OKAY, so, it’s time to have a conversation about original characters and learning to write them via fandom! I know quite a bit more about Char, my main character, and Theo, the romantic lead, than I did the last time I posted about original fic; I’ll have some more stuff up on that soon. But first, this! Because, whatever, it’s time for this now.
So here’s the deal: fandom taught me to write. I took classes on writing in school, sure, I had relationships with professors and other students, I did workshop classes, and that taught me all kinds of invaluable shit—how to take constructive criticism, how to deal with writing anxiety/blocks, the story structures that are most and least effective, the difference between “style” and “voice.” My creative writing education taught me all sorts of things about writing, but fandom, and fandom alone, taught me to write. And I’ll tell you a secret—it’s teaching you to write, too. It’s a massive workshop on a global scale, constantly updating with new variations on a given story, providing feedback for what you produce and feedback on what those around you produce, a limitless feed of information that’s all grounded in the telling of tales—how could it not teach you to tell them in the process?
Here’s another secret: the shit fandom is teaching you about writing fanfiction? It’s teaching you about writing original fiction, too.
Since this piece is about the development of original characters, I’m going to use Inception fandom, specifically the popular pairing Arthur/Eames, as my baseline—if you’re not in Inception fandom, that’s okay! I’m going to tell you what you need to know. In the movie Inception, there are really four times we see Arthur and Eames exchange dialogue in any meaningful way: in the workshop, when Eames presents an idea, Arthur is impressed, and Eames thanks him for his condescension; in the chase scene, when they express what can be read as concern for one another’s safety; in the aftermath of the chase scene, when Eames one-ups Arthur’s machine gun with a grenade launcher and launches a thousand ships with the advice to dream a little bigger, darling; and in the hotel, when Eames tells Arthur that security will run him down hard, and Arthur flippantly advises him to go to sleep, Mr. Eames. There are a few other instances of more indirect interaction—Arthur’s reaction when Cobb tells him they’re using Eames for this job, Eames’ reaction when Cobb tells him he’s still working with Arthur, that scene where Eames kicks Arthur’s chair—but by and large, this is what we’re going off of.
Here are some things we know about Arthur as a character: he’s organized, he’s competent, he’s loyal to Cobb, he writes things in a Moleskine notebook, he dresses well, he knows his way around a weapon, he thought Mal was lovely, he occasionally steals kisses, and he’s a little on the bitchy side sometimes. Here are some things we know about Eames as a character: he’s brash, he’s able to change his appearance in dreams, he sees the emotional argument before the logical one, he enjoys gambling, he dresses in bright colors, and maths was never his strong subject.
Now—and more importantly—let’s talk about what we don’t know about Arthur and Eames. We don’t know if those are their first names or last names; we don’t know what their first or last names are; we don’t know why they got into dreamshare; we don’t know what they’re looking for in a romantic partner; we don’t know where they grew up; we don’t know what their families were like; we don’t know their nationalities (accents can be faked, after all); we don’t know their sexual orientations; we don’t know what frightens them other than “being trapped in limbo forever,” which can be written off as basic human survival instinct; we don’t know what they dream about; we don’t know what kinds of foods they like; we don’t know where they went to school; given the way that the movie is set up, we don’t even know if they’re meant to be real people, or if they’re merely projections of Cobb’s overactive, more-than-slightly-fucked subconscious.
To put this another way: we know some little things about Arthur and Eames. We know the details that we were able to pick up on from watching them onscreen, but we don’t know any of the big things. We do not know a single one of the things that could be filed under “overarching character motivation” or “raison d’être” or, frankly, “the basic building blocks of writing a character.” We have, as individuals and as a fandom, invented these things—we have looked at the tiny details and built full people off of them, wrapped personalities and pasts around these shells until we had characters we could really, properly identify with.
And that’s original fiction, just minus the first half-step. No, really. It is.
Supposing I showed you a television show, fandom. Supposing I showed you one episode of a television show, a half hour long, and you got the following details about the main character: he is tall, he is attractive but unaware of it, he is starting to go grey at his temples, he is easily irritable, he works at a post office, and he has a particularly strong streak of enmity towards the impossibly cheerful dude who runs the animal shelter across the street. Do you think for one second that someone couldn’t produce a beautiful piece of fanfiction off of that? A series of beautiful pieces of fanfiction? A whole goddamn cornucopia of fanfics, in which the characters get to know each other and fall in love within the universe as presented, or in which the characters get to know each other and fall in love within any number of other universes, or in which the characters solve crimes or help each other through heartbreak or grow as people or regress as people or or or or…?
Fandom does this all the time. This is, in fact, the very baseline of what fandom does: we take the bare bones and flesh them out. The only difference between writing original fiction and writing fanfiction, when it comes right down to it, is that in fanfic those bones are provided for you, and in original fiction you have to create them yourself.
And this is where people get tripped up—they think that that seems an impossible task, the building of someone from nothing at all. I know; I thought that too. But, as it turns out, it’s not. It’s not at ALL. You don’t need to pull an original character out of the air fully formed, because that is not how writing works, whether it’s original fiction or fanfiction or creative nonfiction (and this is the point where I advise everyone to go pick up a copy of Eric Larsson’s Devil in a White City, because seriously, that’s worth a look-see). You can start with the details, and work your way up. You can get to know your characters as you put them together, building headcanon the same way you did for Arthur and Eames, or Tony Stark, or John Watson, or Peter Burke, or Veronica Mars, or Harry Freaking Potter, or ANYBODY. This is the great untold truth of writing original characters: you’ve been doing it for years already, constructing headcanon up from the tiny details, crafting whole histories from a covert look or a hidden smile or a loose thread or a coffee order.
So here’s what you do: start with one thing. Start with a first name, or a preferred brand of beer, or a favorite song, or an article of clothing. Add another: a bad habit, a verbal tic, a recurring nightmare, an irrational fear. Let’s dream a little bigger: a religious affiliation, a nationality, an emotional connection, a profession, an aspiration, a hope. And then you just keep going, adding on, until you’ve got a nice full rounded human being to play around with. Because that’s the thing about people, that niggling little truth you’ve been learning all this time—there is no end to our details, our buried memories and favorite things, our pasts and presents and futures. Every big thing about every person, be they fictional or sitting across from you right this minute, is built of a hundred thousand little ones. Writing is the art of capturing that on paper, and you already know how.