Saint or Sinner? - All Things Characterisation - "Character-Building"

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Title: Saint or Sinner? - "All Things Characterisation" - Character-Building
Creator: JK Ashavah
Date(s): March 14, 2003
Medium: online
Fandom: Harry Potter
External Links: Saint or Sinner? - "All Things Characterisation" - Character-Building
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Saint or Sinner? - "All Things Characterisation" - Character-Building is an essay posted to "S.P.I.W." by JK Ashavah in March 2003.

"S.P.I.W. (The Society for the Promotion of Issue Welfare: Under-represented issues in Harry Potter Fanfiction)" was the name of the author's regular column at

Some Topics


There are several vital elements to a piece of writing. Few of them are as important to the quality and success of the piece as characterisation. I know that when I find myself enjoying a book, the thing that sticks with me the longest and that I find the most intriguing is characterisation. In fact, that's how I (many years ago) first began imagining out new scenes for my favourite books and such; I wanted to speculate on what had happened to the characters.

Within fandom, characterisation has become something viewed by many with apprehension. There are several different ways it can go wrong: a character from the books can be portrayed as a totally different person to their canon self, an original character can fall into the traps of unrealism, or a character can simply be too shallow to allow any sort of interest in them to be formed by the reader.

Notice that I do not mention falling into the traps of the Mary Sue or Gary Stu. This is for several reasons. There are several definitions of these terms. They include: self-insertion by the author, idealised and unrealistic characters, love interests for canon characters, and simply original characters. For the purposes of this column, I will be using the first two definitions.

Not all clichéd or self-insertion characters are bad. They exist in many places in published fiction, and many authors have been known to admit that their characters are based on themselves or someone they know. In fact, some people might say that an author can only achieve good characterisation by using elements of his or her self and friends in their work. It is common advice given to aspiring authors to write what you know. And who do you know better than yourself and your friends? No, rather the problem with self-insertion comes when the author includes only a shallow representation of themself. It is how the character is written, not who they are based on which is the problem.

The reason certain types of characters are clichéd often arises from their use to the story. There is the generic sidekick, the workaholic private investigator, the confused youngster trying to figure out their destiny. These characters can all be used to great effect in a piece, and that is where their popularity comes from. Similarly, not all clichéd fanfiction characters are bad. For example, take the fifth-year Defence Against the Dark Arts professor. If your original character is one, it is generally considered to be a sign of the ever-dreaded Mary Sue. But look at the situation without the fear of Miss Sue and you find yourself realising that hey, this is an essential character. That's why any character in that role is automatically viewed as a cliché character.

The problem arises not from the use of cliché characters, but rather when authors use them without making them their own in some way. If every private investigator was the same, the crime fiction genre would become extremely repetitive and dull to read. The same applies to fanfiction. There must be a fifth-year Defence teacher. Ginny and Lily almost certainly have friends outside those we know of from canon. Sirius and Remus probably have had romantic partners at one time or another in their lives. But they need to be unique and three-dimensional.