Today's question (well, actually yesterday's, but who's counting?) comes from stealth_noodle, who wanted my thoughts on characterizing customizable video game protagonists in fic. I've been thinking about this question off and on ever since it was asked, because I think it's a pretty fascinating one. It's definitely an issue that comes up in Dragon Age fandom quite a bit (and I imagine Mass Effect fandom as well). How much flexibility is there for a fanfic writer when characterizing a Warden, or a Hawke, or a Shepard? Are there defined lines that we need to play within? Or is the protagonist essentially an original character, giving us total freedom to make them whoever we want?
Of course, there are some fic writers who feel free to say "Canon? Pffft, I do want I want" and take any character in the direction they like, not just customizable protagonist characters. And there's certainly nothing wrong with that approach, but that's not the kind of fic writer I am. For me, the interesting thing about fanfic is finding new and interesting things to do with characters and story within the structure that the canon provides. Even when I write a story with an AU premise, I try to keep events and characterization as close to canon as possible. Then again, can one even say that there is such a thing as "canon" for the Warden, or for Hawke?* As a general rule, I would say yes, but it's such a broad space of possible canons that there's a lot of room for flexibility. (More so for the Warden than for Hawke -- the Warden has a set backstory, different for each Origin, but personality-wise, they are essentially a tabula rasa. Hawke, on the other hand, does have an in-game personality, although the player has a hand in creating it.)
When it comes to writing the protagonist characters into my own work, I'm almost always writing about a particular Warden or Hawke -- one that I created myself, usually through the course of playing a full game. If I write about Sereda Aeducan, for example, she's not a generic female dwarf noble. She's the Warden I spent over a hundred hours with, playing through DA: Origins, Awakening, Golems, and Witch Hunt. The story is her story, set within her canon and reflecting the choices she made and the outcomes she discovered, or an AU with a purposeful divergence. When I decided to write Justify the Means, an AU about a very different kind of female Aeducan, I actually created a new character and played through her origin. This is why I don't write fic about Tabris, or Amell, or male Cousland, etc.: I've never played a Warden of that background, so I don't know who they are, or how to tell their stories properly. There've been a very few exceptions, mostly when writing to prompts or plot bunnies that don't suit any of my current Wardens, but writing a specific Warden whom I already know is much more within my comfort zone.
I can have a little more flexibility with a Hawke, as long as the Hawke isn't central to the story. For example, I wrote a few stories featuring a male Hawke before I ever played through my Garrett's canon, so I had to come up with a generic Garrett Hawke to fill that role. But as with the Wardens, I'm much happier if I have a known Hawke to work with (diplomatic rogue Marian, aggressive mage Marissa, snarky warrior Garrett) and am unlikely to put a generic Hawke into a starring role.
Although there are exceptions, from what I've seen, I think most fic writers who work with the protagonist characters in these kinds of canons do something similar. They aren't writing stories about A Warden or A Hawke or A Shepard, they're writing about their Warden/Hawke/Shepard. Some feel more bound to follow the canonical background and events of the games than others, but it's still where the seed of the character arises. In my case, as you might expect, I do use canon as my foundation -- I am very unlikely to create headcanons for my player characters that directly contradict the events of the game, although sometimes I'll fudge things a little for the sake of storytelling.
So in a way, it's not really that different for me than writing other characters. The main difference is that I had a part in creating the original canon, and that is most definitely part of the fun.
*There's also a larger question about what "canon" even means in a universe as flexible as that of Dragon Age, where outcomes and characterizations change based on player choices, and even more options open up when modding gets involved, but that's another conversation for another day.
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