Basic Tips To Improve Your OCs & Fan Characters

Not sure how to make a good OC? Do you suspect an OC you already have might need a bit of work, but you're not exactly sure where? Having a lot of trouble getting people to like your OC in general? Here are some tips for you!

Last updated: July 3rd, 2021

Get to know the universe you're working with. You should try and develop a good sense of the setting's lore and the overall tone of the work by paying careful attention, both to elements the story focuses on and to elements that hang mostly in the background. You want to create a character who feels like they genuinely belong in this world, rather than one who feels like they were built for an entirely different universe. (If the character concept you really want to go with just doesn't jive with canon, you should probably consider developing a setting that actually suits them.) Also, you might take a look at Telling Story Canon From Personal Bias, Erroneous Memories, & Fanwank to help you sort out any misassumptions you may have made from actual canon.

Know that every set of OCs based on a particular work will end up with their own set of cliches. If you want to make sure your OC stands out from the crowd, you'll probably want to spend a little time looking at other people's OCs to see what everyone is doing. Something else you can do is dismiss the first several ideas you come up with, because odds are good that they were everyone else's first ideas, too.

Consider the narrative you want to build around or with your OC. What kind of story do you want to tell, and what role do you want your OC to play within it? Is there an overall theme or mood you're aiming for? Is there a statement you're trying to make? Or are you just goofing around for the fun of it? Think about your aims and goals here, because you want to create a character who aligns with them. For example, giving your character a bunch of really strong powers might seem fun, but it will very likely undermine any effort to create a sense of genuine challenge or risk for them, which isn't great if you want to write an exciting adventure story. If your character is supposed to be lovable and sympathetic, having them attack and insult other people over petty things all the time probably won't help with that. Also, you might be interested in reading Common Heroic Narrative Tropes We Should Question.

Remember that the world is much bigger than what canon focuses on. It's easy to think of the people, events, and various other elements that canon focuses on as the only things that exist or really matter in the universe. For example, it's easy to think that there's no one else worth knowing besides the canon characters, and therefore, these are the only people your OC should be associated with. However, giving your character friends, family (and even parents!), rivals, and other connections to people who weren't part of canon arguably creates a much richer character concept because it adds more depth and complexity. Plus if canon has a large cast of characters, and/or some who have strong hostilities toward each other, it generally feels more natural your OC isn't personally connected or aquainted with each and every one of them. One thing you might try is that for every canon character your OC knows, give them two non-canon connections.

Do your best to develop their backgrounds, personalities, and goals. Try to give them core drives - these deeply-held attitudes, beliefs, and values can help ensure that your OCs never end up dull or passive. Also, you might take a look at Character Development Questions and Simple Ways To Fill Out & Humanize Your Character, and come up with as many answers as you can. And you can check out Building Better Backstories - Tips & Ideas for more tips on creating interesting and solid backgrounds.

Unless you have a narrative goal in mind, try to avoid making your OCs into clones, carbon copies, or amalgamations of the canon characters in some way. Characters who have their own things going on are generally more interesting and memorable than those who don't. So you should probably try to avoid, say, creating an OC with the exact same skillset as a canon character, or one that looks nearly identical to a canon relative, or has a near-identical personality of some canon character or other, or has the same tastes and interests. Likewise, don't just make your character a mashup of the canon characters' traits. Try to give them traits and characteristics that set them apart from the canon characters, even if they are related to them. A good way to go is to make sure that they share no more than a third of their primary traits with the main cast.

Also, you might want to hold off on power/skill copying. While it's not always a bad trope, I'd recommend not giving your character the ability to copy other people's powers or skills unless you have a specific narrative reason for it. The reason is that this trope often stems from a lack of commitment to an actual character concept or narrative, and it doesn't really give your character anything to do besides filling in for other characters. Instead, I suggest sticking to about 2-3 things your character can do really well and finding ways to be creative with them.

If you're having trouble figuring out how to set your OCs' traits, interests, and backstories apart from the canon characters, do not panic! You can check out the Basic Character Premise Generator, the Backstory & Origin Generators, and the Character Detail Generators. You can also take a look at "Help! I Need Ideas For My Story/Setting/Character!" - How To Get Ideas For Yourself!. You can also go to Printable Character Sheets for some random generation tables you can use offline.

Need help coming up with good designs for your OCs? Check out Tips 'N Stuff For Better Character Design.

Generally, try to avoid making the scale and scope of their talents, skills, abilities, etc. vastly exceed the scale and scope of the canon characters'. Take a look at how many talents, skills, and abilities that the canon characters have and what all they can do with them, and try to proportion your characters' own talents, skills, and abilities similarly. For example, if it takes a canon character several minutes of concentrated effort to cast a spell that creates a perfect cake, your character probably should not be able to just magically poof several fine dresses into existence with a snap of their fingers. In a setting where the canon characters specialize in one or two skills apiece, your character should not be loaded down with as many skills as you think are nifty - keep it to one or two, like the rest of the characters.

You should generally try to avoid giving your OC extraordinarily contrived traits and backstory elements. For example, if a magical trinket is firmly established to be one-of-a-kind, having your OC pop up with a duplicate or counterpart out of nowhere can feel pretty contrived. (Again, try not to overrely on canon characters as templates.) Likewise, making your OC a member of a fantastic species that's managed to completely avoid detection or just went completely unmentioned despite being present and involved in the world can seem a bit off. (Again, if an element feels like it belongs in another universe, you should probably just put it in another universe.) And of course, contriving a bunch of extreme pain and misery for your OC to try and make them seem sympathetic or more "interesting" is a pretty cheap and insensitive way of portraying trauma, since it effectively turns suffering into a contest and suggests that someone's pain and suffering doesn't warrant sympathy unless it's dramatically worse than somebody else's, or that your own pain is invalidated if somebody else has it worse than you. For more info, you might want to check out How To Avoid Making Your Story And Characters Feel Contrived.

Seriously, don't feel like you absolutely have to create a special, unique reason for others to care about your OC. Your OC is a person, and that alone should be a sufficient reason to care about them. The idea that only special, extraordinary people are worth caring about is rooted in elitism, and the assumption that canon characters would or should only care about such people is quite frankly really weird and even kinda creepy. This isn't to say that your character can't be special or unique in some way, of course, because they absolutely can! You just shouldn't feel like they absolutely have to be.

Likewise, don't feel like you have to compete with the canon characters. There's nothing wrong with creating an OC who could kick a canon character's butt, per se. But thinking that it makes one's OC an objectively better, cooler character, or that it's even necessary to establish them as such, is an incredibly misguided approach toward character design and storytelling. Characters exist first and foremost to create narrative, and most narratives are fundamentally about people dealing with or overcoming challenge. And it's pretty hard to challenge characters with unlimited skill or power. Therefore the idea that a stronger, more skillful character is inherently "better" than a weaker, less skilled character is complete nonsense.

If there's a whole bunch of cool or nifty character traits that appeal to you, try spreading them out across multiple OCs. A lot of people try to put all of the neat character traits they like onto one single OC, regardless of whether they make sense in context, or whether they really fit the tone, style, and lore of the setting. Such characters often end up feeling overwrought and out of place. So rather than loading one single character down with all the traits you like, try spreading them out across multiple characters. You could even make some of these OCs friends, family, or rivals of your first OC, which helps you avoid having an OC with literally no social connection outside of canon characters. If the traits don't really fit the setting, save them for an OC in a setting they do fit. (And remember, if you can't find a world they work for, you can build one yourself!)

Consider your OC's intended actions from other points of view. It's easy to get so focused on your OC's perspective that you don't really think about how they might come across to someone else. When that happens, it's awfully easy to end up with a character who just doesn't come across the way you intended. Ask yourself how you'd feel if someone treated your friends and family the way your OC treats the canon characters. Would you be upset? Then there's a good chance your OC might not endear your audience. (Which is fine and good if your OC is supposed to be a villain, of course!) You definitely want to avoid protagonist-centered morality, and you should be mindful that violating people's boundaries willy-nilly probably isn't a great look. If your OC does genuinely bad things, don't downplay it - own it. Use it to create a better narrative, whether it's through embracing your OC's status as a flawed human being or even a villain, and/or by giving them an arc where they accept that they messed up and take responsibility for it. However you go about things, you definitely want to avoid character infatuation.

Try to make your OC reasonably self-sufficient and willing to solve their own problems. There's nothing inherently wrong with having canon characters help or rescue your OC, especially if it fits their personality. But making your OC into a complete damsel in distress and making the canon characters take responsibility for their happiness, comfort, and welfare is a bit ridiculous, and diminishes them as characters. For example, if your OC wants to learn magic and isn't meant to be seen as an entitled dillweed, they should be willing to actually sit down and read some books or watch some videos on it, rather than expecting the extremely busy wizard to completely clear their schedule for personal lessons.

Try not to make the canon characters overreliant on your OC. Conversely, you don't want to reduce the canon characters to damsels in distress who constantly need your character to bail them out. Don't make them so laughably incompetent around the home that they wouldn't know where their own heads were if your character wasn't there to help them. While your OC can definitely be useful and helpful, the canon characters shouldn't be infantilized to make your OC's help a necessity.

You should probably avoid shortcutting their relationships with canon characters. As a general rule, you'll have a much more enjoyable and interesting narrative if you let your OC build up their relationships with canon characters in a natural, organic way. Taking shortcuts like having your OC magically already know a canon character's whole entire history or having the characters sense that they're each other's soulmates can feel forced and rushed. It doesn't really give potential audiences time to warm up to the character and get on board with what's happening.

You should probably avoid giving them unlikely knowledge about the canon characters in general. Having your OC know things that canon characters wouldn't be likely to talk about with others (EG, sensitive personal information, the details of a dark and troubled past, etc.) can seem like a way to make them intimate faster, or like a way to make your OC seem cool or clever. In reality, it often just makes them look like a stalker or bully. Which, if that's your intention then that's fine - but if it's not, you may want to reconsider.

Avoid multiverse travelers. Much like power/skill copying, this trope often stems from a lack of commitment to a solid character concept or narrative. Functionally, multiverse travelers usually end up being tourists whose only goal is to visit famous destinations, meet celebrities, and collect souvenirs. Treating another narrative as a tourist destination for your OC is a really shallow way for them to integrate and engage with the setting. (Arguably, it's even a little creepy - what kind of person treats actual people's lives and struggles as a travel destination?) So instead, I suggest creating different versions of your OC, each one tailored specifically to each universe; or, just create more OCs. (You can never create too many OCs!) However you go about it, focus on what grounds and ties them to the world around them - EG, their background, their community, and so on.

Try not to shoehorn your OCs into places where there is no canonical room for them. Once again, the universe is likely much bigger than what's focused on in canon, so there's most likely loads of room to insert your OC into without changing the established story. And your OC can absolutely be interesting and important without being attached to some notable canon element from the start. So for example, if canon clearly shows us that two characters created the mystical crystal of power, don't try to establish your character as a third creator who was very clearly not there originally. If a prophecy very obviously didn't leave wiggle room for anyone else, don't try to make up a "lost" addition to the prophecy or whatever.

Handle OC/canon relationships with care. If you've really got your heart set on writing an OC/canon romance story, do your best to make the story a solid one. Don't have contrived nonsense such as the characters realizing they're soulmates in fifteen minutes or having love redeeming a longtime villain. Don't demonize or abruptly kill one canon character to render another suddenly single. And be aware that things like teacher/student relationships are always inappropriate, and that it's scientifically proven that age is not just a number. You can also take a look at the articles over in Relationships, Romance, & Shipping.

An OC whose purpose is to "set things right" isn't a great concept. Fix-it fics are great, but adding an OC is basically superfluous since you could just have the canon characters make different choices of their own free wills. Plus, "came to set things right" is a pretty weak and uncompelling character concept. Additionally, these narratives suggest that the canon characters can't just be allowed to just make their own decisions and deal with the consequences themselves, which is a pretty infantilizing outlook. Like, the reality is that your OC isn't "setting things right." The reality is that your OC is imposing your preferences on the story. And of course, writing a story to suit your preferences isn't a bad thing, but getting all hoity-toity about it like this is an extremely vain approach.

You probably shouldn't create an OC whose purpose is to beat up a character you don't like. The reason is, this is all tied into the problem of blaming individual characters for bigger narrative issues. Instead, I suggest you take some time to think about what messages the overall narrative appears to be sending sending that are making you uncomfortable. Then think about why that's making you uncomfortable. For example, a story in which everyone loves a certain character despite the mean comments and petty cruelty they aim at them paints a narrative that fails to acknowledge the harm of these behaviors, and thereby suggests that bullying is harmless fun. A story that constantly draws attention to how powerful a character is, and acts as if everyone should admire them for this power, implies that might makes right and that the weak are obligated to bow down to the strong.

When in doubt, ask yourself what your narrative goals are. Taking a moment to consider (or figure out) your narrative goals can solve a whole bunch of problems. Are you trying to write a romance? A romp? A rampage? Are you trying to make a particular statement? What role is your character supposed to play in the narrative? What kind of characteristics and traits would likely help here? What might detract from or even undermine your intentions?

Is your OC meant for a roleplay? Then check out Basic Tips To Make Better & More Appealing Roleplaying Characters.

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Describing Your Character: Tips & Advice
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