What's this? Laichonious being serious? The world may very well end indeed...
Joking aside, (of course there will be more of that but just ignore it for now) I have been doing some thinking lately. As I hope you are all aware, 8/8/2012 is the last day that I will be accepting OC submissions, or until the release of the next chapter. If I publish the next chapter before that time, I might continue to accept late submissions up until the 8th.
Now to the part that I was thinking about. As you may have guessed from the title of this blogpost, I will be giving you all some advice on creating a solid character. I have received many submissions from you that have been great. Though I have also gotten several that I could not use. There are several reasons for this, but I will focus on three big ones: Personality, Presentation and Name. These are the three most important parts to a good character, at least in the context of adding an OC to TGBM. There are so many more parts to a character that are important to know, that I would end up writing a small book about that alone. I've simplified the process and asked for specific things in order to get a snapshot of your characters. From there I can build a behavior set for that character that I can use to portray them properly. I will be showing you some examples of character building that I use in my other writings that I think might help all of you in your efforts to enrich and embellish the magical world of My Little Pony.
First off, Personality. Easily the most important part; without a consistent personality, your character lacks stability. Inconsistent characters are jarring in a story, the reader never knows what to expect from them if they have clashing traits. Sometimes, this is the goal, such as a chaotic evil, or chaotic good character, but even then there is a continuity to that character. Heroes and heroines for the most part, are fairly well balanced people with a few shortcomings. A hero who is likable but has a phobia or self esteem issues usually makes for a solid protagonist because he has the drive, ambition, and charisma to be a hero yet he has inner struggles that he must overcome in addition to the external conflict of the story. Lots of people like to refer to this as 'depth'. I heard that term a lot when my brony friends were trying to turn me to pony. To my delight, I found that they were right. The characters we have grown to love have depth to their personalities because they are not perfectly rounded. They have chinks and cracks, imperfections, prejudices, opinions, fears, in short, they are real. The dynamics between the Mane 6 are some of the most fascinating things in the show. Where one falls short, another excels, this lends drama and interaction to the story as well as an element of believability as we watch them interact with each other. FIM is successful because they keep the characters consistent with how they were introduced. Drastic changes to their character have been used as indicators that something is wrong, though they may not say so directly, we pick up on it because that is how real people behave. 180 turnarounds in mannerisms, speech, opinion, behavior or attitude don't happen over night.
When you establish a character, make sure that you have their base traits written down. Write a short biography for them, make a quick sketch of their appearance in a short paragraph or even art, if you are so inclined. You can even write out a quick scene where they interact with another character. These will prove invaluable as you progress in a story for two reasons: 1. you have a resource to fall back on when putting your character in different situations. 2. You will have a reference for when your character started his quest and where he is when he finishes. Dynamic characters are the most fun to read about. A dynamic character is one who grows with the story, there is a change wrought in them that the reader can observe as the hero meets challenges and either succeeds, or fails. Most would argue that the hero failing a task is not good for a story, I would contend that the hero MUST fail several times before he should be allowed to succeed, otherwise there is little drama, no suspense and the victory at the climax of the arc feels hollow. In order to show a character's growth, you need to have a solid and recognizable starting point.
There are essentially two ways you can start a character: attractive or unattractive. Within these two categories you have all of the subcategories that we are familiar with such as the Idealist, or Ruffian, Scalawag or Simpleton. Making them attractive doesn't mean you describe them in a way that makes every woman's heart flutter or every man's eyes bulge. Remember, we are still talking about the personality here. An attractive personality means that they are likable, they have no major foible that instantly makes the reader want nothing more than to see the hero's smug face punched in. Dashing side characters with a lot of charisma tend to be an Attractive Scalawag or Ruffian. Rarely do we see a main hero this way. Such heroes tend to be morally ambiguous, and that can be very hard to keep consistent. They can be the most exciting characters sometimes because they start out as callous jerks that are in it for themselves and could care less for the welfare of people they don't know, but in a dramatic change of heart they show their true noble quality. Prime example: Han Solo. Though Han was important to the events of Star Wars, he was not the hero. Luke Skywalker is a perfect example of the classic hero archetype. He is what I classify as an Attractive Idealist. This is the most common type of protagonist. They are versatile characters because they tend to be young, inexperienced, naive, bold, energetic and determined. Their inexperience is their weakness and so as they experience hardship, love, success, and loss we can relate to them as they learn from it.
Unattractive heroes have obvious flaws that make them hard to be around. Most of the time this appears in the form of selfishness or misplaced ambition. They tend to be older characters, world weary, cynical, scarred and reluctant. Though the more dynamic ones tend to be young characters who are spoiled rotten rich kids or cruel, domineering thugs.
What does all of this have to do with your OC submission? A lot. Though I don't want your character's biography, classification, and path of growth, I want you to have it. When it comes time for you to condense what you know of your character into the snapshot that I need, you will have an example of what is most important. You should be able to describe your character with ten personality words. Five is obviously not enough to explain the facets of a real person and past ten, traits begin to repeat. Though you may argue that different words that are alike can describe different things, I would counter with your own argument. Make an executive decision; choose the words that carry the correct connotation. If one word is close but another has a negative connotation for a negative trait, pick that one, and vice versa. Don't pick words because you like how they sound or because you think that I will like them. I have gotten a few OC's that could be schizophrenic. They have so many conflicting personality traits it seems like they would go through life throwing dice or flipping a coin to make decisions. They come off as arbitrary, flat, and stagnant. Don't get me wrong, I'm delighted to have so much participation from all of you, but there are some things that just won't fly no matter how many rockets you strap to it, in fact the harder you try to do that, you may just have the whole thing blow up in your face.
Writing out a short biography will help tremendously in choosing the right words to describe your character. Knowing little things about their past can give you an idea of how that played into making them who they are. For an example, I have a short biography for the main character of another story that I am writing. This isn't at all pony related but it is a good example of how to quickly make a character:
Born May 18 2032 in the small town of Cambridge, Connecticut Wade Flick has an older sister and two younger brothers. At age 23 he stands at an inch short of 6 feet, his hair is an auburn mess of a mop, which is popular at the time. He dresses very well, usually on the edge of fashion, though he tends to be more relaxed than the really “chic” people. His first exposure to science and astronomy happened when he was 10, while he was at a friend’s house and he saw an old episode of Star Trek. He kept his new infatuation secret from his father, who wanted Wade to be a doctor, like him. His mother, however, was very supportive of her son’s passion for science and encouraged him to pursue it. So it came as no small shock to his dad when Wade announced that he was going to attend a prestigious school of science rather than medicine. It took some convincing but eventually his father supported his son’s chosen career. Wade loves superheroes, comic books and trading cards. Though these hobbies are very old fashioned in the future, they are not uncommon. Wade adores Pokemon, an old trading card game from the late nineties, and has an extensive collection of cards that he has been able to snag at garage sales and from rummaging in the basements of friends and family. He is very good with math and thinks about really big things all the time. This habit contributes to his tendency to be a little sloppy with the little things. He is very technically inclined and has had many jobs as a programmer and computer technician. His dream is to create a way to explore space like they did in Star Trek. Though the practicality/feasibility of “warping” through space is questionable Wade thinks that there is a way to use the physics of the very small to bypass the rules of the very large. He had the idea of the Quantum Gateway in his junior year at college. His professors told him it was impossible and that he should be pursuing real physics and not bothering with theoretical things. Later that year Darkmatter (which plays a big role in Wade’s theory) was proven to actually exist and the Scientific Reform began. This was good news for his theory but bad news for his education. The reform renders his freshman, sophomore and junior years incomplete. He opts in for a program that allows pre-reform students to graduate with a “proto-degree” but requires that they do two-year internships with a lab, research facility, or observatory. Because of this program, Wade technically graduates one year early. He chooses to do his two-year internship at the new Deep Space Relay in Honolulu. There, he meets Kevin Fenstermacher and they team up to make the Quantum Gateway a reality.
From this short biography I can pull ten words that would sum up Wade pretty well: Intelligent, obsessive, determined, self conscious, hard working, pragmatic, awkward, curious. Making Wade a middle child was done on purpose to give reason for his near obsessive drive to prove that he can do things on his own. Because of this, he works hard almost to the exclusion of all else, therefore making him somewhat socially awkward. In turn this makes him self-conscious, being an intelligent fellow, he can see that he has trouble interacting with other people. He tries to minimize this by dressing well, though he doesn't focus on it too much because he sees the pursuit of fashion and social status as a frivolous thing that can only really help him in securing the resources he needs to continue his research. He probably sounds like someone you know, or like a clone of any other big-thinking scientist from history.
Personality is a complicated thing, a lot goes into it and it is constantly shifting, evolving and growing. In the story with Wade, you may never get to learn he has younger siblings or where he was born or where he lived before going to school or even the school he attended, what's important is that the information is there when and if you need it. As I have shown, it can help you in deciding on what words to use to describe your character's personality accurately. Notice how the biography says nothing in relation to what is happening in the story after he gets to the Deep Space Relay in Honolulu. This is very important. If you want to map out what happens to a character, do that in a completely separate document. Not just for organizational purposes but also for simplicity. If you start to delve into how a character will react to his adventure you will confuse the biography. It will cease to be a resource and become liability, because you are moving forward in time where events are supposed to change that character it will be hard to use as a contrasting reference.
Now for a pony example. I have selected one OC submission that I ended up using in the story. There is nothing about this submission's structure that made it stand out to me, rather it was the simplicity.
Psych profile: A nerd who is loyal to his few close friends.
Cutie Mark: a stack of three books, the bottom one black, the one above that is blue, and the top one is green. They aren't quite straight, and there’s a few bookmarks hanging out of each. His special talent happens to be memorizing, though not quite perfect recall of, facts as well as where he saw things.
I could pull a lot out of this very short but informative description. By the way, that is verbatim how it was submitted to me. Though he interpreted my ten word count limit as a sentence, he picked the perfect sentence. A nerd who is loyal to his few close friends says a lot about this character. He has few friends meaning that he is either shy or socially hindered. He might come across as unapproachable because of his talent for observation, he sees things differently from others and this will show in his mannerisms and speech. He would be quiet, a thinker. He likes to categorize and analyze everything and consider events. He has a lot in his head that he wants to share but doesn't for fear of being 'boring'. He is comfortable with the few friends he has because they listen to him. This makes him fiercely loyal to them, always willing to help them out or lend his knowledge in any way he can. This further accentuates his nerdiness because he tends to be introverted around those he doesn't know. He would rather sit back and observe rather than get involved directly. He is comfortable with the other bronies he's with in the story because they have been in the same situation for a few years. This connection makes him come out of his shell a little. Though the others joke and jab, he is willing to put up with it because he knows that they value his opinion. All of that, I got from ten words. Think on that for a while.
Now that personality is out of the way, we can move on to the other two, more simplistic, elements of a character.
Presentation refers to how you organize your character's information. I got a lot of submissions that used a variety of formats to explain their characters. I got block paragraphs, lists, reports, synopses and pictures. All were well and good but they proved to be hard to organize. Not having a template to follow made it so that submissions would be missing crucial bits of information, like the OC's name or the OC Creator's name, gender, sometimes even the type of pony. I need all of those things in order to keep track of them. When I have a part to fill, I can quickly find the right OC for the job, granted the information is uniform and complete. In my module for the Submission Guidelines I included a template, I'll put it in here too:
OC Creator: Laichonious
Type: Pegasus Stallion
Pony Creator Code: 2S2S0040104053B2FED59E003009F00DDUI1837000000001H1FEFF73827E001L107F3FCC004CB2
Psyche: Quiet, Outgoing, dependable, stubborn, easy going, takes leadership very seriously
Cutie Mark: Silver horseshoe, standing on the bend with one stylized golden wing attached. He was a pilot before coming to Equestria, specializing in smaller planes. During his last job as a bush pilot in Alaska, he and his four passengers were nearly killed when an unexpected storm blew in off the Bering Sea. He was able to fly his plane blind almost to Anchorage before clipping the side of a mountain and crash landing. Miraculously, everyone survived. His friends like to call him ‘the flying good luck charm’
Cloudhopper doesn't feature very prominently in the story, he's been mentioned perhaps three times, but he plays an important role for the bronies. He is the head flyer, or Ace as the other pegasi have taken to calling him, in charge of all the brony Wing groups. I didn't know if I was going to use him a lot as a character but I came up with a biography for him anyway. I have perhaps twenty some-odd biographies of characters for TGBM alone, many of them are characters you will see only once and some you will never see at all. Though, to be fair, I have biographies for each of the mane six, the Princesses, the CMC, Spike, and a few background ponies, so most of those biographies are already pretty much complete before I get to them. I have several versions of these biographies as well for each of the stories I have planned, because those stories take place at different points on the timeline I need to include events that happen in stories preceding the one the bio is for. It's a lot like the preproduction of a movie, I assemble dossiers of the cast, I plan out the roles for each cast member and then I pick out locations and scenes. There is an awful lot of organization and work that I put into a story before I even get to write the first sentence. I'm not telling you this to make you feel like slackers or lazy writers, I rather admire people who can just pull solid stories out of their heads with little prior thought. I have to do it this way, otherwise I'll confuse myself. I am telling you all of this because I want you to see the process. The more you understand, the better your own writing or character creation will be. I'm here as much for you, the readers, as I am for myself.
Now on to the most troublesome yet simplest part of an MLP character. The name. I love the names the ponies have, there is something just fun and happy and plain weird about the ponies' names. Here's some of my universe lore for you: The ponies are named at birth either by their parents or by somepony appointed to the job by Princess Celestia. The name giver is entitled to a special glimpse of the future for that foal. The name a foal receives may hint at that foal's talent, down the road, or may be part of what the pony must understand in order to find his/her talent. With this in mind, I try to pick names that are indicative in some way to the pony's character. I'm sure that this is no surprise to all of you. Still, I have gotten some submissions that possess names so unwieldy, it almost hurts to type them. Big red flags wave in front of my face every time I see a name that has some reference to the military or the word 'the' in there somewhere and even if it has more than three words. Pick a name that means something, and not just something superficial. Try to detach your character from whatever lore or backstory they may have and use something that describes them as a pony, rather than a composite of things that have happened to the character. This includes titles of any kind.
Going back to the example I pulled from the submissions; Lexicon is a simple name that describes the character quite well. It is an older word, one that we don't normally use in our everyday lives but it means more than just 'book'. A lexicon is actually a repository, usually of a set of words or terms in relation to a specific field of study or profession. Perfect name. Let's look at another one from a pony I made up. Ribbon, the flirtatious, fiery, opinionated, and energetic pegasus mare featured in the story, is loosely based off of a friend of mine. I chose the name Ribbon because she was a contortionist/gymnast before becoming a pony and whenever I'm around her real life counterpart, I always have the strong impression of a long ribbon streaming in the air in all sorts of designs. She is a lot of fun to be around. She has a sharp tongue, a quick wit and can dance circles around you like it's nothing, all day long. She is also very free spirited and, for the most part, carefree. Just like a ribbon on the breeze. I view the ponies' names as being akin to the names of Native Americans. They are very descriptive and are comprised of words from their everyday language, but when they are coupled together and attached to a person, they take on a new dimension.
I will touch very lightly on one other thing: color. I will try to stick with any color scheme you come up with but there are some that are either just too hard to explain or just plain bad. I would encourage you all to pay close attention to how they pick colors in the show. They are often pastels, making combinations that would be imposing into combinations that are pleasing to the eye and non-threatening. Try to break the mold a bit, branch out. See how something not blue or not red looks to you. One way you can pick a color scheme is by looking up what each color signifies or represents. Take that color and play with the saturation or vibrancy. Look up the names of colors, I do this all the time to change up the vocabulary of my writing and to paint a more accurate picture of what I see in my head. There are thousands of names for colors, almost as many names as there are shades. If you don't believe me, look no further than the paint department at your local home improvement shop.
So to wrap this up: Take a moment and ponder what makes your character who he/she is. Support those traits with facts about that character, whether they be events, their family situation or their social class. Write it down, put it someplace safe and accessible, use it constantly. Follow your instincts, if a character feels a bit unreal, it's probably because they are. Be organized, plan it out, write it down, use it, change it when necessary but check for continuity. Draw from examples in other stories, use what has come before and reinvent it for yourself. Research, a little googling goes a long way.
That was a bit more than what I had originally planned to say; I had a lot on my mind I guess. Fun fact: all that up there is a little over 4k words. I hope this helps, not only in improving the quality of submissions, but also improving each of you who choose to follow this advice. I learned most of this from a self-published English professor who works at my college, he's a very shrewd dude. I have noticed a marked improvement in my own writing as I have practiced these points and used it to my advantage. Who knows what sort of amorphous, confused blobs of stories I would write without this organization.
I often make light of what I do, mostly because I can't take myself very seriously and it helps me cope with how terrible I am at it, hahahaha! It's not all fun and games though when it comes to stories, at least for me. I've said it before, and I say it again; Stories are serious business. I want to be able to not just tell a story, I want to take my readers with me on an adventure that will help them grow as much as it does the characters in the story itself. Every good story should give something back to you in return for the time you spend in reading it.
Well, that's enough of me rambling, I'll get off my soapbox and let you all return to your daily lives.