Disclaimer: I am not the writer of any of the works referenced in this guide. Let me also make it clear that I am not attempting to insult them in any way, shape, or form. Now, let's continue.
The Sane Writer's Guide To: Self Inserts
Like You, Only Better
Ah, self insert characters. They're our fictional soul mates, our B-movie dopplegangers, our alternate-universe selves. To quote Walt Kelly, "We have met the enemy and he is us".
According to Wikipedia, a self insert is "a literary device in which an author character who is the real author of a work of fiction appears as a character within that fiction, either overtly or in disguise". The article then proceeds to state the more simplistic definition for an author surrogate, which is "a character who expresses the ideas, questions, personality and morality of the author ". Merge these two definitions together, and you have your average self insert.
A self insert character is a character based explicitly and noticeably on the author themselves. Although, like Mary Sues, they are more common in fan-created works, they are still prominent in published literature. Some well-known examples of self inserts are Ariadne Oliver, Agatha Christie's alter ego in the mystery series starring Hercule Poirot; and Lewis Sachar, who wrote himself into his Wayside School series.
At the same time, self insert characters are not limited to being author avatars. A character based on a friend or family member can also qualify as a self insert. Avoid this specific breed of self insert, mainly because they are almost impossible to write well.
Self insert characters can be created intentionally or unintentionally. The average writer finds it easier to write a character extremely similar to themselves in personality and appearance as opposed to a character with a personality opposite to their own.
Overall, self insert characters have a horrible track record for mutating into straightforward Mary Sues. Easily the worst example of a self insert Mary Sue is Bella Swan. In a nutshell, she serves as an idealized version of Stephanie Meyer and a wish-fulfillment character for readers of the Twilight series. She has no real personality traits except for her love for Edward, and any other aspects of her character, such as her ability to make everyone love her, are typical Mary Sue characteristics. Today, it's an established fact that your average self-insert character is usually poorly written and often bears Sueish traits.
However, the self insert brand of Mary Sue is much simpler to redeem than their godly counterparts. The purpose of this guide is merely to reveal how.
First, makes yourself understand that your character is not you or even an extension of you. It's very important to distance yourself from your characters and let them stand on their own. If you find yourself immediately angry with anyone who negatively criticizes your character, then you've got a ways to go. Your character is a separate entity and deserves to be treated as such.
Next, let's look over appearance. A character's appearance is a major part of who they are. Does your character look exactly/extremely like you? If your character does look like a realistic, or worse, idealized, version of you, then do your best to change that. Say your female character has shoulder length brown hair, brown eyes, and pale skin. Personality influences appearance, so first think about how your character would want to appear. Say your character's a rebel. Maybe she streaks her hair with green or likes putting it in crazy styles. If she's an athletic character, maybe she wears a baseball cap on top of her ponytail and has a tan. If all else fails, try changing little details like hair length or eye color. With most characters, overall appearance isn't changed much by, say, giving a brown-eyed character hazel eyes.
Clothing choice, though not as major a detail, is also important. It's a common trend for authors to dress self inserts in clothes they personally own. This also applies to specific-yet-generic styles of clothing which the author has a liking for, like "goth clothing" or "pirate clothing". Although this isn't harmful towards your character so much as unnecessary and occasionally annoying, it should still be avoided.
Your character's personality is their defining point. If your character shares several of your interests and reacts the same way you would in most situations, reexamine your character. Let them choose what they want to do, and then give them more original traits to compliment their choices. If your character is helpful, clumsy, and a little curious, why not give them a short attention span or a tendency to exaggerate? Maybe she only pretends to be clumsy to attract attention from her peers or her love interest, or she feels inferior towards others and tries to help at every opportunity in hopes of raising her status. Feel free to go crazy with it, and let your character grow into their own person in the process.
Some new authors end up creating multiple self inserts when first starting out. Therefore, make sure your characters in personality aren't too similar to both you and your other characters. Say you have two athletic male characters. If both play football, maybe make one play lacrosse instead. If they both have blond hair, give one a crew cut and let the other guy grow it out. Maybe one guy secretly hates sports, while the other plays to make his father proud of him. Again, feel free to go crazy with it, just give them different interests and different attitudes. They aren't clones or copies of the other, so don't let them stay that way.
Just like with Mary Sues, nearly every writer has created a self insert at some point. All you have to do is learn to let your character go and be their own person, not just an extension or duplicate of the writer. They are who they are, so just let go and have fun with it.
Author's Note: Again, I would like to thank any readers in advance. I'm amazed at the amount of people who have taken an interest in this project, and I'm extremely grateful. My apologies for the relative shortness. I had not intended for it to be such.
At the moment, I'm planning a guide to the various character archetypes seem in so many different medias, as well as a guide to titles.
You have my thanks, and please review if you can.