An Extensive Guide to Writing a Story and Characters
I decided to post a whole loads of Guides and Tips to writing I found. These are the things that helps me and kept me busy in the past month at the same time. I did added a little extras, fixed some of the typos, and edited it slightly but credits are to the original writers.
Note: As this Guide is very extensive and long (around 35 Pages or so), it might take a few sittings. I tried to put a hyperlink below but it sort of malfunctioned. While it does take you to the destination, it will also refresh the page. It does it job, but inefficiently, not my fault but it's just how the site works.
Table of Content
Part I: Story Structure
This is a Story Structure Guide made by Spaztique of the (in)famous Diamond In The Rough movie which I personally recommend for everyone, especially Authors and Writers, to watch. If it is too advanced for you, you can just skip to the Execution Part in the 5th Part, this really details the structures of story-making.
There are four ways to go about writing stories: by instinct (learning to write by copying other stories), by feedback (learning to write through operant conditioning, which means you stop doing things based on negative feedback and you keep doing things based on positive feedback), by tactics (learning to write by holding people's attention by any means necessary, no matter how dirty or clichéd), or by craft (learning to write by understanding what makes scenes, characters, and stuff work). Most (terrible) writers write by instinct, better writers write by feedback, hacks write by tactics, and the best writers write by craft.
This is going to teach you the craft.
First, here's a bare-bones version if the below guide is too advanced:
Character: An actor in the plot composed of surface traits (what they look like on the surface) and deep traits (how they work under pressure).
Theme: The point of the story and how conflict operates. There are multiple sides to each theme, often in the form of good, bad, neutral, and evil. Each Character illustrates the theme, and each scene caps at a turning point, illustrating one of the sides of the theme. However, when these themes go against each other, like, "Crime doesn't pay because the heroes are smarter," and, "Crime does pay because the criminals are more ruthless and powerful," both sides will be locked in an even battle up until that turning point, to which one side will win.
Plot: The organization of scenes, building in size as it goes, starting at the inciting incident (the first scene's turning point) and tipping at the climax (the final and largest turning point). To really get the tension going, it's best to have one side of the theme win, then the other side tries harder and wins, and then the other side tries harder and wins, and this all builds until it can't go any higher at the climax. And here's a writing process guide:
Brainstorm Treatment: A short summary (about a few paragraphs long) of what happens in the story without paying any attention to story structure or inconsistencies. In this draft, there's no such thing as failure: this is where anything and everything is possible, and you can worry about fixing that bad parts later. Sadly, most bad writers stop here, but good writers use this as a jumping-off point and a wish list. You can fix plot holes and stuff in the next step...
Thematic Treatment: Building off of the Brainstorm Treatment, this is a short summary that narrows down the events to a pattern of behaviors illustrated by the characters. This is where you cut out the scenes (or "scenes" in big quotes since nothing really happens) that don't matter. Going a step further, you can limit even more scenes by applying a genre to the work: action stories only focus on action, romances only focus on relationships, horror focuses on survival, and so on (though you may mix genres to say more complex things).
Outline: The story divided by units of structural framework, which are how you organize turning points. The most basic unit is the scene: a single event of character action that illustrates a thematic value winning over another thematic value (a turning point), no matter how small or ridiculous. Scenes can be organized in any number of ways, with the most common organizational units being Plot Points and Sequences, which are a series of scenes leading up to a larger turning point. You can also organize these larger units with Acts, which are a series of sequences. To make things easier, start with the story as a whole, work your way down to writing the acts, then write the sequences, then the scenes.
Drafting: The process of writing the story proper. Beginner writers should start from an outline to organize their thoughts. Intermediate writers can start from a less-detailed outline since detailed outlines are of no help since they know what to do. Advanced writers can start from a treatment since they know story structure. Expert writers can start without a treatment since they're in control of their craft.
Here is an illustrated version of the elements of a story: [link]
-Events: The basic history, story events, and future events. Mind you, this is not the story, but basically a wish list of what you want to happen or can later be justified.
-Design: Will the story be told Archetypically, Minimalistically, or Antithetically? Archetypal stories are how stories are normally told, Minimalist stories just reduce the Archetypal stories, and Antiplot stories reverse the archetypes. For further details, Spaztique made this playlist: [link]
Application of the Objective Premise: With the Objective Premise, you can brainstorm your story ideas into a fuller, larger story. Here, just write the events in a brief treatment or synopsis. Don't worry about being ridiculous or too "out there": at this point, you're writing at a place of absolute certainty that this story will work. Right now, you're going to come up with the ideas and you'll figure out how to make them work later. Most writers stop here and just start writing, but these surface events are not a story: they're just a retelling of events, and unless they are justified, they are often with clichéd content copying from other stories. The next step, the Subjective Premise, cleans it up.
Subjective Premise: What the story is REALLY about: the inner meaning of the story and where the fun of the story comes from. In Star Wars, "A meek, whiny boy must trust in himself to overcome a technology powerful empire: the classic battle of the human will vs. machine."
-Theme: Why things happen the way they do in the story; the common behaviors that lead the certain outcomes in the story. Theme takes multiple forms and many names, but the idea is the same: you have the main theme (e.g. "Crime doesn't pay because the heroes are smarter than the bad guys."), the counter theme (e.g. "Crime DOES pay because the criminals are stronger."), a neutral theme ("Neither side pays because they're selfish."), an evil theme ("Who cares about what's 'right' when you can make your own rules."), and any other variation you can think of. In Campbellian thematic structure, that's the Higher Self, Threshold Guardians, [no neutral archetype, but it could be wrong], and Shadow. For McKee thematic structure, that's the Controlling Idea, Counter Idea, Contrary Idea, and Double-Counter Idea. Remember your theme, because this becomes the building block for your scenes, because each scene will end on a turning point that results in one side of the theme winning.
-Deep Character: Character traits forced out through conflict. Conflict is just a fancy way of saying, "a character wants something, does the normal method based on their ideology, and it doesn't work, so what will the character do next?" This can be caused by internal conflict (the character's own thoughts/feelings working against them), interpersonal conflict (character a wants a, character b wants b, and a and b are mutually exclusive), or external conflict (character vs. society as a whole, nature, God, and so on). Beneath the character's personality and surface traits, what are these characters willing to do? If a character encounters a burning build, do they rush in and save people or walk by? And if they run in and save people, who would they save if they could only save one? And why not?
-Genre: Similar to theme, this limits the scenes down to a specific archetypal pattern. For example, comedies focus only on funny scenes (usually poking fun at a concept/institution or being witty about things we could only imagine), romances focus on relationships coming together or falling apart, horror focuses on people in serious danger or reaching survival, and so on.
-Symbolism: The internal or external meaning behind a story's location or arrangement of objects. Some symbolism is external (seasons, visual symbols, colors, and so on), but you can also make it self-contained (for example, the plant's health in "A Raisin In The Sun" that coincides with the family's well-being).
-Cast Dynamics: Using the character's characterization and deep character, arrange the cast and scenes in a way so each character brings out each other's traits to further the theme and meaning. One way to tell you've got a well-designed cast is the wine test: if a character drops an EXTREMELY expensive bottle of wine at a fancy dinner party, how would they all react? If each character has a vastly different reaction, whether it's at the wine spilling or somebody else reacting (but it's preferably more people reacting to the spill than each other), you've got a dynamic cast. If two or more characters have the exact same reaction, they can easily be combined without anyone noticing. If the entire cast reacts the same way, you have a flat cast or don't understand human nature very well.
Application of the Subjective Premise: Using the Subjective Premise, you can clean the Objective Premise of scenes that do not further the story's meaning. We all do boring things every day, like get dressed or check the mail, but none of this teaches us anything about life: rather, it's those moments where life *doesn't* react the way we want that we're most interested in, but never get the answers to except in stories. Rewrite the previous treatment so now we get to a concrete and easily-understandable reason *why* these people are behaving the way they are, revealing their deepest traits along the way. These big reveals of character and thematic reversals are where the meat of the story come from: where every scream, laugh, gasp, and sigh of relief comes from. Once you've done this, you will have cut out most, if not all, of the scenes that don't work or don't make any sense. However, you still have to organize it with the Plot.
Plot: The organization of events to illustrate the theme.
-Scene: A single event illustrating the theme, done with characters, negated through thematic conflict and amplified by cast dynamics, all within a specific setting to influence their behaviors, capped by a turning point where one side of the theme wins out. Turning points don't need to be big, but meaningful and appropriate to the story's inherent level of conflict (a quiet drama doesn't need a dramatic fight, but something quiet and moving; an action story shouldn't end on a peaceful talk, but frenetic action [whoda thunk?]). If your scene doesn't have a turning point, chances are it's only there for exposition and can be cut entirely without anyone noticing. (Hint: In a story with 45 scenes, there should be 45 turning points. If there are only 44, that one scene will stick out as a Big Lipped Alligator Moment)
-Design Framework: How you write/arrange/organize scenes. There are a dozen ways, but let's make it easy with Robert McKee's (my and Spaz's favorite writing teacher) framework: beats are units of action/reaction that build scenes, with the final beat acting as the turning point; sequences are a series of scenes that build up to a larger turning point; acts are a series of sequences that build up to a HUGE turning point; the first turning point that throws the main character's or characters' life out of balance is the inciting incident; the final turning point and largest is the climax, acting as a turning point for the whole story; beats, scenes, sequences, and acts do not repeat behaviors, but constantly change, so if one scene has a positive turning point, it's best to then switch to a larger negative turning point, and finally an even larger positive turning point. This is the appeal of Three Act Structure: the First Act Break (the Act's turning point) is a major positive moment that propels the story into the middle, the Second Act Break is a huge negative moment (known in other frameworks as the "Dark Night Of The Soul"), and the Third Act accelerates into the Climax. You are not limited to three acts: one act is sufficient for shorter stories, and five acts is typical of Shakespeare. Note that even numbers of acts/sequences/scenes will end of the same thematic note it starts on, so unless the point of the story is to venture off and return to the same place, stick to odd numbers.
-Paradigm Structure: A larger organizing framework, often to shortcut the drafting process. As outlined above, Three Act is the most popular, but there's also the Hero's Journey (Joseph Campbell's structure), Blake Snyder's Save The Cat Beat Sheet, and Syd Field's Paradigm. For the sake of difficulty/time, let's just stick to Three Act. Basically, you start by writing the largest elements (in this case, acts), then work your way down once you've solidified the story (write the sequences from the acts, write the scenes from the sequences, then, if you prefer, the beats from the scenes). If it helps, you can write upwards to repair acts/sequences/scenes, but never start with the scenes and then build up to sequences/acts unless you're absolutely in control of your writing craft. You may write by the seat of your pants if you're good at it, but it's quicker to outline from the top-down.
-Event Timeline: How the events unfold chronologically within the presentation of the story. Your story can be out of order, but you must then build by meaning instead of magnitude.
-Narrative Perspective: There are three ways to unfold information: through mystery (the characters know more than the audience), suspense (the characters/audience know the same information), and dramatic irony (the audience knows more than the characters). Mystery runs on the audience's curiosity, dramatic irony runs on the audience's sense of dread of the finality of events, and suspense runs on a little of both. Be warned that curiosity only works once: after repeat viewings, it switches to dramatic irony by default.
Application of Plot: Now you're ready to take the events of your edited treatment/synopsis and organize it into something more structured for maximum impact. Divide the story into Acts (a one-act works, too: it's mainly to organize the story), then once you're satisfied with the way the act(s) play out, divide the act(s) into sequences, then repeat the same with the scenes. Once you've outlined enough to feel comfortable with, you're ready to start drafting: some can start with just the acts, others need to go all the way down to the beats.
A common way to outline is "The Snowflake Method":
Start by describing the story in a sentence. Then, divide that sentence into Acts, with the most common form being three acts: the First Act Break (i.e. its turning point) is a small victory that propels the hero into the Second Act, the Second Act Break is a major defeat that must be resolved in the Third Act, and the Third Act Break (the climax) resolves the entire story in one final victory (for tragedies, just reverse this concept: small setback, big victory, crushing defeat). Take note of the pattern: to keep the story from getting repetitive, as well as increase tension and keep the theme fair, there is an increasingly powerful swing between two thematic values. If there are too many scenes where the good/bad guys win/lose in a row, it feels contrived, preachy, and shallow. From these acts, divide them into sequences leading up to the Act Breaks. If you're doing a short work, simply have one act and three sequences. If you want a quick method of structuring sequences for a three-act work, try this on for size: four sequences for Act 1 (the first being the Inciting Incident), seven for Act 2, and three for Act 3. Again, if you're doing a shorter work, exchange Acts for Sequences and Sequences for Scenes: Sequence 1 has four scenes, Sequence 2 has seven, and Sequence 3 has three. Then, with your sequences, divide them all into scenes: usually one big scene, three normal scenes, five fast scenes, or (if you're doing a montage) seven lightning-quick vignettes. Notice how these are all on odd numbers: that's because even-numbered acts/sequences/scenes often end on the same place they start: if scene one starts out at the Main Theme and ends on the Counter-Theme, then scene two (to avoid repetition) would switch back to the Main Theme. It could happen two more times, four more times, or even sixteen to forty more times, but in the end, if you start with a theme like, "Money can't buy you happiness because it's only a means to an end: only your intentions and love of others can do that," and end with the same message, the journey through the story feels like in never went anywhere. This can be remedied by going deeply into the opposite theme, "Money *CAN* buy happiness because you can buy things to help you learn to make yourself happy," before going back, but the structure has a static feel that should only be done if you're doing it on purpose.
Finally, here are some topics on Presentation.
Presentation: Actually telling the story proper.
- Medium: How you convey the story. Each medium has its own strengths and weakness: static works (like prose or comics) require less attention than temporal works (music, voice, or moving images), and static works are better at conveying thoughts and feelings than temporal works; visual works (comics, movies, animations) are better at capturing external conflict, vocal works (plays and radioplays) are better at capturing interpersonal conflict, and prose works are best at capturing internal conflict; it is easier to hide information in prose works than radioplays, which can hide more than plays, which can hide more than movies/animation; prose works only require one writer, while more complex projects require more and more people.
- Marketing: How you portray the work itself outside of the telling. This does not means in the commercial "gotta make money off this project" sense, but to let people who would like the see the story see it and who would like to avoid the story avoid it.
- Reaction/Feedback: How the audience takes in the story itself. The story you write and how you envision it will be different from how other people envision due to the previously stated psychological principle that everyone has their own view of the world and how it works. Do not be surprised if they either miss information or add more onto what is there (as nicely illustrated by this comic: http://fav.me/d5vkm2i), like the classic story about Flannery O'Connor after writing, "A Good Man Is Hard To Find": an interviewer asked her about the symbolic significance of The Maniac's hat, and she replied, "It was to cover his head." In Spaztique's "Diamond In The Rough," people misinterpret the seven skeletons at the bottom of the Sanzu River to be Brolli's previous incarnations, and while the coincidence is nice, those are just random other Stus that were tossed in. Speaking of which...
- Word Of God: Authorial statements about your work. While you shouldn't depend on these to explain your work, these are fun trivia facts/clarifications you give to viewers: it's a chance to say, "Here's what I wanted to do," and give everyone a deeper understanding of how both the story works, how the author works, and how writing works. Both me and Spaz (and probably a lot of others too) personally love these, and so do authors from Flannery O'Connor to Joss Whedon to Ken Akumatsu. Of course, there are also writers like Hidaeki Anno and David Lynch who basically say, "I don't know. The story just wills itself, and I am the conduit." But SCREW THAT! You should have some sobriety about what you're doing for maximum control of your writing abilities. You can tease the audience, but never just say, "I don't know." Even if you didn't know while writing, at least come up with an interpretation: it'll give you the chance to at least say something funny or thought-provoking
You do not have to make a detailed plan of the story, but, as noted in one of Spaztique's Walfas Satire Comics, the writers who "let the story flow from their fingertips" often end up with dry, emotionless, exposition-filled writing, while the calculative, self-aware writers write organic and emotional works.
They might make the classic mistake of writing the story without knowing what it's about, and even if they do intends to wrap it up eventually, nothing feels related since they never goes back to rewrite and there's no end in sight because they thinks longer is better. Meanwhile, the self-aware writers who plans their story, they carefully develops their whole idea from the start, and once they actually solidifies the idea, it's quite easy to write, finishing faster and more efficiently than the former category.
Of course, you can also write from scratch like but then go back and rewrite once the story is solidified (that's how the Legal Magic sketch from INDY Edition was made, and that's how Stephen King writes). There are also those who outline stories where nothing happens (although this is rare, since outlining often give some semblance of structure). Also, as Stevothehuman said, there's also a limit to how "calculative" you can be: I believe that all theory and no drive behind it nullifies the theory itself.
Do note that it was something that was born out of his 5 years of writing experiences and learning Theories of Story (including experiences as a writing tutor) and 37 books he has on the subject. Using it in a fanfiction is like bringing a Nuke to a swordfight. In other word, a total overkill which I think is totally cool (hey, Karna always brings his Ancient Nuclear to his fights, why not us?).
A Story Structure Guide for spexguy718 by Spaztique: http://fav.me/d5m77bw7/1/2013 . Edited 12/16/2013 #1
Part II: How NOT to Make a Character
Here are some things of note when making characterizations. Originally, it was written for Touhou OCs but I adapted it into a Non-Touhou General Characterization Guide.
Excuse 7-10 by Stevothehuman, while I only edited the intros and added Excuse 14-15 and Response/Remedy 14. The rest are made by Spaztique.
There are four kinds of Characters in fanfiction in general:
1. Canon Characters: These are the characters that already exists in canon and is like how they are in canon although perhaps there might be little changes here and there, they are still the same characters in the core.
2. Non-Canon Characters: These are characters you made by yourself, not a character that exists in the original materials. These are additional characters you made because of some purposes and they exists among the other characters instead of trampling over them.
3. Un-Canon Characters: These are canon characters that are only the canon characters in name, costume, and power (maybe not even those). What they are deep inside have changed or was lost due to some reason that can range from lack of research, accidental mistake, to deliberate changing which might or might not have acceptable justification or even none at all. Even so, they still exist among the other characters despite the differences and does not trample them.
4. Mary/Marty/Garry Sues/Stus: This is the worst kind of characters. They are practically a name, costume, and a set of powers with little deep within. They can win every fight and everyone likes them except for the characters the Author doesn't like which is often portrayed as wrong and that they should have liked him. They trample all the other characters and must be liked by the reader and if they don't, either they are wrong or they shouldn't have read the story in the first place thus blaming the reader instead. It doesn't matter whether they are Canon Character, Original Character, or Un-Canon Character, any of them can fall into this category.
The first two are good. The third really depends on execution and the justifications made but are usually quite fine in AU/"What if?" fanfics. The last is bad if unintentional and good if taken apart like in Diamond In The Rough or played for laughs/parody like in Spaztique's own Walfas Satire Comics.
People write the former three archetypes because...
People who write the latter archetype unintentionally have more sinister reasons...
"But wait," I hear you saying if you fall into the last one, "I have an excuse." No, you don't. Here are the rebuttals against your excuses:
Excuse #1: "I *like* the original series! I just like my character way, way, way, waaay, waaaaaay more."
Response: Then don't shoehorn that character into the series' universe. As Stevothehuman says: HONOR THE ORIGINAL SERIES, because that's why we *read* fanfics to begin with. Your character may compel you to write the fic, but it's the series that brings *us* into it. If you think your character is more important than the canon characters, we will pick this up in the reading and detest you and your character for it, because we like the original series: NOT your character.
Remedy: Remember that your character is an addition to the cast, not someone to steal the spotlight from more established characters. If you can, do this exercise: write a fanfic using only the canon cast. If you don't want to because that would require research, read the next excuse...
Excuse #2: "I know *my* character, and writing other characters is so hard!"
Response: Stories are about the actions and reactions of *all* of the characters. The canon cast are not simply mouthpieces for exposition or ideas, but living, breathing beings with their own sets of ideas and values. Use the Wikis and perhaps the forums to gather research for your characters (especially if translated materials aren't available yet), read their original dialogues in the original series and read/watch/play the original series first (Let's Play, in-game transcripts, and asking in forums are valid substitutes). There's no one way to interpret a character, so feel free to give your own spin on the characters. Besides, if you can't write the psychologies of the rest of the cast, how can you write the psychology for your own character, let alone design it to compliment/contrast the rest of the cast?
Remedy: Understand the concept of cast dynamics and character traits. Characterization is what your character looks like and acts without any pressure, while Deep Character is who the character is underneath the characterization and how they act under pressure, revealing either desperation, cowardice, heroism, kindness, or evil underneath. Cast dynamics pits character traits against each other so each character brings out each other's emotions, like fear, anger, happiness, loyalty, admiration, or jealousy.
Excuse #3: "My character deserves to be liked because they have a tragic backstory where—"
Response: Stop right there. Backstory is only a tool to help you write the character, not dump into the story for "why" we should like the character. For example, Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series is apparently gay, but this was only known to J.K. Rowling to write his character and mannerisms. If backstory was all that mattered for making character sympathetic, listen to this story: once upon a time there was an art student who got rejected from art school and sent to prison, but then one day, he became the leader of his country and tried uniting Europe under his rule. He also loved his dog and had a youth group named after him. Using the logic of your argument, the man I just described, Adolf Hitler, is a sympathetic character. But wait: isn't he responsible for the death of millions? YES! Once we see what the character does in the main story, World War II, the backstory ceases to be interesting.
Remedy: See the previous exercises, but also do this: write the fic using as little exposition as possible. Write the story as if the reader already knows the setting and cast (which they probably will) and pretend they know your original character as well.
Excuse #4: "Although my character is facing the same events, my character is different because..."
Response: No. It's not different. If your character is an ordinary boy who is someone thrown in to the plot through some weak excuses (ex: Zelretch, Yukari Yakumo, etc.), doesn't remember a thing, is apparently the "chosen one" or something to solve some great apocalypse, went to the canon characters place with the character themselves being inaccurate, then following the canon events or meeting all the character before hitting some self-imposed word count target then giving him a different costume will not make him different. If you want to be different, give your character one specific goal that takes place in only one or two specific locations and a handful of characters. The more characters you include, the more scenes you must write for those characters, seriously increasing the length and diminishing how much we know of the rest of the cast.
Remedy: Define the characters (characterization, deep character), define the goal (what do they want and what will they do to get it?), and forget about hitting those "beats" typical of bad fanfics. Instead, give the original character one goal in one setting with only a few characters maximum. As the classic proverb goes, "Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial." Just because you can do anything in a fic doesn't mean it's a good idea: limit the events to only that of the genre or concept you are doing. In other words, if it's a horror, stick to the scenes where the character's safety is at stake; if it's a romance, stick to scenes about the push-pull of the character's relationship; if it's a tragedy, stick to scenes where the main character either comes closer to safety or falling into despair. That way, we can avoid unnecessary scenes.
Excuse #5: "My character isn't overpowered. I just heard that good guys aren't supposed to lose."
Response: WRONG!!! Good guys lose all the time, and it is often the most dramatic point in the story. Tragedies are all about good guys losing. While they must not *always* lose, it's the push-pull between victory and defeat, pleasure and pain, getting close to the goal and further away that drives stories and makes them fun and emotionally powerful.
Remedy: Know your characters weakness and let them succumb to it at every opportunity. In fact, great character arcs are often built out of giving characters a weakness and having them overcome that weakness. You can also practice The Paradigm in story structure: developed by Syd Field and shortened by Dan Wells, it goes like this (in the order of which you write it):
In order, it looks like this...
For example, let's use this old classic which requires no introduction...
Excuse #6: "Well, my friends really like my work, and my parents think I'm a good writer. Besides, I like the character, and that's what matters the most, right?"
Response: Your parents are genetically inclined to like your work and your friends are either too nice to tell you that your character comes off as a despicable jerk or they like how you gave them a character cameo. Sure, you may like the character now, but when you delve into the character's psychology, you may come to find you hate them, and a few rewrites will make you love them more than before. Don't let your loved ones blind you from catering to the rest of us: by improving your stories for everyone else, your loved ones will really, REALLY like your work.
Remedy: First, let's dash your little view of how much you think your friends and family write your work: write the worst story you can and show it to them. Deliberately create plot holes, overpower the character, screw up the timeline, everything. Nine times out of ten, the people you personally know will still love it and call you "talented." Then, do all the other exercises, improve until people who don't know you are floored by your work, and THEN show your loved ones your work. Again, nine times out of ten, they will replace their stone-faced, "It's good," remarks and replace them with, "Holy crap, this is amazing! You've really, really, REALLY improved," remarks.
Excuse #7: "I spent weeks, even months, on this character!"
Response: You can also spend weeks, even months, writing a concerto that only consists of one note played at random intervals. If this is the fruit of your labor, it will anger people when they realize you spent weeks, even months, on a character who is essentially a bunch of powers, weapons, and costumes pasted onto a name. This is one of the cases where, "Don't work smarter, work HARDER," is not true: it's not about how long it takes you to develop this character, but *WHAT* you put on this character that matters. Remember that it is the character's psychology and behavior—not their weapons or powers or backstory—that makes them what they are. Spending five hours fleshing out a character's morals, ticks, beliefs, and fears is far, far more efficient than spending weeks, even months, finding the right kind of hat or the backstory of how they got their house-sized sword.
Remedy: Spend more time writing the psychology and behavior of the character! Don't even think about adding costumes or backstory or anything until you understand how that character will react to everything and anything. You'll find that defining the psychology first will influence the character's costume, choice of weapons, and so on later.
Excuse #8: "My character has flaws! Look, I wrote it in their bio!"
Response: Like Excuse #3, the main story will always trump the backstory or other notes. If we can't see the flaws in-story, we simply don't see them. More importantly, if we can't see the flaws affect the character in-story, the flaw is more of a character gimmick. For example, Bella Swan in Twilight is supposed to be extremely clumsy, but this never comes to harm her, even while hanging out on the treetops with Edward. On the other hand, look at Tony Stark, aka Iron Man: he's uncooperative, selfish, lazy, and narcissistic on the surface, and this gets him in a lot of trouble very often. Luckily, Tony also has Deep Character traits: under pressure, he is self-sacrificing, heroic, and badass. Not only do you have to display flaws within the story itself, but the heroics as well.
Remedy: Like with Excuse #5, let the hero lose within the story itself. Write scenes where your characters succumb to their flaws. Take publisher Donald Maass's advice and give your character something they'd never say or do and make them say or do it at one point or another in the story. Take Pixar's advice and find your character's flaw and thrust them into a situation that plays that flaw to full capacity. Remember: if we can't see the flaw, we don't know it's there. Let us see those flaws within the story.
Excuse #9: "Who the heck wants to read about a weak character?"
Response: HUMAN BEINGS! Mythologist Joseph Campell, who studied the very origins of storytelling, says we tell stories to make sense of mortal life: all of us are stuck on a hostile planet with limited time, and even though we will *all* die, how should we live this transient life? Essayist Jean-Paul Sartre expressed that life is about scarcity: there's never enough time, money, love, justice, and so on. The Japanese have a concept called "the pathos of things," or "mono no aware," wherein there is a bittersweet beauty in the passing of huge events, and that even though something monumental may happen, the world goes on. That is why characters struggling against conflict is so compelling: we are all struggling for survival, and we admire characters who embody that struggle. Even the so-called invincible heroes are not immune: the archetypal hero Gilgamesh, told back in ancient Sumeria, was nearly perfect, but he still had an equal opposition that is Enkidu and when he died, he felt fear of death and tried to gain immortality which eventually led to him understanding its meaninglessness. Besides, if your character starts out as "perfect," we automatically know he is going to win every battle, so where's the tension in that? Perfect beings aren't human, and we don't care about things that aren't relatable to humanity: make your character human, make your character flawed.
Remedy: See Excuse #8's remedy. Give your character a displayable flaw and let them be affected by it. Also, power down the character significantly: let them feel fear, anxiety, or sadness when put in situations that would elicit those emotions in us normal people, and most of the time, we'll feel those emotions, too. If your character is apathetic throughout the whole thing because their powers will protect them, we will also feel apathetic. Don't let us feel apathetic: excite us by putting your characters in real danger, which is the same danger we all experience.
Excuse #10: "Just wait and read on! My character will grow on you!"
Response: The average attention span these days is about eight seconds, and less so if you grew up with an abundance of electronics or distractions. You may know that the character will become better as the story goes on because you have written it, but not us: we're going in blind, and we're bored to tears. As previously mentioned, stories are about our very survival, so if the story you're telling us has no effect on our survival, why should we listen? Scientific stuff aside, if you know why your character is so awesome, put it at the beginning of the story so we'll have an excuse to stick around. Remember: psychology and behavior is always more interesting than props or backstory, so don't think a cool costume or action scene will get us to like a character. Both a hero and a villain can throw a guy into a pit in a badass way, but it's the context that makes us care for the character: Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers series will throw people into a pit because they made his cat Mr. Bigglesworth upset, but Leonidus from 300 can do it and become awesome because he's protecting his people (why do you think the simple line "THIS - IS - SPARTA!!!," is so awesome?).
Remedy: Find your character's biggest emotional or moral strength and put it right near the beginning. This may include self-awareness, a modest sense of justice, or high standards or morals. Notice that costumes, powers, or action set pieces are not included. These are all character motivations. Also, any character can do good things with bad motivation or bad things with good motivation. In the otherwise bad film On Deadly Ground, the "hero," a Canon Marty Stu, unintentionally comes off as a bloodthirsty environmentalist when he kills dozens of people trying to stop an oil rig from explosion. Meanwhile, the villain comes off as an anti-villain as he tries to open his oil rig before losing it and his business, so you can see why he's under pressure this compelling scene: [link].
Excuse #11: "I can't help it. This writing stuff is hard!"
Response: Now that you know what you're doing wrong, change. When you were learning to count, you didn't just give up numbers altogether when you got something out of order and tell the teacher, "I can't help it. Counting it hard!" No. You eventually figured out 2 came after 1, 3 came after 2, 2 2 = 4, 4 4 = 8, 8 x 8 = 64, and so on. You might have made mistakes, but you can help it. There are people who started off good and was talented but even if you were untalented, you can learn from others and experience. Not to mention, you got a lot of guidance and a slew of people telling you what you're doing wrong without the fear of getting banned or exiled like Spaztique when he first started, so use the information everyone is providing.
Remedy: Stop telling yourself you can't write, because you can (or at least could). You may need a few tutorials or lessons, but the realm of fanfiction is a great place to practice because you can get an abundance of blind feedback (i.e. people who can give you an opinion on your writing without being tainted by previously knowing you). Use feedback to find out what you're doing right and wrong: If enough people respond with negative comments, stop doing it, and if enough people respond with positive comments, keep doing it. Be careful of responding to individual comments: if one person states an idea, it's just an opinion; if multiple people state/agree to an idea, it's a strong opinion and one to be taken seriously; and if everyone states an idea, it's a fact. Basically, take the most common feedback comments and use them to pinpoint what you're doing right and wrong.
Excuse #12: "You better watch your words, because my Character will wipe the walls with you!"
Response: No. Your Character, like all Characters, is a fictional character. Making a revenge story involving your Sue/Stu will do nothing but make you look like a jerk, and don't be surprised if a million people come out to make responses that break down your character. First, we have to care about your character for us to react to it, so telling us your Character will kick our asses is the equivalent to telling the cops that your imaginary friend will help you get away with shoplifting: you will look unjustified, and your imaginary friend will not come to help you (in addition to being laughed at for being stupid of course).
Remedy: When making a Character, 'canon' or otherwise, assume everyone will either hate or ignore him until proven otherwise, which is often the case when somebody comes up with an OC they think everyone will like. There's also the classic advice for all relationships, "Don't be interesting: be interested." We're not going to like your character if you make us like it: we'll only like it if the character itself entertains us on its own.
Excuse #13: "Wait a minute: you've disobeyed some of your own advice! And I've seen others get away with breaking the rules, too! Why can't I?"
Response: You cannot break a rule until you understand why the rule is in place. For example, your story has an open ending because you believe it's a perfectly acceptable ending when you have run out of ideas. You've seen others do it and get away with it, so you believe you can, too. Unfortunately, you get a bunch of bad reviews asking, "What the hell happened?!" You do this a few more times, and the reviews get worse and worse and people yell at you, "COME UP WITH A CLOSED ENDING YOU MORON!" Why? It turns out that the purpose of a closed ending to is bring closure to a story and an open ending is not used because you ran out of ideas, but to leave it up to the audience what happened after the open ending. Or what about stories where the characters really are overpowered? It turns out that rather than facing physical conflict, characters who are physically strong face internal/psychological conflict: they can easily win all of those battles, but do they really feel good or fulfilled about them? For every "exception to the rule," there is always an underlying reason behind those creative decisions.
Remedy: Don't just stick to the basics, but understand the basics. The phrase, "first make a successful story, then you can break the rules/do things your way," is poisonous because it assumes people will understand the basics once they apply them. This is not true: just ask George Lucas or M. Night Shyamalan, who both gained full creative control and, without the guiding help of the story department, made terrible films. This is not to say full creative control is bad: just look at the Albert Brooks' "Defending Your Life," Zach Braff's "Garden State," or roughly all of Woody Allen's films (though, being as neurotic as he is, he occasionally falls to the whims of impulse as well). All of these films were written by, directed by, and starring one person, and yet they're amazingly good because they either follow the principles (especially "Defending Your Life," which has only four major characters, a distinct setting with very tiny setpeices, and follows three-act structure perfectly) or understand the principles (especially the latter examples, which are more minimalist in nature). If you can grasp why we say things like, "Limit the size of your cast," or, "Make your character do something likeable or interesting early in the story," then perhaps you can remedy all of the other problems listed in this article as well.
Excuse #14: "But I'm just too lazy to make a detailed OC or research the Characters…"
My Response: That's if you think of it as a chore. Did you not enjoy the original series? If you don't then how can you make a good story everyone will love? The phrase "You cannot love others if you cannot love yourself," can be applied to this situation: How can others love your stories if you yourself don't love it? If you do, then put some love to the process of its creation. Not to mention, each fandom has their own 'tolerance' to say that if you don't research the material, you will get chewed by the fans so it saves you in the long run. Also, if you are too lazy to even research, then how can you be not lazy enough to write a story—a good story—that often requires a lot of thinkings, searching for inspirations, and hours, if not days of writings, re-checking, and editing?
Spaztique's Response: There's a common misconception that writing requires no effort, but that is a lie: famed screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan once said, "Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life." To write without research destroys the authenticity of what you're writing. Saying you're too lazy to research the very characters and setting you're about to work with is like saying you're too lazy to add brakes to your car: you think it'll save time so you can speed along, only to crash at the first intersection.
My and Spaztique's Remedy: Don't think of research as a chore and use your story as a way to become a better person. We can both attest that research can be fun if you love the original series, settings, and characters (and you can learn a lot of new interesting facts). There are people who says that a good art requires 'love' in its making. In addition, research helps create what Robert McKee calls Creative Limitations: not the kind of limitations that box you off from making good choices, but act as guard rails to keep you from making bad choices. Creative Limitations do not hinder you; they inspire you. Perhaps something might became hard or impossible to do, but then you find a better alternative instead! If you are having fun, then you won't feel lazy, and that is why you should have fun when you are writing and researching. (Of course don't let "having fun" make you be lazy or do some things without thinking as it would backfire instead. There is a balance.)
Excuse #15: "Don't like, don't read."
Response: Don't like how nobody is reading your story because it's terrible and you don't accept feedback? Don't complain about it! Huzzuh! In order for us to tell if your story is good or not, we need to read it, and we're not going to read something that essentially says, "My story is about my author avatar collecting things with nothing to stop him while musing over philosophical crap, and I don't take negative reviews." All feedback is there to tell you what you audience is finding wrong, and you use it to make your story better. Animal trainers have the same mentality: they punish bad behaviors (even if it's just ignoring the animal) and reward good behaviors. Reviewers and audiences steer you from bad decisions through complaints, criticism, and ignoring you, but good reviews are your reward for doing something right: especially when they tell you what you did right.
Remedy: Use complaints as feedback to story your story onto the right track. If your audience is telling you the story is taking forever, cut the fat and stick to the important stuff. If your audience is telling you the character is overpowered, pull the rug out from under the character and have them struggle for a goal. If your audience is telling you, "This is awesome! Keep it up!," then do just that. Do not fear bad reviews: they're free advice that will take your writing to the next level.
There are probably more excuses out there but really, if you still don't get the point, then I don't know what to do. Although the excuses are meant against Sues/Stus, the remedy can be applied into making an OC and Characterization in general. Here is a comic illustrating what exactly makes an OC likeable: http://fav.me/d66qz4j
One thing of note however, I recommend to write a story made up of only Canon characters first so as to grasp and understand about their characters.
The Four Touhou OCs: A look at Original Characters by Spaztique: http://fav.me/d5e7sh17/1/2013 . Edited 7/19/2013 #2
So, with all of these rebuttals regarding how not to write a Character, surely there are a lot of people complaining that they're too scared of messing up and being dubbed a Sue/Stu or people thinking their stories are terrible. But here is a good news for you all:
Part III: Yes, you CAN write a Story!
Below are a list of common complaints people have in the writing process that leads them to either never releasing their stories or feel too scared to work on them.
Fear #1: My story must be perfect before I release it!
Good News: No it doesn't! In fact, you can't reach perfect in the same way you can't reach infinite: you can still develop huge, HUGE numbers, but you'll never even get close to infinite. If you wait until it's perfect, it'll never be released: release it with its warts and all, and you can use your mistakes to improve (which is answered by the next fear).
Good Habit: Have high standards are good, but not impossible standards. Practice doing your best and push yourself a little each time to get better.
Fear #2: I'm afraid of bad reviews!
Good News: People only give bad reviews because they see something wrong, and those bad reviews are free feedback to help you grow as both a writer and person. You don't need to ask, "What's wrong with me?!," when fifty people are telling you, "This character is grossly overpowered!," or, "This plot makes no sense!" That's what's wrong with you, and people are telling you how to remedy it. Even if the criticism is not constructive, you can make it constructive. If you're worried about your feelings getting hurt, remember: they're not criticizing you as a person, but only your writing abilities.
Good Habit: Turn your worst reviews into challenges on how to improve. The more you harness your bad reviews, the more you can use them to better your writing. For example...
Fear #3: I'm worried my OC is a Sue/Stu!
Good News: It doesn't have to be and it's probably now. With all of the Mary Sue Litmus Tests, it may be daunting to keep your character "perfectly balanced," but perfect does not exist. Below is my Mary Sue litmus test.
Question 1: Does your character have a weird name, strange powers, an odd/tragic backstory, or elaborate appearance? If the answer is yes or no, IT DOESN'T MATTER!!! However, does your character rely on this wierd name, strange powers, odd/tragic backstory, or elaborate appearance to elicit emotions from the audience rather than what they do? If your character relies entirely on appearance or backstory, it is a Sue/Stu: it's as flat as cardboard. If not, it probably has dimension, so move onto the next question.
Question 2: Does your character have no weaknesses or no strengths? If the answer is yes to either one, it is a Sue: no weaknesses means there's nothing to stop them and creates no conflict. No strengths means they're only there for pity and to be rescued by others. If not, your character is capable of both victories and defeats, so move onto the next question.
Question 3: Does your character strive for a goal against true conflict? False conflict means battles, yelling, and violence. True conflict means your character takes an action expecting a positive result, only to end up in a negative outcome that forces them to take a much more difficult action. If your character only faces false conflict, it is a Sue: all they have to do is battle harder and eventually (and obviously) win. If they face true conflict, those moments where their methods fail make us interested and wonder, "What's going to happen next?" Move onto the next question.
Question 4: Do other characters in your story have lives? When your character enters the scene, are the other characters busy doing what they normally do, or are they just lying around and complaining about boredom? Are the only purpose of the other characters to serve your character? If the other characters are just living props to act out the will of the main character, it's a Sue. If the other characters have lives that run parallel or counter to the main character, it's not a Sue.
If you made it through the quiz, your character is definitely not a Sue.
"But what if my character has an elaborate name?" Doesn't matter. Names are just titles.
"But what if my character is a half-vampire half-werewolf half-merman (and yes, that's 150%)?" Doesn't matter. Anything with a goal who must struggle against conflict and faces the consequences emotionally can be a protagonist.
"But what if my character has a tragic backstory?" Doesn't matter. As long as it is not solely for the purpose of making us feel sorry for the main character, that's perfectly acceptable (especially if it makes internal conflict).
"But my character has a really elaborate costume and/or cool weapons/powers!" Doesn't matter. It's not about what your character has, but what they do. Just look at the iconic costume designs of Sherlock Holmes, Darth Vader, or Alastor Mad-Eye Moody. Look at the elaborate powers and weapons of Star Wars, Harry Potter, the Dragonball series, and beyond. Maybe even you could make an iconic costumes, weapons, and powers if you put down your false beliefs that these things mean being a Sue: they don't.
Fear #4: If I use myself as the main character, I'll be a Sue/Stu!
Good News: In addition to the above litmus test, here's a neat little story: in 1977, Woody Allen beat Star Wars with his dramedy film Annie Hall for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and the main character is a blatant Author Avatar. Since then, he's won dozens of awards for Best Screenplay using himself as the main character. There are many stories where there's a balanced Author Avatar main character, especially when the person's true strengths and weaknesses (or even made up strengths and weaknesses) are used. Besides, if Author Avatars automatically meant bad main characters, the Memoir genre would not exist.
Good Habit: Recognize that Author Avatars are just more characters with strengths and weaknesses like any other. Use your real strengths to help your character succeed and your real weaknesses to make you fall back. If you strive for a goal through conflict and face the consequences, you can be a main character.
Fear #5 (suggested by RandomNumbers5902672): I'm too worried about pairing my OC with a canon character!
Good News: It's possible if you do it right. You can have a OCXCanon pairing if you understand the nature of the romance genre: the main conflict comes from the phrase, "What is there to stop them?" It can come from internal conflict (their own feelings get in the way of the romance), interpersonal conflict (there's something about eachother that gets in the way of the romance, or perhaps its their parents or friends), or external conflict (outside forces get in the way of the romance). The principles of the romance genre apply to ALL pairings. Also, if you're worried your character will become a Sue/Stu, just take the test above: give both characters a life, a goal to achieve through conflict (give them their own goals in addition to the love goal), and let them suffer the consequences until they succeed, and you got a balanced set of characters.
Good Habits: Remember the principle of the romance genre: what's to stop them? Once you got that in place, you've got romantic tension: now the two have to fight through opposition to get their goal of love, thus creating a love story. Also remember the habits of avoiding Sues/Stus.
Fear #6 (suggested by oldewine): I'm afraid I'll run out of steam or give up!
Good News: Running out of steam is the result of bad writing habits and bad habits only die hard if you don't know what you're doing. If you make writing your story so fun and compelling that it's more entertaining than mindlessly browsing YouTube or watching TV, you won't have to worry about running out of steam! As for giving up, if something goes wrong, just remember that bad reviews are free hints to change your tactics so you can do better. Nobody's even accomplished anything by giving up.
Good Habits: To ensure you have all of the tools and tactics you need to write, here are several habits you can employ at once to make writing not only fun and easy, but to ensure you never run out of steam.
Tactic #1: Get confident with the craft of writing. Just as it'd be hard to fix a car without instructions, it'd be hard to write a story without instructions, too. There are dozens of guides online for how to write stories, but here's the simplest version: stories are all about characters achieving a goal through internal, personal, or external conflict and suffering the consequences, changing their approach over and over until they succeed or resisting change until they fail (variations do occur, but this is the gist of it). Characters are made of two parts: their characterization (the surface stuff) and true character (how they act under pressure), and the more conflict they face to get what they want, the deeper the choices they must make and the more their true character is exposed. This all takes place in a setting with its own culture, levels of conflict, and values. The actions of the story set out to illustrate a theme: what end-value will be brought into the world of story through the actions of the characters? Will good triumph through brains over brawn, or perhaps love will prevail through honesty and integrity, or perhaps the characters will be destroyed through selfish acts of hedonism? With writing craft under your belt, you never have to worry about, "Is this bad?," because you'll know it's not bad.
Tactic #2: Get excited about the project. Make fan art, fake reviews, a really compelling synopsis, set a timetable for when it'll be complete. Make really neat outlines for what could happen (which can be REALLY powerful when combined with Tactic 1), and know that even if something goes wrong in production, you're going to set it right and bring this story into the world no matter what.
Tactic #3: Surround yourself by mentors, friends, and groups who can help you. Why reinvent the wheel when you're surrounded by writers (especially in a community of writers)? Ask for advice and/or support from various people who can provide one, the other, or both. Other people are full of advice for how to write, how to keep writing, how to keep up your motivation, or even challenge you to do better. Surround yourself by people that make writing easier or more compelling. I honestly think that surrounding myself with people makes the creation process more fun, easier, and if I get stuck, I can ask for suggestions. You already have this forum I made, so use it.
Tactic #4: Leave outlines and story-related things visibly where you can see them. This way, you'll be reminded to get to your story and what you need to do next. You'll never feel lost for what to do if the instructions are clearly right there.
Tactic #5: Be able to write at a moment's notice. You're not limited to just your computer. If you have a laptop, you can write on the go. If you have a notebook and pen/pencil, you can write anywhere. Voice recorders, smartphone notepods, even telling your friend an idea that you want them to repeat back to you later can work. Basically, keep those writing muscles working and you'll never be short for ideas.
Imagine this kind of dynamite put together: you're able to work on a project you feel excited about at any time and there's people everywhere who can tell you to keep going or change your approach so it works. This way, it becomes ridiculously easy to write.
Fear #7 (suggested by oldewine): I'm worried my OC is a blank slate; the OC doesn't have enough traits to be unique!
Good News: You can add unique characterization or deep character traits at will and at any time!
If the characterization is too bland, you may add anything to the surface whenever you want. If you have a white-shirt-and-blue-jeans average Joe in Gensokyo and suddenly spring on us the fact he has a fear of heights, he has a sweet tooth, he builds his own weapons, his dancing abilities allow him the grace he needs to dodge projectile weapons, or perhaps he decides to buy a unique outfit, he's one step closer to avoiding being a blank slate.
If the deep character is too bland, add some emotional dynamics to the personality. Give them a really admirable motive, or perhaps a really petty weakness, or any manner of other behaviors under pressure.
Good Habits: If you still have a fear of being a blank slate, remember: don't be afraid to give your character a unique costume or personality. Don't think this will make you a Sue/Stu: having a character who is unchallenged, has no clear goal, and suffers the wrong consequences at the wrong time will, regardless of how bland you make the character.
Fear #8 (suggested by =MikiBandy): What if my character isn't unique enough?
Good News: There is nothing new under the sun. It's all been done before: all the canon cast of any series are inspired by previous sources. It's not good to rip off or copy characters completely, but there's no skirting around the fact that a similar character or similar character trait has existed on other characters. In fact, go to TVTropes.org and look up how many characters share the same trope, and it's fairly obvious that you can maintain uniqueness while sharing a trope with another character.
Good Habits: Know that you shouldn't downright rip off a character, but also know you can share some similarities. Feel free to share tropes with other characters, and remember that it's the combination of traits will make the character unique.
Fear #9 (suggested by oldewine): People are prejudice against OCs!
Good News: People are prejudiced against bad OCs, but if you've read this guide far enough, you know that it is possible (and quite easy) to write a good OC. Good OCs are not the exception to people hating OCs: people love good characters. It's the reason why people write fanfiction to begin with: they love seeing these characters in action, so they write more stories involving. When an OC is done right, it fits right in with the rest of the cast. However, 90% of the time, people write characters with no goal, nothing to stop them, the cast is only there to serve them, and they get by on costume/props/powers alone, and these are the OCs people hate: Mary Sues and Marty Stus.
However, you know better than this: you know that the key to a compelling character is that they strive for a goal through conflict and suffer the consequences. They can compliment the cast and fit in with them, or they can even contrast the cast and show how different they are. Make them fit (either by compliment or contrast), make them live among the cast, and don't just make them a tourist, but make them strive with the cast for something (or even against the cast if you want to make a villain), and you'll have a unique, likable OC.
Good Habits: Treat OCs in the same exact way you treat canon characters. Do not give advantages to an OC you would not give to a canon character. Do not give the OC a more interesting life if the other characters do not have interesting lives, and do not make the canon cast lead boring lives merely to make the OC more interesting/have an excuse to do the OC's bidding. If your canon cast can suffer, your OC can suffer.
Fear #10 (suggested by Mr-Wang): Everyone wants more canon and less OC's! How am I supposed to balance OC spotlight and Canon character spotlight?
Good News: As detailed previously, the best way to go about ensuring your character doesn't hog the spotlight is sharing the spotlight with other characters. This is actually incredibly easy: for every awesome moment you give your character, give the canon characters an awesome moment (a good way is by giving everyone at least one awesome moment). For every witty quip you give your OC, give the other characters a witty quip if appropriate. Give everyone an interesting life, and there will be no need to point out how the other characters are only there to serve the OC/act as cheerleaders since they have lives and goals of their own.
Good Habits: Again, give every character a moment of awesome, a moment of funny, a moment of heartwarming, a tearjerker, or any other emotional moment you can think of. Spread the awesomeness/funny/heartwarming/sadness/emotion around.
Fear #11 (suggested by Mr-Wang): I follow everyone's advice and criticisms, but my character will end up changing way more than I want them to! It's like they're not my character anymore!
Good News: Any character can work and any plot can work: it's just a matter of execution. It's not a matter of changing the character or the story: it's a matter of changing the dynamics of how they operate. As I always say, there is no such thing as a bad story or bad characters: just bad storytellers.
Don't think you have to "nerf" you characters because people are complaining about them being overpowered: just up the true conflict and have them suffer the consequences on the way to their goal. Don't tone down the outrageous costume because you think it'll make them a Sue/Stu: keep it, because if they have an equally fantastic/compelling personality underneath, chances are we'll probably want to copy your character's "cool uniqueness." If you're good at storytelling, you won't have to change your characters!
So, keep your characters the way they are. In fact, you can even keep the story the way it is. Just start using them better.
Good Habits: Remember that stories are about characters striving through conflict for a goal and suffering the consequences along the way, regardless of their powers, costume, name, or whatever. You can keep the character, you can even keep the sequence of events if there's contrast between each scene, but just remember it's the storytelling that counts.
Fear #12 (suggested by Mr-Wang): I'm not popular, so nobody's gonna pay attention to my stories/characters anyway!
Good News: The year was 2011: an unknown Walfaser by the name of Spaztique made one video, Touhou Sketches: YSE, and for a while, he was a one-hit wonder. Then he made another video, and another, and another, and now look at where he is now thanks to persistence and innovation. Everyone has to start somewhere, so don't let the fact that others already made the journey stop you.
You could be the next big fanfic writer, comic artist, video maker, or whatever if you start now. Popularity doesn't happen overnight: it's something you create intentionally, and you don't do it by proclaiming, "I shall be the greatest ______ ever!," but you do it by being the greatest ______ ever.
Good Habits: The way to become famous (and infamous) is detailed in this (http://fav.me/d5w591q) comic, but here's the list for those with little time:
Do these regularly while building your works, and you can bet that you'll have a huge following in a matter of months.
I honestly think my first chapters were crap (and it was) but even so, we all have to get started somewhere don't we? Just try to learn as you go. Not to mention, you have this forum that can help you anytime you need help, unlike me when I first started.
Yes, you CAN write Original Characters! by Spaztique: http://fav.me/d6btl9l7/1/2013 . Edited 7/12/2013 #3
Part IV: How to Actually Make a Good Character
Now that you understand the 'Whys', let us move on to the more important part: The how.
Original Credits to: Spaztique, Kigurou-Enkou, and Rumiflan.
The Many Kinds of Characters:
1. Author Avatar: used for real life updates, cameos, or stories involving the Authors. Often used comedically.
2. Original Flavor OC: Fits in the universe of the series. Has a distinct personality, strength, and weakness that affects other people. I'm not talking about skills like fighting powers or whatnot, but personal virtues and vices.. Used comedically or dramatically.
3. Parody OC: Pokes fun at a common cliché within canon or fandom of a series. Mostly used comedically but can also be used dramatically in deconstructions.
4. Gag OC: A walking punchline, not to be taken seriously at all. Their weaknesses/strengths vary, but they're meant to be use sparingly: they show up, make people laugh, and leave.
1. Escapist Character: Like the Gag Character, their sole purpose is to just be awesome in a funny/amusing way. These are much more difficult to pull off because the tendency is to want to keep using these characters until they've worn out their welcome. However, like the Gag character, Escapist Characters must never wear out their welcome: they show up, act awesome, and then leave. If you must use an Escapist Character extensively, you must humanize them into an Outsider Character.
2. Series Outsider Character: In fan fiction, this is a character who obviously does not fit within the series universe, but for the purpose of the story, they're there. These are difficult to pull off since they clash with the setting and there is a giant tendency to want to use yourself as the main character (and use the series herald as a way to get into the series universe), but you must resist. Like the Original Flavor Character, they have a distinct strength and weakness that affects other people.
1. Idealized Author Avatar: This is when you make yourself look and act the way you want to look and act, as well as get treated in the way you want to be treated. Inversely, you may also feel compelled to make yourself look worse than you really are. Both of these are merely a call for attention, and nobody likes somebody who begs for attention. Portray yourself as you really are, both with your shortcomings and your strengths. Comes off as narcissistic.
2. Knockoffs/Ripoffs: This character is clearly a copy of a canon character for the series you're working in or from another series you're ripping off from. You could have used the canon character, but you want credit for your "original" idea. We know it's a ripoff, so don't think you can fool us. In fan fiction, just use the canon character. Never take credit for making a copy of a character when using the original canon character will do. In original fiction, you may make an Expy of a character (basically the same character with a new name and costume), but never make two identical copies of the same character: it's a waste of cast space.
3. Relatives of Canon Characters: They are very hard to convincingly pull off. Most attempts end in glaring errors such as mismatched names, relying on the connection with the canon characters, and question why we haven't heard of them. Never make a character a relative of a canon character unless it passes this test: will this character stand on its own if it wasn't the relative of a canon character? If the answer is no, cut the character because it's shallow. If the answer is yes, you're fine: this character most likely has a compelling personality that will make us glad they're related to a canon character. Further readings about this are available below.
4. Blank Slate Character: A character so devoid of personality, backstory, or anything that they no longer feel like a person. Even worse if they order around people like a sue/stu.
5. The Mary/Marty Sue/Stus: AVOID AT ALL COSTS
Here are some principles on making a Character:
1. Costumes. Don't focus on it as you are making a written works, having to imagine the character's detailed costume is annoying. Like for example, can you imagine this: "A pale-skinned girl with long, wavy white hair and red eyes, wearing a golden necklace, an open dark-blue vest with silver borders, a purple sleeveless shirt, and a long black skirt that covers the ghostly tail she has for legs." Sure, maybe, but it is hard as hell to imagine it. In the case of drawing, you should just limit it to 2-4 four colors or so and make sure the dress make some sense (in other words, people would actually wear it). If you really want to make the character's appearance for some reason, try to use this: www.walfas.org (instructions here: [link] and here: [http://fav.me/d670d6s])
2. No blood relatives. This creates logistic problems. But more importantly, never make a character whose sole existence depends on another character (ex: Dark Character X). Your OC can still know the character casts but not when it feels like they are just leeching off the character's popularity. Flesh them out and give them a personality that extends beyond being a sibling/rival/apprentice to whoever. If you still want to make a relative OC, there is a guide below on what to know and watch out for.
3. The world does not revolve on your OC so give the rest of your cast active lives. Just as nobody has an empty life of boredom, and just as nobody will do anything for you for free, the cast of your series should all have active lives of their own. A character won't just do what your character asked whenever the character asked just because they are bored and for freely nor will they always follows or think and talk about the character the time he is off-screen.
4. Give your character both strength and weakness that affects other people, preferably one each (ex: Weakness – Fear, Strength – Craftiness). If your character has no weaknesses, their victories feel contrived. If they have no strengths, they're a whining loser that nobody can relate to; even the meekest of us still have victories. Pick a virtue and a vice, and then let your character use the virtue and suffer from the vice. If your character never loses or never wins, their actions become predictable and they become boring.
5. Give them appropriate weapon/ability according to the series. You do not give them a sword in a series that is all about ranged attacks, you do not give the ability to teleport in a series about bending Elemental Powers, nor do you give them cyborg transplants in a series about highly visible ninjas (no, not the tactical espionage action one). You might pull it off but as already stated, it belongs to the advanced OC category thus hard to pull off nicely, believably, and more importantly, safely.
6. Unless you really understand how the military lifestyle works, do not give your character a military title. Eventually, we'll poke holes in your OC's story and prove that they are not really their rank. In general, make sure not to give your character a professional title unless you understand the profession. Don't make your character a "DJ" or a "Captain" if you don't know what either job does. Do the research and find out what these people really do, and then question if it's appropriate for your character. The excuse, "But it just sounds cool," will not work, and it will insult people who really have those professions.
7. Don't make your character be "the most powerful." There is no excitement in knowing they'll automatically win. Remember, if your OC can easily beat the strongest character or at least the character famous for being the strongest, then it is overpowered. See, the real fun comes from having an equal chance of whether they will win lose or draw. That way, the victory, defeat, or whatever climaxes the fight ends with feels much more satisfying. Not to mention, the nature of story, and indeed of life, is about struggle: make your character work for a victory against conflict.
8. Give your character a limited number of abilities and let them use those limited abilities in a wide variety of ways. To have an infinite amount of powers is cheating, but to use the same power over and over again in new and exciting ways can be clever and creative, both for the character and you. In the case you do add a lot of ability, try to limit them or something (ex: In the case of my Izayoi, it cripples his power growth and make him has difficulties handling all the combination as he only had one ability before or even simpler is the Canon!Godou with his many requirements).
9. Backstory. No, we do not want to know about your characters tragic and long, convoluted backstory. Backstories are meant to 'explain' why the characters acts the way they are. There are things to take note when making them below later but most importantly, short bios are fine, mid bios are fine too if they plays part in the story, but long bios are definitely not fine if they does not play a part or have effects to the story. There are some things to take note of when making backstory below.
10. Personality is FAR more important than name, costume, or backstory. It makes no sense to pour all of your creative energy into an awesome costume or detailed backstory for what amounts to a vegetable. Some of the most compelling characters have simple costumes and little backstory, but strong personalities. Pour your creative efforts into the minds of the characters: find their beliefs, values, personal rules, and so on, and a compelling character will emerge.
11. Your OC does not have to be you. It is reserved for special occasions such as Author Avatar or something. This leads to a number of pitfalls. First, you only imagine how you would end up in the setting of your story, often leading to many of the cliches of the series (many anime fanfics start with new transfer students, Touhou fics begin with resident reality warper Yukari gapping in the main character, and so on). Second, since you think you can only use yourself, you populate the cast with multiple versions of yourself, either as spirits, avatars, or other spiritual beings. Third, you're often tempted to make a badass/idealized version of yourself, which almost always trips people's Sue/Stu alarms. That is not to say that you cannot use yourself as a main character, it's just that simple and modest Author Avatar are easier to write.
12. This is the most important principle: OC design means nothing if you cannot tell a good story. Drop the best characters into the worst story and they will only be as good as the quality of the story (ex: Too much to list). Drop the most poorly-written characters into the best story and it will bring out their best performances (ex: Again, Diamond In The Rough).
Those are the principles that you should keep in mind. Here are some extra OC concepts:
A Simple Character Creation Formula
This is the character system used in the Twilight of the Hakurei, a club-wide comic tennis/RP on Walfas Station Wagon in DeviantART. It is simply this
And that's all you need to make a compelling, easily-adaptable character. Boiled down to a formula, it looks like this:
Strength [plus] Weakness x Which is stronger = Character.
The thing I like about the two traits system is that any two traits and which one wins can make any number of characters. For example…
What's cool is that you can develop a dynamic cast by recycling the same traits over again and switching around their positions. Let's see what characters we can draw from this…
Quite an amazing system, isn't it? So many characters can pop out of just that simple formula.
Now then, here are the things to note when making a character's backstory:
First of all, do not use backstories as an excuse for why we should like your character or feel sorry for them. If you state a fact but never show it, then it is pointless. Actions are more important than sob stories. Not to mention, doing these sob stories will often lead your character having much wangst. Even after earning their happy ending, they still want to moan and brood. This is bad as it makes them looks like ungrateful bastards to their companions.
Here are some good reasons for making a backstory:
1. Clearing up plot holes. Using backstory is much safer and easier to pull than making acceptable retcons.
2. Using it as ammunition for plot twists and turning point. For example, having the character doing a great sin to a certain character who now wants them dead as revenge.
3. Explaining character actions and providing ammunition for character developments. For example: Yuri Tsukikage's (Cure Moonlight) backstory in Heartcatch Precure is a nice example as it explains simply yet effectively why she distances herself from the other heroes. Later on however, they help her recover from her trauma and get back on her feet, this time as a hopeful protector who realizes the importance of teamwork and her original goal as a Precure. This is the reason some tragic backstories works: The character who experienced the trauma later learns from it and become a better character. Bonus point if it involves friendship like Yuri does.
You may have noticed that these backstories are only used for established characters. This is especially important because no one is going to care about the backstory of some random character they've never even met in their life. And one last thing: The backstory is part of the story too, so treat it as such and follow the standard rules you have been all throughout the story.
For Relatives of Canon Characters, here are some guides to follow:
Step 1: Choose your character. This is the part where you should be careful. If canon states that he/she has NO relatives, don't try to make a relative to that character. This shouldn't be too hard to find out thanks to Wikis and Forums.
Step: 2: Name your relative. This is a more serious step. The names of the canon character and your OC-Relative must match! If the character's name has non-Japanese origin, the relative's name can get away with it, but, if the origin is Japanese, the relative's name must be Japanese (ex: Reimu Hakurei and Jane Hakurei vs Parsee Mizuhashi and Ira Mizuhashi).
Step 3: Personality. This is the most important part of the character. When you're making a relative, try to give him/her a distinct or, at least, somewhat different personality.
Step 4: Exists no his/her own. Of cource, this relationship must NOT be the entire reason fo the OC's existence. He/she must be interesting and able to stand as a character on his/her own.
Step 5: "Why didn't I hear…?" Yes, don't forget that this is not just your OC, but the OC that is related to a Canon Character so there must be a reason why we didn't hear about him/her before. And don't forget to make it believable too.
Step 6: Last but not least: Why are they related? Don't just say, "Because they have the same mother." That's about as deep as "Because I say so." Make a "good" reason for their relation.
And that is all about OC creation tips. There are a lot of rules but once again I must stress that you may break them only once you understand the logic and reason behind them. Oh, and here is an example of the process of actually making an OC: http://fav.me/d60dozk
Compiled from the following Original Sources:
Spaztique's Guide to Touhou OC Creation by Spaztique: http://fav.me/d5ky6we (With some parts from Spaztique's Guide to Making a Fan Series)
The Simple Character Creator Formula by Spaztique (http://fav.me/d5tfhdg)
Guide to Touhou OC Creation: Backstory ADDENDUM by Kigurou-Enkou: http://fav.me/d5kyk2i
Rumiflan's Canon Character's Relative guide by Rumiflan: http://fav.me/d6axbv07/5/2013 . Edited 7/13/2013 #4
Part V: Executing the Plan
This is a more direct tips on making a Fan Series. It is derived from the previous stuffs so you can say that is a summary of some sorts.
Step 1: Know the Territory
Before you can even begin to start your web series, you must know the territory of where you're making your series. Before you even think to begin, look for the most popular and prolific series in the community you're working in, and then look for the worst series. Compare what the good ones get right and where the bad ones go wrong. Note what passes for good production quality, what's a mistake, where a series can commonly go wrong, and so on.
For extra credit, go to TV Tropes, read guides on storytelling, or branch beyond your community and learn the principles of other fandoms/communities. Either way, you'll find many principles behind narrative storytelling to be universal.
Step 2: Brainstorm
After exploring the territory for what makes a good and bad series within the realm of your community, it's time to develop ideas for what you want to do.
Here's a technique to do so: think of a series you really, really like and then write down what made it great and why you think it was so great. Then, incorporate that into your own project. If you made notes on the good series you encountered in your recon of your community, you should have a good launchpad for ideas.
In addition, a nice technique for any sort of creative venture are these two questions: "What is the (adjective)est thing I can think of?," and, "What's (adjective)er than that?" If you keep repeating these questions over and over, you'll eventually develop some pretty crazy ideas with no ceiling for (adjective).
Remember that in brainstorming there are no wrong answers. You can come up with the most ridiculous ideas, even ideas that you know don't work based on your recon in Step 1, but you can fix all of them in the creation process.
Step 3: Pre-Production
Eventually, brainstorming must stop and we must eventually refine our loose collection of ideas into a working project. You might have a full story or just a handful of characters, but whatever it is, it's time to figure out what kind of series you need in order to make it work.
The Three Series Modes
Here's a another/simpler method for developing stories, based on Robert Mckee and John Truby, composed in five parts:
Step 4: Production
When you're done writing, it's time to get to work with editing and drafting. Use whatever tools are available, read tutorials on how to use your programs, and just trial-and-error your way through. As time goes on, you'll develop methods of work to make things easier.
This is also where you start on reconsidering your ideas made from the Branstorming step. Think about which ideas you are going to use carefully, don't insert an idea just because "it sounds cool." These could lead to disasters, as shown in this comic: http://fav.me/d5uj8kk. Try to ask for the help of those more experienced if you aren't sure what to do and make sure to very carefully consider what they say as it might both be wrong and correct.
It is going to be your story after all so you decide which ideas to use and which idea not to use. We can only give our opinions, which are not absolute but might have a point regardless, but in the end the choice is in your hand.
If you run into technical limitations, ask yourself, "How can I achieve high-quality results despite my technical limitations?" Have fun, get better, and if something goes wrong, don't sweat it: it's just a hobby and you're doing it for fun/to learn.
Step 5: Publication and Reception
Possibly one of the most underrated skills in making a series is how to handle feedback. To wit, there is no such thing as bad feedback.Constructive negative comments are merely free hints for how to improve. Good feedback means to keep doing what you're doing.
To increase your feedback, give others more feedback. A great way to increase your own traffic is to give traffic to others: post comments of other peoples' series, ask them for hints and tips, and be sociable. In turn, they'll often look at your projects, tell their friends, and your circle of friends/fans widens.
Do not let idiots spoil your series. Never give into peoples' demands or non-constructive negative comments. Only do the series for two people: yourself and the people that like it.
Extra Stuffs to remember:
Length =/= Quality
This is one of the most common mistakes done by people when they are creating something, the fact that the comic/video is long doesn't mean that is good. You can have a direct 4 – 8 panel comic that gives the message straightly or a 30 panel comic with just unnecessary things in 23 of those panels. Same goes with stories, a good story can give a message, explain a plot in 1 – 15 chapters (maybe even more but that depends) there is absolutely no point in having a whole page or chapter full of pointless facts and actions.
Don't let your feelings/opinions on a character affect your development of the story
Just because you like/dislike a character doesn't mean you have to make him/her look like a) An Idiot or asshole b) A completely epic being. Try respecting canon as much as you can.
Story's Quality trumps Writing Techniques
Trying to make something look good isn't bad, that is of course, if you have a proper story behind all that editing magic. A good example for this is: You have a chocolate bar with a really fancy cover paper, but what do you care about more? The paper or the chocolate? Of course, the paper must be decent for people to trust that there is at least a decent chocolate in it so while Story is more important, do not neglect editing too.
On asking for help in any way…
It's OK to ask for help if you don't know how to do this or that, but sometimes there are people recurring to the same user because he's so good and/or so successful at everything he does and it's an instant win, etc. Point is, that person is not always available, and they also have their own projects, agendas, lives and so on. There are always so many other users within our community that are also good and willing to lend a hand to you, whether it's that first thing ever that you want to publish, you don't know something about anything and the list goes on. Maybe you just found that other user who is also good and such, has following and good feedback as well, well my good fellow, that's for a reason! He's also good in his own right and I bet he's completely willing to help someone who wants, don't be shy to try others! They have no reason to say no until after you explain your situation or ask for their actual help in any way! You may also end up making new friends and such! Don't be shy! However this doesn't mean you have to ask him/her all the time about your stories and ideas, it's useless to ask for advice and then dont use the tips people give you.
Don't make hype on something that isn't written yet.
We all have projects/stories in mind that like everything else needs patience and time to be created, but what you shouldn't do is tell everyone that the story will BE "SO AMAZING IT WILL BURN THEIR EYES DOWN" when you don't even have an outline for it. It's good and basic to be motivated to start out with this big project we have in mind already, but take it slowly, don't make any previews or start announcing everywhere of your super awesome thing to come. Free tip, only give previews on whatever when you got at least one nice chunk or whatever amount of actual progress done with this big project, that is a different story but still a tip about hyping up something that isn't really done in another way as well.
There is no point in trying to create a huge project with no experience before hand, even if you read some guide/tips or even other stories, doesn't mean it will work perfectly at first, we all have our personal styles and preferences, and you will find your talent the more your practice. We all have to start somewhere, start by only using the canon cast with the things you have learned so far and take it little by little, this will also give you time to get yourself known, because if you start with something big without really being known and you are worried that you're not getting the feedback you wanted or getting any at all, this is the answer. You didn't give yourself the time to let everyone know at least who you are or what your style can be in terms of creation.
Do not overuse jokes/memes
We all can agree that some jokes and memes are funny, however if multiple people use it at the same time it will lose its punch, try giving things a twist. Same goes with characters usages, if you use a character in a creative way that everyone seems to like, but you use it over and over it will also lose its punch line. Be careful and do try to moderate not to burn out a joke or one of your jokes that were liked.
Not getting much feedback? Take it day by day.
We don't become famous as soon as we start, it's a matter of time, the thing is "how" to become noticed, trying different things is a great way to see what people like the most, comedy, drama, etc. you can test it, see the results and then make other things with that base. Always keeping a varied style is also advisable, at least when starting out, this way more people will watch more of your creations for sure as you keep growing because there is always something that interests that one person the most. Interacting with the community, spread and introduce yourself, not standing still is also a great way of gaining attention and more views and the sort.
Here are a bunch of writing proverbs by Spaztique that might interest you. Obviously it's nothing absolute but they are interesting nonetheless:
Hm... the only thing not covered yet is the Language, huh? For Language... I think that it is something based on the subconscious. For people who have 'good English', that means they are subconsciously attuned to a 'good' English. So it's pretty much building your mind so that you eventually write a good English subconsciously. Everyone has different way of doing it but the longer the 'bad English' has been rooted on your mind, the harder it is to unroot it and change it with 'good English'.
The easiest way is getting a Beta. By cross checking with the Beta'd work, you should see where the improvements are and where the mistakes are so eventually, you should understand a 'good' English. I really think that 'leeching' off the knowledge of Beta readers is the best way of improving you knowledge of English. Of course there are things like people not wanting to have a Beta for their works, unreliable Betas, and this thing we call as Pride/Selfishness that makes us want to try to do things alone...
The one way I am quite sure of is by consciously minding your writing, checking it every thousand words or so or always going back to the previous sentence to recheck it. For a story, there aren't much things to remember while writing them, probably just some tenses so you should only need to memorize a few tenses formulas before rechecking them. Other than that, maybe reading other works as a reference for a nice and better language.
As I said, it's an subconscious matter. By consciously making 'good English' become your habit, it will eventually get rooted on your mind and you writes them nicely. Some people simply just develop a 'sense' to detect if a sentence is wrong or not without knowing exactly what is wrong with it and able to fix it without knowing the exact formulas. I am one of those people though I still miss some when writing more than 10k words of writings (MS Words' spell check really helps me though).
It's why I think it's in the subconscious, which is pretty much a set of habits, disciplines, and rules we unconsciously have which can be overwritten by new habits, which can be consciously and forcefully developed. Hard, but definitely not impossible.
I still think that getting a Beta is the best way though. We aren't just making stories for ourselves after all, but also writing for people who reads our stories. I think that it would be really selfish for us to make them have a hard time reading just because we want to try doing things by ourselves.
Oh, and try to avoid Wall of Texts. It is one thing to make a few long paragraph but it is another thing to make a whole loads of long paragraphs. Adding a line break every 2-3 lines in MS Word's Web Layout View should help. Making a Light Novel style short paragraphs is still more tolerable than making a story as if it was a thesis of some sorts.
I hope this all helps you either start a great series or improve on one you're currently working on. Additional tips can be found in Spaztique's Walfas Satire Folder here: http://spaztique.deviantart.com/gallery/38181317 and the Self Development Wagon Series here: http://spaztique.deviantart.com/gallery/40581574. Specifically, be sure to read "A Tale of Two Writers," (http://fav.me/d589zu1), SDW #5 "On Mistakes/Failure." (http://fav.me/d62306b), and "Inner Plot and Outer Plot: Characters Vs. 'Stuff'" (http://fav.me/d5u0kiq).
So, what do you think of the Guide? And yeah, it's freaking long.
Spaztique's Guide to Making a Fan Series by Spaztique (http://fav.me/d660t5y)
A Small guide for Starters by GreenJake (http://fav.me/d5vo2qm)
Some writing proverbs of mine... by Spaztique (http://fav.me/d6hezwm)7/9/2013 . Edited 8/15/2013 #5
It helps me with my story7/10/2013 #6
Good god, I really need to make a Table of Contents for this soon. Anyway, updated with a Simple Formula to create Characters on the Third Post and a summarizing Fourth Post.7/12/2013 #7
Added some interesting writing Proverbs by Spaztique at the end of Part 5.8/15/2013 #8
Too lazy to edit this one, but mainly because the accumulated new stuffs was just so many (15k words in total), so heads up, a lot more are coming up.
Part VI: A Guide To Genres
Soldiers of FanFiction, in order to defeat your enemy known as "Not finishing the story", you must know the territories for which you will engage on the field of battle. These battlefields are known as genres, and if you know your genre well, you can write well within it.
Below is a list of the many places you can go in the world of writing. Like all skills, it's best to specialize in a particular area that interests you: don't try to master everything at once, or else you'll master none, but if you master one or two and get good at them, you can start leveling up in the others.
The following is partly adapted from Robert McKee's Story (and invaluable guide that every writer should read), but with some additions and distillations...
Base Genres: Genres that can be contained within settings and mediums. This is what the story is about at its base.
1. Love/Friendship Story:
2. Horror Story:
3. Modern Epic:
4. War Story:
5. Maturation Plot:
6. Morality Arc:
7. Outlook Arc:
8. The Western/Folk Tale:
Mega Genres: Genres that have their own focus, but can contain base genres within them. They are also independent of medium. These can control the tone and pacing.
11. Social Drama:
Supra-Genres: Genres of setting or medium. May contain the above genres within them.
13. Historical Fiction: Takes place in the past to look at human nature from a safe distance, reflecting back our current behaviors.
14. Biography: Focuses on the life of one person from real life.
15. Docu-drama: Recreates actual events, but told in dramatic fashion.
16. Mockumentary: A fictional documentary.
17. Musical: The major plot turning points finish on the character erupting into song.
18. Science Fiction: Uses technology as the crucible for character change.
19. Sports: Uses sports as the crucible for character change.
20. Fantasy: Uses magic as the crucible for character change.
21. Metafiction: Uses writing itself as the crucible for character change.
22. Animation: Uses the stylization of animation to distort reality. With novels, you can make them into Visual Novels.
23. Arthouse: The story itself is unconventional in its telling or structure
Be warned: too many genres will destroy your story. Only focus on the essentials.
Mixing supra-genres is easy. For example, a Sports Musical (Chess), a Fantasy Mockumentary Docu-drama (Chronicle), or an Arthouse Metafiction Mockumentary Historical Fiction (Drunk History).
Mixing base genres is the next easiest: a War Horror Punitive Dissilusionment Plot (Spec Ops: The Line), a War Story Education Plot (Saving Private Ryan), or a combination of every single one sans Folk Tale (Fight Club, which is a Love Story, Horror, Epic, Maturation Plot, Moral Dilemma Plot, and Mindset Change Plot).
The mega genres are harder simply because they're so specific in their content. However, they're still possible. Comedy Crime is quite popular (The Naked Gun), as is Action Comedy (Die Hard, Tropic Thunder, Hot Shots).
However, genres tend to mix vertically. For example, Star Wars contains the Base Genres of Love Story, Epic, Maturation, Redemption, Education, War, and Western/Folk, the Mega-genre of Action/Adventure with the subgenre of High Adventure, and the Supra-genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Let's take this apart: it's a tale of how both technology and magic affects how people love, fight the power, grow, turn away from evil, find a better outlook on life, fight war, and restore order, framed through mostly external conflict.
Pick your favorite genre, study it, look up its tropes, and see what you can bring new to these genres. Give us something fresh we haven't seen before, and don't be surprised if you "own" your genre.
If you find any formatting error, please tell me. It was a nightmare formatting this one to FFN's forum format.
Walfas Spooktacular/NaNoWriMo Genre Stuff by Spaztique (http://fav.me/d6rdbi4)12/9/2013 . Edited 12/16/2013 #9
Advice-A-Day #132: Know the limits of "write what you know": don't write something so close to home that it feels like a psychoanalysis, but don't write about something so "out there" that it doesn't interest you.
Since NaNoWriMo is coming up and I'm about out of life advice, let's get the writing advice going!
When I get pitches for stories, most of story pitches I get closely reflect the lives of the people pitching them. This is especially apparent for the people I also help with their personal problems, as they'll either make a story about their personal problems and how they eventually "show everyone," or a not-so-subtle poke at me with a main antagonist who "wants to help everyone, but secretly wants to hurt people 'for some reason', and then eventually gives up on life." I myself wrote a few stories about my life situation when I was depressed and bad at writing, where my character found love (or at least lust) and became a world famous author and speaker in the end. These are not stories: these are Freudian analyses for psychotherapists.
You have a whole world of possibilities to write about out there. Don't write about yourself, or you'll end up writing the same story over and over again. Instead, pick a subject that interests you, fuels you with positive excitement or an angry passion, and then write a story about that. If you don't know everything about it, do the research: use Google, Yahoo, Wikipedia, anything!
However, there are limits: don't pick a genre or story concept you not only have no idea about, but doesn't interest you. For example, say I was given a contract to write a story about a civil war-era romance. Unless I was given a substantial amount of money, I don't think I could do it because that period of history doesn't particularly interest me. Even if I was given a HUGE amount of money, my heart wouldn't be 100% in it: I'd only be in it for the money, and I wouldn't produce my best work even if I tried. In fact, I could probably earn twice the money I was offered writing about what I wanted to write about than what somebody else asked me to.
Don't write a story about your life, and don't write a story that's so far out there that you don't care: write the story you want to hear.
Advice-A-Day #133: Never resort to coincidence to solve a plot problem. This is known as a Deus Ex Machina, a writer's greatest sin.
Deus Ex Machina is Greek for "God from a Machine." Back in the day, the Greeks put on play festivals and ran competitions for who could write what was essentially the best fanfiction for the Greek pantheon and mythology (think of our current fanfics taken to ludicrous extremes). Just as we have bad writers today, they had bad writers back then, only they had a novel new idea: in the event a writer couldn't think their way out of the plot, they had a crane device to lower a god/goddess down onto the stage and solve the plot for the characters. Since this was a novel idea at the time, the disappointed audiences accepted it, and soon virtually every playwright used this technique to spin together epic tales, hit a dead end, and just end them with Zeus or Athena coming onto the stage, killing the villain, uniting the lovers, and reviving the characters the audience didn't want to die. There is a good reason why a great majority of Greek/Roman plays were lost in time: the great majority of them sucked because they resorted to coincidence and pretty chorus lines rather than legit storytelling. The reason we still have works by Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus is because they all tied together their stories neatly: their comedies ended up being hilarious to this day and their tragedies still strike with either dark drama or bittersweet success (not every tragedy ends in a 100% downer ending: it is only the ones with the biggest weaknesses who suffer in many Greek tragedies).
Robert McKee, my oft-mentioned personal favorite writing teacher, summed it up best when he said modern works don't end in gods coming down to solve everything, but acts of god. The current modern favorite for bad writers is the offscreen car crash that kills the unlikable characters, and the writers' excuse is, "It could happen in real life!" Everything happens in real life, but while God can get away with crazy coincidences in real life to leave us wondering "Why?," our job in stories is to tie meaning to random events to answer the question, "Why?" Therefore, quoting How Not To Write A Novel, your job is harder than God's because God can get away with coincidence, but you can't.
I was recently pitched this idea: a woman's daughter is about to be kidnapped by two thugs, but the thugs then die in a car crash. I asked, "Why can't they just kidnap her?" The pitcher said, "I don't want anything bad to happen to the daughter." In stories, our job is to explore the worst of what can happen and then ask, "What will these characters do now?" A Deus Ex Machina robs us of answering that question. Worse, it robs us of character development, an exciting journey, scenes, everything that makes a story work. We need the worst to happen, or we won't have a story! So, don't pull any punches: dream of the worst and make it happen!
In addition to the Deus Ex Machina is something dubbed by the fine folks at TVTropes: the Diabolus Ex Machina, or Devil from a Machine. Instead of pulling a happy ending out of your ass, you pull a bad ending out of your ass. Just as the heroes, beat the big bad, an army comes in and guns down the heroes in cold blood. Just as the family is reunited, they all get super cancer and die on the spot. Here, the excuse is, "I want to make a sad ending!" Again, coincidence robs us of genuine emotion. Just as a happy ending must be earned through the previous events, a sad ending must also be earned. Going back to the Greeks, Aristotle wrote The Poetics as a guide to how to make a tragedy work: give the character a blinding weakness that generates a pride that kills, and make them use that as their primary way to gain their objective, only to find out too late that the very thing that they thought was bringing them success has lead to their downfall. Just as you must set up the conditions for characters to earn their happy endings, set up conditions for characters to get bad endings.
The only exception for coincidence is if it comes in early to ignite the rest of the plot. In life, we hit a random event and ask why it happened, what can be gained from it, and what was lost from it, and stories eventually answer that question. Many inciting incidents, the first major reversal of the story, happen with coincidence: Yu Yu Hakusho begins with a character getting hit by a car, Jaws begins with a girl being eaten by a shark, Fight Club begins with a number of coincidences (the narrator's insomnia, meeting another "tourist" who visits support groups for fun, the narrator's condo blowing up, the narrator's encounter with the charismatic Tyler Durden who happens to live in the same town and own the same briefcase). The key word is that they start with coincidence, and spend the rest of the stories giving them meaning. Random things happen all the time, but it's up to the storyteller to make sense of them.
Advice-A-Day #134: Editing while writing is like decorating a house under construction.
Oh, the poor story of Duke Nukem Forever: originally slated to be the most ambitious game of all time, the developers had to constantly update the engine, the game design, everything just to keep up with the modern games that surpassed it. Worse, they even made a game during development, Prey, which was more innovative than most of the other games out at the time and took barely a fraction of DNE's production time. When DNE finally did come out, it was an average (and to many, below average) game that either ripped off the very games it wanted to poke fun at or played its cliche shooter tropes unironically straight. To quote Yahtzee from his review of the game, "The development of Duke Nukem Forever can best be equated to some guys trying to build a house opposite a boat on a river. Unfortunately, legendary superhero Captain Obvious wasn't available to explain to them that the boat will always have moved on by the time the house gets finished, isn't it? And after fourteen years of constantly shifting downriver, you're just going to have are few of piles of bricks and some pissed off day laborers." And all this mess happened because they kept stopping to go back and edit mid-development.
Before we move on, I'd like to note they edit mid-development. Say what you will about "Valve Time," but at least they wait for playtesting after they have a great bulk of the game done, and instead of just updating the entire game, it's just back to the drawing board to make a few tweaks. Even when they update the engine, they don't have to gut out the rest of the game to make it work. They know that if you're going to make your best edits, at least do them after everything else is in place.
So, what does this have to do with writing? A lot. For NaNoWriMo, you're going to have to write a lot with little time to go back and edit. Just as you don't care about your initial outlines, brainstorms, or treatments because "you can fix them later," your first draft is the same. It's called a first draft because it's the first version you draft before subsequent edits. It's not called "the draft," but "first draft." First implies there will be a second, third, fourth, fifth, and so on. The point of a first draft is not to "finalize the great American/British/Wherever Novel on the first go." The point of a first draft is to get it down on paper, and then you can edit it.
Even if you make a spectacular final draft, there's always room for improvement. George Lucas, despite not following this advice to a positive degree, once said, "Stories are never finished: they're only abandoned." I agree: especially if you let somebody take the prequels and fix them. Fight Club was hailed as a pretty cool book, but everyone, including author Chuck Palahniuk, prefers the film because it cleaned up the book and improved on it vastly. Adaptation Distillation (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AdaptationDistillation) is one of my favorite concepts, proving that while you cannot make something perfect, you can always make something better.
Advice-A-Day #135: DON'T INFODUMP. EVER.Know when and where exposition is appropriate.
You know how some sewers have a sign next to them that says, "NO DUMPING: SEWER LEADS TO WATER," with a picture of a fish next to them, right? Well, every word processor needs these words pasted somewhere: "NO DUMPING: TEXT LEADS TO READER." Next to that will be a picture of a reader. Just as you wouldn't want to poison the water and hurt the fish, you don't want to taint your text and hurt the reader with infodumping.
Infodumping is the practice of frontloading all of the information about the story "so the audience will know." To dig back into the archives of my old notes, here is what I wrote back in 2010 regarding exposition back when I first got good at tutoring. My notes have not changed:
2010 Spaztique: When it comes to writing, one of my biggest pet peeves is the mishandling of exposition and backstory; specifically exposition or backstory that is forced or unnatural. Often when I look through amateur stories, I see dialogue like this:
"Hello, Bob Matthews, my best friend since high school. How are you?" "I sure am fine, Steve Thompson. How would you like to go with me and my wife Linda Matthews, who I met in high school thanks to you, to the theater?" "I'd love to, Steve, but being a busy workaholic who works at a law firm, I have to stay home in my posh house and review the case I'll be doing this week." "That sounds interesting, Bob. Please, tell me more about it. I'm not in a hurry or anything, seeing as I am a stay-at-home-dad with two kids, Jean and Barret Thompson, who are 12 and 14, respectively, while my wife Linda works at Corpocom as a very empowered business executive." "Well, as a Republican, I'm more inclined to women staying at home while the man works, but I respect your opinion since you're a democrat. Anyway, about that case…"
Whenever I ask the writer why they do this, they always respond, "Because the reader/audience needs to know." I try telling them, "They don't, because they don't care about this background stuff. Just get to the story, as in the part where the characters start acting and reacting, and only slip in what's important." However, they'll revert to other strategies; showing photos of exposition, car rides where characters talk about their backstories, phone conversations with a parent or spouse, etc.. I then tell them, "You're still pounding us over the head with exposition. Get to the part where the characters do something." They respond, "But this information is absolutely important! How are people going to know who my characters are without any exposition?"
The truth is, what you don't say can be much more important than what you do say, and that's why I wrote this little article. First, let's define these terms. According to wiktionary…
Exposition: A technique used in fiction, including novel, play, and movie, by which background information about the characters, events, or setting is conveyed. Backstory: The supposed previous life and experiences of a fictional character in a dramatic work.
Or as I like to define these terms…
Exposition: Information that is absolutely needed to progress the story to where it makes sense to the audience. In other words, information that directly affects current/future events.
Backstory: Information about characters that is only of use to the writer. Rarely has any purpose within the story itself other than to influence a character's actions. If it's interesting enough to naturally warrant a brief mention in a much larger story (especially common in novels), you're perfectly fine to include it (especially if you don't like to write using an outline, since this information can be used later).
Exposition is fine under the following conditions:
Exposition is NOT fine under the following conditions:
You are NOT allowed to use the following strategies when trying to tell the audience information:
Speaking of "Alone In The Dark", let's look at this exposition train wreck in action. The opening scroll for "Alone In The Dark" talks of lost tribes, paranormal investigators, and children being used as experiments. The first scene is, of course, the children being used as experiments with a great deal of exposition detailing this. Then, the main character begins narrating about being a paranormal investigator as he gets off a plane, just before telling another character, a cab driver, he's a paranormal investigator (who's response can be summed up as, "That's pretty neat."), just before he stumbles upon something paranormal and, you guessed it, investigates it. Next, a security guard tells a brilliant scientist, who is obviously wearing a labcoat, glasses, and holding a clipboard, that she is a brilliant scientist, she doesn't have a boyfriend, and then tells her about the lost tribe from the opening scroll in great detail. By the end, the main characters stumble upon a lab where the bad guys did experiments, and this is treated as a big shocking twist, despite having repeatedly mentioning the lab, the experiments, and everything else. All of this information could have been revealed much later to turn a horrible movie into something salvageable, but Uwe Boll thought, "The audience needs to know everything, or else they won't care when the drama starts!" Often times, the most dramatic parts of any movie are the big reveals, and we mostly feel sorry for the characters when they happen. For instance, all of my previous examples of how to properly use exposition come from famous movies, and if you got the references and filled in the blanks, you obviously remember the scene, making it a memorable moment. Still, you may be wondering, "But how do I get people to care about the story without some exposition?" If you start the story with a character reacting to something, our curiosity over information will keep us sitting through even the most mundane/cliche stories until our curiosity is satisfied (I'm looking at you, "The Event"). Thinking that revealing everything up front will make us care is counter-intuitive to storytelling. My point: Don't tell everyone everything about the characters of your story. Hold back information to raise their curiosity, and then use that information for powerful turning points.
Thanks, 2010 Spaztique, and good luck fighting that depression: it'll be gone soon enough.
Three years later, my thoughts on exposition still haven't changed: don't use exposition because "the audience needs to know". Instead, make the audience want to know, then use exposition as ammunition.
Advice-A-Day #136: Remember than when you start in the middle of things, you are literally starting in the middle of things. I know that sounds like tautology, but don't think just because you start "in medias res" that you can still frontload the story with exposition.
The great Roman poet Horace has given us writers much to be thankful for: he codified the satire (to which I am very thankful), but he also gave us The Art Of Poetry, one of my favorite classical literary texts and something that should be carefully read. In this text dating all the way back to 18 BC, he discusses continuity, tone (and how it's best to match the tone to the content), to never use a deus ex machina (previously described) unless you actually made a plot where a god/godess gets involved, and the concept of "in medias res," which means, "in the middle of things." The idea is you don't start at the very, very beginning, but as close to the big story incident as possible.
With how massive the Greek and Roman pantheons were, you had to start in the middle of things: or you'd spend waaaay too long actually getting to the play people wanted to see (and keep in mind, these festival tournaments that the plays played in were like fanfiction contests: the audiences knew the stories and wanted to see who could "interpret" them the best). However, even the Greek and Roman playwrights were not immune to misusing exposition: while many plays used exposition to further the plot, they also used exposition to remind the audience, "By the way, folks, Oedipus killed the Sphinx!," or, "By the way, folks, Odysseus was in the Battle of Troy!" On one hand, these are often set up in the beginning so they can be called back to later, which is good writing practice, but on the other, there's often a case or two where they can be cleanly excised.
Here's a concept I've thought up a while ago that I haven't really run into in the writing advice world. I call it "the world in progress": think "in medias res" on steroids. The idea runs like this: as you begin your main story, there are several minor, unimportant stories already running. Some are ending, some are in the middle, some are beginning, but only focus on those that affect the main story.
Let's see a few examples. Please note two things: first, these are only examples, and in practice, you're not going to write this down with your plot unless you feel it will help. This is only to show you that most stories begin while a lot is going on. Second, there is a pattern: when the new story is introduced to the previous stories, it often results in them colliding with eachother and leading to the end of one of the other stories.
But what about in bad stories? Let's see how they handle it.
There are plenty more examples, I'm sure, but the lesson here is that if you want to avoid bad pacing, bad usage of exposition, or if you want to make a big, sprawling world that seems alive, drop us into a world in-progress.
Advice-A-Day #137: While theme is important, it has a limit. You know you've hit the limit when you bury and otherwise awesome outer story underneath grandiose questions about life, the universe, and everything.
In high school, I questioned the importance of theme. I loved structure, but I never saw what point theme had to stories. When I began studying stories, though, I began to realize that themes are the point of the story: all a story does is illustrate what behavior leads to what under what circumstances. In tragedies, somebody with no faith in theme says, "It's about sad endings!" But what is a sad ending? In Greek tragedies, the theme is commonly, "Those in power will ultimately lose power when blinded by pride, but humility can bring wisdom." They even have a counter theme to balance out the main theme and generate conflict: "Those in power can remain in power by defying everyone up to the gods themselves, while the humble will be stepped on by those in power like the lowly, ignorant worms they are."
Using the above theme, for example, while Elektra is classified as a tragedy by classical standards, it'd be classified as a normal drama by today's standards: it is about the tortured Elektra awaiting the return of her brother Orestes so they can exact revenge on their mother Clytemnestra, who killed their father to be with another rather vile man. During this, Chrysothemis urges Elektra to deal with it and the chorus urges her to calm down, but a messenger comes to tell Elektra that Orestes is dead. Clytemnestra gloats over these turn of events, and when Elektra breaks down and urges Chrysothemis to help her kill their mom, she refuses and leaves her. However, with little restraint left, she faces another messenger returning with Orestes ashes, only it turns out to be Orestes himself, coming in under the radar to help Elektra at last. Clytemnestra and her lover get the business end of a swift revenging, and although Orestes is briefly chased by the Furies for enacting revenge on a relative, it finally gets the gods to consider, "Wait, shouldn't there be some exceptions to the whole 'If you kill your relatives, the Furies chase you' thing?" Throughout this entire example, the tragic theme of, "Those in power will ultimately lose power when blinded by pride, but humility can bring wisdom," is never dwelled upon: it is acted out.
"Writing on the nose," is when you write dialogue without subtext, saying exactly what you want to say. For example, there's there classically bad scene from Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, where Anakin walks out to a balcony where Padme is combing her hair, and he tells her, "You are so beautiful," she responds, "It's only because I'm so in love with you," and he says, "No, it's because I'm so in love with you." With a little polish, he could have started with a flirtatious, "Mind if I watch?," she could tell him, "Why don't you get a closer look?," and he could just give a warm laugh. Same scene (even if it didn't accomplish much), but it doesn't feel like a robot or an alien who's not familiar with human life or a George Lucas wrote it. When it comes to theme, theme can be written on the nose, too. When this happen, the writer will repeatedly "show the cards" so to speak, telling the audience, "THIS IS THE POINT OF THE STORY!"
Here's a passage from Robert McKee's classic guide Story regarding pushing theme and its nasty after-effects:
"The writer, for example, may decide that war is the scourge of humanity, and pacifism is the cure. In his zeal to convince us all his good people are very, very good people, and all his bad people are very, very bad people. All the dialogue is "on the nose" laments about the futility and insanity of war, heartfelt declarations that the cause of war is "establishment." From outline to first draft, he fills the screen with stomach-turning images, making certain that each and every scene says loud and clear: "War is a scourge, but it can be cured by pacifism… war is a scourge cured by pacifism… War is a scourge cured by pacifism…" until you want to pick up a gun."
Sadly, while many writing teachers are now pushing theme more than ever before in recent years, McKee is one of the few writing teachers besides John Truby to push the idea that the story itself illustrates the theme. In other words, if you have an awesome premise, there's no need to constantly raise moral questions. All of the writing teachers love talking about how Star Wars is about cold science versus warm human intuition, yet they forget they only debate about this once or twice through the whole series while the rest acts out this battle. Worse, consider the movies that attempt to push a theme, but don't deliver said theme, like The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, which attempts to talk about the theme of inner beauty, but then violates it, ignores it, and we're left thinking, "Wow, this entire cast is full of superficial jerks!"
In fact, from this alone, I can predict the upcoming remake of Robocop is going to bomb critically simply because it wrote its theme on the nose. It's trying to be too "dramatic," "literary," "obviously-written-within-studio-guidelines." (Seriously: despite having the guys who wrote Gran Torino, Quantum of Solace, and The Amazing Spiderman, the producers are all multi-Razzie winners, with such "wonderful" "hits" like The Thing (2011), Let's Go To Prison, The Love Guru, The Tourist, and GI Joe: Rise Of The Cobra). The original Robocop was a celebrated success, telling the story of a man who is turned into a cyborg after a brutal gang killing, but even though he has all of his fancy high-tech gear, he still has a human heart, and it turns out the metal inside is more important than the metal outside. It also touches on its counter: how others can look all nicey nicey on the outside, but be corrupt on the inside. The theme itself is, like all of the other good examples, rarely touched upon but a few times: it spends the rest of its time illustrating its theme by KICKING ASS. Compare this low-key, story-driven, rather "realistic" portrayal to the trailer its melodramatic, special-effects-driven, over-the-top remake. In fact, I'll predict this remake will end up as Rotten on Rotten Tomatoes unless they do some serious reshoots ASAP.
Before we finish up, here's another one from the archives. Depressed loner 2010 Spaztique, take it away.
It's not enough for a character to state the theme: they need to act on it to prove it's true. And more often than not, they won't know until they act. To illustrate this, I offer one more anecdote: a detective corners a criminal after a climatic chase back to his hideout. The detective gives a long, rambling speech about how crime doesn't pay. He cites many examples and makes many good points, but chooses to give this speech instead of arresting him or killing him as his speech would entail. The criminal, a mute who has made his living on crime, gives a counterpoint by shooting the detective and going back to planning his next bank robbery to pay for his kid's college fund.
Thanks again, 2010 Spaztique.
Unlike non-fiction, we can't use information or bald telling to hammer home facts. In stories, you don't talk the theme: you walk the theme. Otherwise, it could kill an otherwise awesome premise.
Advice-A-Day #138: In stories, conflict can never regress to small, less complicated situations. It can only get bigger and bigger until the climax.
I've recently started getting into the badass incarnate series Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann to see what it was all about. The story follows digging prodigy Simon and his adoptive badass old brother Kamina, who live underground but dream of living on the surface, only to find it has been overrun by beast men who wish to keep the humans underground. With the aid of taking over some spiffy mecha and joined by the anti-material-rifle-wielding badass sniper Yoko, the two end up leading a rebellion to eventually liberate the surface (though, there's more to all this than initially meets the eye). Yet, why is this simple rebellion-vs-empire iteration popular? Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann understands that conflict cannot regress: it must grow larger and larger as it goes on.
The series starts off innocently enough: man vs. man in the underground city as Kamina tries to find a way to the surface, then large mech vs. man wielding a sword and a woman with an anti-material rifle, then large mech vs. large mech, then larger mech vs. larger mech, and as the story goes on, the enemies get larger and larger and the upgrades get more and more powerful, and the appeal of the series is that it constantly keeps topping itself. Due to the popularity of the series, it's no spoiler that the series eventually ends up with mechs the size of galaxies battling eachother.
There's a trope for this called Serial Escalation: the idea that no matter how awesome or ridiculous the last thing in your story was, it still manages to top itself. Yet, as not every story on TVTropes has this example, why not make Serial Escalation a required trope as much as setting or character? It's a requirement of conflict, anyway, so why not utilize the fact you can constantly top yourself?
If you're not sure what the conflict of your story is about, use the nifty genre guide that was just posted.
And speaking of TTGL, let's talk about characters and "being overpowered"…
Advice-A-Day #139: A character is only unbalanced in comparison to the setting that character is placed in.
I hate it when people say, "Touhou/Dragonball/Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann/series full of strong character is full of nothing but Mary Sues and Marty Stus," and I hate it even more when people say, "If [series listed above] can get away with Mary Sues and Marty Stus, why can't I?" If your setting is full of otherwise powerful characters, where eating the sun is what people normally do for breakfast, that's the "norm": it is only when people deviate from the norm do they become overpowerpowered.
In a human drama where it's all about problems in the family, and one character is able to mend relationships with the wave of her hand, that's a Mary Sue. In a story where everyone can manipulate eachother emotionally like the previous Sue, they're all balanced (Neil Strauss's The Game is a good example: everyone is a master manipulator, and it's all about who can out-manipulate who).
In an action story where everyone wields a gun, but one character can stop projectiles with his mind, they're a Stu, but if this character must go up against something larger, like a character who can bend reality to their will, they've been equalized (Neo in The Matrix: Reloaded has an unfair advantage over many humanoid AI, tripping many peoples' Stu alarms, but the machines' higher ups easily outsmart Neo many times, balancing him out).
Yes, you can make characters who are slightly more powerful, but only if you plan to eventually show their weakness and have them fall to that weakness. Avatar: The Last Airbender is all about a character trying to master all of the elements and eventually save everyone, but that lead character, along with everyone else, first faces a perilous journey to get those powers. Look at many classical villains, and each one has two overarching commonalities: first, they're really, really powerful, and second, they have a weakness they did not foresee, blinded by their power. Even powerful heroes can briefly succumb to this, only to rethink their plans and be reborn stronger than ever.
If your setting's bar is set pretty high, none of your characters are Stus or Sue unless they go higher than that bar. Give yourself permission to throw reason to the curb, go beyond the impossible, and pierce the heavens: the series that I just referenced, TTGL, did it, and so can you.12/16/2013 . Edited 12/16/2013 #10
Advice-A-Day #140: When you worldbuild, remember the two principle concepts of the purpose of story: to find the uncommon in common experience, and to find commonality in the uncommon. This way, you can take familiar situations and make them new, and new situations and make them familiar.
Star Wars is basically a World War 2 story mixed with a Japanese Period Drama, only set in space. Alien is about truckers who accidentally encounter a dangerous creature, only set in space. Harry Potter is an archetypal children's mystery story, only set in a fantasy setting. What all of these stories did right was build a world similar to ours, but in a way that introduces us to new things.
Satirists Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim have used this concept for comedy by reversing it in their experimental sketch show Tim and Eric Awesome Show (Great Job!). The humor of the show don't work, are quite dangerous, have horribly unpleasent side-effects, are horribly inefficient, or serve no purpose. The character Dr. Steve Brule, a daytime news correspondent with health advice, proved quite popular: with the help of actor John C. Reilly's improvisation, we have a doctor who clearly should not be a doctor. As his advice goes on, he turns from a neurotic, nervous doctor type into a mentally slow manchild. The rest of the characters and sketches are a whole host of contradictions, from kid show hosts who deviate into strange topics like meat, your dad, and aliens, to horribly ill kids who manage to make somewhat decent music together, to what Paul Rudd does on his computer . If you're asking, "Why does this even exist?!," then Tim and Eric have done their job. The job of a satirist is to hold up a mirror to society and say, "This is you. Don't like it? Change!" While they can write stuff where nothing makes sense on purpose, if you've written a story where nothing makes sense by accident, something is wrong.
How do we make things make sense when they shouldn't? To put it shortly, damage control: finding ways to justify why these things would make sense. In the long description, you just need to ask a lot of questions: why does this exist in my story? Who put it there? Was there a need for this in my story? How does this thing work? Does other people do this same thing? Is it something familiar that I'm making new, or something unfamiliar that I'm making familiar? The same questions can apply to how your characters are feeling: what are the key sensations my characters are feeling? What are they focusing on? What do they notice that nobody else notices? Even if you're using magic or technology to justify these things, how does the magic/technology work? With enough questions, you can justify any crazy thing into existence and then make it real.
That's why I love working in the fantasy and sci-fi genres: I want take things that don't exist and make them real, but to do that, I first need to take them apart. Even when writing Touhou fanfiction, I love to coming up with crazy new inventions and setpeices (if you've seen my production streams for Flight of the Steel Butterfly, you know about the giant edible Christmas Tree full of cookie ornaments and the multicolored condiment fountain), but first, I analyze the hell out of them. I try to ground all of the fantasy stuff I work with into a grounded "science" of sorts, and all my science fiction in practical, real-world science or theoretical "we just haven't discovered it yet" scientific principles (like coming up with a series of fake laws for gravity that end up replacing relatively and newton's laws in-universe). Many series use what is known as a "Universe Bible," and if you want definitive "research" on your setting, make one as well. Know your setting inside and out. Give it a whole bunch of things you wish existed in this world, or take the things from this world and give them a new look, feel, and so on. Make us want to live in this universe (or at least want to survive in it while looking at its many horrors).
A few books I can recommend on the subject of imagination and your setting include…
For your story, look at your universe and ask, "What part of my story should I look more into?" Not in a narrative sense, I mean: you don't want unneccesary exposition about how things work, especially given the last couple of AaDs about exposition and starting in a "world in progress." I mean what do you know about this world? In the words of Robert McKee, know your world in the same depth and breadth as God knows this one. That way, we'll believe it is real, too.
Advice-A-Day #141: Never be discouraged if you miss your quota for one day, because you can always catch up if you just work on the next day.
NaNoWriMo is not about quality: it helps, but you can save the editing for once you finish the first draft (and remember, it's called a first draft for a reason). NaNoWriMo is about wordcount: the might number of words you have if your manuscript at any given time. Your mission is to hit 50k words before hitting a great story. Get it on paper first, then edit it later.
With 50k words and 30 days to write, that puts the average word-per-day at 1667 words a day, but not everyone can write every single day due to work, school, or emergencies. If you miss your quota for the day, that only means you just have to write that much extra on the next day. For example, you only have enough time to write 1500 words, but you decide to write 1834 words the next day. If you had enough time, you could write 2000 words and get a headstart, but never feel tempted to slack off because you're ahead: use this as an excuse to get done earlier. You shouldn't be rushing to the deadline: you should have hit it before the 30th, not on the 30th.
Here are some fomulas to calculate how much time you have:
Ideally, you should get your story done by Day 28, putting you at 1785 words per day, 595 words if you work in three hour blocks, 10 words a minute on average. I've been working on this blog for ten minutes and am already at 320 words, so in theory, I could actually get at least a day's worth of work (and then some) done in an hour. When you really think about it, 50k is nothing when you realize just how quickly you can write. Plus, think of how much information you can get out in so few words: you don't have to resort to padding or any cheap way to "lengthen the story": you can get so much done in so little time if you'll just remember today's post.
50k words may seem like a long way away, and in two weeks (the average time it takes people to give up on a new hobby), you may feel discouraged, but remember: while 2000 words is far off from 50000 words, and so is 4000 words, and 6000, and 8000, you'll eventually hit 10000 and realize you're 1/5th of the way there. Sure, you're 1/5th of the way there, but it's better than the 1/25th when you reached 10000 or 1/5000th when you reached that tenth word, or even 1/50000 when you typed the first one. Then, with as much effort as you reached 10k words, you'll soon hit 20k words, then 25k words at the halfway point, then 30k, 40k, and finally you'll be 95% done, 98% done, and then you'll cross the 50k line, look back, and say, "I DID IT!!!" You'll realize that all those tiny spurts of 2000 words have ended up a feature-length novel.
And lastly, about where your plot should be: you're not supposed to "end the plot after 50k." 50k is just the goal line. Your final story can be 55k or 60k words long: the general idea is that you're winding down the plot near the 50k line. Like landing a plane, you can't drop in too early and crash into the street, no overshoot the landing strip and crash in the woods. Here is a scale for when to end your novel:
Find your word count quota, and you'll find reaching 50k in a month will be easily than you think.
Advice-A-Day #142: Write what you can see, hear, smell, and feel. Do not write lone ideas untied to sensations, recountings of events without sensory description, or descriptions that take us out of the progression of time. In other words, Show, Don't Tell.
As I've said before, I am bigger on story than description, but without description, we can't really tell stories. For the most part, those who actually think hard enough to outline story tend to actually think about description, but I have run into a number of people who meticulously outline, and then start off stories with, "My name is [character name]. I look like [description]. I [backstory]. This is my story. Me Me Me Me Me Me [etc…]"
This post is how to write both descriptive an effortless prose, balancing showing, your main weapon of writing, and telling, your paste, spackle, glue of prose.
For example, let's describe morning.
Without formatting to organize these descriptions (discussed in a moment), you can already see a huge difference. In telling, you skip over all of the tiny details and implications. Now, you probably don't want to go into full detail for such an innocuous scene like the one above: only give as much detail to something depending on how important it is. If a character is traveling from place to place and nothing happens, there's no need to recount the whole journey: you can just say, "Joe did his morning errands, like feed the cat and check the mail, and biked his way to school." However, say your character hits something important in the story: then you can fill in the details, like, "Joe rummaged through the pile of mail, hoping to avoid any new bills or late payments on whatever. He got a magazine for a kid's store he'd never visit, a trial credit card he'd never use, and then he stopped on a pink envelope, sealed shut with a red heart sticker. The address stick read it was from Anna Therluv Intrest. Joe tossed all of the other mail onto the kitchen table and ripped open Anna's letter, smiling. 'This is odd,' he thought, 'I haven't spoken to Anna in years. For her to send a letter like this… What could it mean?'"
I touched on a similar topic a while back for AaD #66 (http://spaztique.tumblr.com/post/47523094944/advice-a-day-66-on-writing-style), and I said that paragraphs are your main units of writing. Just as you organize ideas into paragraphs in non-fiction stories, you organize description into paragraphs in fiction. Think of it like camera setups: with each paragraph, you bring the camera into the scene and focus on actors, details, and so on. After all, the pioneer film editors learned to cut their films from the pacing of novels, so it's time for us soon-to-be novelists and prose writers to return the favor to the cinema.
But where does this leave narration? Especially the harder-than-it-seems first person narration? Describe more story-related stuff than raw exposition. If there's anything the modernist writers learned from exploring the human psyche, it's that it's difficult to write a story that takes place entirely in someone's thoughts, and even harder to make it entertaining. The only reason the modernist writers are studied is because they gave us a host of new genres and literary techniques to write normal fiction with (in fact, you can see my abridged retelling of the history of storytelling with this concept: Writer's DLC - http://fav.me/d5fpw1f). Lemony narration is fun and all if it adds to the story, but you can't add to a story that doesn't exist, so focus on the story and then fill in the snarky comments (if you want to see it done right, watch Woody Allen's films or read Chuck Palahniuk's novels).
If you can, post these words over your monitor or laptop screen: Show, Don't Tell.
Advice-A-Day #143: Find your ending as soon as possible, then work like crazy to get there.
If you've heard the story behind Touhou Sketches INDY Edition and the Legal Magic sketch, you'd know it's one of the few sketches I ever wrote where I only had the beginning, but no ending. So, when did I find the ending? When I got there? Hell no! A great abundance of good endings don't just happen out of nowhere: they're mostly planned in advance. I came up with the climatic "Master Spark Solves Everything!" moment the moment the sketch hit the courtroom, and all that was left to do was get there. In fact, (I can safely say I found my ending for my NaNoWriMo project, its principle plot, and its main characters, but only after a bit of brainstorming.)
The most common mistake I see if tutoring peeps when it comes to endings is this strange idea that they think they'll "find" the ending, as if it just happens "naturally" or "by accident." You don't just stumble into endings: you build to them. Endings don't just show up out of nowhere and bite you. Sure, events have to conspire for the endings to make sense, but that moment doesn't come hundreds of pages down the line: the moment you finding your ending is also within the moment the events make sense.
Writer Larry Brooks, author of numerous fiction books as well as the Story Architecture and Story Physics books, details that until we find where are stories are leading to (the ending), we don't have a story. Whether we're going from an outline or by the seat of our pants, we're always "searching for the story" until we find out where it goes. We might try going in one direction, only to end up in another, but we're always on a quest to reach our intended ending.
If, however, you wish to negate this advice and decide "the ending will show up when it shows up," I got some bad news for you: it won't. You're never going to reach the ending until you decide "it's long enough" and then slap together a couple deus ex machinas so you can stop writing. Otherwise, you may finish the 50k word challenge, but your story will not have an ending. I have seen this too many times to know its certainty: if you don't plan your ending and work to it, you will just keep writing. I have seen too many screenplays reach the 400 page mark and manuscripts become a 200k word uneditable mess of subplots, random characters, and episodic plots (to be discussed in AaD 144) leading nowhere. The more you want to try to prove me wrong, the more you'll prove me write as your story hits the 50k word mark and there'll be no ending in sight, and as you struggle to "write and wait for the end to show up," you'll hit 100k, 200k, 400k. Eventually, the manuscript will end up so long, even George R.R. Martin or Ayn Rand would tell you, "Dude, this is too long," and you still won't have an ending.
Find your ending, then work to it. As this advice is true in pretty much any area of your real life, so it is true in writing.
Advice-A-Day #144: Understand that the term "episodic plot" can be both a good thing and a bad thing. If the episodes build upon eachother, that's good. If they don't, that's bad.
If you've read my guide on how to make a series, you know the three forms of story organization: episodic (individual stories as part of a large series; in the literary world, these are your short story anthologies), serialistic (one large story split over several parts; these are your normal books), and serial-episodic (individual stories that build up a larger story). In the world of literary criticism, to describe a plot as "episodic" is often bad, but there is some confusion since many great novels like A Confederacy Of Dunces, Moby Dick, Invisible Man, and The Things They Carried that are unashamedly episodic (in the serial-episodic storytelling format, that is). Plus, there are too many anime, manga, folk tales, and African narratives that follow this storytelling style. Toni Morrison has built an entire career out of this storytelling style, and I should know: I own at least eight of her books and wrote an exhaustive term paper on Song Of Solomon. Episodic storytelling is not the problem, because it can work if the episodes build a larger story.
The real problem is in how the episodes are handled. How Not To Write A Novel refers to the bad practice as "serial monogamy." Before this, they list a bad plot design known as "monogamy," in which there is only one plot and the writer sticks to that plot with no subplots to complicate it, elaborate on it, or do anything. In "serial monogamy," things that could materialize into subplots end up getting their own chapters, so each incident is separate from one another and ends up more like a "to do list" than a story.
For example, let's say we have a classic love story between Bob and Alice.
If the final example put a smile on your face, that's the power of wrapping together a bunch of loosely-connected episodes. Monogamy feels, as the writers of How Not To Write A Novel, "Twilight-Zone-ish," while serial monogamy feels like a checklist. The art of creativity is all about connecting unrelated ideas, so flex your creativity and put things together in ways nobody's even imagined!
Advice-A-Day #145: With the chaos of your world setting, start from the first event that snowballs into the climax/ending of the story.
January, 2010. I am selected to perform tech for the Keith Johnstone Maestro Improv Tournament at the Long Center, and I'd follow up with going to a workshop with the man who invented this world-wide celebrated improv format. At the time, I had one burning question on my mind: how the hell do I start a story? I could go further back into my backstory about how I had been reading books like Hooked, The Fire In Fiction, and The Art And Craft Of Storytelling, but as this story will demonstrate, I eventually learned my lesson.
After a night of teching the biggest show of my theater tech career, I got to sit with Keith Johnstone and several other improvisers to learn his craft of improvised storytelling. Johnstone bases his improv around storytelling at its finest, using what is known as a "platform" and "tilt." A platform is how the world is at the beginning of the scene/story, and the "tilt" is something that disrupts the initial platforms and creates a new one. It is in these moments where the platform shifts via these tilts where stories are born. At the time, it made sense for short scenes for improvised theatre, but not for long stories like the ones I wanted to write.
After the workshop, I got the chance to ask him, "If I wanted to start a longer story, what's the best way to find it?" Although I don't remember his exact words, he did say something to the effect of, "Just start at the first big thing. It's like Lewis Carroll said: Begin at the beginning, go on until the end, then stop." I mulled over this advice for the rest of the day, thinking it couldn't possibly be that simple, but it stewed in my brain for several days, weeks, months, and finally about a year before it began to make sense. Stories begin at one state, i.e. the platform, and go through a series of tilts before hitting its end state.
Knowing this, you could know the ending in advance and set up an opposite platform than the one at the end, and find the first tilt that leads to that ending (see the previous AaDs for more info). If you don't know how it will end, set up a strong enough tilt that propels your story into the middle. Begin as close to the meat of the story as you possible can, and the inciting incident you get will be enough to launch the story. After all, I could have started the previous story when I realized I couldn't open a story, or go back further when I realized I couldn't write, or go back even further when I was struggling to get people to like my stories. Instead, I chose to start right at the focus: meeting Keith Johnstone and getting the advice.
Just writing this advice alone is giving me flashes of my first scenes for the NaNoWriMo story I'd like to do. I hope this advice does the same for you.
Advice-A-Day #154: The only way to get better at writing is to publish more works and get feedback from others. There is no other way around it.
Oh, the days when I thought I was a good writer. I recently uncovered a usb drive dating all the way back to 2005: a "massive" stick with two gigs of memory on it. My notes have stuff that reads, "Genres are a weakness, themes are useless," "All stories must include sexual tension, firearms, and violence," and, "Characters must have only one redeeming quality and a ton of weaknesses." It was not until I began showing my stories to other people did they begin to poke holes in my logic.
Probably the biggest epiphany happened when I thought I figured everything out and I found the perfect story to pursue: my community college pitch project Textbook Perfect, a metafictional live-action anime spoof. When we did the pitch and a brief table reading in class, it got unanimous laughs and good reviews. However, all I had was a season outline and a pilot. I couldn't wait to show it to my friends in the improv community. Then, one night in one of the theaters, I ran into one of my big improv/storytelling heroes Asaf Ronen (i mentioned him before in Twilight of the Hakurei) and asked him what he thought of Textbook Perfect. Up until this point, I was surrounded by nothing but college kids who were only interested in passing, and here comes a multi-award winning improviser and teacher who has traveled pretty much all over the United States, and he slaps me with this question, "Well, what's the point of the story?" In other words, what's the theme? Sadly, at the time, Textbook Perfect didn't have a theme. It ran completely on Rule of Funny and poking fun at anime conventions, but nothing really to say about human life. I tried pitching the stories to others in the community, filled to the brim with award-winning storytellers, some writers, and even journalists: all of them said that it felt like a pointless vacuum for jokes. This is why it is important to get feedback, especially from storytellers better than yourself: it tells you your weaknesses and limits.
I went back to the drawing board and practiced, practiced, wrote stories, pitched them, watched where things went wrong, where things went right, made gag comics in the Garry's Mod community to see if I got my storytelling skills strengthened. Eventually, during either 2008 or 2009, I finally hit my stride when I was invited to partake in my college's monologue project (if you take the play-writing class and pass, you get a good shot of getting in). I finally understood the concept of theme, throughline, scene, and all that, and I finally got my first monologue not only published, but performed. Then, that winter, I wrote a script based on everything I had learned that year: although there were technical errors in the script's format, it was a hit among the test readers. You'll know when you've found your ability to tell stories when you can successfully pitch a story to better writers than yourself.
If there's one lesson in National Novel Writing Month, it's that the only way to become a better writer is to write. Write and, of course, show people your writing. If they criticize it, good! All criticism are free hints on how to improve!
A Bunch of Other References:
GENERAL WRITING TIPS:
PLOT & CONFLICT:
Advice-A-Day #147: When requesting things from others, don't annoy/badger the person you're trying to make a request from.
Most of the peeps who read my blog are in the art community, and in the art community are people who both take requests and request things from others; especially requesting things from others. However, there is a certain etiquette when it comes to making requests.
First of all, if you're in need of something, don't be afraid to ask. It does no harm to make requests. However, there are a few things you must do before asking:
With these guidelines, you're sure to avoid angering the person you're requesting things from, whether in art or in other categories. In essence, don't annoy the person you're requesting from: instead, get them enthusiastic about helping you out.
Advice-A-Day #149: If you're going to ask people to tell you blunt and honest things to you, accept them without criticism. To complain about the criticisms you receive only makes you look like a jerk.
I'm a person who likes to be confronted about my wrongdoings and shortcomings. Even if they're inaccurate, I understand that I must be doing something to come off as a certain way to people. Of course, there are the situations where people accuse me of being things I'm not like dishonest, a consummate liar, or a sociopath, which is a legit strategy some "social terrorists" use to get people to get paranoid about themselves, but otherwise, I love criticism. I believe all criticism is basically free hints and tips on how to do something better. Be open to criticism, because it'll help you grow as a person. Setbacks are mainly just God's way of asking you to try harder.
If there's one kind of person I feel sorry for, it's the person who asks to receive open, honest criticism, and then lashes back at the people who they asked from, or they fake listening to the advice and continue doing what they did wrong. The first comes off as jerk behavior, and the second comes off as dishonest. God help you if you lash out at others for trying to correct you, then you promise to change, and then you keep doing the same things. I believe the definition of stupidity is somebody who never learns, and to refuse constant correction is the ultimate sign of stupidity.
If you're going to ask people to say things to your face, you better get ready to take them. If you do, you'll become a better person for it.
Advice-A-Day #153: When critiquing something, focus on the work, not the author or your personal preferences.
Would you believe I prefer light and fluffy stories to grimdark dramas? I'm asked a lot to read people's stories, and most of the time, I get stories where a majority of the cast dies in horrible and undeserved ways after facing unfair and needless suffering. Of course, I can handle them under one condition: does the story follow the craft? I won't be able to tell through sheer mechanics alone: I better be glued to the pages, wondering what will happen next, sweating as I worry about the characters, feeling whatever emotion they're going through. It doesn't matter the genre, the main character, or even whether or not I like the author: when I criticize something, I only criticize the work itself and never anything else.
In college, I was taught this rule for criticism: two compliments for every criticism. Everything works in one way or another, or else we wouldn't think it was good or show it to other people. Earlier, somebody requested I read a fic because they wanted to publicly humiliate the author (which goes against why I do my riffs: a live comedic review with a focus on where to improve), but upon reading, we (me, a fellow riffer, and the audience I was supposed to humiliate the guy in front of) noticed two things went beautifully right. First, the author obviously had a blast writing it, because it was full of wild action and plot twist after plot twist; sure, they came out of nowhere, but that only leads me to my second point. Second, had everything been properly set up earlier, it could have been an amazing story. This is the beauty of proper criticism: you can take any diamond in the rough and transform it into something beautiful if you both take care of the imperfections and polish the good parts.
Of course, there's also the factor of the other person. Some writers, artists, whatever take all criticism as a personal attack. You know the craft, but they think you're just berating them because "you have a personal grudge against them." You know you don't, but they don't. This is why it's important to sandwich the criticism between the compliments: so they know you're not against them (that, and it's important to use the strengths of the thing you're critiquing). Make sure that not only you know the criticism is impersonal, but they know it's impersonal, too.12/16/2013 . Edited 12/18/2013 #11
Hey Feng, how about advice for making AU Characters. That is to say the Troper!Shirous or Shirou Kotomines of the Fanfiction community.
A lot of people alter the source history(nothing wrong with that, hell I'm doing it.) to make their version and it often feels like unreasonable developments(mine is random, but not unreasonable). IE every "Exiled Naruto" fic. Why would Konoha exile such a valuable and dangerous resource as their only Jinchuriki? The only thing most authors can offer is the village hates the demon and exiled an important resource because they hate him.2/21 #12
First of all, I would have to say that it has to make sense with the setting. If your story is set in a world of highly visible ninjas with technology the level of standard steampunk story, don't give them something stupid like cyborg enhancement. The same with a certain story set in a world where magic explicitly stated to disable technologies. If it doesn't make sense with the setting, don't make the characters like that.
Second would be that the changes must make sense. A single event wouldn't immediately change someone 180 degree, at least it would take three (betrayal-to-contemplation-to-cynicism, for example). Despite what was said about backstories, since this AU character is somehow different, some hints needs to be given on why was he different, otherwise it might as well be an OC stand-in. And that lead to the next one: Don't make the changes to the characterization makes no sense that the character became an OC stand-in. AU Emiya Shirou must still have the traits of Emiya Shirou that the readers can say "This is Emiya Shirou after all!" Remember all of his traits and his deepest ones, and prove that this is still the old character after all.
(On Kotomine Shirou, it's in the name and different from many examples, this is actually semi-canon due to Apocrypha. It's a little exception, though it mainly stems from the name: Kotomine. Yeah, we all know how Kotomines are. With that said...)
Third, know the canon. Slapping the name Kotomine instead of Emiya on Shirou's name would make it make sense that he's... well, a troll. Now, the exiled Naruto... oh god, there's just so many wrongs on that one, from how Naruto is deep within, his importance to the village, the many people that would actually protect him. Don't bend canon to suit your needs. At least not too much. The more you bend canon, the more things you have to justify, to make acceptable, to make it make sense. The more you will have to write backstory too due to it, and you know how hard it can be to write acceptable, functional, and entertaining backstory.
Fourth is make sure that it's actually entertaining. There's a reason why escapism character exist as a category. With that said, don't disregard the usual rules in creating a character either. That could shatter readers' acceptances faster than you can post the backstory for the reason why the character is like that. They don't care, because, as far as it goes, it's a terrible character and so it's going to be a terrible story too. Do think what would be entertaining and would just be terrible writing, from what I've seen in many fanfics, the line seems to be a bit thin. If you don't stop and think for a while that is.
Fifth, try to keep it simple. Most of the good AU characters I know were made through only a slight change. Usually, it's only made of a single "What if?" An example of this would be Path of the King; it was basically just "What if Shirou actually goes vigilante". It makes things easier too anyway, and you can focus more on how they develop from there. If it's going to be complicated, I think it's better to just start simple or from canon and then develop it to that point you want. An example of this is FFD Shirou, which was made of a single What If on Kiritsugu part, then developed into the current Badass Shirou. And while some certainly complained, most people actually accepted it and liked it (it managed to please the people of In Flight Mechanics and some BL-ers actually liked it; that's an achievement there).
Lastly, make a good story. This rule can override other rule. You can make it complicated, utterly different from canon, make it a series outsider character, make him really strong and cool and badass... if you can make a good story out of it. Just don't go crying if there's many who throws complains and dropping midway though, first impressions matters (and subsequent impressions does too, but the first is the most important). On the flipside, you can follow all the rules, but if you can't make a good story out of it, it's useless.
So, all in all, it's not all that different from making a normal character. It's really not the OC's or the AU's fault, it's the author's inability to make a good character.
PS: Crack overrides any and all rules. As long as it's actually funny and humorous.2/21 #13
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