Self-insertion

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Synonyms: SI
See also: Mary Sue, Anywhere But Here, Tuckerized
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Not to be confused with Reader-Insert.

Self-insertion is a practice by authors of writing themselves into their own stories, either explicitly or in thinly-disguised form; in a fannish context this most often means fan writers writing themselves into their favorite source material so that they can interact with canon or its characters. Fan artists also sometimes incorporate themselves into fanart, and in modern fandoms where this is prevalent these self insertions are usually referred to with a play on the word "persona".

Fan writers may write self-inserts as humor (for example, in metafic featuring an author arguing with her characters) or as an in-joke (for example, making an extremely minor character a self-insert that will only be recognized by friends, although this may instead be considered a cameo).

Self-insertion as a literary device has a particularly bad rap in fannish circles, due in large part to its association with Mary Sues; generally speaking all Mary Sues are assumed to be self-inserts and all self-inserts are at least suspected of being Mary Sues.

It can be hard for self-insert enthusiasts to find spaces where they can talk about what they like about self-inserts without being heckled or derided by fellow fans who dislike the genre. Authors who write and publish self-inserts generally have received a higher rate of flames and trolling in their reviews; the early 2000's SI fic FF7 Experience was reportedly taken down from fanfiction.net due to "people doing knee jerk reactions to seeing a self insert"[1] despite being well-regarded and fondly spoken of even years after it was pulled from public archiving.

Self-Insertion in Canon

Edward Elric punches his mangaka Hiromu Arakawa in the face.
Self-insertion has a long literary history as a literary device, for example The Divine Comedy where the author is essentially writing himself into the fanon of the 14th-century Catholic Church. Authors may use self-insertion for comedic effect, surrealism, direct audience addresses, or as a part of metafiction.
Fanart of Hiromu Arakawa's self-insert meeting the Elric brothers.
Self-inserts are sometimes confused with author surrogates, but generally author surrogates are only meant to share the same opinions or background as the author, not actually be the author.

Some authors also use self-insertion to directly address their readers. Mangaka Hiromu Arakawa who drew and wrote the manga Fullmetal Alchemist always draws herself as a cow with glasses, and in the 4koma omake panels for the series sometimes draws herself interacting with the characters — for example, scolding Edward Elric for reading too much manga and then being punched in the face by him. Fans sometimes draw fanart of Arakawa's cow persona — her cowsona, one might call it — including showing her interact with her own characters.

One piece of fanart from 2005 shows Alphonse Elric carrying Arakawa's cowsona and Edward Elric saying, "You are so not keeping that." The artist explained: "It's a running gag that Al picks up stray kittens and Ed never lets him keep any. This time the stray is none other then [sic] the creator of the Fullmetal Alchemist manga, Hiromu Arakawa! ... Ed probably doesn't like her because cows make milk. XD"[2] Comments on the DeviantArt page consist largely of fans commenting with continuations of the implied dialogue between the brothers, having them argue about whether or not to keep this new stray that Al has found.

Andrew Hussie stares "homoerotically" at his reader.
Andrew Hussie, in troll cosplay, deals with a costume malfunction.

Andrew Hussie, the author of Homestuck has frequently used self-insertion in his works. His first instance of self-insertion was in Problem Sleuth and actually prompted by a fan because Problem Sleuth is a quest. Someone sent in, "AH: Become homoerotically interested in your fan." and Hussie drew himself looking right at the camera with the caption, "Andrew Hussie becomes aroused by fans of MS Paint Adventures. Way to break the 4th wall, numbskull!"

In Homestuck, Hussie's self-insertion makes him into a full-blown character, which he uses in part to make comments to his fans and on fan culture, appearing several times dressed up in cosplay, in one case complete with smearing grey body paint and quickly-broken troll horns, both a staple of Homestuck cosplayers at American conventions at the time, as many, many fans went to great lengths to cosplay as the grey-skinned orange-horned aliens that debuted in Homestuck's Act 5 Part 1.

Sometimes Hussie uses his self-insert appearances to affect the plot, but other times he directly addresses the readers. In the panel depicted on the right, showing one of Hussie's appearances in troll cosplay, the narration goes on to respond to the implied reader's displeasure with Hussie's self-insertion by accusing the reader of being entitled and not understanding just how quickly Hussie could use his authorial power to really make things "ridiculous." Hussie's narration says, "Do you have any idea how much power I wield over you?? [...] It would be so easy! I could snap my gray smudgy fingers RIGHT NOW, and make you read all the troll romance exposition segments all over again, BACK TO BACK TO BACK TO BACK TO BACK TO BACK."[3]

Calliope, dressed as her trollsona, has just finished removing her grey Ben Nye makeup.

Hussie also has a character who self-inserts. Calliope, introduced in Act 6, is an alien who has a trollsona or troll persona. She writes fanfiction about herself and her friends, as well, and views her friends more as characters than people. Hussie intended her as a fairly scathing commentary on his own fans:

[@Unguided]

@andrewhussie Your stupid exposition character is boring and terrible.

[@andrewhussie]

@Unguided how ironic that an obnoxious fan emerges from the fandom to complain about the obnoxious fandom avatar character[4]

Self-Insertion in Fan Art

Although writing oneself into a favorite canon arguably much more common across the board, there's always been a thriving community of fans who love to visualize themselves interacting with their favorite characters or worlds.

Drawing Someone Else's Self-Insert

The disparity between the amount of self-insert drawing and self-insert writing may in part be due to how much more time and effort it takes to learn to draw. While self-insertion for writing pretty exclusively deals with the author inserting themselves into their work, self-insert fanart is sometimes done on commission or by request.

In a 1975 issue of the Star Trek:TOS zine A Piece of the Action, a fan had an ad offering to paint other fans in fantasy settings, with prices started at 9x12 for $25.00 and going up to 18x24 for $59.00. The advertisement read:

Imagine yourself in an incredable [sic] ST, SF or fantasy adventure. Now imagine that adventure made into a lovely full color, hand painted picture for a very reasonable price. Just send exact details of the scene and a clear picture of yourself...

Plus, from a flyer printed in the Beauty and the Beast zine, Dreams of Thee

If you've ever dreamed of becoming a part of the world of the Tunnels, I can whisk you there with the stroke of a "Magic Pencil." Picture yourself interacting with Vincent or chatting with Catherine. Perhaps you'd like to go exploring with Mouse or Jamie or just share a cup of tea with Father in his study. All of things are possible.... The figures, Tunnel clothing, and the chambers will be finely rendered in detail. The emotion, feeling, and sentiment will be appropriate to the action in the drawing. You will feel that you are really a part of the world Below.
Pyracantha's friend is drawn in the world of Katherine Kurtz's "Deryni"

The fan artist Pyracantha explains her choices in a piece of art drawn for one of her friends:

Some of my friends are, or were so devoted to the imaginary worlds of their favorite fantasy authors that they wanted to live there, or at least be depicted as living there, so they could live the adventurous life as well as meet their favorite characters in "real life." This drawing is the result of a commission by a friend who had herself placed in Katherine Kurtz's "Deryni" world so that she could encounter her much-loved Dr. Rhys Thuryn, a psychic healer. I had to depict her as ailing but of course not dying. This friend/client is often sick with colds and flu since she works in elementary school with germ-laden children, so being healed of the flu is something much to be desired. Psychic healing is a big theme in fantasy fandom and most stories have some variant of it. I have observed that the fantasy fan community has a lot of ill-health and chronic disorders so perhaps that's behind the strong "healing" element in fantasy.

Deryni Healing My Friend (May 20, 2015)

Drawing One's Own Self-Insert

Many fan artists who draw self-insertion do so because it's comforting and allows them to escape. One fan artist said:

Self-insert is expression. It shows that our love for the fandoms and how much we want to appreciate the characters we have fallen for.

Self-insert is comfort. Sometimes, in life, drawing yourself in the arms of a favorite character boosts up a cheer and makes the artist feel better because it only applies to them.

Self-insert is an escape. When we want to handle something right now in the real world, our imagination can take us away, even for a little bit, before we're ready to face life.[5]

Another fanartist explains that she draws herself as a self-insert in every fandom she's in, because:

The reason that I love self-inserts so much is because for the longest time, I didn't like myself. I was really insecure, I didn't like my face, I didn't like my voice, I didn't like anything about me — I didn't like my characteristics, I thought I was just a living, breathing waste of space.

[...]

Basically, the reason I love self-inserts so much is because when I started to create these self-inserts and create these character designs that were based off of me, and my appearance, and my personality traits... I started to love those things about myself, which was not something that was easy for me to do before. There's still things that I struggle with, there's still things about myself that I really don't like, but it's easier for me to come to terms with those things whenever I project them onto these self-inserts.[6]

The -sona

Main Article: -sona

A -sona, also know as an Art Persona, Art OC, or a fandom-specific name, is art of a character, often representing the artist, who is not in canon but whose design is referenced from a fandom. The focus is on character design. and the sona is not made for the purpose of interacting with canon characters. Creating a sona may be part of a challenge or hashtag.

Self-Insertion in Fanfiction

It's almost impossible to talk about self inserts without mention of the Mary Sue, a term coined in 1973, by Paula Smith to describe original characters, usually female, with a variety of undesirable traits. But in the early days of fanfiction, before "Mary Sue" was coined and became popular, self insertion wasn't automatically assumed to be a mark of poor writing.

The 1969 Star Trek fanfiction Once Upon a Star Trek was written before "Mary Sue" was coined and before "self insert" was being used by fanfiction writers. Each character was an avatar of one of the fans in the fan club the author belonged to, and all of their self inserts had some relation to canon characters — Spock's cousin, Sulu's sister, and so on. The story was written for the club Nimoyan-Spock's Scribes and published in the club's newsletter, Spock's Scribes. In those early days this practice was not looked down upon, especially for lighthearted or surrealistic tales — and indeed, for some people the feeling that self-insertion should only be used for humourous stories persisted at least until the late 90's.[7]

Even after "Mary Sue" was coined in 1973, self insertion wasn't yet linked with it for a number of years, nor was "Mary Sue" immediately a popular term.

...back in the day of print zines, there was a split reaction to the term “Mary Sue” from the beginning. I remember it as being between those who recognized in themselves the desire for such a personal story and those who had no patience for finding such a story in a fanzine, between those who were kind about such personal stories and those who were not. The people who were not kind were often quite sarcastic, if not brutal, especially in zine reviews.[8]

The 1974 2-part Star Trek fic published in Sol III Enterprise Involuntary (Being an Exercise in Wishful Thinking) by G.M. Carr was well-received: "It's very unusual, in that it deals with the seldom seen lower echelons of a starship crew, namely, the laundry crewmen — one laundry crewwoman in particular, a little old lady refugee from the 20th century," one reviewer said, also describing it as "interesting, but a bit lengthy"[9] and "very amusing and well written, and the conclusion in #2 offers some excellent plot twists."[10]

In the 80s, "Fanzine fandom grew pretty quickly and by the mid 80s, you could find zines with wide editorial interests and buy/read accordingly." [8] This allowed for niche zines to succeed, such as the 1984-1986 zine Fantazy was one example, its editors described it as a "media-oriented zine featuring both original universe and existing universe/prose/poetry/scripts starring your favorite actors/actresses - AND - yourself! This is your chance to write yourself into a story and appear in the illo! We encourage it!"[11]

By the late 90s, however, accusations of Mary-Sue-ism were often directed at anything with an original character, often erroneously. In the 1998 essay Look Out! It's Mary Sue!, Richard Pugh explains that there are "two types of author projection characters that are mistaken for Mary Sues, and while they can be equally annoying, they aren't disastrous to the story." He then goes on:

Modeling a character after yourself can work if you keep your personal flaws in place (I know that's difficult, but it's necessary). All original characters are a projection of the author, or part of the author's world. But so long as these characters are kept in perspective, you can avoid accusations of Mary Sue-ness. The other type is the character who isn't an active participant in the story, but is the "every man" watching, describing, and commenting on the action around her. These can also work, and can be used very effectively. These are also not Mary Sues, because one of the necessary traits of a Mary Sue is her constant effect on the story. A third person observer isn't likely to do that, and can in fact help to draw the reader into the action.[12]

In A Guide for Writing Sailor Moon Fan Fics, the essay's author stresses that she's "never read a self-inclusion fanfic that did work that wasn't a comedy of some type." She also notes that self insert fanfiction where the self insertion is done so that the author can write about leading the main characters of Sailor Moon to victory "have not worked out well for the most part."[13] Reflecting on her own self insert fic, the essay's author described feeling limited by the genre.

...I had ideas I wanted to write but couldn't. For example, if I wanted to do a story involving proverty, I couldn't give Haruka or Michiru an improverish background without being out of character. I could do it to Beans, but that might prompt people to write me asking if I had personal experience with the subject. That would be an undesireable distraction from the story itself. The reader doesn't know where the line is between the character you have created to be like yourself and the writer.[13]

In an addendum to the essay, Helen Szeto adds that "Self-insertion fics have tended to fail when the author has suddenly (and inexplicably) altered the balance of the story" and that "a key point to remember about SI fics is that most people read the fanfiction stories because they want to read about the canon characters, and NOT the intimate details of the author's lives.[14] Many of Helen Szeto's comments about self inserts reflect frequently-made complaints about Mary Sues, and in the 2000 essay Self-Insertion and Mary-Sue-ism the author notes that for months, all the essays he read “equated self-insertion with Mary-Sue-ism from the start, which is one reason why I took some time to realize they weren't the same thing.”[15]

The problem with blatant self-insertion is that in many cases the author uses it because he or she does simply not (yet) have the skill to do anything else. And an author who doesn't have the imagination to create a character other than a copy of themselves (slightly idealized, of course) will most probably fall into the trap of Mary-Sue-ism, too. It is not that self-insertion is the cause of bad writing, but that both have one possible cause in common.

This also means that an author who knows what he or she is doing can pull off blatant self-insertion without writing a bad story. I have read several highly enjoyable self-insertion tales that were as blatant as all get out but managed to avoid the most annoying Mary-Sue-isms.[16]

A comment on tumblr on the post Was Fanfic Any Different in the Olden Days? described their experience self inserting as very similar to the 1969 Once Upon a Star Trek:

I just wanted to add on one thing as a fan from the early 2000s - THE META. Fandoms at the time were all separate and list groups were a thing. You got on a mailing list for X-Files fic, for Comic Bat’verse fic, for Gambit/Iceman Slashfic, for such-and-such BNF’s fic… The groups - at least, the one’s I was in - were small enough to recognize names and get into regular group chats and discuss all sorts of geeky shit. Getting to know the groups and talking about all manner of stuff in the fandom led to quite a lot of self-insert (or friend insert!) fics where they dropped into the ‘verse and had to play along or breaking-the-fourth-wall ones where the characters knew they characters being made to perform in any number of fantastic scenarios (and bemoaning it). It was a time when fandom was still underground and it was a world we, the audience/fans, felt we could only escape into as opposed to bring out for the masses. Since comics and “nerds” have gone mainstream I’ve seen those fics give way to ones where the characters find out about their own fandoms (usually falling down the rabbit hole of reading fic about themselves or meeting fans via social media who blurt out popular headcanons). Watching technology progress and the global community truly connect via fandom for the past 15 years? It’s been WILD. [17]

The early 2000's fanfiction archive Fandominion didn't allow authorfic, including self inserts of any kind:

What's the problem with Authorfic? AuthorFic, outside of humor, is often a fantasy of the author's. Fantasies, especially other people's fantasies when it comes to sex, are often boring. These stories also, for the most part, seem to be written by beginning authors who don't generally know how much these stories can suck. They deal very little with the exploration of characters. As such, most of these stories tend to be well, bleh and unless there is a good reason, most seem like good candidates for weeding... not all but most. (lhale)[18]

Examples of Self-Insertion in Fan Fiction

Mest18.jpg
  • MEST #18 was a Special THRUSH Appreciation Issue (Man from UNCLE). It has 10 pages and was published in 1965 by Ted Johnstone for inclusion in the Amateur Press Association (APA) Spectator Amateur Press Society (SAPS) mailing #71. The issue features the story of a hoax played by Johnstone and local fans pretending to be from the evil THRUSH organization from The Man from UNCLE. [19]
  • Just to show how differently fans thought about self-insertion in those days, Regina Marvinny held a contest in the pages of Tricorder Readings, her Nimoyan Federation LNAF-affiliated clubzine. Entrants were supposed to write a story about themselves meeting Spock. Karen Flanery misunderstood and wrote a lighthearted novella that had Leonard Nimoy visiting her for a day. It was so good they published it anyway. Flanery and Claire Mason also had a one-shot fanzine, Don't You Just Love Leonard Nimoy?, an art portfolio showing herself and Nimoy in a romantic relationship.
  • In Mark's Leaps, a Quantum Leap zine, the author is one of the main characters.
  • Authors in Forever Knight Wars post multiple self-insertion fics in a giant round-robin style RPG in which anywhere up to 300 fans take part by joining teams (called factions), each of which is affiliated with a character or pairing from the show. It is one of the rules of war that one plays oneself, more or less warts and all, without any special abilities. The function of war is to get to know one's fellow fans, though characters from the series are also written into the story.
  • In 2002, the Highlander Holy Ground Forum held a Mary Sue challenge as part of their weekly series of challenges. "Write a (mercifully) short story or vignette in the Highlander universe featuring a character who is obviously a classic Mary or Marty Sue. Extra points for hitting as many of the typical plot and character clichés as you can manage. Roll up your sleeves and show us your worst!" 15 stories were collected.
  • Many Role-Playing Game groups have sessions where the players attempt to write themselves up as characters, often resulting in much argument over the game's method of ranking intelligence and attractiveness.
  • From the editors' description of the zine Fantazy, "[It is a] media-oriented zine featuring both original universe and existing universe/prose/poetry/scripts starring your favorite actors/actresses - AND - yourself! This is your chance to write yourself into a story and appear in the illo! We encourage it!"

Meta/Further Reading

References

  1. Winged Knight, Self Insert Recommendation Thread archive on 07 October 2011. Accessed 14 October 2018.
  2. queenbean3, author's note on FMA - Stray Cow? Posted 12 October 2005. Accessed 14 October 2018.
  3. Homestuck, Act 5 Part 1. Posted 22 August 2010. Accessed 14 October 2018.
  4. Twitter exchange. Archived link. Posted 9 Feb 2012.
  5. KiaraLPhoenix,The Art of Self-Insert Posted 12 September 2013. Accessed 14 October 2018.
  6. CaezHel, Self Inserts: The Good & The Bad. Posted 20 September 2017. Accessed 14 October 2018.
  7. "Avoid 'author inclusion' stories at all costs UNLESS the focus of the story is going to be light-hearted and/or humorous." — Nolan, Tim. Re: [POLL] Opinions regarding Fanfics for Technical Paper [Discussion], [Online]. Available e-mail: USENET. Newsgroup: Alt.Fan.Sailor-Moon. 18 May 1998.
  8. 8.0 8.1 comment on Mary Sue: From self-inserts to imagines, how young women write themselves into the narrative by Maggie Nowakowska, March 24, 2017
  9. from The Halkan Council #2
  10. by Signe Landon from The Clipper Trade Ship #6
  11. From Southern Enclave
  12. Look Out! It's Mary Sue!, 1998
  13. 13.0 13.1 1997/1999, Amanda Anderson, A Guide for Writing Sailor Moon Fan Fics. Archived.
  14. Helen Szeto, Addendum to 'A Guide for Writing Sailor Moon Fan Fics'
  15. Author's notes on Self-Insertion and Mary-Sue-ism, 2000.
  16. Self-Insertion and Mary-Sue-ism, 2000.
  17. meanheans, January 26
  18. FanDomination.Net Content Control and Weeding Guidelines via Design and Implementation of Computer Supported Collaborative Learning: FanDomination.Net by Laura Michelle Hale. (Document metadata dated 25 November 2002.)
  19. see more at Zine Wiki