How to Write a Self-Insert That Nobody Can Call You Out On
Here’s the thing: About 80% of the female characters that I write wind up being self-inserts to some degree. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, a self-insert character is typically defined as the fictional version of yourself that lives out your dreams and fantasies in a novel, short story, or most commonly, fanfiction. While the literary community might frown upon or call them unoriginal, I have reason to believe they should be encouraged. After all, what’s the golden rule of writing? Write what you know! What could you possibly know better than yourself?
However, writing a believable self-insert takes more care than you think. Simply put, there are parts of yourself that you should hold onto and parts that you should sacrifice to the writing gods for luck. The less of yourself in a self-insert, the better. I’d wager to say that the perfect ratio of your own qualities to qualities sprung from your mind is roughly 1:5. For every detail you take from your own life, make up at least five to avoid overdoing it.
That’s right. If you make any character 20% self-insert or less, you’ll get away with it, and your character will be all the more authentic. But what should you be doing to pull this off?
1. Redefine what a self-insert character is.
Can you get away with plopping yourself smack-dab in the middle of Harry Potter and calling it a day? No. While there’s nothing wrong with daydreaming about winters in Hogsmeade and who you’d take to the Yule Ball, you’re going to need more tact than that. Self-insert characters overrun the world of fanfiction, but that’s not what I’m proposing. The new-and-improved self-insert needs to be an original character taking a shortcut through your idiosyncrasies on the way to being a complete three-dimensional person. There are many details that make up a good character, and I’m suggesting that you can, and should, steal some from your own life.
2. Ditch your name.
This is the bare minimum. Even if your character doesn’t resemble you in any way, or even if your character spells it differently, you’re screwed. For me, that means Kaitlin, Caitlyn, and other variations are completely off limits. I wouldn’t even go for Kate.
3. Ignore how you look.
This comes with a very important caveat that I’ll get to shortly . For the most part, your self-insert shouldn’t look like you. Your appearance is a dead giveaway second only to your name, so take creative liberties whenever possible. This is an opportunity to experiment with styles you’re not brave enough to try in real life. Want a pixie cut? Write one. Too chicken to get that tattoo? Maybe your self-insert isn’t. My one hard-and-fast exception is for my curly-headed guys, gals, and pals. Don’t you dare ditch your curls! Don’t you know there are fictional characters everywhere who’d kill for your hair?
4. Focus on mannerisms.
For me, the subtleties of the human condition are hard to conjure into writing. I’m talking scratching, fidgeting, blinking, and all the rest of those action verbs you do without thinking. Some of them are downright gross — who wants to admit to biting their nails or chewing with their mouth open? However, in the wonderful world of fiction, these intricacies flesh a character out. Why google “Ways People Fidget” when you can steal from your own life? As a writer, your search history is already strange enough. Save yourself another rabbit hole and embrace those idle motions. If you crack your knuckles, twist your hair around your fingers, or hum to yourself while you do the dishes, let your self-insert do the same.
5. Put yourself into hypothetical situations.
I’ve written about being a writer before, and I’ve received question after question asking if I was actually writing about myself. I wasn’t, but you try to convince your writing workshop otherwise on critique day. To avoid this and make your work feel original, even if your heroine does share your coffee order and your hair, put your self-insert in a completely new situation. Because we write what we know, your reactions and thought process will stay the same, but the events you’re reacting to won’t. The further removed from your reality that your story is, the safer your self-insert will be. Fantasy, historical fiction, or thrillers are marvelous hiding places, assuming you aren’t already an elf, dead, or a murderer.
The bottom line is that you should focus on singular characteristics of yourself instead of transporting your whole likeness to another world. Because it’s a pain to come up with completely original favorites, pet peeves, and fun facts every time you pick up the pen, relying on—or even reveling in—a modified self-insert is nothing to be ashamed of. Shout from the rooftops that you’re writing one! Let’s take control of our writing and remove the stigma surrounding the dreaded self-insert.