Okay, as promised in a couple Facebook groups, Sybil and I have some advice about OCs (Original Characters). As we go though this, we’re also going to be using M*A*S*H for our practical examples of how they work. Hopefully, you’ll find this entertaining and informative.
First, It’s important to understand that OCs are just one of several categories of characters. Using broad strokes, there are: Major Canon Characters, Minor Canon Characters, Background Canon Characters, and Original Characters. Major Canon Characters are the stars of the show. They appear in almost every episode/chapter. Hawkeye Pierce, Hotlips Houlihan, and Frank Burns are great examples of this. Minor Canon Characters are the ones that show up regularly, but generally only serve to help move things forward with the Major Characters. Radar O’Reilly, Sidney (the psychologist), and Klinger are good examples of this. Background Canon Characters are the ones that have to be there for setting, but almost never reveal anything about themselves. The cook (Igor), various MPs, and a handful of the nurses/orderlies are in this category. Then there are the Original Characters. We’ve decided to name ours Charles Emerson Winchester, III, a brilliant and talented surgeon whose wealthy family lives in Cape Cod.
There’s an important reason we have these four categories. A Major Character is someone that every fan knows. If you get their personality even slightly off, you will be in for a flame-fest the likes of which could do more damage to Tokyo than Godzilla. These are the characters that drive everything, and make people love the fandom. M*A*S*H would never be the same without Frank Burns getting tortured by Pierce and Hunnicutt.
Minor Characters are less well defined. They enable the plot, rather than driving it. You could swap out Klinger for Radar as the company clerk, and things would more or less run the same way. Things would play out somewhat differently, but they could both accomplish the same plot tasks. For these characters, you have a certain amount of freedom to interpret them as you wish. There are major personality elements you have to stick with, but they’re less rigid in a given situation. For example, we all know Klinger loves to wear dresses, but he wouldn’t change that much if he wore standard army issue fatigues.
Background Characters simply exist. We know there’s a cook that serves crappy food, and his name is Igor. He gets harassed for the horrible slop he produces, but he’s really just there to take abuse. If you focus a story on this character, you will essentially be developing an original character. There’s a brief outline of what he should be, but nothing that really limits you.
An Original Character is where you get to make up everything. For example, we’ve decided we’re sick and tired of having to write about that loser, “Ferret-face” Frank. He’s a nut, so we’ll just write him out as having gone insane, and have Charles get assigned to the MASH unit for some reason or other. Maybe have him slaughter a general at the gentleman’s game of cribbage or something. With the open bunk, he’ll be able to hang out with Hawkeye and Hunnicutt, and give them a bit of culture. MASH really needed more Wagner in the background.
If you’ve been paying attention, up to this point, you’ve no doubt noticed that this Winchester chap is starting to sound a bit like a Gary Stu (the male version of a Mary Sue). So at this point, we need to discuss what a Mary Sue is, and why it’s a problem. A Mary Sue is a character who is one of two things: either a character who is SO fabulously wonderful that they overshadow all the other characters, especially the canon heroes/female characters, or a character who exerts such powerful influence that they warp the personalities of the Major Canon Characters. If there’s a romantic bent involved, a Mary Sue would become Hawkeye’s permanent girlfriend/fiancé/wife, and would cause him to become a tea-totaler who never cracks a joke. Often, these characters are the expression of the author’s desire to be in the story (self insert) as the romantic interest of a given Major Canon Character. The result is a perfect character, with a perfected lover, and all other characters reduced to Minor Characters, at best.
The problem with that is simple: you have now twisted all the characters’ personalities and relationships into something that never existed in canon. Character flaws are essential to making a character relatable, and challenges are important for making a story interesting. Mary Sues destroy everything that made the fandom enjoyable: flawed characters driving the plot to the best of their ability, quirks and all.
So, Winchester could be an issue. We have to limit him a bit. No problem! First, let’s make him a blowhard. That should irritate Hawkeye and Hunnicutt, making him an immediate target of their pranks. Second, let’s make him a perfectionist surgeon. He can replace every organ in a person’s body with no problems, just give him twenty hours in a sterile environment and he’s good to go. Oh wait, he’s doing meatball surgery with artillery shaking dust into open wounds and missing supplies and no time. Third, he can neither relate to “commoners,” nor inspire them. Instead, his personality just irritates those around him, who view him as an arrogant snob with no empathy. If we toss in a scene where Hawkeye operates circles around him, we’ll finish establishing him as imperfect, and set the stage for all kinds of plot-driving interactions/conflicts.
The key to all characters is flaws, and we’ve just given our OC some big ones. We’ve strongly implied a background, we’ve provided a personality, and most importantly, we’ve established that the other characters will remain who they are. Now, to keep Winchester from being a villain, we need to give him some good points, too. He will be a good surgeon, and perhaps he’ll be a bit of a prankster, too. Maybe he’ll even be a decent guy when no one’s watching.
So, overall, the key to a good OC is the same as for any other character: you need a three-dimensional character who has flaws and strengths, has a relationship with the other characters that may alter the group dynamics, but won’t significantly change the individual characters, and ultimately feels like a real person. So here’s where we’re going to give you a few ideas to help you make sure you have a solid character. Many of these can be done with Canon Characters as well.
First: one of WP’s favorite exercises is to write “A Day in the Life of…” one-shots. For a Canon Character, he likes to pick a single scene, and write it from that character’s perspective, perhaps expanding it out to include breakfast, etc. Maybe write about Igor getting up in the morning to see the meager supplies in the kitchen, and desperately attempting to make something edible while anticipating getting verbally beat up by Hawkeye yet again.
Second: one of Sybil’s big tips is to make sure your OC is on an even footing with all the other characters. This means having a similar number of flaws, good points, abilities, etc. For example, Winchester and Hawkeye are BOTH great surgeons, but with different areas of expertise. Hawkeye tends to be an alcoholic, whereas Winchester tends to aggravate everyone around him (mainly with Wagner).
Third: when dealing with supernatural/super-powered fandoms, keep things under control. For examples, WP wrote a parody story about Mary Sue meeting the Cyborg 009 cyborgs. She had ALL their abilities. Her powers tended to interfere with each other, or her lack of practice would cause her to fail dramatically. With real Mary Sue stories, the fails don’t happen, and the OC makes all the others useless.
Fourth: you don’t need to described EVERYTHING about your character’s appearance/clothing/eyes. If you are spending three paragraphs painting a picture of your character, you are not worried about the things that make your character three-dimensional. Winchester is prematurely bald, tall, and slightly overweight. ‘Nuff said. Freaky colored eyes/hair is a no-no.
Fifth: Not everyone comes from a tragic background. Sometimes normal people or people without hardships, like Winchester, can be just as interesting to work with, and get dragged into these situations just as easily. Moreover, a character who is used to physical hardship will handle being in a MASH unit far better than our pampered prince.
Sixth: that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a background. Know who your character is, where he comes from, and why he’s in the story now. Winchester’s sister, the poorly named Honoria, stutters. His wealth gives him arrogance, but also causes him to annoy those around him with his “high culture”. His snobbishness actually prevents him from having fun with those he’s working with. You should have a clear idea why your character exists in the story.
Seventh: if you’re writing this story specifically so you can show off your wonderful OC, you’re probably a Suethor (writer of Mary Sues). This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write your story, but that you should be VERY cautious about what you’re doing. Here is a link to a well-done OC that was integrated well into the canon: http://embyquinn.tripod.com/gatchaman/miyabio.html . Miya has a history that is tightly integrated into the history of the canon characters, was a member of an actual bad-guy group, and has comparable abilities to the canon heroes. When she joins the canon heroes, she simply integrates as a sixth member of the group. She isn’t the star, she doesn’t drive Jun into the background, she simply is. A background as detailed as Miya’s is not necessary, but it’s a good example of what makes a GOOD OC. Unfortunately, it’s more likely that you’re writing something akin to My Immortal Beloved, where Harry Potter never even appears. In fact, the only canon thing is Hogwarts itself.
Eighth: make sure you think seriously about how your character will interact with the canon characters. WP made a bunch of Gundam Wing Mary Sue parodies specifically to show how the Major Canon Characters would actually interact with someone attempting to overwhelm their personality. Hawkeye is an alcoholic dealing with a hellish situation. Radar is a naive kid who happens to be a psychic and doesn’t really understand what’s happening. Winchester will wrap himself in snobbery and arrogance so he doesn’t risk feeling loss. When he fails to save a patient, he’ll have a breakdown. Being human will nearly destroy him. Ironically, it will be an alcoholic and an ignorant kid that help him recover.
As you should well know, Winchester is not our character, but when he was introduced to the story, he was, for all intents and purposes, an OC being thrust into a group of established characters. He had to blend in to be successful. What made him interesting was the friction that existed between him and the other characters. He was no more or less important than the others, and was forced to learn humility the hard way. Once that was done, his honor and nobility had a chance to show through, even when it trapped him in hell with the others. In the end, Winchester became another Major Canon Character, and the greatest prankster in camp.