Self-Insertion and Mary-Sue-ism

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Title: Self-Insertion and Mary-Sue-ism
Creator: Sebastian
Date(s): 2000
Medium: online
Topic: fiction writing
External Links: Essay: Self-Insertion and Mary-Sue-ism, Archived version (2000)
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Self-Insertion and Mary-Sue-ism is an essay by Sebastian.

Author's Notes

This Essay was written out of a desire to identify what ingredient in self-insertion fics divided the ones I liked from those I didn't. It took me a long time to figure this out - there was almost exactly a year between my first impulse to write it and the final act. I had read several other essays posted on the Fanfic Mailing List, though most of them 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. I wanted to write something that didn't say "don't self-insert", like so many before me, but rather supported those who wanted to try it with some constructive advice on how to do it. If the other essays didn't reduce the number of self-insertion fics, then perhaps I could raise the percentage of those that are bearable. :) [1]


I have heard time and again that self-insertion is the scourge of fan fiction and that any tale containing traces of it must be bad by definition. I used to believe that, too - for almost half a year.

The thing is that if this were true, virtually all fiction would be condemned from the start. All characters that we write are animated by putting little pieces of ourselves into them. There is no other way to make a character come alive. If we do not invest a little bit of ourselves into them, they will at best be forgettable cardboard comparses. The trick is to use different pieces in differing mixtures, so as to prevent all characters from becoming carbon copies of ourselves.

It's easier with fan fiction, since the characters are defined in their behaviour and relationships already. With new characters it can be a little more tricky to make them unique, because there is no model to guide us. This leads to a common prejudice, namely that any new character introduced in a fanfic must automatically be a self-insertion of the author.

Freud believed that all literature was in its basis self-insertion and all plots were wish-fulfillment. The only difference, according to him, lies in how well the author can mask it and gloss it over with redeeming social values. As a very broad generalization that may not be incorrect.

If all characters are in some small way self-insertions, then what we commonly call self-insertion is only the extreme end of something normal and usually positive in writing. It is not different from "good" writing by nature, but rather by degree. So why does blatant self-insertion get such negative reactions?
Some self-insertion authors think they can avoid the accusation of Mary-Sue-ism by letting their characters suffer. Tedious martyrdom, accompanied by slews of self-pity and sympathy from the other characters is often the result. Readers get turned off by this just as by the tedious wish-fulfilment because both are one and the same. The whole "suffering" thing is nothing but the good old "one day when I'm dead you'll all be sorry you were so mean to me" fantasy.

Other common defenses against accusations of Mary-Sue-ism are, "This character isn't me - she just looks like me, talks like me, has my name and does all the things I'd like to do," (Yes, this really happened) or "My character isn't an idealized avatar - he's got tons of character flaws," or "She isn't perfect - there's lots of things she can't do." Unfortunately the "character flaws" are usually something like "he cares too deeply about his friends" or "he always tries to give his best in everything he does, to the point of overexposure". And the "lots of things she can't do" usually include the fact that she can't play banjo to save her life and other skills that are completely irrelevant to the story.

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.
Another part of honesty in self insertion is that if the character has all his or her wishes fulfilled, they should enjoy it. Letting them fret or angst over it sounds dishonest and unnatural, which distances the reader from the character. There may be downsides to the granted wishes that become apparent later, but nobody real would see them right away when there are still upsides to be dazzled by. With great power may come great responsibility, but until it arrives, any normal human being would be going, "Yaay! Great Power! Wheeee!" Do not - do not - for a second believe that you can afford Mary-Sue-ism if you just "balance it out" it with enough drama, character development or angst. You cannot balance out Mary-Sue-ism. It only becomes more obvious and annoying by contrast. Besides, half of the things that are supposed to counteract the Mary-Sue-ism turn out to be the same thing in disguise.


  1. Author's notes: Self-Insertion and Mary-Sue-ism, Archived version