The Self-Insert Manual
By: Tanaka Tomoyuki
Self-inserts. I feel that there is a very big need to talk about this because there are a few misconceptions about this literary device, which is often used in both fanfiction and original fiction. Self-inserts often gain a notorious reputation because many writers don't use them well and end up creating idealized, perfect versions of themselves before forcing them into their stories, which turns out to be obnoxious instead of likeable - very ironic if you ask me.
However, I must emphasize that self-insert is not necessarily a bad thing. No, rather, I argue that self-inserts are often necessary, particularly when writing a believable protagonist. It is natural, and in fact essential to put yourself in your own character, especially if you write in the first person. For one thing, it keeps your protagonist consistent because unless you're bipolar or suffer from multiple personality disorders, the traits your protagonist inherits from you will often remain the same throughout the story.
Additionally, as you grow, your character grows along with you, which in itself displays remarkable character development - if written properly, that is. In fact, some very good books are autobiographies by writers detailing how they overcome/deal with/come to terms with their trauma, disabilities, pasts, etc. Those autobiographies don't merely make a good "factual" account, they also contain a strong narrative core that will appeal to readers and viewers. A Beautiful Mind starring Russel Crowe is one such example.
The problem, unfortunately, is that most writers fall into the trap of beautifying their self-insertions and turning them into overpowered, perfect, god-like, super-popular (among the opposite gender) beings for wish-fulfillment and power-fantasy tendencies, which becomes obnoxious to read. One very good example is Long Live Summons, whose protagonist just does no wrong (everyone seems to take his bullying and abuse of his victims as natural because they "deserve" it for being arrogant, and he is never punished for ruthlessly killing his enemies), is so god-like and powerful he can basically one-shot any villain with his Nirvana Flame, learns every sort of skills from summoning to innate ranker martial art skills to anti-innate Nirvana Flames to fire and ice (you get the picture), has a harem of girls who fall in love with him despite not spending more than a month in getting to know him yet are willing to die for him, share him with each other and are super-understanding (they are all basically clones of each other and seem to exist only to love him), etc. Not to mention the constant gaggle of people praising him for achieving the impossible that no one else could do in the entire history of the Soaring Dragon Continent, side characters always being jealous of his skills and abilities then being curbstomped (or them being arrogant, only to be humiliated by him - it's a cycle).
Sorry for the rant, but that is the point - it becomes obnoxious to read and it's obvious the author is just wanking off to how awesome his self-inserted protagonist is.
Okay, I think I went overboard with my introduction. I should have done this at first. What exactly is a self-insertion?
Well, a self-insertion is usually defined as...you inserting yourself into the story. You create a character who basically represents you, who is you, who embodies all the traits and characteristics of you in real life. Done well, it'll make for quite the realistic and often interesting character, as all individuals are unique in the world thanks to the limitless permutations of combinations of characteristics such as strengths, flaws, hobbies, preferences, etc.
Problems and Mary Sues
As I said above, you as a person often provide one of the most unique and interesting templates from which you can create a character. That's why self-insertions are not necessarily a bad thing. They are not inherently obnoxious, nor are they bad.
The problem is that many writers often discard the flaws and focus solely on the strengths when inserting themselves into the story, thus creating a perfect character. Now, once you discard the flaws, you basically limit the permutations of an interesting character. I mean, after reading umpteenth stories of how this character is strong, good-looking (handsome/beautiful depending on the gender), smart, is always correct - such as Yue Yang from Long Live Summons or Nie Li from Tales of Demons and Gods and even that fellow from Zhan Long, plus Shiba Tatsuya from Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei in case you think I'm only targeting Chinese xianxia novels - you'll probably start wondering why these self-insertions are all the same. That's because they are. The moment you take out the flaws, they become carbon copies of each other because they embody the idealized characteristics all individuals - not just writers - wish they have. They know everything - check. The girls all love them and are willing to form a harem around them - check. They are super strong and never lose (or completely avoid battles that they know they will lose) - check. Everyone takes their word as gospel and whatever they do is justice and right - check. Yup...they're basically the same dudes, just in different stories. Hell, both Yue Yang and Nie Li are perverted - yet women still inexplicably love them. Er...what?
That turns them into a constant, common trope that repeats itself throughout the stories. This is often the reason why self-insertions are synonymous with Mary Sues. In fact, the original Mary Sue was a parody of a perfect self-insertion. In any case, they are often confused with Mary Sues because the authors strive to make their creations as perfect as possible, as infallible as possible, and as godly strong as possible. But look! Once you do that, you only have one possible outcome. A perfect, infallible and strong character. How many different kinds of protagonists/characters can you come up with from just these 3 characteristics?
Not many, I wager. That's why when you read one Mary Sue-Self-Insertion story, you've basically read them all.
Now, if you were to add the flaws, wouldn't that create a more interesting character? For example, Alucard from Hellsing is super-strong to the point of absurdity, he might as well be a god. But he's psychotic, he's complacent, which leads to his defeat by Van Helsing, and later by the real villain in the story where he was tricked into turning into a pool of blood and was almost unable to reform himself. He isn't always right, Integra sometimes overrules him and Victoria is unable to agree with some of his decisions even though he is her master. That's why he's not as obnoxious as Yue Yang or Nie Li above. Or the ridiculous protagonist from Zhan Long whose name I don't want to remember. Or Eragon. Dude goes and defeats the Emperor and overthrows the Empire because...he thinks they are evil...even though the story itself actually shows no sign of the Empire being evil. Yet everyone supports Eragon and thinks he's right, no matter how inane his decisions are (to the readers). Suspension of disbelief? Right...
Another good example of a well-done "overpowered" character is Sora from No Game No Life. He and his sister, Shiro, might be unbeatable in games, but they must work together to win, and they suffer nervous breakdowns when apart. Not to mention, it's clear that they are socially awkward. It's a breath of fresh air compared to Nie Li, who becomes this messiah leading all his friends and followers to the "promised land" and turning them into strong warriors through his oh-so-awesome teachings *sarcasm*.
Note that this doesn't apply only to self-insertions but also to the very concept of overpowered characters, which again isn't always done right. When done badly, it usually ends up becoming a Shiba Tatsuya, who's basically a god in his own series Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei, becoming a pseudo Jesus Christ who martyrs himself by taking on the pain of everyone when healing them, while going around one-shotting villains with his godlike powers. Oh, and did I mention how he blew up an entire naval fleet with one spell? And whatever he says, people just nod and agree with him, as if he is spouting the word of god. That's why you can find lots of Lord Tatsuya jokes - just type lord tatsuya in Google and you'll see what I mean.
No. Just...no. As I said, overpowered characters can be done well - do them right and you'll have someone as awesome as Alucard. Do them badly and they'll be obnoxious, repetitive and boring.
Haimura Moroha from Seiken Tsukai no World Break is little better. The guy has an ever-growing harem and just pulls overpowered spells and techniques from his ass you'll start wondering if there is even a point to watching this series. You know he'll win every battle like Tatsuya, and on top of that get a new girl to fall for him every volume. Yeah, rub his perfection into the readers' faces, will you?
Even the Japanese readers find this self-insertion process going too far, and a lot of them don't like it. Well, many of them do, which is why the two series received anime adptations, but the sales and attention didn't last long when the series became...repetitive. There's only so many times you can have the protagonist crush the villain so effortlessly that you become bored after a couple of volumes.
How to write
Self-insertions are NOT Mary Sues. They can be done well. They can be awesome. Add a little of your own traits, and do not be afraid to add your own flaws to your own character. Hell, your story could be about your self-insert protagonist overcoming those flaws! That will make for a far more interesting story than some godlike dude going around curbstomping cannon fodder villains and wrecking face. Yeah, I'm sure you enjoy that sort of power fantasy...but there's a medium for that. It's called games. Narrative-wise, it isn't exactly enjoyable. If I want to imagine myself being a god, I can do that via daydreaming or playing Doom (2016) and blasting demons to bits with my own decisions and playstyle (glory kills or Rich Get Richer II chaingun). I don't need to read a story about a god getting a harem without even putting any effort into it. If I want to be a god, I can play God of War. And even Kratos struggles like hell!
Think about yourself as a character. What are your weaknesses? What are your strengths? Choose one from each and concentrate on those. Are you perhaps socially awkward? Will your story see you overcome that flaw, or will it end with you finding friends who accept you for who you are, flaws and everything? Don't turn it into a Mary Sue-styled story where suddenly everyone accepts whatever you say as gospel and you can never be wrong. Nobody is perfect in the real world, and everyone makes mistakes. Your character should too. And your story should be about your character making those mistakes, and learning how to deal with the consequences.
That is how you should write a self-insertion. Not by turning him or her into a beautiful, perfect, godlike being who never loses and is never wrong, and has an entire harem falling for him/her just by the virtue of existing.
This is another important feature when talking about self-insertions. It is important to create a proper romantic interest - in fact, some writers insert themselves into their own stories because they want to experience their own romantic fantasy. That in itself is all right - I mean, who hasn't fantasized about meeting the one guy/girl who will love you?
Creating a horrible character to serve as that romantic interest, however, is not.
As with many self-insertions, many writers fail to create a compelling romantic interest (or in the majority of cases, fail to create many compelling romantic interests - emphasis on plural because harem seems to be a popular trend these days). They delude themselves into thinking perfect, ideal girls/guys exist out there and will fall for their self-insertions, and go way too far with it.
Again, you must remember that nobody is perfect. Therefore, it is impossible for that perfect girl (or guy) to exist both in real life and in your story. Many writers overlook this fact and their heroines (or heroes) turn out to be paper-thin, one-dimensional, hollow doll-like characters who exist solely for the sake of falling for the protagonist. Look at Xun Er from Dou Po Cang Qiong for example. Everything she does is for the sake of the protagonist, Xiao Yan (who actually is a better done protagonist than the likes of Nie Lie or Yue Yang). She has no dreams of her own, and her only desire is to...I dunno, be Xiao Yan's wife. Really? That's not compelling. That's not deep. That's not human.
Similarly, Miyuki from Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei seems to exist solely to constantly gush over how awesome her beloved Onii-sama is. That's not endearing. That's obnoxious. And annoying.
Tales of Demons and Gods at least got one heroine right - Xiao Ning'er is a very well done heroine. Unfortunately the other heroines are rubbish...Zhao Yan, the main heroine is shallow and absolutely boring - she merely exists so the protagonist Nie Li can lust over her (which is creepy because she's 13 and he's a 100+ dude in the body of a 13-year-old). There is little depth to her character - or any of the other heroines as well. The story would be several times better had it focused solely on Xiao Ning'er as the heroine. Wasted potential there. Xiao Ning'er's has a goal that sets her apart from the other heroines - her family is in depth, she's suffering from an illness, and she aims to overcome poverty and her sickness in order to break her family's dependence away from the Sacred Family. Of course she ends up being saved by the obnoxious Nie Li who always has a freaking solution to absolutely everything. Yes, I know the dude reincarnated and has memories from his past life, but there's a limit to how scheming he can be, and his memory is ridiculously perfect. Never mind my next life, I can't even remember half the things that happened in my current life. That aside, Xiao Ning'er is well done, but she's the sole rose in a garden of paper-folded origami flowers.
Long Live Summons? The less said the better. The only well-developed heroine is Yi Nan. She was the only one who spent enough time and interacted with Yue Yang quite a bit to develop feelings for him. The rest of the heroines? Er...nope. Qian Qian, particularly was rubbish. She spent most of the time fighting and squabbling with Yue Yang, and suddenly she's this assertive and possessive girl claiming that he's her man OUT OF FREAKING NOWHERE. Worse, the Xue cousins Wu Xia and Wu Hen only met Yue Yang for...what, a few hours, and a few days later with very little interaction other than fighting a life-and-death battle with strong enemies, they're both so in love with him that they're willing to die for him.
Seriously? That's not good character development. That's wish fulfillment. And while I'm not demanding for realism or "relatable" characters, that's just obnoxious, abrupt and pretty bad writing. Why not ditch the harem and focus on Yi Nan, and maybe Luo Hua City Mistress? Why bother including Wu Hen and Qian Qian when they don't really contribute much to the plot? I can understand forcing Wu Xia in as the former fiancee and creating a love triangle - that would have made for better drama and a better story...but no, suddenly all these girls are childhood friends and are unnaturally understanding and accepting of each other being part of Yue Yang's giant harem.
I must emphasize that harem as a concept is not that bad. Love triangles have created plenty of good drama, particularly in romance manga. And I understand that a big part of the male audience find popular protagonists appealing. But it gets repetitive when heroines fall for the protagonists for absolutely no reason. I'm not sure but the light novel industry seems to be formulaic and following this trend...unfortunately this might only be for the short term. The trend will probably fade away eventually, particularly because the market is saturated with the same old titles of protagonists being swarmed by similar harems.
On the other hand, the advantage the Japanese light novels have over Chinese xianxia novels is their distinctive heroines. At least the Japanese heroines have much more personality and character than their Chinese counterparts - they don't exist only to love the protagonist. For example, Julis Reissfield from Gakusen Toshi Asterisk aims to alleviate the poverty in her country, Toudou Kirin wants to free her father from prison and Claudia Enfield has her own engimatic goal. Rakudai Kishi no Chivalry might be a similar series, but you can see Stella Vermillion having her own distinct personality as well as a clear goal - to win the Seven Star King tournament. Miyuki, unfortunately, has neither personality nor her own goal. Unless her goal is to show the world how awesome her Onii-sama is - but that's not a personal goal. Fortunately, she seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
What goals and personalities do the carbon copies of Chinese heroines in xianxia novels have, other than existing solely for the sake of loving the protagonist? Of course, there are heroines like Xiao Ning'er and...er...and...ah! Xu Yu Rong from Ze Tian Ji, that stand out as heroines with their own personalities, dreams and goals, but they seem very rare and few. Even Medusa from Dou Po Cang Qiong is more interesting than Xun Er...but Nalan Yanran turned from a distinct heroine into another Xun Er pining for Xiao Yan, only to be spurned by him because she broke off the engagement 3 years ago. Okay, I get that it's karma but you've got to accept that not every girl you come across is going to fall for you...
Long story short - it's all right to create plenty of love interests...but you must first be able to cope with it, and you must do them well. Otherwise they're just dead weight baggages that weigh your story down unnecessarily. I mean, even with the distinctive and likeable heroines Gakusen Toshi Asterisk has, its plot is weighed down heavily by the forced harem. I am not interested in how many cute girls will fall in love with Ayato, or how they vie for his attention or flirt with him (Claudia's attempts are annoying as hell). I am more interested in whether he finds his sister and whether he succeeds in winning all 3 Fiesta tournaments. But after reading the forced, dragged and contrived harem tropes of several other titles, which seem to go on forever (1 new heroine every volume! Can you imagine trying to remember the 11th heroine's name by the 17th volume?!)...I just couldn't stand it and dropped those series. Worst, there is no resolution to these romances, which makes reading the whole series feel...like a complete waste of time. The biggest culprit is Infinite Stratos where the romance goes in circles forever and ever because the protagonist Ichika is as dense as a neutron star.
Probably I should write in more detail on how romance and harem should not affect your plot, but that will be in another manual. If I ever get around to it, which I doubt.
It is natural and inevitable that you will insert at least some portion of yourself into your character. Some may even embrace it and live in the story they write. That's okay. That's the fun of writing, after all. Imagine "what will I do if I was in this story? What will be the decisions I make when I face this crisis? What will be the first thing I do if I have these awesome powers?" That's how many stories start, after all. Imagination, wish-fulfillment, self-insertion. You read a book, you love it, and you wish you could somehow participate in it. That's perfectly fine, and I think it should be encouraged.
However, you must set ground rules and restriction for yourself. It is tempting to turn yourself into a godlike character who can defeat all the enemies and be loved by absolutely everybody, but that kind of story makes for horrible reading, and makes you seem obnoxious. Remember - everyone has flaws. Not everyone will agree with you. There will always be people who dislike you. Keep yourself grounded, don't fly off too wildly with your imagination, and actually challenge yourself - sure, you have these awesome powers. But what if your enemies have equally awesome powers? How do you overcome them?
If you play multiplayer games, especially shooters, you'll know that you're not going to win every PvP. You're not going to come out top in every encounter. You will get killed sometimes, you'll make mistakes, you'll get fragged. Unless you're hacking, of course, and no one likes hackers. Point is, your story should be like that. Don't just write about the games where you single-handedly dominated a round and scored 20 kills while dying 0 times. People don't like braggarts. Include the times where you died 15 times while only scoring 1 kill, and write a story on how you trained and practiced until you achieved that 20-kill round. Only to fall short after that (10 kills and 11 deaths the next round) to drive home the point that your character is as human as you are. That not everyone is invincible, perfect and infallible.
Even if you don't have powers, keep in mind: what mistakes would you make in that situation? How will you overcome that crisis with the limitations imposed on you? How will you deal with people who disagree and dislike you? Make sure you swallow your pride. Writing should be exercised in humility, not arrogance, or you'll come across as condescending and obnoxious, much in the way the bully protagonist of Long Live Summons who can do no wrong does.
As John Truby says in his book, The Anatomy of Story, the story is usually driven by the protagonist's desire. So if the protagonist is already godlike, super-popular with the ladies and in effect achieved his desire, there is nothing for us readers to read - yeah, admittedly there will be a few people will jump on the bandwagon gushing over how awesome your protagonist is...for a while, until they realize your story is repetitive and your already-small readership drops further. So make use of your desire, turn it into your story, and watch how your protagonist struggles to achieve that (if you make it too easy, the story will be boring). That's how you create a good story with a good self-insertion.
Don't be afraid. Embrace your flaws and your strengths, create a believable character and play around with him/her. Remember, this is just advice so you're free to ignore me. I know fans of Long Live Summons and Tales of Demons and Gods will probably rage and condemn me, and they're probably entitled to. After all, I've yet to write a story that can match those, yet here I am being critical. But at the same time, do I really need to write a decent story to offer decent advice?
Another thing to keep in mind - I'm not a professional writer, so this advice is meant for casual writers posting web novels on the Internet, not for professional writers. Pro writers probably have better sources and mentors to refer to.