The Dos and Don'ts of OCs · 1:12am
OCs. An acronym that sends a cold shudder down the spine of so many long-time FimFiction readers, and not without good reason. Nary a day goes by without the ‘New Stories’ box being graced with a story wherein some new pony wanders into town and befriends our beloved cast. And for the most part, these stories are... less than good. Which is a shame, really, because a good OC can open a ton of doors for an author to take their stories in directions that just aren’t possible if they restrict themselves to the canon personalities of established characters. And since I’ve been turning over questions about when and where they’re properly applied this evening, I figured I might as well share (read: inflict) some of my wisdom (read: bullshit-laden ramblings) onto all my adoring fans (read: people who sneezed mid-click and accidentally ended up here) while I try to hash out the things I’ve done right and wrong in the past. Some of the conclusions I’ve reached are common sense, while others are a bit counter-intuitive. And like all ‘Rules for Writing,’ the best stories are often ones that know when and where to break them.
DO: Make sure your OC has a life and identity of their own
Nothing makes a world start to feel claustrophobic like a network of characters who all share some pre-existing connection. The mare who just happened to be Twilight’s classmate back in Canterlot. The stallion who became a champion lasso-tosser after he just happened to watch Applejack win some tournament. It’s cheap and lazy characterization, and it defines your new character only in relation to another one. Imagine meeting a real-life celebrity on par with the Mane Six. Sure, they expect that you’ve heard of them, but going on and on about how you went to kindergarten together and you still have a scrap of the blankie they drooled on during naptime and omigosh isn’t it just kismet that we’re meeting again like this is a great way to get a complimentary escort out the back door by a large, burly man wearing a three-piece suit and an earpiece.
Bottom line: Your character should be able to carry a story that never intersects with the canon cast at all, at least in theory. If you do need to break this rule, try to do it retroactively. See Cheese Sandwich and the events of Cutie Mark Chronicles for reference. The connections are already existed, but the characters would be interesting even if they didn’t. It’s the gravy rather than the meat, is what I’m saying.
DON’T: Clone an Existing Character
‘My OC Tabula Rasa is a total nerd and bookworm! She’s usually pretty level-headed, but she can get totally crazy when she thinks she might disappoint her mentor, Brincess Belestia.’
Yeah, we already have that character. If you’re using an archetype that’s easily filled by an existing character, an OC might not be the right tool for the job. The exception is when your OC can serve as a shadow archetype to an existing character, a ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ warning who differs from the established character in only minor ways but ended up going in a totally different direction. A Sunset Shimmer to your Twilight, or an Algae Bloom to your Cloud Kicker. These sorts make great antagonists or anti heroes, generally.
DO: Beat the Shit Out of Them
Want your audience to like your original character? Make them suffer. Not randomly, mind, but as a direct consequence of one of their own screw ups (corollary: make sure your OC screws up from time to time). It’s a bit of a balancing act; an OC sentenced to death for littering is only going prompt eye rolling from your readers, but when in doubt harsher is better. Actually, I’d suggest making all your characters suffer as a general rule. Letting your universe knock them over and then kick them when they’re down only for them to learn a lesson and get back up again stronger than before is pretty much always compelling. Who doesn't love rooting for an underdog? It can be tough to follow through on this, especially since you probably like this character and want to coddle them. Fight that impulse. If you fudge the die rolls for them, so to speak, your readers will pick up on it. Do you want a Mary Sue? Because arranging events so that they always work out in your OC’s favor for no good reason is how you get a Mary Sue.
DON’T: Tell Me I Should Like Them
What makes readers think a character is awesome? That character does awesome things. That’s it.
Obvious, right? But a lot of people put the cart before the horse and just expect readers to like their OC because they give them attributes that they think are cool and expect it to rub off. If any of the following phrases appear when you’re describing your character...
‘Invented a groundbreaking device that gives him the power to...’
‘Received numerous awards for...’
‘The best [whatever] that [authority figure] has ever seen’
And so on and so forth
...then odds are I probably won’t give a damn . Nobody cares who your OC is going into the story. What they actually do on the page is a thousand times more impactful. Really, it’s just the old ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ advice gussied up in a new outfit. And don’t think you can slip these sorts of things past readers as long as you give your OC flaws to ‘balance them out.’ This isn’t some sort of point-buy RPG system, it’s a story. Give them core traits and beliefs, sure, but those things can lead to positive or negative characteristics. It’s actually better when strengths and weaknesses both feel like outgrowths of the same attributes.
DO: Buy a Slow Cooker and Learn How to Use It
This one has nothing to do with writing, I just really love my Crock-Pot. You can convince a truly absurd number of people you’re some kind of cooking savant when the limit of your ability is actually ‘chop stuff up, toss in pot, set to LOW for 10 hours.’
Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments.