The Philosophy of Fanfiction: By Less Wrong
Creativity means creating a good, original work. The goodness part is complicated. Originality isn't easy, but it is simple: Just don't do stuff that's already been done.
The First Law of Fanfiction states that every change which strengthens the protagonists requires a corresponding worsening of their challenges. Or in plainer language: You can't make Frodo a Jedi without giving Sauron the Death Star. Read any book on writing ever and it will tell you that stories are about conflict; a hero too strong for their conflict is no longer in tense, heart-pounding difficulty. For example, Dark!Dumbledore and Dark!Harry both permit a Harry strengthened over canon - the first by turning one of Harry's canon!allies against him, and the second by turning Harry against his canon!allies. The most spectacular application of this principle that I've seen is Harry Potter and the Wastelands of Time, in which Harry has gained all the knowledge of ancient Atlantis and has been through literally hundreds of Peggy Sue cycles in which he learns every possible twist of fate... and Voldemort, who unfortunately got to Atlantis first, has still won every time. The Mary Sue is not defined by her power, but by her lack of an even more powerful opponent. I mention this (1) so that you know I know it and (2) because the First Law of Fanfiction ought to be in a giant banner on every fanfiction site. The most fatal temptation of fanfiction writing is to think of how much easier some character's life would be if they were a ninja. We are naturally inclined to think up ways to solve our characters' problems for them, but must learn instead to make their lives more difficult.
The Rule of Rationalist Fiction states that rationality is not magic; being rational does not require magical potential or royal bloodlines or even amazing gadgets, and the principles of rationality work for understandable reasons. A rationalist!hero should excel by thinking - moreover, thinking in understandable patterns that readers can, in principle, adopt for themselves. As opposed to the hero just being a born "genius" who comes up with amazing gadgets through an opaque discovery process, or who pulls off incredibly complicated gambits that would fail miserably if the reader tried something similar in real life.All fanfiction involves borrowing the original author's characters, situations, and world. It is ridiculous to turn around and complain if your own ideas get borrowed in turn. Anyone is welcome to steal anything from any fanfiction I write.
I couldnt have written it better myself. The above passage is written by Less Wrong, a fanfiction author who is also a researcher in psychology and rationality thinking. The reason I have posted this, is because of its message, one I intend to cover through this article so that you may have a better understanding of your own characters. The focus of this article however is not, to tell you how to play your character, but instead to enlighten those of you who are unaware, or serve as a refresher or perhaps a new perspective on things others may have already known. This article will address what "Power" is in terms of a character, define it, and explain what makes a character powerful, and how to do it yourselves. Please, feel free to leave any questions or comments on the comments section.
The Definition of Power
What is the defining characteristic of a powerful character? Is it the number of techniques or abilities they possess? Is it their ability to effortlessly deflect his or her opponents attacks with ease while giving a monologue on why they are wasting their time when they know they're going to die? Or is it their ability to obtain a boost in power in a moment of desperation to defeat their most hated nemesis? Ironically it is none of the above, despite the fact that all of these are used to express the power of any given charater, and I will explain why. Power can be broken down into a formula, it is the product or end result of three factors: Strength, Cunning, and Intelligence defined below:
Strengths are the abilities your characters possesses. These can range from having brute physical strength, immense speed, durability, to the characters techniques or attributes such as their intelligence, and equipment. In essence, any named ability or power written on the character is considered a strength. Strength is also a measure of the magnitude of any given ability as well, such as the difference between "Enhanced Strength" and "Immense Strength". These define the general capabilities of a character and are often the abilities one looks at to determine and define the power of a character. This is a flawed perception. Furthermore there is a distrubing trend of only describing the effect of any given ability as opposed to its interworking mechanisms and fundamental principles which hinder the overall capability of any given strength.
Cunning is more ambiguous than Strength, but it is defined by the synergy between the strengths of a character. Synergy is the product of two or more abilities used together to produce an effect that they otherwise, independently couldnt do. This is much harder to work out due to the nature of how strengths are described (see above). An example of this is seen on Kenshin Yagami (spirit), specifically in his Hoho techniques. Utsusemi can be used to create speed clones, clones that are almost as real as the original body itself. Ryuu Tengai, is a technique which allows Kenshin to run in a circle and create powerful tornados based on differing spiritual pressure. When combined together the "speed clone" would allow Kenshin to use Ryuu Tengai in a way he couldnt have before, by using them to create weakened Ryuu Tengai at a range, or even multiple ones. There is synergy between the two abilities since it allows for a new use of an existing power. That is the essence of a characters cunning.
This characteristic is by far the most important, and can considered a force multiplier. What this means is that this attribute makes the other two abilities more effective than they otherwise would be. This trait is not defined by the intelligence of the actual character, but by the person behind the computer screen, who roleplays as them. Therefore the overall capabilities of a character are determined by how well the author understands his or her characters abilities, knows how and when to use them, and how to use them effectively. An author can enhance a weak character and make them appear very powerful, through the clever use of their abilities, and tactics. Conversely an author with a powerful character can actually reduce the effectiveness of his characters abilities, making them only marginally strong, roleplaying them at a level weaker than they otherwise would be. In mathmatical terms: P = Int(Str * Cun) or Power = Intelligence (Strength X Cunning). In this example we can see that the intelligence of the author can greatly influence the abilities of his character, either weakening them to a point where they are below the level they should be at, or enhancing the abilities of a character to be more powerful than they otherwise would be.
Fundamentals of Your Characters Strengths & Abilities
As previously stated in "Strength", one of the problems many roleplayers face is the description for their abilities, namely how such abilities actually work. Many confuse this with describing the effect itself, but not the mechanics behind it. For example, many will provide a named ability such as, "Heavenly Inferno Roar", and describe its effect such as: [insert name here] breaths a huge torrent of fire that burn anything it touches.
Okay, great. That tells us....nothing really. So you're breathing fire? What the hell does the name have to do with anything? What purpose does this power have? This ties directly into "Cunning" the synergy between your powers. If you dont understand how a power works, then its virtually impossible to use it effectively with your abilities. As opposed to creating a set of powers that when used together allow you to do things you otherwise couldnt do, you instead have a collection of attacks, no much different than, "slash, pierce, thrust, chop", with some minor differences.
So you want to add the fundamentals to "Heavenly Inferno Roar", alright lets start at the name. Roar. Hm, alright, this implies that it comes from the mouth, hence the "roar", breath, etc. So you're breathing flames? Or are you? Lets say that your attack actually releases highly combustable air released from your lungs, that when it comes into contact with the atmosphere, it ignites. Alright, so now we know why your attack appears as a gout of flames spewing from your mouth. Its not actually flames being churned out your throat, but an ignitable substance. Its different, and can still be expanded on. So lets add more to it Heavenly Inferno? Pretty ambiguous, but lets start at inferno. An inferno implies an unstoppable raging fire. Alright, so lets add in the secondary effect that energy, in whatever form its in, is a fuel for this fire. Meaning your attack, can literally consume other forms of energy to make itself bigger and more powerful.
Awesome. While we havent worked out how this function works, at the very least you have a basic understanding of how your power works. We're making building blocks so we can get to the smaller details later. So now you have a powerful attack, but now it needs a weakness. Why? Cause its a frickin powerful attack, that can be used both offensively and defensively. So lets assume this weakness comes from its overwhelming potential for damage. You dont like to use it too close to you, since even YOU are not immune to the flames once it gets strong enough. Now you have a viable and interesting attack. And since its unique in how it works, and you've included its basic fundamental principles, they can modified or later expanded on.
Creating the Fundamentals of Your Powers
The process of creating the fundamentals for your powers is simplier than it sounds. In my above example, I had an intended effect, flames come from mouth, burn everything. Simple, but lacking in details to set it apart from virtually any other fire based ability. So I asked myself the question, what form does this attack take? Obviously its a gout of fire originating from the mouth. So then my next question, was how does it form? Am I literally breathing out a gout of fire, or is it something else? In this example I decided to go with ignitable air. With my attack now formed, it was time to add some secondary affects, because its not the primary power that gets the enemy its the secondary ones they dont know. Expanding on the "combustable air" that you breath out, I added in the fact that it can use any other form of energy as a source of fuel, which led to it consuming the energy in other attacks. The Attacks form and how the attack actually forms, are good places to start for any given power.
Even Ichigo's power, as simple as it is has a fundamental mechanic behind. His sword eats up its reiatsu, condenses it, which in turn amplifies its power, then releases it through the tip of the blade during an attack to release a wave of energy. His Bankai expands on this "compression" by compressing all of his reiatsu into his body (and not just his sword), which in turn amplifies his own physical abilities, particularly his speed. His Saigo no Getsuga Tenshou takes this to the nth degree, by compressing ALL of his reiatsu into his body, allowing not even a speck to be released further increasing his abilities. Despite the apparent ambiguity of his powers, they all adhere to the same basic fundamental --- compression. His power has always been noted to be vast and uncontrolled, so its actually to his benefit that his Zanpakutou's sole purpose is enhancing his ability to control it, via compression and amplification.
The only way your characters powers can truly progress is to detail their fundamentals. When you address the basics of any given technique, ask yourself what form it takes, how it forms, and what unique abilities does it have. The more specific you get with a power, the more utility it has. By doing so, you provide a means of expanding on them, and creating new variant techniques from one. A single power should be able to spawn a thousand different uses. You cant do this if you just explain its effect. Cunning relates to utility, which means how can this power be used differently? If your power has only one effect and cannot be used in any other mean, that power is very weak in terms of strength, regardless of how powerful you make it out to be. The essence of any given abilities strength lies not in how badass it is, or its magnitude, but rather in its synergy and utility. Neither exist without first developing its fundamentals.
How to be a Badass but not a Godmodder
Its a simple truth that just about every roleplayer wants to portray their character as a complete and total badass when the stakes are down, the enemies are numerous and your the only hombre in town left to crush em. Problem is, when you roleplay with other people, especially in battles against them, this can quickly turn into, godmodding. Either by avoiding all of their attacks, or possessing insta-kill abilities that they in any other circumstance have no chance of surviving.
So how do you portray your character in a way that makes them appear like a badass yet stays true to the heart of the roleplay and gives the other roleplayer a chance to shine as well? The answer is simpler than one may believe, but its something that many of us skim over.
Plain and simple, the devil is in the details. When person A attacks person B, you are NOT being a badass by stating, "my character evades the attack with ease." or some other similar phrase. One sentence does NOT cut it. Its an insult to both your character and the person you're roleplaying with. If you can't be bothered to write out a detailed response, dont bother writing it out at all; your wasting your time and the other persons time, so dont do it.
What many fail to realize, is that a detailed response to an enemies attack is your way of making your character look like a badass while giving your opponent the respect of actually responding to their attack. You provide details, not just, "he dodged gracefully", but an explanation of how you're going about evading your opponents attack, and what if any injuries you sustain the process. Details on how you react, what your character see's, hear's, feel's, their plan to defend it, adding in the tension of nearly falling victim to the attack yet being able to find a means of defending against it, even if its only a partial defense. Remember, partial damage is better than taking full damage any day.
Our characters are ones that have been through hundreds of battles, so when faced with an attack you're character needs to come across as though he's either dealt with it before or is confident in their ability to defend against it. Again this comes from the details. Furthermore by adding such details to your own response, you can add some flair to both your opponents attack and your characters response. For example if your opponent uses Sokatsu against you; which is a generic beam of fire, how do you respond? Do you just dodge? No, thats boring. Lack of details lead to boring battles.
But what if you described how the smoldering heat from the destructive spell hurtling towards you literally melted the earth beneath it? Alright, now we have some context, even if your opponent didnt offer such details, by adding your own, it makes them feel more comfortable, so perhaps they can add such details themselves in the future. Now you've got the intensity of your opponents attack down, so whats next? Well lets say you want to add some excitement, so your character summons a binding barrier to block it. But just to make it interesting, you add in that your barrier is only going to hold the flames off for a second or two before it shatters and your nothin but ash. Now you've got a constraint; Time. Your character now appears to be in actual danger since you're taking it seriously. Remember your character didnt get to where they're at by waving off attacks thrown at them. They did so by the skin of their teeth. And against equal level opponents, thats probably how their going to do it. So now you've got your barrier setup so what do you do next? You cast another spell, lets say Shakkaho; a weaker fire spell but one you can do the fly. Why? Because you want to come out looking innovative in your methods, and the explosive force of your spell can be just the ticket you need to help give you the boost you need to Shunpo outta the way.
In the end your response comes off looking like you took the attack head on, summoned a barrier, that began to crack and shatter, as you literally hurled your own ball of fire, detonating the attacks, whilst using Shunpo and the force of the explosion to propell you fast you that you move away, with only minor burns. Gotta say, thats one hell of a way to make a statement.
So your character finally escaped from a life or death situation. Great! Not only did you respect your opponents attack, your character made use of his abilities in ways normally not used to scrap by the skin of his teeth. And that was just your dodge! Alright so now you're on the counterattack, but how to make your own attack appear just as badass? Again the answer is in the details. When you describe an attack, describe its effects on the environment. This is perhaps the simplest way to go about doing it. When you cast Byakurai (white lightning) what if anything occurs beyond a bolt of lightning shooting from your finger tips? Is there a deafening crack like thunder when your spell goes off? Does the temperate suddenly rise from the air being superheated? Is there a bright flash of white light to distract the opponent? Does it making a cackling roar or sizzling sound as it streaks through the air? All of these details and more can make otherwise simple attacks appear phenomenal.
Thats another secret. Its one thing to say your character is a badass, but the importance is making them appear as one. If they can do that with a simple rank 4 kido, what can do they do higher level ones? Perception is everything. Conversely, what if your fighting a more powerful opponent? Then respecting their attacks is even more important. More than that, by using the same formula for just barely scrapping by in your evasion, your character is now more powerful than they appear to be since they not only survived the attack, but found a counter of sorts for it. Thing is, your opponent isnt likely to spam the same attack and what may have worked before, may not work now. Always keep that in mind, keep your idea's fresh. When you add in details, even minor ones, it enriches the roleplay experience for both you and your partner.