional support, perhaps a best friend or a therapist that could help a main character develop more? While working in the constricts of the original narrative, feel out the needs that are not being met by the characters and see if you can't put an original character in that place.
One area of danger, to be trod upon with care, is the concept of an original fan character being used as a love interest. The dangers of love interest are that you often find you either make a character that is too good (and therefor illogical) or you alienate your growing fanbase by not catering to the needs of the masses. Now, far be it from me to insist that you have to write for others (that's a quick way to exhaust yourself and fast) but at the same time you have to admit that your own interest in a fandom didn't come from the notion of an original character. There was a canon character that drove you to enjoy the plot and stick with the series. I'll garner to add that there was a pairing you enjoyed too. If you do proceed down the harrowing road of using an original character as a love interest for a canon character, I once again implore you to ask the question of what need the character will fulfill for the canon character. With that need in mind, look around at the cast again. Are you certain another character already established can't fulfill that need as well? If you find you're wobbling in your willingness to commit, then you might want to rethink you're approach on an OC relationship. Ask your favorite authors! Talk with your fandom friends!
That being said, there are plenty of other things to think of when crafting your original character. Par example:
1. What role does this character fill in the canon universe of the series? Keep in mind time periods, social barriers and economical structures. It's highly unlikely your original female character will have a higher education if she's from 1900 and lower class.
2. How does your original character collide with the canon cast. Sit down and make a chart of the characters. Who do they like? Who do they not like? They cannot be a hallucination of one man's mind (or maybe they are in which case that's less work for you). What I mean to say by that is that they will be interacting with everyone simply by existing in the same space as them. Make sure when they walk through the door their personality will be developed and not just sucked into one man/woman. This is a serious pitfall for OC/canon character relationships. At times, it seems like they mimic the canon characters relationships. Think of your own relationships in real life. When involved with a partner, have you agreed with every single thing they've ever said? I'm going to garner that you disagreed on things, and had different friends. Try to exemplify that in your own writings.
Original Characters in Your Own Works
Building your cast can be one of the most exciting moments for a writer. Speaking from personal experience, I can attest that my cast has grown through the years, transformed over time, and have come into their own as my story has developed. You add new people, you get rid of the old, and you truly begin to cultivate a universe. You'll find in time that the cast can start to really push the story, responding to the events of your timeline and colliding with other characters in their attempts at self discovery.
You're going to find that a lot of your cast are dictated by your setting and plot. If your universe comes from a real place on earth at a real time, you'll have to adhere to the social structures that were implicated at the time (such as the Edo period in Japan or the Edwardian times in London, England. These social structures can be comforting in that they offer you an element when building your cast. If you're writing about a war ship, you'll need a military crew. If you're writing about a tiny village off the coast of Scotland, you'll need people like a constable, doctor, school teacher, and pub owner. At the same time, you may also find that social structures of particular times and places can be quite constricting. In the 21st century, we have begun to strive for equality amongst the sexes, religions, classes, and lifestyles. If you're going to adhere to the rules of a particular timeline, you will have to swallow the bitter pill that some of your best characters may have to fall underneath the harsh rules of that area. Homosexual characters, characters of color, various religious characters, and poor characters will often fall into dangerous social traps. Your greatest tool, when facing this obstacle, is research. How did homosexuals in 1900's England deal with persecution and find love at the same time? How did Black Americans deal with the racist violence of the 50's? What education systems did the poor try and implement in order to better their children's future? These sorts of details, while painful to write about, can add incredible depth to your characters. Likewise, remember that you will have characters with prejudice and racist fall-backs.
Remember the golden rule: A character that is perfect cannot grow. Do not set yourself up for failure by creating a character that has never failed.
There are hundreds of articles online on how to build your cast; I won't touch on that topic just yet. Instead, I'd like to focus on single characters in particular and how we build them. I'll offer you a template in the next post, one that I've used many times in my own works, and then show you an example of a character that I've built off of it.