One of the worst insults you can hurl at an aspiring fan fiction writer (aside from the ever-popular ‘your father smells of elderberries’) is declaring that their characters are OOC (or Out Of Character for anyone not with the lingo). Any fan fiction that gets the label of OOC is generally seen as being inferior and contrary to the point of fan fiction.
Before we get into this, I think it’s probably best to mention that the fandom I spend the majority of my time in has characters that are only defined in broad strokes in the canon so I’m used to working with lots of room to move. Other fandoms (Most notably anything based on books or that is particularly character-driven) need to work within much stricter guidelines. Good luck to them.
And with that out of the way, let’s jump into trying to work out how to avoid getting the dreaded insult hurled at you.
Firstly, what exactly is OOC?
Seems like a pretty basic question. Surely there must be a clear, defining line between what is In Character (IC for the cool kids) and what is decidedly… not (I is good writer, yes?).
OOC can be defined as a character doing something that conflicts with their actions and character in the canon.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, things just don’t work that way.
Whether or not something is OOC is entirely subjective. ‘Though surely,’ you say ‘If you’re basing something on the canon, something that (presumably) doesn’t change, there should be no change in who a character is’. This feeds a little into the ‘There’s nothing simple about reading’ topic I talked about earlier and WILL write a post about one day. The idea of subjectivity is probably best illustrated with an example. Once again it’s from my pet fandom (if you ever get sick of the Bey examples just let me know and I’ll try and change it up).
One of Beyblade’s most fanficised characters (if not THE most) is Kai Hiwatari. For those of you who aren’t fans (you should totally be a fan) imagine your typical anime badboy. Doesn’t really speak except when necessary with the exception of delivering insults, comes complete with tragic backstory and a tendency not to show any real emotion. You know the type. Think of Kaiba from YuGiOh or Sasuke from Naruto. The ones who are too school for cool.
There are two main interpretations of his character. The first is that he is exactly as he appears: socially awkward, emotionally stunted and capable of bitching everyone out. The second is that he actually has quite a complex emotional life but has learned to hide it out of necessity (see tragic backstory).
These interpretations are contradictory but both can be seen as being in character. The first leads to fan fiction where Kai struggles with being an emotional retard while the second gives us a Kai that is not only driven by his emotions but has the capability of expressing them (Tragic back story being in the past and the power of friendship willing).
However (and this is the kicker) if you jumped straight from Kai in the canon to an emotional and caring Kai, people have legitimate reasons to be up in arms about his OOCness. YOU may see him as being full of all of these emotions and hidden feelings but up until this point we haven’t seen this in evidence.
So if your Kai starts crying in the first paragraph because of all of these hidden emotions I’m likely to call bullshit. Just saying.
So how do you show this aspect of his character that hasn’t been in evidence before?It’s all about character development. If your character has emotions or fears that up until this point haven’t been in evidence, introduce them to us gently and plausibly. Alternatively, if your story hinges on your character doing something that is contradictory to their given personality explain why they came to this decision. We all do things that are contradictory, it’s part of being human. But it’s your job as an author to stop your audience from crying bullshit and instead make them believe that your character really could make these choices.
When Things Go Wrong
There’s an old adage to write what you know. And this is especially true of characterisation and making characters plausible. In order to write someone realistically you have to have a good idea of how their mind works and everyone’s ready reference for how minds work comes from themselves. You can see this a lot in slash fics (which are mostly written by girls) where the characters are basically women with dangly bits. You can’t stop your characters from reflecting you. As the author you’re giving them life. But you can’t ignore that they have traits that are well-established in the canon and your readers expect to see that.
I once had an argument with another author about how I always tried to keep characters IC while I was writing. She pulled me up on it and told me that there should be no trying about it. They were either IC or not. You’ve already seen how that’s just not true with perceptions and so forth but the reason I gave her for my trying was because of the way I internalise my characters. My character’s choices are my choices. What they do is what I would do if I was them. That’s especially difficult if you’re writing a character that is worlds away from you but it’s important if you’re going to avoid the dreaded OOC charge.
How to stay IC
The best way (I’ve found) is to know your subject matter. And I don’t mean in the superficial ‘I’ve seen them in a few episodes’ kind of know. I mean ‘I can comfortably climb inside your head and know what you would do in X situation’ kind of know. And that comes from not only watching the character to see how they work in the canon material but also from reading other people’s fan fiction.
By reading what other people have written you get to form opinions about how you view the characters. Everyone has different ideas about what characters are like and by reading extensively you get to find out what views you agree with and what makes you roll your eyes. Once you’ve found those things ask the all important question of why? Why do you agree with this portrayal of the character? Why do you have the gut reaction of ‘They would never do that!’ Once you start asking these questions and finding out your answers to them you start to get a clearer picture of who the characters are to you and how you’re going to keep them in character.
Perhaps the best way to keep a character in character is to picture them doing what they’re doing in the story. Does it seem silly? Does it seem to belong more in a humorous crackfic than in your amazingly dramatic masterwork? Then you probably have a problem.
If someone accuses you of being OOC take the time to ask them why. Perhaps you haven’t properly developed the characters to make their actions plausible to the reader. Maybe you need to spend a bit more time translating the characters from your interpretation of them in your head to something on the page that others can read and understand.
Above all, trust your own judgement of the characters. As I’ve said before, whether something is OOC or not is ENTIRELY subjective. Be prepared to defend your stance on characters, YOU are the author and YOU have interpreted them this way. If someone disagrees with you then bully for them. They can go spend hours writing their own fanfic and leave your interpretations alone.
In Summary (TL;DR Version)
There’s only so much the canon can tell us about a character’s personality. It’s fan fiction’s job to extrapolate upon that given personality and run with it in another direction. However, if you’re going to use a different interpretation of the character (especially if you’re going against the grain) you better have a well thought out reason behind it.