, as defined by TVTropes, is short for "exported character", meaning a character exported from another work. An Expy is a character based on another character from another work, but within this definition is a bit of wiggle room which can lead to errors in the novice. Let's first examine what an expy isn't, and then why anyone would want to make an expy in the first place.
An Expy is NOT:
Ersatz, German for "replacement", should tell you all you need to know about the difference between the two characters. A Captain Ersatz is a generic replacement for a character, while an expy is an adapted or expanded version of a character. Think of an item from a fast food restaurant: a Captain Ersatz is a similar item from a knock-off chain, while an expy is a homemade meal made with a similar recipe. A plastic toy has its Ersatz in a bootleg and an expy in a custom-made version. While Ersatz are not necessarily bad, useful in simple parodic/comedic purposes, expies are dramaturgically preferable, second only to an "original" character. More on the nature of originality and why I put original in quotation marks further down.
As above, if a character is supposed to be the character they're referencing but with the Serial Numbers Filed Off
, it's more likely a Captain Ersatz. That said, what's obvious to some is not always so to others, especially within Small Reference Pools
. A young, casual comic book reader could pick out a Batman Expy very easily (for like tropes, see The Cowl
and Batman Parody
), but not all young, casual comic book readers would know that Batman had his origins in literature and early pulp detectives, essentially mimicking such keen-eyed deducers as Sherlock Holmes and The Shadow, before developing into his own well-rounded character. As a general rule, if it takes a bit more than a casual understanding of a character to recognize their expy, it's got the making of, but is not yet, an effective expy.
For many artists, stealing is bad, mmmkay?
However, appropriation as an artform
has been practiced nearly since the invention of artistic product. For appropriation artists, it's the recontextualization
of the art that makes it their original product to show an audience. That said, you're probably not into taking other people's artworks and showing them as your own; you're likely not interested in taking the signature off of another's art and/or replacing it with your own; you're more than likely not willing to take a urinal or coat rack and put your signature on it to call it your own
. However, in many contexts, the act of appropriation is not bad in and of itself, which leads to the next section.
Why Make an Expy?
For parody purposes...
As mentioned in the last section, a simple Captain Ersatz can be a fun idea, using them to parody a work while dodging copyrights. However, as expies can provide parodic elements in their expansion. For instance, what if you had a Batman expy, but his parents were still alive? For comedic purposes, they might constantly criticize his death-defying antics to put criminals to justice; for dramatic purposes, they might provide the only psychological grounding to his insanity-filled world. In this case, the parents would act as Alfred Pennyworth and Dr. Leslie Thompkins do in the proper Batman canon(s), the latter being Batman's surrogate parents. Our former parody, however, has blood ties to these characters, and so initiates more possibilities.
Think about the last time you spent theorizing what would happen, given everything you know, to a character in their movie's sequel or in their show's next episode/season; remember the disappointment you felt when your theories fell flat? Instead of getting mad when canon usurps your fanon, think about why you made those theories to begin with, and use your deductions and inductions to craft your expy. A mysterious character such as Sans of Undertale, for instance, has dark, edgy theories a dime a dozen; instead of asking for Toby Fox to validate your particular theory to the origin of him and his brother, make your own monster world where the induction of such skeletons fits not only a variant of Sans' and/or Papyrus' character(s), but also the theory you concocted, making it your own postulate.
As an affectionate tribute...
Any piece of media has its followers and detractors. For many followers, they may feel that the ultimate tribute to their favorite works to create their own works based closely on them
. This has, as mentioned before, been done nearly since media's birth, to the point where many original works are lost behind their imitators
. At best, however, a tribute character has the potential to bring a fresh, new understanding of a work to the fore, perhaps even to the delight of the original creators. At worst, however, the original creators may find the expies, however adapted outside of copyright infringement, offensive to the understanding of the original work. Sadly, an artist might find there's nothing they can do about a bad expy unless they ignore it, successfully fight for it, or fade into obscurity.
As one can see, there's a lot of upsides and downsides to expycraft, so much so that it would probably be better to make something entirely original, right? Well..
It's Difficult Not to Copy!
TVTropes has more on this in their article, So You Want To Be Original
, but in summary, the idea of "original" characters is admirable, but somewhat irrational. Think of a periodic table of elements: only a few of those elements make up a massive chunk of, if not an entire, biosphere. Likewise, a dramaturgical table of elements has only a few major elements that make up nearly every character out there, and only a few shared by a scant number of characters. Likewise, trying to make something entirely original can be straining, and probably not worth it because you might be cryptomnesiacally
stealing another character's traits anyway. Instead, here are a few tips and examples to help make effective expies...
Pay attention to what you're copying...
Not only can understanding that you might be copying something deter you from cryptomnesia, it can also make you a more active and creative expy-crafter. When you relax, reconsider originality, and get to understand the elements of your character (going to the character page of the TVTropes article of your favorite work may help), you might reconsider what you actually want to copy. Taking the previously mentioned Batman Expy and his parents, what may be more interesting in that sense is not so much that Batman would have someone living to blame for their psychology, but rather the interplay of parental guidance to moral development; likewise, that it goes on a Batman-esque mold in the first place is but a stepping stone to a broader idea.
Copy, but then get out the crayons...
You know how, when you copy a document on a photocopier, the copy slightly degrades over time? If you copied that copy, copying that, and so on for several more copies, the degradation gets worse. In a single work with a single character, Flanderization
fits this metaphor, named after how The Simpsons' Ned Flanders went from friendly neighborhood religious fellow to overzealous Christian strawman over the years. It can get worse when another work copies an outside character, but loses their details in the process, ultimately copying only a shadow of their inspiration. Think instead of taking a black and white copy of a character, the backbone of the traits you admire, and then color in your own details to flesh them out. Don't be afraid to stick on new styles or traits for your fancy, but then again...
A copy with added traits does not an OC make...
Batman, BUT WITH LIVING PARENTS, is not entirely original; the fact that Batman would exist with his parents still alive requires more thought and consideration to make it work in any universe; consider what it would mean if his parents' deaths was not Batman's defining turn to crime-fighting, as well as how other aspects of the world, or at least Gotham City, would be affected in their presence
. If you don't, you'll run into contrived coincidences
. Consider what makes an expy different, and work backwards, or build on a differing backstory, and work your way up to the timeline of your work. Our Cowl may not live with his parents by day and fight crime by night, but they play so much a role in his life that his personality and world is irrevocably different for it, enough to differentiate him from his inspiration.
Evolve that copy to your world...
So you want to make a mysterious, but ultimately understandable, lovable skeleton with hidden depths
. For an added style, though, they're not the usual Undertale monster that fights with bullet patterns and dissolves to dust upon death (whether or not they even fit that rule already) -- what if they were the classic undead
, perhaps a benevolent(?) lich
? Likely, many of their original character's traits would fall to the wayside, while others would make more sense than they used to. To make a character truly evolved, however, explanation is not as important as improvisation -- what would our skeleton do if trapped in the 23rd Century? Probably veg out as always, eating neo-meat and watching plasmatic-tri-crystal teletheatre.
Your world makes the character as much as a main character makes the world.
If all else "fails", take from multiple sources...
The ultimate shortcut, the Composite Character
, hides its plagiarism through stealing too many sources to track down. Many appropriated artworks fall under this, from classic collages and assemblages to online video edits such as YouTube Poops. As a character, the composite may take an origin from one character, the personality of another, and the appearance of yet another. A cross between Batman and Sans would be a bit of a stretch (good luck, though), but exploring Sans as a (probably) human anti-hero/villain within a Gothamesque world would be more doable. Again, slapping character traits thoughtlessly together makes for illogical writing; if these traits can take to each other like tissue samples in a culture, you got good development.
Remember to develop your characters no matter what...
So you have a living skeleton, risen from the dead out of magical anger to avenge the corrupt system that killed his parents so long ago, only to realize there's not much they can do, so they laze about and make bad jokes until they receive the call to use their powers against an even greater threat. OK, so now what?
If you came here asking me to tell you what to do next, beyond the suggestions I already made, I can't be of much help. My method of character development is an intuitive system, not a systematic process. If you find it difficult to intuit characters, search online for good systems on how to make good characters (TVTropes has So You Want To Make Interesting Characters
and So You Want To Develop Character Personality
; these fit as much with expies as with "genuine" OCs).
I would list "Love" in the tips, but only for lack of a better word for the selfless love and intuition of character development and world-building that can raise a flat character into a near-realistically deep-rooted one. Unfortunately, I find it hard to find advice on how to cultivate this, as most character-help articles will tell you how to develop a character from the perspective of what an audience wants, rarely if ever for what serves your character, expy or otherwise. If your intended audience doesn't want expies, you're probably reading the wrong article.
I write this article from the perspective of a learning writer removed enough from reality to consider characters as real people, no matter their powers, species, or character depth. I consider expycraft in this case to be more like genetic engineering than artistic derivation; to clone a character and inject some new DNA to freshen their physiology is something endlessly fascinating to me, more so than trying to scratch-build something. That said, as a learning musician, I compare the act of considering a totally original character akin to generating melodies on WolframTones
: many melodies will fail to capture the imagination, while others may burrow into your head and never leave. Likely, though, the catchy ones may actually remind you of melodies you enjoyed before, or at least share some of the same musical themes.
Need Help? Get Help!
Don't be afraid to ask for critique, just be wary of artists who denounce expycraft absolutely. Maybe to soften audience expectation, leave the expy status to audience speculation; if more people than not know it's a copy, you probably have something too obvious (see "An expy is NOT overtly obvious" above); you could claim it's just a Ersatz-style parody, but it's probably not wise. If nobody knows it's a copy of anything, you probably made an effective expy, or you made your parody/tribute too obscure and obtuse. Get good critique to help hone your expy into a character original enough to stand alone, but rooted enough in their inspiration to claim true affectionate tribute. It's a hard balance to strike, but at least if it falls too far from the original, it has the potential to strike out as its own.
Read more on the nature of appropriation and copyright.
Anything you heard about the 15% rule of alteration in copyright is probably wrong, but most good derivative works can get away with what they're doing through the Fair Use doctrine. To see how such laws and norms apply to you, do the research and make informed judgements on how far you can take your character. Depending on the creator of the original work you copy from, they may tolerate it or ban any alterations outright, which may also depend on the nature of the alterations for good or ill. Even a well-intentioned expy-crafter may enter hot water by a protective or critical creator, and likewise a ruthless roaster of characters through expycraft may be tolerated or even praised by an open-minded, light-hearted creator. Be very careful either way, or don't; it's up to you.
Expycraft is not for everyone
If you already have a good track record of OCs, you might not even need an expy, even if you want to pay tribute to an artist or work. Other artists may over-rely on expies to the point where it could be argued they haven't an original thought in their head. As I said before, I'm nearly delirious with "head movies" and alternative universes where characters can evolve and perform without much external guidance, to the point where structured systems of character development and scriptwriting all but elude me. Sure, it sounds like pretentious and flimsy justification to copy everything, and if you don't agree with it, you can consider this article just another silly opinion piece. If you do empathize, at least a little, hopefully consider this article a welcome bit of advice.
This article may change over time as new understanding of items comes to light. Proper research with a citation list can be done if desired, or just accept it as a personal essay trying to be an advice column.
Either way, thanks for reading,CyberneticCupcake
P.S. If you're so inclined, feel free to use the comments section of this journal to perform experiments in expycraft and character compositing. I'd be willing to constructively critique your expies as well.