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“Self-insertion” in literature refers to a piece where the author has written themselves into their story as a character (sometimes called an “avatar”). It appears occasionally in commercial fiction, such as in Darren Shan’s “The Saga of Darren Shan” series and, to a certain extent, in Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” – although, in the latter case, Snicket never actually appears in the story but is implied to live within the fictitious world. More commonly, it appears in fan fiction, where authors get the chance to interact with their favourite characters through their work. Using a technique like this can work very well on occasion. Done well, it makes the reader feel more connected to the story via the author and it also adds an extra layer of fantasy to the plot. But it can also be very dangerous. If you get it wrong, it can make your work appear shallow or arrogant. Here are a few questions to help you decide if this is the right style for your manuscript.

Is there a reason why the author needs to be a character?

One of the most obvious reasons to use self-insertion is if the plot is written in the first person as a letter, a diary, a fictitious autobiography or something similar. In this case, having the author play the protagonist would add an extra layer of realism to the plot and would help the audience to suspend their sense of disbelief. Another good reason to go down this route is if the story is a parallel version of the author’s real life (in other words, autobiographical fiction). This genre is beginning to grow in popularity and, of course, it would be perfectly acceptable to use self-insertion in this case.

"Lt. Mary Sue ran the ship, and ran it so well she received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Vulcan Order of Gallantry and the Tralfamadorian Order of Good Guyhood." - A Trekkie's Tale by Paula Smith. Image by Mark Zimmermann

“Lt. Mary Sue ran the ship, and ran it so well she received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Vulcan Order of Gallantry and the Tralfamadorian Order of Good Guyhood.” – A Trekkie’s Tale by Paula Smith.
Image by Mark Zimmermann

Unfortunately, this question also has some wrong answers. If your reason for using this method is to play out your personal fantasy, beware! If you don’t take great care with this, you put yourself in danger of creating a Mary Sue; an irritatingly perfect protagonist. We naturally have some bias towards ourselves, and that is going to be multiplied if your story takes place inside a fantasy that is very dear to you. The second risky reason is if you are writing yourself because you find it too difficult to write a protagonist that is different to you. Characterisation can be tough, but you won’t improve dramatically if you don’t take steps out of your comfort zone and try writing new characters. Don’t use self-insertion as a crutch – you are better than that.

Will your avatar be true to real life, or modified?

Either of these options can work, but a warning if you plan to make the “you” in your story different to the real “you”; try to maintain the balance of good and bad traits. For every flaw of yours you remove, add a different one and the same goes for every positive feature. If you suck at dancing in real life, but your avatar is going to be a professional samba teacher, make her suck at cooking instead. And don’t dodge this rule by adding a trait that will almost never be relevant in the plot. It’s totally against the rules to swap your marathon-smashing stamina for the sudden ability to juggle hats.

Is it a bird? is it a plane? No, its just Kevin from down the road. Image by ashley rose

Is it a bird? is it a plane? No, its just Kevin from down the road.
Image by ashley rose

And with regards to fantasy traits such as super-powers or an unusual appearance, try to make sure that your other characters keep up with your protagonist unless there is a crucial reason for them not to. No one wants to see the protagonist get laser vision, colour-changing eyes, elf ears and the beauty of a siren when all of her friends are middle-aged accountants. It’s just not fair.

Which other characters will dislike your avatar?

If you answered “none of them”, put down the pen and back away from the paper. Same goes if you just named the villain. I’ve talked before in my characterisation article about why good guys may dislike other good guys and the same goes if you are going to be the protagonist. It’s not easy to let yourself be hated by a character you have created, but it is essential to make this format work. And don’t be tempted into making your avatar’s enemy the type of good guy that turns out to be evil in the end.

I’m not saying your avatar needs a sworn enemy, but think about how this would work in real life; there’s people that you prefer to avoid, find irritating, or just disagree with on some fundamental issues. Mirror this in your characters.

If you decide to go ahead with a project like this, I wish you the best of luck! It’s a tough job but if you do it right, some really original work can come out of it. Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this article please click like and follow, and join me next week when I will be talking about how to break your disruptive writing rituals.

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