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To OC or not to OC

I'm not really sure what to think of this, and would love any ideas from anyone who cares to comment.



As a rather new writer, and one not so confident in my abilities (it occurs to me that a lot of the character of David in the current AU is based on myself), I like to search out and read advice from other writers. There's a fanfic writer on dA who puts out writing tutorials, and for the most part she has a lot of interesting and helpful things to say. I found one article she wrote called "10 No-Fail Tips for a Great Fan Fic", which she says is "how you can idiot-proof a good piece of literature". I read through them, and a lot of the tips aren't useful to me ("Say no to weird formatting" - not something I do since I'm pretty obsessive about presentation already) and others I already do ("Read your own stories" - I probably read, and then edit, my stories a good thirty times before posting them).

The one that I'm having a difficult time with is "Say no to the OCs." Here's the text of her explanation (I've been discussing this with her, which you can see at the original link):

When you think about bad fan fiction, there are a few things that throw up red flags within the first few sentences. Among those things are Mary Sues, original characters in general, and severely unexpected story content (like a dragon randomly showing up in the middle of Seoul dressed in a pink tutu.), all of which we fan fiction readers expect to see from young and severely inexperienced authors.

As an author, you will probably never need original characters. I just said something important: need. You're pretty smart, and you're a writer, so you probably already know the number one rule for writers: never have anything in your story that doesn't have a purpose. Within your fandom, you can probably find a character to fill whatever roles you might have need of. There are extremely few instances in which you won't be able to do so. As a fan author writing for fifteen years, I've only found one instance where an original character was necessary. If I can do that, so can you.

By using canon characters to fill roles, you'll dodge the deadly bullet of the OC (and also Mary Sue), and you'll also achieve a few other major plusses. Your readers will be delighted to see the creative use of a canon character. If the character is minor, many people will probably enjoy seeing them developed in your story. In addition to character development, you will find that you won't have to worry about a character inconsistency if you use facts provided by the canon. Making use of what your fandom provides is a great habit to have as a fan author.

In short:
Useless original characters make you seem like a crappy author.

Fix it:
Use canon characters to fill roles. Expand on minor characters if necessary.


Maybe I'm taking umbrage at this because I like creating OCs. Actually, I don't see how you can write for DW without creating OCs: the Doctor never stays in the same place for very long, so if you're using a known place, you have to create OCs or stick to the ten or so characters appeared in the episode. Also, almost everything I've written for the past few months (all of these AU stories for The Actor) have had tons of OCs, and in fact, in the last two long fics, Neighbours and Repercussions, the only canon character is David, and his status as canon is arguable, too. In no way can I consider these stories original fiction, as they're set in a copyrighted universe, and so all of these characters must be considered original, as they don't exist in the DW world.

However, I find this "tip" to be simplistic. There's something to be said about being too eager to create to the Doctor's next, most awesome companion, and certainly there are tons of terrible stories out there along those lines, but writing this new companion doesn't necessarily make the story bad. And on the flip side, sticking with a canon companion doesn't make the story good. In a more general sense, shoehorning a canon character into a role simply because "you can probably find a character to fill whatever roles you might have need of" is just as bad as creating an OC to replace a canon character because you want to write this cool character you thought of in the shower this morning. (I had a little giggle as I thought of an OC I created for "Out of Ashes" that I tried to replace with a canon character as a mental exercise. In Rome, months after Pompeii, Evelina gets accosted by a drunk youth who tries to take advantage of her and turns out to have been Quintus' friend who had moved from Pompeii to Rome six months before "The Fires of Pompeii" took place. How in the world would I have found a canon character to fit that? I suppose I'd have to go watch "The Romans" and choose some schmuck in the background. Were they even set at the same time? ^_^ )

Thus, I'm conflicted. I'm trying to keep an open mind, and supposedly this person has been a well-respected fan author in her community for fifteen years now so she knows what she's talking about, so what am I missing? In what way does a rule like this make a fanfic better than it might have been otherwise?

After thinking about all of this and looking at the article a bit more, I'm starting to think that the author really doesn't know what she's talking about. She got into an argument with another deviant, pretty much about the same tip, and here's an excerpt of something she wrote. (The "smarter approach" she refers to is the other deviant saying that she wrote her fanfic about the OCs themselves, rather than add them to the cast of main characters.)

That "smarter approach" is actually what I find most offensive. That's not fan fiction. That's original fiction, and it needs to be kept separate from fandom as a whole. Fan fiction is fan fiction. Literally fiction for fans who enjoy something. They don't enjoy your (or anyone else's) original characters and have never gone, "My god, you know what I need to read today? I need to go see if SpecificPerson has a story about their original character I've never seen before!" It defeats the purpose of fan fiction. Fics shouldn't be about original characters. If people wanted original characters, they'd go read a book.

It seems to me that she defines "fan fiction" completely differently from how everyone else does, and if she's doing that, then her "tips" for writing good fan fiction have no bearing on reality. And she's rather toxic. Someone asked "Is there a name for stories where fan oc's live their lives in the same place that is familiar to a fandom?" and she replied "Yes. Bad fan fiction." It does bug me that she's listed as a "professional writer", and thus these tips of hers have more perceived weight. It's terrible because you know some fledgeling writer is coming across her stuff and is being told she's doing everything wrong because she's writing what she wants and not what this woman thinks is "no-fail".

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( 33 comments — Leave a comment )
hezikiah
Jun. 27th, 2015 11:39 pm (UTC)
I agree with avoiding OC's as much as possible. I don't really tend to use them much and then they're not major characters, just a compliment to the main.

I've read A LOT of fan fiction in my time and I will agree that most of it written with OC characters as main characters is usually just plain awful, with very few exceptions. That's why I try to avoid it as much as possible

The only exception with that are "Witnessing the Protector" and the sequel "The Guardian's Secret," which are told from the point of view of someone who has no idea who the Doctor is. My reason for using an OC in those stories is because I thought it would be interesting to explore what the Doctor looks like from a first-person epistolary (journal or letter writing) viewpoint. It was purely a personal literary challenge (and it has proved to be a HUGE challenge!). I can tell you with absolute certainty that the OC in those stories is not a Mary Sue at all. I was sensitive to that stereotypical problem of using an OC and worked very hard to craft an OC that wasn't super cool or couldn't be damaged or knew all the answers. In fact, the character in those stories is almost everything a companion is not. She's very vulnerable and flighty in the first story and it's only later she begins to emerge as a stronger person.

Edited at 2015-06-27 11:41 pm (UTC)
shivver13
Jun. 28th, 2015 12:32 am (UTC)
I absolutely agree that working with OCs, especially as main characters, is difficult, and that fanfiction that is about the OC is, a majority of the time, not well-written in general and therefore not good fanfiction in specific. However, I might also point out that a majority of fanfiction, at least at general sites like ffnet, is not well-written. Having an OC might be a good indicator that the fiction is not going to be good, but not having an OC is not a "no-fail" path to a great fan-fic (especially if you take her implied advice that you should shoehorn in a canon character at all costs). This "tip" glosses over the real problem, which is understanding how to design and use characters correctly.

I also disagree with her overall premise, that fan fiction is fiction written for the fans and therefore writers must write what they know the fans will want to read. Thus, she argues against OCs because no one wants to read about them. I don't agree with her definition, and I don't agree with the idea that all writers must have the same goal when writing fan fiction. My stories set in the DW universe are fan fiction, no matter who they're about, and I write for many different reasons; giving people want they want to read is not one of them.. I do know that if I write about my favorite OC, most readers won't even open my story and give it a chance, but that's my choice. (And I know from experience - all of my current stories are about my favorite OC, and I think three people in total are reading them. That's fine by me. I wrote what I wanted.)

Thus, neither of her premises are sound, at least with respect to me as the fanfic writer that I define myself as. Have a good reason to have an OC - now that makes sense. Work really hard to make your OC believable, someone the reader can really care about - there's another. Unless your story really needs it, don't have the OC upstage the canon characters - that's a good idea. But not having OCs is a no-fail tip to great fan fic? I really don't think so.

(I've always wanted to try the epistolary form! Good job tackling that!)

Edited at 2015-06-28 12:36 am (UTC)
(no subject) - hezikiah - Jun. 28th, 2015 04:25 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - shivver13 - Jun. 28th, 2015 08:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
dtstrainers
Jun. 28th, 2015 02:40 am (UTC)
I think it all depends on the story and the author as to whether OCs work or not. I've read some fics by talented writers that were absolutely gorgeous, where OCs were integral to the advancement of the story. I've also suffered through fic in the hands of less-experienced writers where the OC is a thinly-veiled version of themselves.

What I find obnoxious about the experienced writer's conceit is that she presumes to know all the possible permutations of fiction and that what works for her works for everyone. There are plenty of books on the bestseller lists that I couldn't be paid to read for various reasons, but that doesn't mean I think they're bad. I feel that this writer is laboring under a list of 'rules', perhaps as a crutch for a lack of imagination.

After all, at one time, every character ever written is an original character at one point.
shivver13
Jun. 28th, 2015 04:34 am (UTC)
This kind of reminds me of a story that Richard Feynman once told, about when his artist friend was teaching him to draw while he was trying to teach the artist science. In science and math, of course, there's usually only one right way to do something. However, Feynman watched his friend's teaching technique very closely and he noticed that rather than teaching, he was guiding. I remember the sentence he used to describe this was something very close to this:

He couldn't say, "Don't make your lines thick like that," because some famous artist did use thick lines just like that and made it work. He had to teach me how to draw by osmosis."

I think it's the same way for writing, and probably for any form of art. You can't make hard, fast rules like that.
(no subject) - shivver13 - Jul. 5th, 2015 04:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
doctorxdonna
Jun. 28th, 2015 03:57 am (UTC)
I think this supposedly 'pro' author sounds like a douche canoe. The point of fanfic is that anything can happen, whether it's canon or not. And I agree-OCs are completely necessary in some stories. Including OCs does not make a fic bad, nor does using canon characters make a story good. I would ignore this person's so-called writing advice and do whatever the hell you want to. Who died and made this bitch queen of the internet and writing fic?
shivver13
Jun. 28th, 2015 04:40 am (UTC)
It really sounds to me like she has this very narrow definition of what a fanfic is and simply discounts anything that doesn't fit, and feels that she should teach everyone that her way is best. Her style is very imperious, and I'm definitely not finding what she says to be worth much.

I really, really like the phrase "douche canoe", by the way.
(no subject) - doctorxdonna - Jun. 28th, 2015 05:04 am (UTC) - Expand
katherine_b
Jun. 28th, 2015 04:24 am (UTC)
There is an easier way of looking at it: is there a character that already exists in the series that could do what the OC does? In almost all cases, the answer is yes. It's very hard to find a hole that only an OC can fill. (And you have to make sure that you aren't just taking another character and turning them into an OC. Their character has to stay true to themselves in those actions.)

There is a simple fact about writing: while you are the only person who is writing, you are writing for yourself and you can do anything you like! Create as many OCs as you want. Have them be perfect, and amazing, and inventive, and powerful, and everything else. Subvert characters into completely other people to put your OC at the heart of the story. Whatever you want to do.

The change comes when you take your story and send it out into the world. If you are already using other people's characters, i.e. writing fan fiction, then you are sending out your story to an audience who already knows, or EXPECTS TO KNOW, the people you are writing about. And THEY will very quickly spot if your OC is a fraud or a weak copy of someone else. They may not tell you because people are afraid of the response they will get if they offer concrit. But they will remember and they will check your future fics. If they see that little 'OC' in the character list, they won't bother to read any further.

If none of that bothers you and you feel you don't need those readers anyway then by all means go ahead and write as many OCs as you like. Some people do enjoy reading them for the same reason you like writing them - because it means they/you get to insert themselves/yourself into a fic. But many people dislike said fiction for exactly the same reason. They have come to read about the Doctor and his companions, people they already know.

But it's your decision in the end.

shivver13
Jun. 28th, 2015 05:12 am (UTC)
See, I disagree that it's very hard to find a hole that only an OC can fill. Maybe this is peculiar to me, because I like writing "from the outside looking in", meaning stories about minor characters and their lives before or after meeting the Doctor. In a lot of these cases, there must be OCs of various importance created to flesh out the story. It would be very difficult to write a story of how Billy Shipton finally found his way back to Sally without at least one OC, unless it's completely description and no dialogue. If he has a nurse tending him on his last day, there's an OC right there.

However, I don't think it's too hard to find cases in more traditional fanfics where OCs are necessary. The first thought that came to mind was Tentoo/Rose: without OCs, their world is populated by only four other people: Jackie, Pete, Tony, and Jake. Then there's the Moffat companions: almost any mention of family or friends will involve creating OCs. Rory doesn't have a mother. None of them have siblings shown or mentioned. Or friends, except for Mels and a couple of one-offs.

It's definitely an author's decision: do you flesh the world out the way you want to, or do you try to attract readers by staying firmly within canon? But adding OCs doesn't automatically make the fic bad, and I think it's poor advice, because the advice-taker isn't told why OCs are dangerous.
(no subject) - katherine_b - Jun. 28th, 2015 05:35 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - louisedennis - Jun. 28th, 2015 11:26 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - katherine_b - Jun. 29th, 2015 11:17 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - louisedennis - Jun. 29th, 2015 11:47 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - katherine_b - Jun. 30th, 2015 11:10 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - louisedennis - Jun. 30th, 2015 12:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - katherine_b - Jul. 1st, 2015 11:06 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - shivver13 - Jun. 28th, 2015 08:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - katherine_b - Jun. 29th, 2015 11:04 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - shivver13 - Jun. 29th, 2015 07:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - katherine_b - Jun. 30th, 2015 11:00 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - shivver13 - Jul. 5th, 2015 03:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
louisedennis
Jun. 28th, 2015 11:20 am (UTC)
The "no OCs" thing makes me want to grind my teeth and its terribly prevalent throughout fanfic writing. I'm lucky, in a way, that my main fanfic writing fandom enthusiastically embraces OCs and has vast swathes shared among various fic writers, but its completely atypical and the fondness of half the fandom for OCs caused some major drama early on. Interestingly part of the divide was clearly between people who wrote more plot-based stories (and who needed the OCs as extras and one off supporting characters) and people who wrote more romantic stories, or porn, who had no need for extra characters outside the pairing they were interested in. The "Mary Sue" label I loathe even more, it stops people inventing female characters and, these days, can get used to bash even female characters in canon.

I imagine we've all read a fic where a few paragraphs in you realise this is mostly the authors wish fulfilment fantasy about how they, personally, are so wonderful that the Doctor/Sherlock Holmes/Harry Potter/whoever will fall in love with them and look up to them. 99% of the time those characters are not nearly as interesting as the author thinks they are and the suck all the interest out of the story. There is a (much rarer) variant on this where the author creates their ideal girlfriend/boyfriend and has the main canon character fall in love with them, but the effect is much the same.

I came across a term I much prefer to "Mary Sue" which is the "Wotaguy". A wotaguy character is one that the author thinks is completely and utterly amazing, the reader is expected to have a "Wow! What a guy!" reaction to this character and very rarely does. I think it's fair to say you should absolutely avoid wotaguys in fan fiction - that status is reserved for canon characters, but wotaguy is also well worth watching out for if you write original fiction as well. A lot of people accused Rose of being RTD's Mary Sue (which, WTF?) but I think for a lot of people she was a wotaguy, they didn't think she was nearly as amazing and special as RTD did and that really rubbed them up the wrong way (of course, an awful lot of people simply adored Rose which shows how much of this is in the eye of the beholder).

So, basically, I give myself total permission to use OCs so long as they are not being consistently compared to a canon character and coming up looking better and more amazing than that character. In the case of Doctor Who, the thing you should probably be wary of is creating an alternative companion for the Doctor unless you have really good reason to, but otherwise, if you are actually writing plot/adventure-based fan fiction OCs are an absolute necessity.

Edited at 2015-06-28 11:29 am (UTC)
shivver13
Jun. 28th, 2015 08:37 pm (UTC)
Yes! I think you're absolutely right that plot-driven stories require far more OCs, and that's where I'm having a problem, since I primarily write plot-driven stories.

I do admit that I will avoid most OC stories, though the ones that I specifically avoid are the ones with the summary, "Laura is the Doctor's newest companion..." for very much the same reason that you gave for not writing them. However, I'm aware that that's how people will approach (or not approach!) my OC stories and I'm fine with that.

I like the term "wotaguy" much better than Mary Sue. I've noticed that people seem to have different definitions for "Mary Sue" (the perfect character, vs. the wish-fulfillment character, vs. the overpowered character), and it's nice to have a word with a consistent definition/connotation.
katherine_b
Jun. 29th, 2015 10:58 am (UTC)
If you've found that then that's fortunate for you because it only seems to occur in a tiny minority of fandoms for the reasons that you and others have stated there. In Doctor Who, though (which I reference here because the OP writes it, as do I), I always think it's notable that there are rarely episodes with a cast of characters larger than six (on top of and sometimes including the Doctor and his companion(s)) and I think that has to do with a lot of the speed of most episodes. If things move too fast, people will get confused with lots of people to 'meet.' So if people are looking for stories that reflect the format of the show, they will be put off by something that steps so far away from their expectations. As you say, if the character is wish fulfilment, that only makes it worse.

I haven't yet met the "Wotaguy" concept and while I'm not mad on it, I can see what it was introduced. (BTW I think Rose got that title when she kept reappearing because people thought RTD couldn't bear to let her go. Similar things have been said about Moff and both Amy Pond after her appearance in the finale, and River, particularly given that she has now been shoehorned into a Big Finish adventure with the Eighth Doctor).

As I said above, it's the author's choice, but the readers also have the right to approach any fic featuring an OP with preconceived fears, or to avoid them altogether. That's the reason I tend who warn people off them if they happen to ask for public opinion as the OP did here.
a_phoenixdragon
Jun. 28th, 2015 10:44 pm (UTC)
Och. Very rigid thinking on her part. And something I take umbrage to.

I'm not generally fond of OCs. The reasons being that I too have come across many that are...badly done or just unnecessary. On the other hand, I have written OCs just to be side characters (and brief ones at that) that have taken on a new life and just became part of the tale despite me.

I say write what you love. And if a character feels right and makes themselves part of the pattern within the weave, just let them be that pattern.

It makes it worse because as a 'professional writer' AND a fanficcer, her word would be gold. And she seems to set in her thinking. The key (for me) to being a writer is 'never say never', stay flexible and adapt. That way you are always improving, learning and growing as a writer. I would have listened to her a few years ago. I find myself dismissive of her words now. If she wouldn't read my work, I would hardly take offense. It's not as if she would understand the concepts put forth in the first place.

And I'm not keen on the 'write what others will want to read'. Tis the same thing that drives people that CREATE Mary Sues. I let my characters tell their tales. Hand-crafting something for an audience smacks of falsehood to me. And the concept is distateful underneath. Write what feel right, what feels good and what you enjoy. If someone else likes it, that is marvelous. But anything less would be cheating yourself.

*HUGS*

Edited at 2015-06-28 10:47 pm (UTC)
shivver13
Jun. 29th, 2015 08:42 pm (UTC)
At first, I never really understood what it really meant by "telling the story I want to tell" or "characters taking on a new life". Having never written before, I always thought it was a process of working out a plot and then writing it out, especially for people like JK Rowling, who write these intricate, complicated stories. That's my heavily left-brained thinking for you.

And then I started writing because of a story that popped into my head while watching "The Girl in the Fireplace", and I started to understand that the story comes from inside. The seed isn't a rational process. You might develop it rationally, but the story you want to tell is very, for lack of a better word, spiritual.

A few months later, I wrote The Actor, and the character of David stuck with me and had these stories he wanted to tell, in two different AUs. That's when I really understood the concept of the character taking on his own life.

And that's really what bothers me about this OC "rule". If you follow the rule, you're forcing something on the story for very nebulous reasons - "it'll be a better fanfic" (which I still disagree with; how can say that about every fanfic?) or "you'll attract more people to read it" - without a guarantee of good results.

I've seen it said many times in these discussions that as a fanfic writer, you have to write what your audience wants to read. As I think about it, I think it's exactly the opposite. The official writers have to write what the fandom wants to read/see/hear. Fanfic writers have the freedom to take that fandom beyond the expected bounds. Yes, many people will avoid things that aren't familiar, that aren't what they're looking for. If you want to stay within the safe boundaries, which will attract more readers, great! But there's so much more to explore out there, and you shouldn't limit yourself simply because a character, or a plot point, or anything else might be unpopular.
(no subject) - a_phoenixdragon - Jun. 30th, 2015 03:08 am (UTC) - Expand
flowsoffire
Jul. 4th, 2015 07:55 pm (UTC)
If I try to sum this up—I think this author makes a good point as a general rule, and is indeed looking to set a list of general rules that are true for fandom as a whole. However, there is no such thing as a universal rule. You will always find an exception, most of all when creativity is concerned; the very point of creativity is that you are supposed to follow your own idea, and work on it to make it worthwhile and unique. That person has a good point and their opinion will probably prove about accurate in most cases, and also probably be worthwhile for beginner authors who are actively seeking guidelines to avoid common "beginner traps". However, their opinion is not going to be valid for everyone and I do believe they are being too close-minded, and apparently unwilling to have some dialogue with people who think differently. If you are a good, hard-working author with a solid idea, you can pull off an interesting OC. And even if you are a beginner, not very confident author who has an idea and is feeling insecure, if you are willing to work hard on your story and make it something truly good, it is not fair that you should be discouraged from pursuing your project, because it may very well turn great. It may not be the majority, but are we fanfic writers because we like to follow the majority? Er, not the last time I checked. Fandom people like to explore every and all things, the mainstream huge pairings, the super-minor character no one else remembers the name of and yes, the OC's if we like.

In short:
Giving advice and general rules is good. Thinking your rule is iron and true in every single case is bad, unhelpful and unconstructive.

Fix it:
Pull your head out of your arse.
shivver13
Jul. 5th, 2015 03:43 pm (UTC)
Yeah, that seems to be the consensus - a general rule, not applicable necessarily to making this story better, but instead to improving your writing as a whole, if you don't already understand the difficulties and limitations of using OCs. I think I"m going back to what I was already doing, which was writing whatever I want to write. :)

(Love your "in short" and "fix it". :)
(no subject) - flowsoffire - Jul. 9th, 2015 03:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
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