The Importance of the Self-Insert

I’ve seen a lot of conversations recently regarding self-inserts in fiction, and many of them have been negative and dismissive. Some are downright hateful. So let’s accomplish a few things here from the get-go.

{Self-Insert Definition: for the purposes of this article, a self-insert is any instance where the author uses themselves or another any other real person as the basis for a character. Obviously, if you decide to do this yourself, be sure to create a legal distance from the source and the character so you don't get sued.}

There are clear issues with self-inserts as a form of character creation and development, especially in the hands of the inexperienced writer (though experienced writers/authors are not immune from these pitfalls).

I make a distinction here between 'writer' and 'author' in the same way I would between 'plumber' and 'painter'. A writer can be many things, take on many different forms. An author is someone specifically creating a narrative for the purpose of writing a novel in the terms I'm employing.

All authors are writers; not all writers are authors. One is not better than the other, but the distinction is important.

Most self-insert concerns and general bitching I’ve seen involve a theoretical writer placing themselves in the center of their story, making themselves not only a Mary Sue, but the most Mary Sue that ever Mary Sue-ed. (i.e. an impossible ideal who is amazing at everything in an unbelievable way, and so over-powered as to be impossible to root for or believe.)

A lot of writers begin their journeys by imposing themselves into their own stories, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Think of it like training wheels on a bicycle. Before we can really thrust our anima into other characters and learn how to build different and interesting people, putting ourselves in these spurious situations seems to make sense. And, of course, who wouldn’t want to live out their own personal fantasies by making themselves an actual god in their very own fantasy/sci-fi/hellscape?

Or maybe the writer has a crush, and write obsessively about how perfect this imagining of that person is, exploring in great detail this fictitious object of desire’s physiology, ‘amazing’ behavioral traits, etc. Fair, but not worthy of direct scorn unless that same writer decides to publish this as though it’s a finished project.

I put myself into the Archanium Codex. (My 11-novel and 11-novelette/novella epic fantasy series, if you're just catching up or have no idea who I am).

I also placed an initially ideal individual into the Codex, a person I desperately wanted to be, someone I wished to live up to, but knew I'd never actually become (someone I subsequently set about corrupting to make him more like me).

Half the characters of import in my series are based on people I know, or have known, and a lot of them are friends from high school, college, people I’ve married (see: initially ideal individual), people who gave birth to me, gave birth to them, and relatives I loved, but didn’t expect to see appear in my series, as well as those who've betrayed me, or I simply don't enjoy as humans.

I am infinitely happy for all of it.

While this might seem contradictory, or odd, for me to freely admit (as it's apparently unfashionable), this is how we move into the issue of nuance and growth.

This is where we talk about HONESTY. Being honest with yourself, most importantly, and recognizing reality in general.

I made myself a main character (MC) in The Hunter’s Gambit (THG), and indeed the entire Archanium Codex. I am central and crucial to its existence. That’s a fact. But the version of ‘me’ who exists in THG and the Codex as a whole is hardly perfect.

I created him when I was 16, and really dug into fleshing him out him at 19. In so doing, it was crucially important that he was me, at least as I was at 16-19. The character is in his early 20s when the story starts, but straight out of the gate, I knew exactly who he was. It took little-to-no research to build him as a character, because I was him. In every aspect.

He was a prince, and in my mind, so was I. He was petulant, dramatic, demanding, arrogant, and entitled. I was too. But he was also kind, emotional, empathetic, sympathetic, sweet, and loyal to a fault. Once again, things I felt I was, had been told I was, etc.

It’s not a binary. You aren’t good or bad, you’re both. You're nuanced. Gray, especially morally. We all have vices and virtues, and those are crucial to building a character.

It's human nature to want to believe the best in ourselves, and that’s not a bad thing. However, we also have to be honest with ourselves. Writing one of my MCs as myself is one of the best things I’ve ever done, because it made me explore myself. Was I a kind, empathetic person? Or did I just want people to think that?

I can be incredibly manipulative as a person, especially when I see something I want. That’s a definite character trait, and one shared by my MC. But that ‘something’ I/he desire can be good! Manipulation isn’t always a bad thing, but it can go dark very quickly if you aren’t careful.

Writing itself is effectively a form of manipulation. As a fantasy author, I'm selling you a world, a story, a person. If they die or experience a breakthrough and you have an emotional reaction, I've manipulated you in the most wonderful way, because I made you feel something for someone who never existed except for on the page.

But that’s the beauty of a self-insert.

You get to explore deeper and sometimes-darker sides of yourself without actually doing them. You can take your friend (and I cannot stress how important it is that the people you imprint into your world actually have something to say, because just throwing a random person into your narrative because you like/hate them only works in extremely basic and limited circumstances) and make them a character, but why are they there?

That’s why it’s difficult to use this tool properly.

Ask yourself, why are you adding THIS person. If you hate someone and make them cannon fodder, cool! Don’t use their exact full legal name and go nuts.

Surprises:

Perhaps my favorite form of self-insert comes in the form of ‘surprise guests’. Because I created MCs who #1) were me as I was in 2004, and #2) were everything I wished I could be, I also ended up writing tertiary characters that I had no direct intention of embedding in my narrative. 

I had a moment where one MC was speaking with an in-world family member, and I was shocked by how quickly their interaction went off the rails. There was this huge emotional surge from my POV, and it came out of seemingly nowhere.

Except it didn’t. I was accidentally writing in a subconscious issue that I had with someone I'd adored, but had apparently come to regard me with less than love. And suddenly here they were, in a character I had designed, but never for someone I had an actual relationship with in real life.

In a completely different moment, one of my MCs was receiving advice, and this character spoke in such a specific manner and was specific, I realized I was writing my grandmother. I wasn’t trying to. Now that she’s gone, I’ve had numerous family members come up to me when they read her character in tears, because I was able to channel her speech and energy. And I didn’t tell them I was writing her.

Now, every time I get to write her, I not only consider it a privilege, but I also feel it’s a moment where I get to visit her again, even if she’s been dead for 8 years. It’s a gift, a means of keeping her memory alive.

All this to say, yes, a self-insert can be self-serving in the worst way, but the biggest victim of this is always the writer in question. It’s a hallmark of someone who is exploring the field, and that’s not a bad thing, but it becomes one when the writer decides this is the only way to express themselves.

I love my characters. I love being able to step into a version of myself in real life when I might lack the confidence or conviction in a given moment, but I know he’d have no problem with it (and I can maintain that for about 5 minutes tops, but it makes a huge difference on the rarity of occasions that I need it).

Writing self-inserts can make the experience more enjoyable for the author, as you put a version of yourself or the people you love or hate into various situations. But, to me, the best examples of this are when you take the foundation of a personality, maybe even physical appearance if they’re ok with that, and then use them as a template to create something more.

Every single one of my characters based on a real person has evolved into someone on their own, someone original and new. But they came loaded with nuance and reality because they were based on real people.

That doesn’t mean you need to do that with everyone, or anyone you meet. Most people, not matter how much you might enjoy or loathe them, are boring. That’s not a good or bad thing, it’s just reality.

But some people are fascinating.

And that might not be you! You might be boring as fuck, but you can still write incredible people. Sometimes, you meet people with interesting quirks, manners of speech, ways of walking, hand gestures, whatever! Being a writer is all about observation, and part of observation is connecting with other people and reflecting their mannerisms in your words.

Do it in a respectful way (don’t do something stupid or cruel like laugh at someone with a disability, misgender a trans or nonbinary person, or prey on stereotypes regarding people from different cultures or age groups). It just makes you come across as an asshole, and your readers will immediately pick up on that.

I’m not a superhero. I’m not a wise wizard or a feral knight/beastman. But there are things about myself that I enjoy, and have found that others do as well. I have friends to this day who know they have characters based on them, but they also know those characters aren’t them.

Use the people in your life as a template when they warrant it, but then let those characters evolve beyond those foundations. Real people certainly don’t remain in stasis after they’re 16, or 37, or 93. They grow and change. Their interests and feelings change with them. And any well-developed, believeable character does the same thing.


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