Let's Talk About Character for a Minute
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Note: What started as a forum post meant to bring the conversation about characterization (and what I feel is a lack of it) into the forefront of community consciousness turned into a 3K+ word persuasive essay. Turns out, I have a lot to say about it. Don't take this as a guide. That's not what it is. Just one voice, shouting above the din.

This is A Very Weird Time…

It's a time in site evolution when new, fresh characters are desperately wanted, and at the same time no one is willing to write them. Strange as it sounds, we're all part of a speculative fiction culture where character development has become unfashionable.

As fodder for tales, background for SCiPs, and vehicles for stories, characters can serve as a kind of conceptual anchor, provide context and perspective through which a reader can experience a larger narrative. They're one of the 3 basic elements of successful fiction writing. The other two, Setting and Plot, we have in spades: The Setting is the Foundationverse, a world being torn assunder by anomalies where everything is real and nothing is real all at once. The Plot? We've got that, too. Tons of devices for generating it, each with a small story unto themselves. Several established canons successfully providing context for an ever-growing body of work, which explore both consequences and hope of redemption.

Characters? Bright, Rights, Light, Konny, Cleffy, Gears, Glass, Lament, Lombardi, Mary-Ann, Salah, and a cornucopia of bit-parts, red-shirts, and one-offs. There are almost 2,000 plot devices tailor-made for the World of the Weird we've created together, and only a dozen or so characters remarkable and memorable enough to meaningfully handle it.

How did this happen?

I think it has something do to with this:

  • "No Self Inserts!"
  • "Author Avatars are lame!"
  • "Mary Sue! MARY SUE!"
  • "OMG come on, the Foundation would never employ an anomalous person!"
  • “I just don’t care about them. Focus on the object.”

While all of these criticisms can be valid if applied well, it is my opinion that at least two of these are seriously over-applied, and I want to address how and why before we talk about what I think needs to be done.

"We Would Never Employ an Anomalous Person"

I have never heard a more perplexing piece of advice, and I see it offered with astonishing regularity. I think it strikes me weird mostly because anomalous persons used to be the bread-and-butter of this wiki. Now I'm not suggesting we launch into a super-power fest of epic proportions, but I think we need to look more closely at this hard and fast rule.

Our staff characters, the best loved and most often referenced characters the SCP Foundation has ever produced are Anomalous Persons. That's just the truth. The compulsory cursed immortal. The possible android. The woman who has survived several reboots of the universe. The faceless man who god and the devil both know by name. And even a talking dog.

If we forever forbid present and future users from ever doing it again, we will permanently stifle our potential for narrative development and creativity.

So let's look at this with a mind to the future and ask honestly: is it true? I don't think so. Foundation might very well employ anybody, so long as there's a significant gain toward Security, Containment, and Protection. For instance: a loyal security guard who served with a perfect record for five years before getting grabbed accidentally by SCP-212. He comes out with robot legs and an eye that can see heat signatures, but is otherwise healthy and normal. Must we remand him to permanent containment? Does it make sense to do something like that when there's an invisible ghoul three rooms down that's lightning fast and can only be detected by its heat signature? Would a valuable employee for 5 excellent years with an outstanding record, really just be written off rather than used as an asset?

Some Foundations might lock him up. My Foundation surely wouldn't. Because that would be a senseless waste of good personnel resources. Hell, I’d give him bonus for valor in the line of duty and transfer him to the ghoul project. Restrict his movement, perhaps; make sure he doesn't get contact with civilians (which honestly would be a good idea for character development, and a fun avenue through which we can explore his psyche), but there's no reason to keep such a man in a box.

Moral of the story: An anomalous person can be a fine character, but only if its need is clear and the character is well-justified. Bright gets to go free because he's incredibly smart and his many lives gives him insight into people and make him a master Personnel director. Clef goes free because few know to deal with gods and devils like he does, and even fewer have the will to do so when the moment comes to pull the trigger. Gears goes free because whether or not he's made of clockwork, he's marvelously precise and the model for a professional, thorough, tenacious, and dispassionate researcher.

“Mary Sue”

So what is she?

Mary Sue was originally coined as a term after “Lieutenant Mary Sue”, an intentionally bad wish-fulfillment type character constructed specifically to decry the trend of really bad characters in Star Trek fanfiction. Since then, the term has been tossed about like a conceptual rag-doll and is often employed as a catch-all for underdeveloped or under-justified characters. And yet Mary Sue isn’t actually the end-all and be-all of bad characterization.

The Grand Unifying Law of the Mary Sue has to do with her purpose. Mary Sue is a vehicle not for an interesting story or a novel plot development; She’s a way for the author to fulfill their fiction-related fantasies. Any other trait or list of traits we can come up with arise out of this one principle. The super-skill, the stunning physical appearance, the “too good for this world” moral compass, the lack of character flaws, the ability to survive a situation that has killed everyone else: all of these things are legitimately bad story telling techniques, and we’re right to criticize them. Mostly because it’s a sign of an author throwing themselves into their work (but not the good way like you wanted). It makes the work of fiction an extension of the author’s self, makes them connect with it in an unhealthy way, sometimes going to the extreme and giving an author a way to feel as though they have had these experiences, rather than the character.

But for all of its validity, this is probably my very least favorite criticism tossed around any writing community or fan-base. Mostly because no one can agree what traits in particular constitute a Mary Sue. So here's a short list of things that Mary Sue is not.

  1. Mary Sue is not a character you don't particularly like. You're not going to relate well to every character every author writes, no matter how well conceived they are. It's okay to not like it without pulling out the cyanide.
  2. She is not a character with a remarkable trait. All Characters are remarkable in some way. That's what makes them worth reading about.
  3. She's not simply any attractive, likeable, insightful, or socially adept person. These people exist in real life, and people actually do like them for it.
  4. Mary Sue doesn't actually have anything to do with the character's name. Self-inserts are annoying for different reasons.
  5. She is not any newly made character in a position of leadership or power. As with the presence of remarkable traits, powerful people make for good stories that people want to read.

There’s a moral here, too: “Mary Sue” as a catch all criticism is a good way to get people to throw out what might end up being a damn good character given a little more effort. New writers especially are horrified by the egotistical “special snowflake” implication that calling a character a Mary Sue represents, and there are plenty of established authors (on-site and off) who throw that criticism around where it’s not necessary. If we’re trying to build better writers here—and I think we are—then maybe we’d be better served by pointing out specific flaws rather than defaulting to an overused trope.

So how do we go about fixing it? This is where I think this discussion can really thrive! Let’s focus not on what doesn’t work; let’s focus on what works! Turns out I have a couple ideas of my own.

1. Justify Your Bullshit

When I was an actor, one of the things my teacher/director focused on most was justification. A killer isn't just a killer, he's a human being. He's doing what he's doing for a very good reason (to his mind), and you have to know that reason and act with that in mind. With a written character, it's much the same way.

Let's take Kondraki as an example. Now, Konny is a pretty bland character by today's standards. Eh kills teh bad guize and doesn't afraid of anything. Looking at him through the eyes of "lolKonny's so badass" is going to make you hate him as a character of random unchecked aggression.

But let's flip that… Dr. Kondraki is a sociopath. He sees no value in people because people are just objects like any other object in this world. They can be used to great effect if you know how, but otherwise they're disposable. And he's in the position he's in now because O5 and his Site Director need a goddamn bulldog on their side to keep all the D's in line. Give them something scarier than themselves and perhaps as scary as an anomaly to deal with, keep them in line. And in the meantime if something terrible happens to the site, his goal-oriented consequences-be-damned attitude is exactly what would be necessary to contain the situation.

Looks a lot better, doesn't it? Same behavior, but one is justified by the narrative and the other isn't. The changes may be subtle, but they make all the difference.

2. Remarkable Circumstances: Remarkable People.

This is something I touched on before, but it bears mentioning again: Regular people make for horrid fiction. This is the reason so many readers are jaded by your watered-down self-named Doctor. He's simply not remarkable enough for them to care.

Think about it. Joe Blow down the block who works the convenience store over in Melbrook. Is this guy equipped to handle an outbreak of the Clockwork virus? Sandy Mae from accounting with the little googly-eyed pom-poms on the back of every one of her pens. Does she have what it takes to drive something back into the Red Pool? NO! Of course they don’t and they’re not expected to! What you need in a good character is something that makes them useful. Some skill or insight or ability or trait that makes it a good idea to put these people in the unenviable position of standing in the dark so that mankind can live in the light.

On Second Thought…: Perhaps it might be necessary to clarify, I'm not necessarily advocating that anomalies and super-competent best-in-their-class people are the only way to get there. You don't need superpowers to be remarkable, and often some of the flattest characters get that way because the author focuses too much on how cool their abilities are and not enough on making the character alive. Remarkabily and memorability can spring forth from any fully-realized character, despite their abilities or mental capacity being "mundane".

To paraphrase Peter Brook: If you're portraying a mundane, pencil-pushing, narrow-minded cretin, you must take for granted that he is more horrifically mundane, more incipiently narrow-minded, and more marvelously cretinous than you are even capable of being. It's a good, reliable way to make sure that no matter how 'normal' the nuts and bolts of the character might appear, they will still read 'remarkable' on the page.

The possibilities are literally without limit, and I won’t mention the ones that come to mind here. After all, I’m trying to encourage innovation here.

3. Know Your Audience

On this point, I want to emphasize the need for careful planning and execution. Like any idea, a character that is not executed properly is going to fail, every time. All characters, as part of an SCP or a Tale, will of course be subject to the same standards of quality as any other Tale or SCP always has been. You need to make sure that your character, or your use of a character someone else created, enhances the value of the piece to which you’ve added it, not merely that the piece survived despite the use of a recurring character.

Also, be prepared to accept that you’ll have to conform to pre-established head canons about what is and isn’t acceptable for a Researcher or Agent to do. With a little planning, outlining, and a couple of re-writes, though, most of these obstacles can be easily overcome and still allow you to tell the story that you want to tell with the people in it you want to be in it. You just have to make sure you’re telling the story well. Think about all of the possibilities from very different angles, and of them write the one that makes the most sense. It may not be the coolest or the flashiest or the funniest or the scariest possible way, but the one that displays characters and plot elements behaving in the most ‘realistic’ way given the circumstances is the one most likely to succeed.

Characters aren’t going to be easy to write or establish. You’ll have to have patience and be very careful with what you put forward to make your new Researcher or Agent or Administrator or MTF’er stick. There’s a lot of work to do in avoiding clichés and self-aggrandizement. But the payoff is worth it. Not only will you have made an indelible mark on the Staff Pool of the Foundation, you’ll also have given other users a tool for telling the story of the universe.

4. It’s Larger Than You Think

So far I’ve been talking about this like the Foundation is the only game in town. It’s not, and speculative fiction with the classic Foundation tone need not be written exclusively about Foundation operatives. We need antagonists, too.

  • Why are there no recurring figures from the Church of the Broken God or the Fifth Church? Dangerous world-wide anomalous religions, likely with hundreds of thousands of adherents each, and we have absolutely nothing, not even a dossier!
  • Who in hell is Are We Cool Yet? Why do we not have any popular Anartists or leaders among this group?
  • Where are all of these dangerous operatives from the Serpent’s Hand that make life so difficult for the Foundation? We’re told they exist in a few places, but that’s never explored.
  • The Unusual Incidents Unit! Over the past months, I’ve seen a lot of cries for good tales depicting these guys as something other than bumbling fuck ups, but no one has written one. Why? Maybe part of the reason is because we don’t have anyone to write about.
  • Does the Chaos Insurgency even exist? Shouldn’t they be infiltrating and attempting to undermine containment on benign/useful/masquerade breaking SCiPs as per their mission statement?
  • How many humanoid SCP objects do we have? How many of them have more than one tale written about them? Able? Cain? Iris? 343? Why just these when there are so many more?

Keep in mind, these are just a few suggestions. It’s up to you to take one, all, or none of these ideas and make them sing.

5. Share and Share Alike

The point here isn't just to allow every one of us to make their own character(s) and write about their own exclusively. After all, this is a collaborative project we're engaged in, isn't it? It may be difficult to swallow, but we'll actually get better results if we let everyone play with our toys.

I'm not suggesting we overhaul our cultural standard with regards to creator's prerogative. Of course, the creator of a character should still be consulted with regards to development and story line; it's just the polite thing to do. I am saying that if people who created characters worked with other members on new stories involving their creations, we could end up with a much wider array of possibilities. For instance; if someone was to come to me and ask if they could write a tale where Thad Xyank gets a girlfriend, I would probably say 'no'. It's not in his character to have a love interest in that way, and I feel it would cheapen his over-all development. On the other hand, if someone suggested including a strongly-worded note from an unidentified entity called “Tx” in a temporally based SCiP they had planned, or a confrontation between Delta-t and the GOC, then for sure! Green light that project and let's see how the fans like it!

Edit: That above crossed out statement is really stupid. If you wanna write about Thad Xyank, you go ahead and do it, I don't care how. If you want to write a Thad Xyank that's in line with the history and personality I have in mind for him, then come talk to me and we'll set you up good. But I'm done saying "no". That's stupid and does not encourage innovation.

The point is, if you have made one of these new individuals, maybe it would better serve the site and better serve your baby to be open to new ideas. Work with people who want to work with you, if you can. If you'd rather not, I guess that's alright. But it seems to me we might explain why we're saying no to someone who wants badly to use something we have created to make something new. Collaboration is, after all, one of the shortest routes to innovation.

Ideally, we'd have newer writers and vets alike swapping story ideas, discussing the motivations and mannerisms of this new ensemble cast, and cooking up brilliant new objects and situations based on their combined efforts. Cross-overs could start happening between canons. A list of available dossiers might be made wherein each significant new face could get their own story told in a canon-esque way. The structure itself is just an idea, but the principle of a free exchange of not just plot devices but perspectives from which stories can be told; that's what I want to emphasize.

There's a whole world to explore, and other worlds beyond that, and surely among the stars of the Foundationverse life gets stranger still. But before we can explore all of that territory, we need to secure the manpower to explore it with.

Wouldn't you say?

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