If there is anything I hate, HATE, HAAATE that writers do – it’s inserting themselves into their fiction. You’re not being cleaver. You’re not being sneaky. You’re not fooling anyone. I see exactly what you’re doing.
Have you ever read a story and the character description seemed familiar, and then you flip to the back of the dust jacket to see the spitting image of that exact character staring back at you through the author’s glam-shot? Sure their character might be a bit younger, a bit slimmer, a smidge more attractive, but it’s them. It is very obviously them!
And I’m not talking about non-fiction or autobiography. I’m talking about fiction, where the names and places have been changed to protect people’s identities.
Why do writers insert themselves into their own fiction? Well, the first assumption is that they’re narcissists who think so highly of themselves as to assume they’d make a great main character in a novel, and yeah, that’s probably it a lot of the time. But sometimes writers do it as wish fulfillment. Like fan fiction, but for their own life. Then there are also those who do it as a form of self-therapy.
What if I was young and hot and all the boys/girls wanted me? What if I was a rich, spy, assassin, politician, sex-god, skydiving, ninja?
And then they write that fantasy.
The reason why this fiction is bad is that we, as the reader, need to immerse ourselves in the story. It really, really wrecks the experience and takes you out of the story if you realize you’re just reading the authors sexy, super-talented, chosen one, wish-fulfillment fantasy. It makes you stop and think; “Wow, this author’s kind of sad. I wonder how boring their life really is?” And we’d have never thought of it before, but when we realize it’s the author in the story, that’s exactly what we think!
Now to be fair; most character descriptions are pretty vague. There are only so many hair colors, eye colors, complexions, etc. It can sometimes be an honest coincidence. I mean, literally, most people in the world have brown eyes and brown hair. That’s a statistical fact. So does that mean if you write a character with brown eyes and hair, and you have the same physical traits that that character is you?
It’s when the character description matches the author (although, usually, an improved version of the author) and that character has the same personality traits, the same hobbies, the same sexual/romantic preferences, lives in the same country/state/city, works the same kind of day-job, shares the same political/religious beliefs, etc. That is when it becomes glaringly obvious.
I used to run an online book club where I would work with young writers, and one story really stuck out to me. The main character was a sixteen-year-old girl, with long dark curly hair, brown eyes, went to high school, and some werewolf fell in love with her. (Yeah, that’s the kind of stuff you have to read when you beta read for young writers). The author of said story had a profile picture, and of course, long dark curly hair, brown eyes, sixteen-years-old, attending high school, obviously has a thing for werewolves. But the real clincher was the character’s personality and dialog. Having written back and forth with her several times due to the book club, I could tell that it was her. She wrote herself. She very obviously put herself in the story as the main character. In fact, the character’s name was almost her name. For example (these are not the names); Jan becoming Jen.
Yeah, it was instantly cringy having to read any of that story.
Just – so much cring!
But it’s not any better when adult, professional, or even best-selling authors do that shit! Hell, even Stephen King has written himself as the main character more than once. One could argue it wasn’t so bad in Misery, and it wasn’t, but it was a little more cringy when you can tell he wrote himself as Bill Denbrough in It.
I didn’t need that sex scene, Stephen. I didn’t!
So that brings up the question; can it be done well? Misery is one such example, but that works because the character is brought low, very low. It is not an ego piece. Nobody wants to endure what Paul Sheldon endured in that story, not even Stephen King! If you can write yourself as a character being degraded, abused, assaulted, not getting the love interest, not being a Renaissance Man (or woman), but an actual average Joe/Jane, and depict your actual failings; your real personal faults and lay them bare for all the world to see, then yes, you might be able to insert yourself into a work of fiction and get away with it.
But, let’s be real; most writers can’t do that. They want to defeat the baddies, get the boy/girl, save the day, be the hero; all while being cool and sexy as fuck! And, I’m sorry, but characters like that are just inherently bad.
Now, I’ve talked to a lot of people who openly admit to inserting themselves into their stories as the main character, and one of the most common explanations/justifications is that it’s “therapeutic.” I’ve heard that a lot. And, I get it. Life sucks. You feel unfulfilled, lonely, bored, or boring. Maybe you’re socially isolated; by choice or by happenstance. And writing yourself as someone more desirable, more talented, more adventurous, who has wonderful life-changing experiences, is a form of self-therapy. It’s fun to imagine yourself as the hero of some great adventure, and, inherently, there’s nothing wrong with that. People write for many reasons and using writing to cope with mental health, or the menial existence of everyday life is a perfectly valid reason to write.
But, beware. The fantasies that carry you through your darkest moments in life may be wonderful and fulfilling for you, but they aren’t always the most palatable for others. If you put your self-insert fiction out there, you’re going to have to accept that a lot of people aren’t going to like it for all the reasons I mentioned above.
Anything can be done if it can be done well, but the reality is that most self-insert fiction just isn’t handled properly. When writing about one’s self, it’s hard for most to show themselves as vulnerable, weak, or flawed, and good characters need those traits to be compelling and believable. Most writers are already thin-skinned when it comes to negative criticism of their writing, now imagine how angry and hurt they must feel when people knock their work when they ARE the main character.
Side note: while looking for memes to add to this post, I probably shouldn’t have typed “self-insert” into an image search. MY EYES!!!