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Self-Inserts as a Trope (1 Viewer)

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EternalGreen

Senior Member
If there's one that makes me not read a story, it's a self-insert.

In the most grotesque cases, the author only changes a few letters of their main character's name/last name.

On a fundamental level, I think self-inserting makes it more about the author trying to fulfill their own desires and NOT about making art, which is 100% about what is does for OTHER people (in my opinion).

I'm new to this art thing, myself. But I'm getting there. The key is to try. And self-inserts show that you aren't even trying at all.

I might be irrational, but I fume at the audacity of someone expecting me to read their journal of self-discovery disguised as a novel/short story. On top of that, self-inserts create bland characters, because a writer's own personality is mostly invisible to her.

Please, for the love of god, make sure there is at least one significant (plot relevant) thing you DON'T share in common with your protagonist.

In the future, I aim to shape my characters in a way that they are just specific yet just vague enough to connect with my entire target audience.

Anyway - happy writing. The (intended target) audience is always right.
 

seigfried007

Senior Member
I think a lot of one's views on self-inserts are in how one defines a self-insert. I don't think there's anything wrong with an adult bildungsroman centered around a protagonist much like the author. Why should it matter whose journey of self-discovery we're following? There's probably something in that tale for others, even if the writer was (consciously or otherwise) writing it for themselves and/or basing said character off of themselves.

Now, self-inserts for authorial wish-fulfillment is another matter entirely. Those I hate. But those also tend to fit under the Mary Sue/Gary Stu umbrellas of bad characters and bad writing.

Self-inserts need not be bland characters anymore than writers need be bland people. From the sounds of it, your future characters are likely to be very bland if you're gunning for that "just specific/just vague enough" thing.

Art is about self-expression. If my self-expression affects you, that's great. I hope it does. But I'm not not expressing you onto my canvas or word processor documents--I'm expressing myself. That's all any artist can do, really. Matter of fact, whether you intend it to or not, your writing is always going to be a reflection of you.

I've known a lot of authors who beat the ever-loving crap out of their self-inserts. You can tell a lot about a person based on how they treat the characters that are most like them.
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
The literary definition of self-inserts requires the character in question to be an idealized form of the author.

It's an important distinction because, otherwise, every character can be defined as a self-insert, right? No characters exist in a vacuum: Vader was George Lucas's personal idea of evil just as Luke Skywalker was his personal idea of good. All characters are creations of their author, so all carry different degrees of 'self-insertion', even if it is only passive. When Luke is screaming because he finds out that Vader is his father, that is George Lucas's reaction, not Luke Skywalker's, because Luke Skywalker does not exist. George Lucas exists.

So, this is a question of magnitude. Idealized forms of author-in-story are generally hazardous because they frequently become prone to an author's wish fulfillment -- a Mary Sue. It requires discipline to maintain an effective degree of dispassionate distance between author and character. We all want some degree of author in our characters, otherwise they become bland. We also do not want total author in characters, because that's bland, too.

Some authors are actually really good at this. Hunter S. Thompson wrote most of his books as self-inserts (The Rum Diary, Fear & Loathing) and that blurry line between autobiography and fiction is what makes his work effective. Kurt Vonnegut did this a lot too. Shirley Jackson based characters on herself rampantly. Stephen King has done it.
 

TheManx

Senior Member
The literary definition of self-inserts requires the character in question to be an idealized form of the author.

That’s the key. In some of my short stories, I share a lot of characteristics with my MCs -- age, related careers, environment etc.

Rather than idealize, I do the opposite -- I magnify or make up flaws, add bad decision making etc. That causes the conflicts and that's what (hopefully) makes the story interesting.
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
I feel like most writers are sufficiently self-aware that they can incorporate one or more of their own flaws into any 'self-based' character. The problem is when ego gets in the way.
 

Tiamat

Patron
I think the OP is a little presumptuous. I can understand where you're coming from with your presumptions, but to say that authors who use themselves as protagonists aren't even trying is going a little far in my opinion. Luckyscars shared a number of good examples of talented and/or successful writers doing this, to which I'll add Neil Gaiman. Also seigfried pointed out the difference between a self-insert and a Mary Sue, and there is a definite difference. Plus, I'd agree that Mary Sue type characters are just awful most of the time, but I still wouldn't contend that the author isn't trying. They're just trying at perhaps the wrong sorts of things. (Here's looking at you, Terry Goodkind.) However, you're free to like or dislike whatever sorts of characters either work or don't work for you. I just don't quite agree with this one.
 

seigfried007

Senior Member
Inspired by this conversation and lucky's remarks, I had to delve into a wikipedia wormhole and find all the relevant terminology. I've heard "self-insert" used for any character in which the author has (unintentionally or otherwise) stuck a good deal of themselves, but it turns out the accepted usage specifies differences between "self-insert," "author surrogate" and "Mary Sue."

Both self-inserts and Mary Sue's are idealized versions of the author, but a Mary Sue has more cloaking factors (for instance, she's probably prettier than the author). Mary Sue's were lumped under author surrogates for that reason--they're not direct author rip-offs, but they do tend to serve as vehicles for authorial wish-fulfillment. Author surrogates can be intentional or unintentional. Surrogates often serve as the mouthpiece of the author--particularly for unpopular/against-the-established political or philosophical views. Surrogates have the scale that's anything from more-or-less-an-author-carbon-copy to Whoa-my-MC-has-a-little-piece-of-me-stuck-in-him.

"unintentional self-insert" = author's unconsciously using the character as a surrogate
 

Mutimir

Senior Member
I would tend to agree. Probably the only thing I would be OK with is if a writer put themselves into the story as a side character but only if it wasn't a serious character. Basically poking fun a the insignificance and absurdity of it all.
 

indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
As with everything - if done well, it's fine and possibly great, if done poorly it's bad and possibly terrible.

To this day I chuckle when I recall how Vonnegut inserted himself in 'Breakfast of Champions'.
 

Greyson

Senior Member
I've been working through Shigeru Mizuki's graphic novel "Showa: A History of Japan". He uses a personal character from previous comics he had published in place of a personal insertion (the novel is part history, part biography, so he already makes an appearance). It adds a humorous element to the story and tempers some of the heavier historical topics with levity. I suppose historical/biographical stuff makes it less art, but eh.

In literature, I look to Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf as a good example of self-insertion that works well. Harry Haller (HH) is a close approximation of the author himself, and I think there's not kitschy-ness or unartfullness (is there a better word?) in this at all. It's a close investigation of his psyche, his shortcomings, and his unsavoriness (in his opinion). He is expressing his pains, worries, fears, and triumphs...sharing them with the reader and leading you through an incredibly intimate exploration of them. I, personally, find this to be peak artistry. He's laid himself bare before you, highlighted his weaknesses and explained why he finds himself insufferable. It made me look closer at my own shadow, and if that isn't art, then i'm at a loss for what is. Personal taste is a thing, of course, but I think to throw the baby out with the bathwater here is a bit hasty.
 

Tettsuo

WF Veterans
Isn't everything written an insert of the writer themselves?

It's not like those characters we make are real and can write their own stories. It's all in our heads, so they are by extension a piece of us.
 

Mutimir

Senior Member
Isn't everything written an insert of the writer themselves?

It's not like those characters we make are real and can write their own stories. It's all in our heads, so they are by extension a piece of us.

There is bound to be a little of ourselves that seeps into our characters. I think what the OP is complaining about is when it lacks complete subtilty. Like if I'm a lawyer from Dallas, TX who likes listening to Lynard Skynard in his pickup and I write a story about a genius lawyer from Dallas, TX who drives a pickup and listens to Simple Man on repeat and who just so happens to be handling the trial of the century then it is a little bit...much. Wouldn't you say?
 

Tettsuo

WF Veterans
There is bound to be a little of ourselves that seeps into our characters. I think what the OP is complaining about is when it lacks complete subtilty. Like if I'm a lawyer from Dallas, TX who likes listening to Lynard Skynard in his pickup and I write a story about a genius lawyer from Dallas, TX who drives a pickup and listens to Simple Man on repeat and who just so happens to be handling the trial of the century then it is a little bit...much. Wouldn't you say?
Depends on how well and entertaining the story is written.
 

TheManx

Senior Member
If you read one of my stories and there’s some white hipster guy in the suburbs screwing something up, it’s probably me.
 
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