I'm not exactly sure why there appears to be such a warzone where characters are concerned. Maybe it's just because I don't swim in the soup of fandom or fanfiction (and in a roleplay sense, have only returned recently), but I guess I just find the whole thing entirely baffling. Roleplay and fanfiction become these massive tiers of Serious Business that are destructive to the creative process. They stagnate and shame while simultaneously churning out high emotion, all the while distracting anyone who wants to learn from shit that will actually be useful to them if they want to write.
I feel the need to give a disclaimer that A) I think fandoms can be incredibly stupid even at their best, B) fanfiction that is "not horribly written" is usually being labeled as such by people who don't and can't know better because their point of reference and experiences are so lacking, and C) even as a writer, I don't understand how character becomes such Serious Business.
I suspect in part it's due to so many youngsters on this site searching for a sense of identity, and things like roleplay and fanfiction allow exploration of other identities. In a sense, we can see what it's like to be someone else and if we like it or not. But I think the big disconnect, especially when it comes to being a good writer, comes from when there are no repercussions in the world the character inhabits. If the rule becomes "My character, in character, right or wrong", this threatens everything and eclipses a fundamental element in character: growth.
I role-played a lot when I was younger, and found it to be one of the best things a young writer can do to explore character. But roleplay taught me how to have characters that deferred to power (which translates to deferring to plot) and deferred to other characters (which translates to character arc or growth), two things that you absolutely have to understand and grasp in order to write a good story. If you have characters that never suffer setbacks, disappointments, challenges to their worldviews and preconceptions, or what have you, you're on a one way track to disappointing your reader. I was very lucky as a teen to have a roleplay group made up of people who wanted to be actors, and understood that the first rule of improv is the first rule of the creative process "Say yes."
Say yes to tension, say yes to your character being pushed around, being in the wrong, being unfair, humiliated, defied, and denied. Say yes to struggle, to difficulty, to being cruel, to being sorry, to bad ideas, stupid mistakes, and apologies. Say yes to the character hurting and being hurt, say yes to growth, to driving your character beyond their capacities. If you can't say yes to these things happening in roleplay or in fanfiction: you are wasting your time. You will never write convincing, sympathetic characters.
And maybe that's another point of disconnect: the reader is all that matters in writing. In fanfiction, that should be the rule, but it rarely is. And most writing suffers for it, either because the "My character, in character, right or wrong" terrifies anyone who might want to write that character (how many flame wars in fanfic communities start because Sonic was OOC?) In roleplay, too often social rules get in the way, and it becomes a contest of whose character can posture the most Ultimately, "getting a character right" means that you check off the requisite boxes to make sure you get the character's so-called details right. Which is not as important as "characterizing": making sure your reader gives a shit. Your OC and your ego do not matter in writing. I always approach things from the point of "How can this character win over a reader? How can they still be sympathetic even though he/she is doing bad, selfish things? How can they be hurt and learn from that hurt?" I have to wonder what the thought process for others is. It must be like "How can I look the most awesome? How can my character come across as the coolest guy ever? How can I posture better than my roleplaying partners or that idiot who wrote that fanfiction that portrayed Link so bad?"
I mean, for starters, for all the screaming about not stealing characters, no one blinks at stealing a copywritten character. I think I saw a stamp that was like "All fan characters are original characters!" and it was like "You poor, deluded bastard." I take issue with the standing-on-the-shoulders-of-giants problem inherent to fanfiction, but I've already ranted about that. I will say that fanfiction tends to cripple character as an element, either because it offers a colorful candy shell for the less confident to convince themselves that their ideas don't suck, or because the fandom as a whole wants more of what was in the video game, movie, TV show, or book and doesn't want to see any originality outside of that. (Or an extremely limited amount of originality, hence my use of the term 'crippling'.) This comes back to "My character, in character, right or wrong", which falsely expostulates that it is more important that a character be "true" or "pure' rather than make a journey.
Playing around in someone else's world is sort of a grey area, but that brings me to what I cannot understand. If you're writing in someone else's literary world to learn how to write: stop it. Make your own world and learn how to convey its rules; stop leaning on the collective consciousness of a fandom. You're better off, just trust me on that, and better you start early.
If you're playing around to explore character, as any decent roleplayer should, than remember the golden rule of role-play: it's a freaking game. Awesome or idiotic, at the end of the day, you've got a roleplay post to show for it. Your roleplay character is no more important than a character in a book. They're simply efforts at expression and communication. If your character is bad at expression or communication, they should suffer the slings and arrows inherent to that. Don't real people suffer them in Real Life? Don't you think that makes them sympathetic to a reader who knows that selfsame suffering? Good roleplay drives a character to explore what will make them break and rebuild. (I also don't understand how it's okay to write about Harry Potter's eighth adventure or roleplay in Tolkien's world, but if people steal your theft, you're going to flip your lid.)
Maybe for some it's identity theft. I guess that's about the only way I can explain it. Most teenagers are searching for identities. People using character as a coping mechanism will shoot you in the face, and since most of them around here are angsty teens in the first place
they're probably coping. I guess I'm just astonished at the length people will go to assert their right to be unoriginal power-players, which serves as a direct counterpoint to the fervor with which they will go after someone else for being unoriginal or a power player.
Perhaps most of all, this definition distorts the purpose of good character so badly I'd be hard pressed to articulate it. (I'm kind of all over the place with this entry, in case you haven't noticed.) Character is not something you use to tell the world how great you are. When that happens, you get crappy story and probably accusations of either Mary Sueism or of soapboxing on an issue. Character is not gold to be hoarded by you, in order for you to say "I did it! I made it! It's all mine and you can't have it!" Character is something meant to be shared with others. Characters inhabit psychological and mythological archetypes in order to teach. Character is not something meant to be immovable or uncompromising. Character is more than the sum of its parts: not a collection of idiosyncrasies like collecting toast and kittens, and god help you if the character isn't collecting toast and kittens every time they show up. At its heart character is story and struggle, and struggle is more important than whether the character says or does the "right" thing in the "My character, in character, right or wrong" rule.
And ultimately, character is unique. No amount of theft changes that. No one can write Harry Potter like Rowling did. He's hers, and he can never be taken from her. God knows there are enough fanfic writers out there who have tried. The person "stealing" your totally awesome character can't steal the experiences that you've breathed into them. Your STRUGGLE. Your viewpoint is (one hopes) entirely unique. The story you tell will be yours and yours alone, should you ever get around to writing it.
Whether it'll be any good, or a story worth the telling is something entirely different.