Salvaging Canonical Characters

For many people, pre-existing settings are the way to go, gaming or writing. They save a lot of the work of world creation, freeing up the adapter to focus on plot or to create little details that would take too long to work out otherwise; they give the audience a background of things they know about the world, saving time and effort on exposition from the adapter and active research from the players; and it’s easier to find someone “in the know” to bring in as a conspirator, as people with an idea how the world works are more common.

Photo by verserk

But there’s one major problem with pre-existing settings: most of them come with pre-existing characters. Leaving aside the issue of managing to sound true to a character who existed with someone else’s voice, there are a lot of reasons why they might just not work with the adapter’s approach to the world. Sometimes they just aren’t detailed enough, or you just can’t wrap your head around them. Some would, as originally written, kill your plot just by existing. Some (particularly in games that get reissued; this happens to me a lot) were fine a few supplements ago, but the new details just don’t work. Still others are just fine except that their original characterization incorporated a rather obnoxious stereotype that really isn’t necessary to the character (though this is highly subjective).

The easiest way of dealing with these people is to avoid them. The adaptation might be in the wrong region for the canonical character; conversely, the canonical character may currently be off solving a problem more appropriate to his skills elsewhere. Some people just write them out entirely, though that can backfire if the character’s impact on the surrounding world isn’t also written out or otherwise compensated for. Some kill them off as soon as possible. (With some of the canonicals out there, I can’t blame them.) Some just change whatever they need to and call it a project.

But some people try to write them in a way that the audience won’t object to, turning working with the canonical character into a personal challenge. The difficulty, of course, is the audience itself, and the audience’s expectations. How do you work around people who “know” the character at least as well as you do?

First, figure out who the canonical character is. This is the most important step: changing the essence of the character is the surest way to get called out for adaptation decay. The character’s mindset is likely to be one of the most unchangeable features; you can’t just turn a sociopathic zealot on a one man holy war into a friend to all. Similarly, known major backstory events and existing relationships are probably not to be too heavily altered. If you must change something (and if so, I recommend making sure people know it’s likely/going to happen; people can get touchy when their expectations are foiled), it’s best to leave it at the one change and whatever ripples that change might have, so people can still accept the results. Some of the essence of the character is what the character isn’t; keep this also in mind.

An exception to the no essential changes rule is if you have a time gap to play with. People aren’t static; the untrained pick up new skills or give up on their studies, the perceptive realize their impact on people and (usually) adjust accordingly, the driven might achieve their goals and find new ones or get worn out trying. Having a time gap means that changes can be excused to a certain point; if you can explicate how the change occurred in a character-consistent manner, you can get away with a lot more than if you’re just straight-modifying the character.

Once you’ve got the essence nailed down, the rest of the details are fair game. In my games, I favor seeing how many gaps I can fill in without contradicting the source material, or how many new directions I can go in with the information I have. Is there a power or personality quirk that hasn’t been explained, or that the original creator didn’t consider all the ramifications of? How might this character be affected by whatever changes to the existing timeline you’re considering using? What about interactions with newly created characters? Are there any interesting hobbies the character could feasibly have? What are their current plans?

Note that this is mostly from a roleplayer’s standpoint, as that’s where all my experience lies. Are there any fanfic writers or readers who can tell me what their community’s other rules are? Gamers who think I missed something? Combinations of the above? Let me know what I’m missing!

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. The Kernel of a Character | Exchange of Realities
  2. Impractical Applications (Canon-Wrestling) | Exchange of Realities

Leave a Reply