- 11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.
- — Mark Twain, 'Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses'
Bad characterization is the unrealistic or unfeasible portrayal of characters in fiction, and it is a staple of badfic. In fact, nearly every charge list compiled in a PPC mission will include a mention of bad characterization in some form or another. Bad characterization is a major part of the difference between a Mary Sue and a believable original character.
Characterization is either direct or indirect. Direct characterization is what the narrator, another character, or the character him- or herself explicitly tells us they are like, and may or may not be reliable (depending on the speaker). Indirect characterization is based on the character's observed actions, thoughts, speech, and mannerisms. If the integrity of either one of these avenues of characterization is called into question, that character should probably be more closely examined. Because, of course, bad characterization is bad.
Identifying Bad Characterization
It is not enough to simply call 'bad characterization' on a piece of fanfiction. Even if characters very obviously seem 'off', it is necessary to understand and identify exactly what is off about them. Every character in a piece of fiction should be at least thought about, even if nothing immediately seems wrong: it is not always obvious at the first glance if a character isn't him/her/itself. Some possible things to look for:
- Assuming a reliable narrator, does the character's direct characterization match their indirect characterization? Or does the character routinely say and do things that contradict what is said about them?
- Does this character behave in a way that makes basic sense? (See Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.)
- Does this character react in an understandable way to events that have happened to him/her/it previously in the story or in the past? Or do the reactions not match what they're reacting to?
- Does this character display motivations that are correct/reasonable for them?
- Can you tell this character from any other character simply by their actions? Or is he/she/it stripped of identifying behaviors or mannerisms?
- Does the narrator favor this character? If so, is there a reason other than 'this is my favorite'?
- Does this character have conflicts, and if they do, do they drive the character to act? Or are they simply background characteristics?
- Does this character praise or denounce another character for unspecified reasons? On the other hand, are they lauded or hated simply because someone else says so?
- Does this character seem to embody only one concept? Are they one-dimensional, or do they serve merely as a mouthpiece for a particular agenda?
- Is this character capable of making decisions, or are they merely a hanger-on to someone else? If they are, is this a part of their character or is it because they're ignored in favor of someone else?
- Does this character possess knowledge that they could reasonably learn? Or do they simply 'know things' without explanation? Is this knowledge even accessible, or would one have to be psychic to know it?
- Is this character too predictable? Is the pool of possible actions they could take so small that an audience with any sort of reasoning capacity could predict their every move?
Bad Characterization in Fanfiction
Of Original Characters
Bad characterization is so common that there are published authors out there that can be accused of making their characters act unbelievably.
However, in fanfiction, look no further than Mary Sue to see bad characterization in its darkest glory. One of the reasons that Mary Sues are so intolerable is that they simply don't act as a person would act: they sacrifice lives for the sake of their twu wuv, they brutally torture others while telling us they're saintly and pure, and hold unrealistic expectations that bend time and space.
Bad characterization can also be seen in many supporting badfic characters. Some characters are wrongly shunted into bit roles, or are made to antagonize others with paper-thin arguments. Still others are blind cheerleaders... and some characters don't even have any characterization at all.
Of Canon Characters
A canon character that is portrayed contrary to their original characterization is said to be out of character (OOC), which is nearly always bad. This is often fairly obvious, especially when it goes directly against the character's moral/ethical essence (Jack Sparrow forgetting about the Black Pearl... Elrond abusing Legolas... most characters raping anyone...). Bad characterization overrides the original characterization of canon characters, forcing them more and more OOC until they cannot perform their canonical roles... or even are completely replaced.
And then there are characters that can be said to have bad characterization due to their original author's error. These characters are at an even greater risk than normal ones, due to their already-fragile situation. Such characters include Eragon, Bella Swan, and some other (but not all) Canon Sue/Stus. Even if this is true, they are still canon characters, and the PPC is sworn to protect their integrity.