“Self-insert” is such a dirty term in many writing communities, isn’t it? It even sounds kinda dirty. But I don’t think it should be.
Okay, okay, pitchforks down. This isn’t gonna be a defense of wish-fulfillment protagonist: The Mary Sue/Gary Stu. The Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Ways. All those Sonic the Hedgehog OCs (seriously, Google “[your name] the Hedgehog”; you’ll definitely regret it). No, those are subjects of scorn for a reason, and they’re what comes to mind when people think of “self-inserts”. If none of these names mean anything to you, lucky!
Before we get into all that, though, I think it’s necessary to look at why people hate self-inserts if I want to argue for them, and that involves looking at the worst examples on offer.
Mary Sue: A Trekkie’s Tale
While the self-insert/author surrogate (note: I’ve kinda used these terms interchangeably, but there’s a bit of a difference: the surrogate is a character based on the author and the insert is generally the author themselves appearing in the work unambiguously, à la Dante in the Divine Comedy, but, for the sake of simplicity, I’m using the term “self-insert” to encompass both concepts) has existed since the dawn of fiction, the modern stigma arose with fanfiction. Now, I’m not gonna put down fanfiction: I think it’s a great way for young writers to explore their craft and for fans of all ages to interact with their wider fandoms. However, it must be said that, due to the absence of entry barriers inherent in traditionally published works, as well as the anonymity of FF communities and the lack of financial incentives, fan-fiction is a haven for… well, quite a bit of less-than-stellar writing.
Fan-fiction as we know it today really took form in the late sixties, when Star Trek fan magazines (fanzines) began publishing stories set in the Trek universe written by members of the fandom. Of course, as the vast majority were by amateur authors, many of the tropes we associate with fan-fiction flourished. This is where we first meet Mary Sue.
The term “Mary Sue” was coined by Star Trek fan Paula Smith in 1973. Smith had noticed a particular trend in the fanfics she read: the wish-fulfillment original-character protagonist who was perfect at everything. She could fight, she could captain her own ship, she could make both the fiery Kirk and the cold Spock fall madly in love with her. Her story was every teenage Trekkie’s wet dream.
So Smith wrote a short but iconic satire of this trope, entitled A Trekkie’s Tale. The story introduced the world to Mary Sue, the youngest lieutenant in Star Fleet (only fifteen-and-a-half years old!). Of course, her age (fifteen-and-a-half!) didn’t dissuade Captain Kirk from professing his love for her.
Since then, the term “Mary Sue” has been a catch-all for poorly developed, unrealistic, clearly written for wish fulfillment characters (often female characters; it would be hard to ignore the sometimes sexist double standards applied to characters; Kirk himself could be considered quite Sue-ish, for example; “Marty Stu” and “Gary Stu” are sometimes used to refer to male characters exhibiting these traits, but it’s most often female characters who get labeled as Sues, whether justified or not).
Fan-fiction and the Development of a Writer’s Voice
Writing a story isn’t easy. As an aspiring author, I can confirm that writing a good story takes so much more practice and hard work than I’d ever imagined (of course, jury’s still out on whether I’ll ever actually manage to write a good story). Two of the biggest challenges are worldbuilding and character creation. These are, of course, very important, but it can be easy to lose focus on the actual craft of writing when you’re spending so much time on these topics.
Fanfiction is a great way for young, inexperienced authors to focus on the writing itself, since the world and most of the characters are already established. I never wrote more than a chapter of fanfic myself, but I do think it’s a valid form of writing.
So, picture this: you’ve never written a story before. You’re in middle school. You spend half your time daydreaming about what it would be like if you were in your favorite fictional universe. So, why not write down those fantasies? You can practice your craft and have a little fun, and you don’t even have to worry about all that set-up; Rowling or Tolkien or Roddenberry or Martin already did that for you.
Now, up to this point, there’s nothing wrong, but this is where it can go AWOL. As someone who was an insecure, awkward, introverted kid who never felt like he fit in (though I’ve changed a bit: I’m older now), it can be satisfying to imagine yourself as the hero. Who hasn’t dreamed about saving the world and getting the girl? It’s simplistic and shallow, but it’s nice, and I think it’s something most of us have gone through. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of 2d storytelling when you’re beginning, but it is something you have to grow out of if you want to improve as a writer.
With fanfiction, those fantasies have an outlet, and the lack of gatekeepers I’ve mentioned before means that it only takes a few clicks to share with the world your half-baked story in which you seduce Harry, Ron, Draco, Sirius, Dobby, and Lupin all at once then defeat Voldemort singlehandedly while the whole school cheers you on. Anyone who’s spent any time reading fanfics has seen a million and one of these stories, and you know that main character with the badass name is the author’s proxy. Maybe they’ll even write about all their enemies being brutally tormented in Hell for eternity (wait, no, that’s Dante again, sorry).
So, that explains what a Mary Sue is, and why it’s so often associated with author surrogate characters, but does that mean the terms are synonymous, or inherently bad?
Okay, you probably figured out my stance from the title, fair, but I think it’s time to take a step back from fan fiction and Dante jokes and actual examples (like Bella Swan in Twilight and Woody Allen in every Woody Allen movie) and take a quick look at the concept on a more theoretical level.
So, what is a character? Well, in simplified terms, it’s a storyteller’s attempt to create a facsimile of a person, often a fictional entity. When an author creates a character, it’s inevitable that they’re going to take some inspiration from real people, whether it be themselves or not. They may not be direct representations, of course, but a skilled storyteller can weave attributes and qualities together to create a character that feels real.
Now, when you look at it like that, basing a character directly on yourself can seem like a bit of a cop-out. It’s like buying cake-mix from the store instead of creating your own batter from scratch. Of course, I don’t think it has to be like that. It can be a valid and useful tool in an author’s toolbox.
As an aspiring writer, introspection is something that is key to my own stories. I’m not exactly good at talking about my feelings, and I’m not always particularly enamored with myself, so I’ve found a good way to figure out ways to work through my problems is to write little stories featuring myself doing whatever stupid thing I’m stressing about and see if I can find some humor in it, or some lesson. In fact, my current WiP was sort of based on the idea of “what would really happen if I went on an adventure to slay a dragon” (the answer, of course, is complete and total failure). It’s almost a satire of myself.
I think the key to writing an author surrogate, and the thing that can help it reach another level of characterization, is self-awareness. When you’re in middle school, it’s not really anybody’s strong suit, but an important part of growing up is being able to see yourself for who you really are, flaws and strengths both. That’s why these characters can be so impactful: we know ourselves better than anybody, and if we have some self-awareness and humility we’re well aware of all our mistakes and faults. That’s what can keep them from being a “Mary Sue”. As someone who’s screwed up more times than I can count, my own experiences provide fertile soil for conflict and angst and all that stuff that gives a story tension. Of course, nobody wants to read about how I dropped my friend’s science project and spent a week worrying that he’d hate me forever, so I take those very real feelings and incorporate them into something actually interesting (in the case of my novel, a satirical fantasy adventure featuring magic and dragons and demons and the occasional bad penis joke).
In my opinion, literature is at its best when it holds up a mirror to the reader, shows them something about themselves that they may not even have realized. Creating a character based on yourself gives you the ability to turn that mirror inward and explore your own psyche, and hopefully find something to say that can benefit your readers. With a little bit of raw honesty and some genuine soul-baring, you can connect with the reader in a deep, intimate way, and communicate something that you might not have ever told the world otherwise. At the very least, it’s a great way to avoid having to pay for therapy.