Characterization in Fanfic: Using Canon as the DNA for Your Characters by Dreamflower

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Author's Chapter Notes:

My thanks to Dawn Felagund for the beta, and for her advice and input on writing characters in Silm-fic! 

Characterization in Fanfic: Using Canon as the DNA for Your Characters

 Often we read fanfic in which we feel that the characters are very true to the spirit of Tolkien’s world, even when they may be depicted in a style or point-of-view that Tolkien never used himself.  Nevertheless, reading it, we feel that the characters capture Middle-earth, and we compliment the author by saying everyone seems to be “in character” or that she has their “voice” right.

Conversely, we may read a story in which something seems a bit “off”.  We may say that their canon characters are “out of character” or OOC. We spot something that jolts us out of the story or makes us wince, though we may not always be able to put our finger on just what it is that causes us to feel that way.

In the first sort of story, the writer may actually have the character behave in an out-of-character manner, and yet we feel that under the circumstances it can be explained, and that somehow that character is still “in character”.  And in the second sort of story, even if the author has the character engaged in the same activities that took place in the original story we still find that they are not quite believable.

What makes the difference?  Of course, if it is a major canon character such as Frodo or Aragorn or Fëanor and the author gets an important fact wrong, such as the character’s age or circumstances, we can point to that.  But sometimes the details are more subtle, and we are not quite sure of what it is that makes us wince.  And what of stories that use minor canon characters or original characters?  Why do some feel right at home in their place in Arda and others seem to be no more than cardboard cut-outs or the dreaded “Mary Sues”?

When writing conventional fiction, the author has free rein to create her characters out of whole cloth, just as she wishes.  How engaging and captivating those characters are is wholly up to her own skill and insight into human nature, and she is not constrained by any pre-existing expectations from her readers, who will come to her characters without knowing them ahead of time.

But when writing fanfic, the writer knows that her readers will have expectations:  a reader wants to see characters that she recognizes.  The reader wants the Frodo to be a Frodo she recognizes, she wants to see the Aragorn she knows and loves, the Elrond who caught her attention when she first read the book, and so forth.

There are also those elements of “fanon” that many long-time readers expect and recognize.  Yet some authors manage to handle fanon in a way that makes us feel she has “gone overboard”, exaggerating the fanon in question to a point where it seems over-the-top and unbelievable.  Other authors use that same fanon in a way that makes the reader smile in recognition, but does not overwhelm the story.  And some fanon seems to be very nearly canon, and something that many writers take almost for granted—and those fanon elements seem to grow naturally out of canon, rather than to be something merely grafted on because it suits an author’s whim.

I think the difference lies in the way that the author builds her characters, whether she simply writes in imitation of other fanfic authors, or whether she goes to the source and tries to figure out what makes a character tick.

Characterization of a Major Canon Character

Major canon characters are those who feature strongly in the story.  Frodo, Aragorn, Gandalf and Sam are the major protagonists of LotR, but there are other major players: the rest of the Fellowship, Faramir, Denethor, Éomer and Éowyn.  We learn a lot about these particular characters, enough to be able to form our judgments of what sort of people they are.  There is plenty of evidence to draw conclusions from.  So let us look at one of those characters.

I’d like to start with examining a fanon characterization that seems remarkably consistent through most of the LotR fanfic that I have encountered.  Across a number of genres and types of stories, the characterization of Merry Brandybuck seems quite similar even coming from very different writers.  Some may emphasize certain characteristics more than others, but the same elements are found in nearly every story that features him, even stories by authors who seldom write about hobbits.

There is a reason for this:  we are given a lot of hints and clues about Merry’s personality in LotR.  These become very obvious when we have re-read the text (including the material in the Prologue and the Appendices.

What characteristics are common when we read fanfic about Merry?  He is depicted as loyal, brave, reliable, determined, a hobbit who has a sense of humor, has a definite family pride, who plans ahead, who can scheme when necessary, who has a depth of feeling, is intelligent, thoughtful and protective of those whom he loves, and somewhat of an intellectual although usually depicted as less scholarly than Frodo.

All of this comes from the text of LotR.  We see these characteristics unfold with each of his appearances in the story.  His loyalty and reliability are shown when Frodo allows his young cousin to help in dealing with the aftermath of Bilbo’s Farewell Party, and his sense of humor is reflected in his very first speaking lines of the story: a jest at Lobelia’s expense.  Frodo also entrusts him with the task of finding the house at Crickhollow, and of moving his possessions there.  And of course we learn in “A Conspiracy Unmasked” that he can plan and execute a scheme to accompany Frodo’s journey out of the Shire.   From that point forward we see him in several displays of bravery and acts of courage, although he never loses his sense of humor.  In the Prologue we are told that he became a writer and historian in his later years.  In the Appendices, we learn several things—just how much younger he was than Frodo and how much older than Pippin.  We learn that he did well enough as Master of Buckland to earn the epithet “Magnificent”, and that he and Pippin retired to Gondor in their golden years. 

It’s a lot of information about one hobbit, and it is information that has been mined for the characterizations of Merry that we see in fanfic.

Of course, fanon has been influenced by other things, such as the emphasis on his sense of humor in the movies, but even in movie-verse the other elements may be seen as the trilogy unfolds.  He is not only a jester, even in the films.

The skill of a fanfic author is in striking a balance between all of the things we know about his character, even if we choose to place slightly more emphasis on one thing rather than another, and that depends on the story being told.

In a story taking place during his childhood, for example, the author may wish to show that some of those characteristics are only just being developed—for example, that he may be determined but he has not yet learned to be quite so reliable as he later became; or that his ability to plan ahead has yet to go so far as to learn how to weigh consequences; or that his loyalty might lead his temper to get the best of him.

 In a story taking place immediately after Quest, an author might wish to emphasize his depth of feeling and how his sense of humor has been tempered by his experiences, while a story about his later years might show how the physical determination of his youth has translated into a more intellectual determination in his old age.

A comic story might choose to emphasize not merely his sense of humor, but also how his propensity for conspiring could lead to his schemes going astray in unpredictable ways, or show how his careful planning also indicates obsessiveness. 

All of these characteristics rely on information about Merry which we can find within the pages of the books.  By using this information as the foundation of our characterization of him, we can then judiciously add the fanon elements or personal quirks that appeal to us and will serve the story best, so long as they do not contradict what we have decided to use from the books. 

For example, we are never told Merry’s eye color.  Fanon usually gives him grey or blue eyes (possibly the influence of the movies) and so we might choose to do so as well.  But perhaps we like the idea of brown eyes for Merry.  We might decide to give him dimples or a cleft chin or a pug nose (another influence of the movies).  None of those choices will affect the basic information we take from canon.   We might decide to give him the fanon characteristic of having a fear of heights, or of being slightly vain about his appearance, or of being a bit boastful.  These optional characteristics will spark recognition in readers, and give a charm of eccentricity to his character without changing the more important things we know about him.  We should choose fanon details judiciously in a way that will serve the story, and not simply because “everyone else” does it.

Then we can begin to find some of our own ideas to add.   These are stronger and more believable if we base those as well on what we already know.  For example, we know from the Family Tree in Appendix C that Merry is fourteen years younger than Frodo, and yet at the time of “Shadow of the Past” he is described as one of Frodo’s two best friends.  I use that information to make a deduction that the relationship probably extended all the way back to Merry’s earliest childhood,  when according to the information we learn from the Gaffer in “A Long-Expected Party”, Frodo still lived at Brandy Hall.  This led me to decide that Merry was much more like a younger brother to Frodo than a mere cousin.  From this I began to extrapolate various things about their relationship and about Merry’s childhood personality, and adding to that details which would flesh out the information.

Likewise, we can also use material from the books in a similar manner to flesh out Merry’s later life as Master of Buckland.  We know he kept up his ties to Rohan and to Gondor, for example, and that he remained close to Pippin.  We learn that he earned the epithet of “Magnificent” from the Bucklanders.  This information can be added to what else we know of him.  Why did he come to be called “The Magnificent”, and how did that affect him and those around him?  An author I know who has made some excellent use of this is Elanor in her novel “A Secret Gate” , which depicts the end of Merry’s life in the Shire and his decision to retire to the South along with Pippin.  Every characteristic she gives him is one that seems natural and inevitable given what we know of the younger Merry who went on the Quest and came home to Scour the Ruffians from the Shire.  He is still that same Merry, slightly mellowed and tempered with more experience and wisdom, but definitely recognizable as the Meriadoc Brandybuck we knew in LotR.

These same methods can be used on any of the more important characters of the stories.  For some of them, we may need to do more research than for others—for example, to do a full characterization of Elrond, a writer may need to read not only the information we have about him in The Hobbit and LotR, she may need to check The Silmarillion and various volumes of The History of Middle-earth.  To do justice to Gandalf, one would also need to look into what we learn of him from Unfinished Tales, and even to hints dropped by JRRT in his Letters.  Those who primarily write of the events in The Silmarillion often consult the Tale of Years in LotR as well as various volumes of HoMe in order to find enough information about their character.

Characterization of a Minor Canon Character


That’s all very well and good, perhaps, if I am writing about a major character about whom we have a lot of information.  But what if I would like to write about a more minor character, one who has a small part with only a name and a few lines of dialogue to guide a fanfic writer?

As fans of Tolkien’s work, we are exceptionally lucky in this matter.  Most characters who have even a little bit of dialogue, or whom we see only fleetingly, are given definite personalities.  Such characters are intriguing to fanfic writers for precisely that reason: we want to know more about that person we see so briefly and vividly.  This can sometimes even include characters who never appear in person, but are only spoken of by other characters.

Let us look for a moment at a character we see only once: Éothain.  Éothain is one of the Riders of Éomer’s éored, when they encounter Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli on the plains of Rohan.  His dialogue is brash and skeptical as he expresses his opinion of the three strangers, and he dares to speak openly of his objections to his captain and commander, Éomer, though he is obedient to Éomer’s commands.  We never see him again in the story, and he could have been any Rider.

But when I look at his brash speech, I instantly think he must be young and hot-headed.  The similarity of his name to Éomer’s made me think he might be a kinsman, while his obedience in spite of his disagreement showed me he was loyal.  I had a very vivid picture of Éothain in my mind, in spite of the fact that we never saw him again.

When I needed a Rider of Rohan to be in charge of the delegation of Rohirrim in my storyA New Reckoning and its sequel The Road to Edoras , I chose Éothain.  I decided that his experience with the events of the War taught him a lesson about being too quick to judge, and that as a close companion of Éomer King, he might be chosen to lead such a mission.  I made him Éomer’s first cousin on his father’s side (since we are told nothing of Éomer’s father, Éomund, he could well have had a younger brother).   Someone else might make different deductions about him from the scant evidence, nevertheless there is enough evidence there to work with.

Other minor characters who appear only briefly, but leave behind goodly chunks of personality for a fanfic writer to work with are Beorn from The Hobbit, Barliman Butterbur, Lindir, Ioreth, and Elfhelm, among a host of others.

Especially among hobbits, there are minor characters who never actually appear in the story at all, but about whom we may make very accurate deductions.  For example, Dora Baggins appears only as a name on a label and in the Family Tree.  But in a single paragraph, she is perfectly characterized:


 “For DORA BAGGINS in memory of a LONG correspondence,

with love from Bilbo;  on a large waste-paper basket.  Dora was

Drogo’s sister and the eldest surviving female relative of Bilbo and

Frodo; she was ninety-nine, and had written reams of good advice for more than half a century.”  (FotR; Chapter 1, “A Long-Expected Party”)

It does not take much from this to imagine a certain type of spinster aunt, one who always knows best—or thinks she does—and who is of firm and unshakeable opinions.  I’ve made use of Dora Baggins in a number of stories, most notably “Miss Dora Baggin’s Book of Manners”.

I envisioned her as enjoying very much writing those “reams of good advice” to all and sundry.  It was not much of a stretch from there to imagining that she might like to collect all that good advice into a book of proper Shire behavior.

In creating her character, I decided that she would be the quintessential hobbit, with no Tookishness that might lead to unpredictable adventures.  In fact, she quite disapproves of them, as would most hobbits.  But I also give her practicality and compassion, which are also very much hobbit racial traits.  And in spite of her firm opinions, I felt the hobbit trait of familial obsession meant she was fond of Bilbo and Frodo, even if she might not approve of their actions.

Once I had decided on that, I was able to give her some eccentricities of her own, and modeled her written style on that of other such books in Victorian times, complete with randomly capitalizing letters in order to emphasize certain words.   I also made her sense of humor decidedly dry, and if she has a flaw, it is in taking a little bit too much delight in Being Right. 

I have a great deal of enjoyment in her character, and have been pleased with reader reactions to her.

Let us take a look at what another author has done with a minor character: jodancingtree’s Following the Other Wizard , gives us Radagast the Brown in an AU in which Frodo is able to find his healing in Middle-earth through the guidance of a wizard who remained. 

In canon we are given very little information about him.  In The Hobbit, Gandalf calls him “cousin”, and Beorn says he’s “not a bad fellow as wizards go”.  In LotR,  Gandalf trusts him, Saruman uses him and thinks him a fool.  We learn that he has a love for birds and animals that has caused him to stray from the purpose given to the Istari when they were sent to Middle-earth to be Sauron’s downfall.  Radagast is considered to have failed at his task, even by Gandalf who knows he is no enemy.  He does do his part in alerting the Eagles and other birds to bring news to Gandalf, thus allowing Gandalf to be rescued from Orthanc.  And in Unfinished Tales, we learn that his name was once “Aiwendil”, or “bird-friend”, and that it was at Yavanna’s bidding that he was sent to Middle-earth.

jodancingtree uses this scant information to make him Frodo’s mentor and guide to healing and salvation.  She shows us a Radagast whose task did not truly begin until Sauron’s downfall, when he is to seek to the healing of the land and the creatures that the Dark Lord marred.   Her Radagast is recognizably a wizard, an Istari, in the mold of Gandalf.  He is wise, kind, gentle yet stern.  But he manifests these characteristics in a manner that allows his own personality to unfold as he becomes Frodo’s teacher and healer.  jodancingtree uses his canon characteristic of an affinity for birds and animals to add a layer uniquely his own.

There are so many characters who stand out for just an instant who leave us with a good amount of evidence as to their character, in spite of that brevity.

For those who write primarily in the First and Second Ages, even the characters who are considered major because of the role they play, may need to be treated as minor characters because of the small amount of material available, or due to the contradictory nature of the evidence.  It is important when treating with these characters to differentiate between canonical evidence and fanon.  For characters such as these there is a good deal of freedom in the interpretation of the evidence.

Characterization of Original Characters

But what if we don’t even have that much to go on?  What if all we have are a name and a date of birth?  Or what if we wish to create an Original Character, or OC?

Again, within Tolkien’s legendarium, we are very lucky.  It’s established that racial and family characteristics are far more influential in the Arda-verse than in our own. 

Is your character one of the Dúnedain?  He is most likely dark-haired, with keen grey eyes, tall and well-favored in appearance, and would share at least a few personality traits in common with the Dúnadan we know best: Aragorn.  Is she an Elf?  Then you have to decide what sort of Elf she is.  A Noldo would have different ideas about many things than a Sinda would, but once that decision’s made, then you choose among the Elven characteristics you wish to emphasize. 

If your character is to be atypical of his race, then it’s incumbent on the author to explain why he or she is different than the rest.  Tolkien did this himself, with hobbits.  He tells us that hobbits are quiet creatures who value comfort and staying at home.  But all the hobbits we come to know best in his work are exceptions to this “rule”, and he blames this exceptional behavior on their “Tookishness” (a family trait atypical of hobbits in other families).  Yet we are also told that most hobbits can show courage when they are pushed enough. 

It is also a good thing to comb through the books to get an idea of your character’s “voice”.  A hobbit of the gentry speaks differently than a hobbit of the working class.  Yet in the first two chapters of the book, we get an excellent example of how working class hobbits would sound, as we listen to the Gaffer in the first chapter, and Sam and Ted Sandyman in the second.  Educated hobbits would sound much as Frodo and his friends do—their speech is light and easy, but they have a different tone to their speech than the working class hobbits do, and sound more educated.

The language and speech patterns are also obvious in differences between the various races and between the various lands in which the characters pass.  An Ent’s speech is different than a Dwarf’s, an Elf’s speech is different than a hobbit’s and a Gondorian’s speech is different than a Man of Bree’s.

JRRT uses the differences in speech patterns to good effect when he introduces “Strider” at the Prancing Pony, and Frodo even notices the differences in his speech when he finishes his talk with them, as compared to when he began.  The best way to develop an “ear” for speech that sounds appropriate to your character is to read relevant passages from the books before you write. 

Once you know your character’s race and family and social status, you can begin to build him or her, adding other characteristics as they serve the story. 

An important thing is to have your character fill a function within the world of which he or she is a part.  What sorts of people must have lived in Middle-earth, whom we never get to see?  The story is peopled mainly with warriors and folk of legendary status, and yet there must have been a support system in place.  We are told of servants, though we rarely ever see one mentioned by name.  The Shire could not have been the only place to have gardeners and farmers, and Bree was not the only place with an innkeeper. 

An excellent example of an OC who fills a needed position is annmarwalk’s Mag the Cook, who features in many of her tales and whose own story can be found in “The Life and Times of Mag the Cook . Mag is realistic, a working class woman of Gondor.  In canon, we only see one example of this type: Ioreth, who works in the Houses of Healing.  Mag’s own position, as Head Cook in the Citadel is quite different, but annmarwalk has captured the same rhythm of speech and language that we see with Ioreth, yet she is a calmer and less excitable personality.  Her interactions with the family she serves seem natural and unforced, and annmarwalk’s skill in conveying the voices of canon characters like Faramir and Boromir make Mag’s personality fit well. 

She is a memorable OC, and reading the stories in which she features, it is quite easy to see her as fitting naturally into Middle-earth.  She is not a canon character, not even a name, but it is clear that she, or someone very like her, must have existed in that world.  She fits a natural niche, and her position is not obtrusive on the main story of canon, even when she features as the main character in the fanfic.

Another such OC is SurgicalSteel’s Serindë who features in “The King’s Surgeon” and other stories.  Although SurgicalSteel prefers to use a more modern style and tone in her stories than Tolkien did, it is quite clear that Serindë is very much a person of Middle-earth.  We see it in the way SurgicalSteel uses Serindë’s Númenorean heritage and the theme of lost Númenor is very much in evidence in many of the stories.  She also takes advantage of the setting of Dol Amroth, giving it the cosmopolitan feel of a major trading port.  Having Serindë hail from there not only makes her more believable as a character, it also makes Dol Amroth more believable as a place, rather than a mere name on a map.

SurgicalSteel is also very careful with her timeline, making sure that any events in Serindë’s story that intersect with the main story of LotR are taking place at the right time.  And Serindë, like Mag, fills a niche: there must have been battle surgeons in Middle-earth, just as there must have been cooks.

There are, of course, other sources than Tolkien’s books that may also help in creating believable characters.  A knowledge of history, and especially of the historical sources from which he drew is also helpful.  But it is essential to making a character feel real and natural in his surroundings that you ground him or her first in the Middle-earth which Tolkien gave us.


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