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March 8, 2012

What Makes a Character Unique?

Man taking off mask

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare

Wow, Bill, you have no idea how ahead of your time you were.  I know it must be hard to believe, but hundreds of years after you made this insightful observation through Juliet’s words, some people still don’t get it.

Why, just a few weeks ago, the writing community outed one of its own (a treasurer of a Romance Writers of America chapter, no less) for plagiarism.  How did she think she’d get away with it, you ask?  She changed the characters’ names and geographical details.

But changing names isn’t enough to make a something unique, is it, Bill?  Just as roses are known by their smell, characters are known by their actions, beliefs, and attitudes.  If their core essence hasn’t changed, they’re still the same person on the inside.

*sigh*  Thanks, buddy.  I knew you’d understand.

Plagiarism and “Plagiarism Lite”

Fan fiction (fanfic) is one of those gray areas of plagiarism (which is already pretty gray as it is).  Most members of the fanfic community appreciate that the original authors are letting them “play in their sandbox” of characters and world-building.

The problem comes when some fanfic authors choose to sell their fanfic writings.  They’ll change superficial things, those character or place names, and think they’ve gotten around the plagiarism issue by “creating” new characters.

But if the “changing names” excuse doesn’t work for outright, blatant plagiarism, why would it work  for “plagiarism lite”—publishing fanfic without a major overhaul to remove all semblance of the original author’s characters and world-building?

Simple answer: It doesn’t.

What “Creating a Character” Really Means

In my last post about the ethics of fan fiction, some of the comments from the fanfic community didn’t understand this point.  Most (if not all) of those commenters seemed to be readers, not writers.  And that makes sense.  Readers don’t know what goes into making a fully-formed, three-dimensional, non-cardboard character.

Characters—good characters—go much deeper than their job, their human/non-human status, their name, number of siblings, where they live, etc.  Real characters are born out of their history, family background, worldview, religious beliefs, moral code, self-image, self-delusions, strengths, flaws, goals, etc.  They aren’t puppets fulfilling our goals for a plot.

Most fanfic stories—no matter how out-of-character the characters might act—still intend for their characters to evoke those of the original author.  While superficial details might be different (especially if it’s an “alternate universe” fanfic story), most of those things I listed above would be similar to the original.  In other words, not a unique character.

So while readers might look at the superficial level of characterization and say, “Yep, they changed xyz, so they’re not the same anymore,” authors look at those differences and know that superficial characteristics are the least important aspects to a character.  Changing those superficial details alone isn’t enough to avoid ethical or plagiarism issues in regards to stealing characters.

Unique Characters Are Unique to Their Core

A fanfic author can’t have it both ways.  Either the characters are meant to evoke those characters belonging to someone else, or they aren’t.

The problem compounds because some fanfic authors think they’ve made the characters their own by having “their version” of the original characters.  But creating characters from scratch is very different than inviting someone else’s characters into your head and hearing their accent change slightly after they’ve lived there for a while.

The characters in a former fanfic story ready for publication shouldn’t be anyone’s “version” of any other characters but theirs.  The only way to make a character truly unique is to change their core essence, those deep elements behind all people, not just fictional characters.

Protagonists Aren’t Interchangeable

Changing the core essence of characters in a story brings up another problem.  A character who’s different on the inside would react and act differently to plot events.  And in a domino effect, a changed “cause” would create a changed “effect” and so on down the plot line.

As giselle-lx commented in the last post:

“If you drop a completely different character into your story and nothing changes, something is wrong with the story.”

One of my favorite bloggers, Janice Hardy, has a fantastic post about making the stakes match the protagonist:

  • If the protagonist walked away, what would change? (Because the plot needs them to continue is not a good answer—low to zero stakes there.)
  • If the sidekick stepped into the protagonist’s slot, what would change? (This checks for whether the stakes are personal.)
  • What does your protagonist lose if they walk away? (If they have nothing to lose, the story has low-to-zero stakes.)

Good fiction isn’t just about “and then this happened,” but about why is it happening now and why with this particular protagonist. The stakes should be specific to them.

Why Subtext Is Key for Unique Characters

In school, we learned how to draw conclusions about characters from their actions.  What is another word for “reading between the lines”?  Subtext.  A huge percentage of what makes up a character exists only in subtext.  And the elements revealed in that percentage determine who a character really is, not the superficial stuff.

Characters are much deeper than readers realize because subtext registers subconsciously.  So readers don’t consciously recognize what all goes into their understanding of a character.  They might describe a character as being a “good” person, but when asked why they think that, they might say, “I just got that sense from them.”  That’s subconscious subtext at work.

Good writers understand this and try to grasp a basic level of psychology to explore those depths. The blog The Character Therapist is a good place for writers to go for help in developing the psychology of their characters.

Writers of all types—fanfic or otherwise—can analyze the superficial aspects of their characters and learn about their core essence:

  • Why do they do “x”?
  • What does that say about them as a person?
  • Are they aware of that aspect of themselves?
  • Do they like that aspect?  Why?
  • Do they try to hide it?  Why?

The answers to those questions are infinite times more important than the superficial details behind them.

Other Pitfalls in Turning Fanfic into Publishable Stories

Commenter tulchulcha brought up a chilling point to all those fanfic authors hoping to cash in:

“[F]anfiction can’t be copyrighted.”

As soon as a fanfic author posts work on a fanfic venue, they are declaring that they don’t own it.  If they want to later claim that’s it’s not really fanfic because of a, b, c, it’s too late.   Significant story and character changes (certainly beyond those “name changes” that don’t prevent charges of plagiarism) would be necessary to ensure they could invoke copyright law after knowingly giving it up before.

Fanfic authors need to recognize the risks in publishing previously free fanfic: original author rights, lack of copyright for fanfic, disgruntled readers who don’t want to pay for something that used to be free, etc.  Pissing off the original author or their old readers or their new readers is bad business in the long run.

Don’t be tempted by the quick buck.  The number of authors who debuted huge?  Very small.  The number of authors who debuted huge and were able to maintain that level of success?  Almost zero.

(Note: I apologize to those who were too intimidated by the drama in the comments of my last post to speak their mind.  While I certainly welcome everyone to read and comment on my blog, I didn’t expect the Twilight fandom to invade—er—visit because I hadn’t reached out or linked to that community. And yes, much of this post was taken from my comments there, but the 7500+ words I typed in the comments on Tuesday should be good for something, right? *smile*)

What tips do you have for ensuring that a character is unique?  Do you agree with the importance of a character’s core essence?  Or do you think superficial aspects are enough?  What’s your take on how subtext creates characters?  Did you have something to say about the ethical issue brought up in the last post and you’d rather discuss it here?  (I don’t blame you.  *smile*)

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44 Comments on "What Makes a Character Unique?"

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Angela Quarles

Great post Jami! Some of the things you mention are issues you can have when just doing revisions on your own original work. I know I’ve had it happen where I’ll change a motivation and then need to reread everything, not just the scene it was in, to make the tweaks necessary to adjust to this new change. Sometimes I feel like the whole novel is like some multi-faceted Rubix cube and each scene is a side of it– I’ll get one side all lined up, but have messed up every other side and have to do another pass through to make sure everything lines up.

Erin Brambilla

Butting in to your comment discussion here :). But I LOVE the Rubix cube analogy. I am feeling that as we speak. Mid-revision phase here and as I’ve added an element to my character motivation, I find myself having to tweak not just the scene where I added it, but those that came after (and before!) as well. If only it were so easy as tweaking a sentence, eh? But, alas, a rubix cube it is. (Which is ultimately a good thing, of course 🙂 ).

Great post today, Jami :).

Melinda Collins

Another great post, Jami!! So glad you were able to extract a lessons in characterizaton from Tuesday’s post! 🙂

And I agree with Angela – so much of that does pertain to when we’re doing revisions. That’s a great point to add to the checklist! 😉

Heather Day Gilbert

UGH–plagiarism in any form is just revolting to me. If I can’t come up with my own ideas, why would I want to be writing in the first place? (I guess they can make some $$ from it?). I love reading books with unusual/fresh characters and situations. Those are the books that stand out from the crowd, and those are the books I’m striving to write! Always enjoy your posts!

AE
AE

Thank you for such a well articulated article (again). Character development is hard–really hard, even picking out a name! You hit the nail on the head when you clarified why writers can be bothered more by this than readers.

Thanks for your hard work and posting such great resources.

Buffy Armstrong

The reality is that there are only so many archetypal/master characters. Same goes for plots. I think I have a book at home titled “The 45 Master Characters.” Similarities are going to happen whether it is our intention or not. The only thing an author can do is try to make the character their own using their life experiences and voice. That is the hard part. One story about a boy wizard from this guy is going to be different from that other guy’s story of a boy wizard.

I’ve never considered writing fan fiction even when I was younger and just learning to write. I’m not saying that I wasn’t influenced by the writers that I read. The stuff I wrote during my VC Andrews phase of my teen years was frightening. There is nothing wrong with writing fan fiction for fun or to learn the craft. I am just appalled that some people think it is okay to make money off someone else’s hard work and ideas. It isn’t right. That being said, who wants the legal hassle if they get caught? And they will always get caught. Eventually. It’s just not worth it.

Andrew Mocete

Hi Jami!

In the special features of the G.I. Joe cartoon from the 80s, one of the voice actors talked about this big book of character backgrounds. Tons of information, like wars they’ve been in, religion, political view and a while lot more. Almost none of it was addressed in the show, it was made available for the sole purpose of giving the voice actor a complete view of the character they were going to play. Even in a kid’s cartoon, a fully realized character was important, which goes to show how important it is for any type of storytelling.

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT

Thanks again for the mention, Jami. I appreciated the other links you included, as I’m always on the lookout for good sites. 🙂 Have a good weekend!

Fiona Ingram

I won’t delve into the fanfic/plagiarism angle, but I’d like to comment on what makes a character unique. I recently read an article by Randy Ingersolman which gave me an incredible “Eureka” moment regarding this aspect of developing characters. Perhaps it explains why this ‘ingredient X’ is so hard to copy? The gist of the text is “Why Downton Abbey Rocks” and in it Randy explains that the driving force behind each character (their burning ambitions and motivations) is what makes the Downton Abbey characters unique and gripping. Can we imagine the series without any one of the characters, even the seemingly insignificant ones? He says that story is characters in conflict, characters who’ll do anything to achieve their dreams. Each character has a particular dream or ambition, and that, for me, is what makes a character unique. Within the core (you described) of each character is the seat of those ambitions, and the morality or lack thereof which comes into play when they go for those dreams/ambitions … well, that’s wonderful conflict. Randy says it so much better. Here is the link. Scroll down to the third article. Even if you haven’t watched or do not like the (best-selling so writer Julian Fellowes is doing something right…) series Randy’s analysis is quite brilliant and made me rethink how I was approaching character development in the work I am busy with. http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/ezine/2012/AFW_Ezine_2012-03-06.pdf

Carradee
I’m a character-based writer, not a plot-based writer, so I come up with characters first. Readers have commented on how even my minor characters seem to breathe. I don’t do the character interviews; details come later. But I figure out the core essence of what they are, what they want, and what they fear. That, coupled with their current situation and how they got there, lets me create what I need, when I need it. For example, the narrator of Destiny’s Kiss has a panic attack if she wears red, and she has a tendency to bleed herself in panic attacks. I didn’t know that originally, but coupled with her origins and how she’s gotten to where she is now, my subconscious came up with it… and then I eventually realized why. And as an example for how characters can be similar but different… The narrators for both Destiny’s Kiss and A Fistful of Fire come from some horrific backgrounds. They both have trust issues. They both are terrified and and skittish and certain that they aren’t going to live to age 20. But if you happen to read both books, there’s no mistaking one for the other. One’s more aggressive, though the other has a worse temper. One thinks faster on her feet. One is more sarcastic (and a prankster). One’s more cowed by authority figures. And so on and so forth. Readers—or even plot-based writers—don’t necessarily see all that goes into a rounded character. All they see on… Read more »
Jemi Fraser

Wow – sounds like you created a bit of a tornado! 🙂

I hadn’t heard about the plaigirism issue. I teach grade 6 and I’ve already got kids creating bibliographies and citing sources. They know at that age they can’t steal ideas from others. Pretty sure adults should know that too!

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[…] What Makes a Character Unique? […]

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[…] Book contrasts with our hard work.  We’ve struggled to improve our craft and come up with unique characters and stories.  When we see someone take shortcuts or cheat, it’s human nature to question why […]

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[…] Gold said it the best for me in her post on “What Makes a Character Unique“: Characters—good characters—go much deeper than their job, their human/non-human status, […]

Serena
Serena

Hmm, apart from unique personalities, here are some ways that a character can be ESPECIALLY unique to me, if they:

(I’m going to make up the examples!)

—-Did a unique/ strange action(s)
Founds an organization for plants’ rights and bacteria’s rights! (Since animal rights get so much attention already)

—-Has a unique/ weird opinion(s) or belief(s)
There is no thing as stupidity. Stupidity is in the eye of the beholder.

—-Makes a unique/ never-before-heard statement(s)
God’s favorite color is transparent.

—-Has a unique/ bizarre quirk, or inexplicable weirdness, or otherwise something contradictory about them that doesn’t make sense

A person who has traveled all the way to Pluto before without at all being scared, but who is now afraid of traveling to the moon.

A person who despises food yet is an outstanding chef.

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[…] I pointed out before, one character wouldn’t react to plot events the same way as another character.  (And we know real people aren’t less nuanced than characters!)  So it’s normal for […]

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[…] I respect what fanfic does and explores, but I don’t like the pull-to-publish movement (pulling stories off free fanfic websites to publish for profit).  It takes a lot more than just changing the name or other superficial details to erase the essence of the original author’s characters.  Unless the essence of the character (history, family background, worldview, religious beliefs, moral code, self-image, self-delusions, strengths, flaws, goals, etc.) was changed, the characters in a fanfic still belong to the original author. […]

Ann Bracken

I really appreciated this post, especially the questions we authors should ask when developing our characters.

As someone who started in fanfiction, I appreciate what you say about character building. I pulled one of my one-shots and turned it into a full original novel. When talking to a publisher the nicest thing she said was that she was surprised my story started there because my characters are nothing like the ‘originals.’ I guess I did my job of changing them correctly.

Now, as I work on my second book, I’m printing out the details we need to know in subtext about who my characters are. They are thought-provoking and will definitely add depth. Thanks!

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[…] Most P2P cases involve a fanfic author “self-plagiarizing” to publish their fanfic story with character names changed from those of the original author’s story. As I’ve previously pointed out, name-change-only stories don’t pass my ethics test. […]

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[…] I’ve written about how to revise for subtext, how to use subtext in emotional scenes, and how character development happens in subtext. Yeah, I’m a tad obsessed with […]

Griff
Griff

Hi. I hope it is okay for me to comment on an older post.

I started writing many years ago, and as many others I discovered how difficult it was to get people interested enough just to read my stories for free. When I found the venue of fan fiction, I realized how easy it was to get readers simply by changing my own characters to well known character names.

When I left fan fiction – and I still believe I owe the genre thanks for giving me confidence as a writer – I took my stories with me, and self published them. I understand all of your points above, but some of the supposed fan fiction stories were written outside the venue, years before, and only popped up disguised as fan fiction as a way of testing the writer’s skill.

I regard my stories and characters as mine, and only mine, though I used them a short time under other names. Would you say I’m wrong in this assessment?

Ella
Ella

Hi! As usual your posts are helpful and fun to read. But this one’s made me realize something: even though my MC has the passion and personality and traits to be the main character- there’s no reason for her specifically to be the lead, and someone else could be in that position instead and not much would change. I don’t want to replace her, though, because she *is* unique and would lose a lot if she walked away. Would you mind telling me what I can do, especially since I want it to be a character-driven story?

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[…] month, Ella left a comment on one of my older posts asking how we can make sure the main character is acting like a […]

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[…] the deeper we go into the details, the more we see endless possibilities.  Our characters won’t react like the characters in the other book, even if they face the same situations.  One convict might be an anti-hero, and the other might […]

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