What Makes a Character Unique?
“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*)Pin It
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.
Hi Angela, “Some of the things you mention are issues you can have when just doing revisions on your own original work.” Exactly! The “subtext” of this post isn’t about fanfic at all, but rather about how all authors can approach character building. 🙂 When I started my pantsed novel–yes, that one 😉 –I didn’t have a clue about the characters’ core essence. (That’s the nature of writing by the seat of your pants. LOL!) I knew the characters’ voices, a key mannerism for each, and a general idea of their family background/backstory. Like theme, a character’s core essence is often so subtextual that it’s only revealed after the fact–that is, after a story that’s pantsed like that is completed. But what I learned about those characters during the writing process is that their core essence was revealed in those initial snippets of information about them. Why do they do such-and-such mannerism? What does that say about them as a person? Are they consciously aware of that aspect of themselves? Do they like that aspect? Why? Do they try to hide it? Why? Etc., etc., etc. The answers to those questions reflect those worldview, self-image, self-delusion, strengths, flaws, goals, etc. elements of their core essence. So this discussion–what makes a character unique, how to analyze for core essence, matching stakes to a protagonist, etc.–applies to all characters, not just in fanfic. 🙂 I think I’ll add a paragraph to the post to emphasize this point. And I know exactly what… — Read More »
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 :).
Yes, isn’t that exactly how it works? 🙂 You think you fixed one thing, but then you have to adjust something over there, and then… LOL! Thanks for the comment!
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! 😉
Yep, I’m a teacher at heart, so everything is a “teachable moment.” 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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!
Yes, exactly! To me, ideas are a dime-a-dozen. Any author who wants to make a career of writing has to develop the ability to capture and develop their own ideas. Thanks for the comment!
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.
You’re welcome. 🙂 And you’re right–sometimes just picking out the “right” name takes me hours. LOL! Thanks for the comment!
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.
Hi Buffy, I agree about the limited number of archetypes. However, it’s the combination of things that makes people unique. You might enjoy going through some of the series I did a year and a half ago about character development. (I linked to it in the post above, but here’s another link to the beginning of the series. Some day I’ll turn this into a PDF or something. 🙂 ) Anyway, take a look at the sections going into using contrast–where we (because all people, just like characters, can be analyzed this way) use masks (we’re different on the inside than on the outside), where we delude ourselves, etc. I linked to some great resources for archetypes, moral code, etc. People have layers (as Donkey would say) and it’s the combination of things in the different layers that make us unique. Millions of women have dark hair and eyes like I do. A fraction of those would have a name similar to mine. But when you add in my background, family history, religious beliefs, moral code, strengths, weakness, worldview, etc. There’s only one me. 🙂 (And thank goodness for that. LOL!) Other people–even with similar backgrounds, or histories, or religious beliefs, or moral codes–would make different decisions than I would because what matters is the unique combination of all of those together. Even though my heroines have the same author with the same life experiences, they’re different from each other. My stories would completely change if I swapped the heroines… — Read More »
I do something very similar with my characters, but instead of imagining them in the grocery store, I imagine them at a cocktail party. Will they try to be the center of attention or will they try to blend in with the wallpaper? Will they make a grand entrance or are they the kind of person that shows up too early and you give them the task of cutting up the limes and lemons? Will they be surrounded by sycophants or will they be the pariah of the party? Are they top shelf or rot gut? Beer or wine? The observations can be endless. I like trying to picture one of my characters with a few drinks in them and see what they are like when they drop their guard a bit. I have a tendency to live and breathe my characters. They are very real to me. I have conversations with them when I can’t sleep, when I drive to work, when I walk to get my lunch. They are really annoying sometimes. They have their own needs and wants and they are persistent. They are all their own person. I love every one of them! It doesn’t stop me from putting them through hell, but I’m a fickle god in my stories. As far as the consequences of plagiarism, I work in finance so I am hard wired to do risk/reward analysis. The risk always outweighs the reward in these cases even if you can manage to get… — Read More »
Ha! Love it. 🙂 You know…that sounds like a great technique to get a character to open up actually.
I’m thinking back to my post from a couple weeks ago about voice, and how we can try to tap into our voice by thinking of what our character would say to their BFF. If they’re reluctant to open up for us to get that deep POV with them (some of my characters are really stubborn), this might be something to try. Thank you so much for the great comment!
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.
Thanks for sharing that! Truly, that’s amazing.
In many ways, a voice actor is similar to the way a character in a book “plays” in our head. They have the words on the page cluing them in, but they’re more limited than a regular actor in that they can use only their voice. And for the creators of the show to go through that much work for a kids cartoon is just awesome.
That really goes to show that the creators believed all that background information would leak out through through voice. When does their voice get more gruff? What makes their voice soften? What makes them trip over their words? What makes them slow down or speed up? Great stuff! Thanks for the comment!
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!
Thank you. I love this psychological stuff, can you tell? 🙂 Thanks for the comment and I hope you have a good weekend too!
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
Brilliant! I love this idea. If I understand it correctly, he’s talking about character goals, but not just the scene goals. More like the driving goals that carry through the whole story (or beyond). Thanks so much for sharing that and thanks for the comment!
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 »
Great explanation! And yes, my subconscious will often come up with some seemingly bizarre details, and I don’t figure out the reasons why until later. (Usually I react by thinking my subconscious is way smarter than I am. My muse always gets a smug look and says, “I know.” LOL!) Thanks for the great comment!
Thanks, Jami. I was a bit concerned that I was going into TMI about my books, but then, those are the characters I know best, so they make the best examples. ^_^
It’s sorta funny. I didn’t even consciously realize that the one narrator’s panicky bloodletting and her red-triggered panic attacks were related until I started writing that example. Or that the less-aggressive narrator—who’s actually quite passive—has a worse temper.
I dunno about the subconscious being smarter than the conscious. The conscious mind just tends to work too hard.
No worries. 🙂 That all read like a legitimate (and helpful!) example, so it wasn’t TMI at all.
And yes, I get those “delayed reaction” insights all the time, which is why I feel stupid compared to my subconscious. Like, “You knew about that connection all the time, didn’t you?” “Yep.” LOL! But maybe I’ll try that “working too hard” excuse the next time my muse tries to tease me about it. Thanks for the comment! 🙂
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!
I didn’t mean to! Honest! 🙂 Yes, the school system here teaches the kids about citing sources and plagiarism in 5th grade. People should know this stuff.
And now a U.S. publisher (Knopf) has just signed a 7-figure deal for U.S. print rights. *aghast* It will be interesting to see if a court challenge comes up now.
Thanks for the comment! (It’s distracting me from the insanity of the publishing industry.)
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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.
Hi Serena, LOL! Funny examples. 🙂 All of your examples go along with the idea of making a character unexpected in some way, and that’s so true because we don’t want write predictable, formulaic characters. But what’s going to come out in the subtext is why those characters have those quirks. A strong character voice comes out in the reader getting a clear sense of the character’s worldview and attitudes. That’s the essence of what makes a character unique. So someone could have one of those quirks you mentioned, and they still wouldn’t be a unique character if the author never delves into the why or the how. Without that, the quirks would remain superficial, and the author could take them away without changing the story overall. A character could state they despise food and leave it at that, and then if that line of dialogue or thought is taken away, the story remains the same. Or an author could figure out the why–why the character despised food. The character despises food because she lived with an “eat, eat” grandmother. And then the author could figure out the how–how that background detail manifested itself throughout her life. The character fought with her weight throughout her childhood until she tried hypnosis, and now to prove her mastery over her former nemesis, she’s become a chef. The author can then see all the other ways that background will inform the character’s worldview: pro-hypnosis, love/hate relationship with her traditionalist family (imagine a holiday… — Read More »
Yes that makes complete sense. 🙂
I agree that the “why” is really very important–if not THE deciding factor—to making a character unique and well-developed, because it connects to the character’s perspectives and general feelings about the world. A friend of mine also finds this “why” behind character behaviors and traits crucial to developing the character.
Thanks for the examples: they really clarify this concept. It’s also quite accurate and effective to think of this as the “essence”, I would say.
[…] 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 […]
[…] 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. […]
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!
Happy to help! And you’re right–that is a great compliment about your characters. 🙂
Coincidentally, I’ve been thinking about similar issues in my blog post that just went up today: Are Your Characters Based on Real People?. It addresses a similar problem when we base characters on a friend (or enemy 🙂 ), and how that can prevent us from ensuring they’re three dimensional and have a character arc. Thanks for the comment!
[…] 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. […]
[…] 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 […]
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?
Hi Griff, No worries on replying to an older post! 🙂 I’ve heard of that situation before (writing original fiction and changing the names to match a fandom), so I understand where you’re coming from. I agree completely with your take on how fan fiction and the fandoms can help new writers. I have nothing against those goals in the slightest. 🙂 I also agree that your situation is different from most, in that you created your stories and characters outside the thoughts of any fandom, so they weren’t based on copied characters or worlds. At that point, the issues are more about pull-to-publish in general. That is, some authors in that situation would make changes to their “finished” book based on comments from the fandoms, which leads to a collaborative element. Even if not, fandoms often resent if stories are pulled off fanfic sites because that deletes their comments and sense of involvement. Then if the author appealed to those readers when publishing (“Hey, remember such-and-such fanfic I wrote? It’s published now, check it out!”), they’re essentially exploiting the fandom for sales. I don’t know if any of those “if”s apply in your case or not. 🙂 If not–if the fandom comments weren’t used to revise, if the fanfic version wasn’t pulled, and if the fandom wasn’t exploited for sales–then I wouldn’t have any problems with your actions. 🙂 But I also know some who pulled without knowing how that’s seen as rude, etc. So I’d also see nuances… — Read More »
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?
Sorry for the delayed reply…illness. *sigh* But! I have an answer for you. 🙂 In fact, I wrote a whole post about this question. Thanks for the idea!
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