- Books, Literature, and Writing
Self-Insertion (& Again with the $%#@ing Mary-Sue Litmus Tests)
Gettin' in On the Action--Sorta
Week 12: Self-Insertion (& Again with the $%#@ing Mary-Sue Litmus Tests)
When I first started outlining this series of blogs and I got to the topic of self-insertion, I immediately recalled Leonardo da Vinci’s warning to all of his art students: never paint yourself into the picture. He explained that artists inevitably and unintentionally draw their own features onto their characters. Why? Largely because the artist—or, in our case, the writer—subconsciously draws upon what they are most familiar with: themselves. Their imagination is tainted with their own self-awareness, and that weasels its way into their project, making the characters look like the artists or authors (I’m not getting into the whole “da Vinci painted himself as Mona Lisa and as two of the Apostles in The Last Supper” conspiracy thing. You want to hear about that, park yourself in front of the TV and watch The Non-History Channel for a while—I promise you it’ll come up. God forbid that they show anything, oh, I dunno, worthwhile?)
Yes, I know we’ve talked about self-insertion several times already. I didn’t intend for that to happen, and I was going to skip this week’s topic until I realize not only is it advisable to go over it all one more time for clarification, but it would help to talk about differences and mistakes made … and, eventually, I would have to approach the topic of (gag) the Mary-Sue Litmus Tests again.
Ugh … just thinking about the litmus tests makes me feel like I need a shower …
PART 1: THE AUDOBAN SOCIETY’S GUIDE TO INSERTS
Yup, I know we’ve gone through this before, but not only is it good for a refresher, I actually did discover two more rarer types of inserts.
· Self-insertion: Self-insertion in a fanfic is when the author very clearly states herself/himself as a character in the story (i.e. me in Meeting the Wolverine.) Sometimes the author manages to stay true to their real self, but for the most part, people who self-insert go crazy and start giving themselves traits they don’t have (like they’re suddenly incredibly brave when ordinarily they’d pull a George Costanza and shove the women and children out of the way as they flee a tiny grease fire,) or skills they don’t have (for example, in real life they couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with an Abrams tank, but they’re suddenly out-arrowing Katniss on the battlefield,) or mega way-cool superpowers (flight, telepathy, can breathe underwater, have heightened senses and can blow shit up with their minds.) Sometimes they’re taken from their real world and brought into the fictional world, or they might just already be a member of that universe. Either way, most authors use it as a way to fulfill a fantasy. Frequently a canon character will fall in love with them. (See Week 2 for more)
· Veiled insertion: A veiled insertion is when the author self-inserts but purposely changes their name and some physical characteristics in order to appear as an original character. Aside from that, they still follow the self-insert formula, and a canon character will fall in love with them. (Again, see Week 2 for more.)
· Character disguised insertion: Character disguised insertion (which I missed on my first fanfic safari—it’s a rascally bastard!) is when an author writes a story featuring canon characters, but purposely puts her/himself in a canon character’s place. For example, you might be “Bob” in real life, but in your fanfic you become “Spock.” It’s essentially the equivalent of a fanfic cosplay, where you dress up as somebody else. The self-insert formula is kind of hazy, but they give themselves away by first stealing all the scenes, and then acting more like their real selves than the CC would actually behave.
· Unintentional insertion: I don’t know how much I buy of this one, but I thought it’d be best to go over it … largely so I don’t have to hear anybody bitch about me leaving it out. Anyway, unintentional self insertion is when the fic writer creates a character and then realizes, belatedly—and in my opinion conveniently—that their character sounds an awful lot like them. Like, their character has the author’s same choice in clothes, food, music, sports, religion, pets, games, movies, same family dynamic, same hometown, same taste in dates, hobbies, etc., but the author claims that they didn’t intend it that way. While there is a small percentage of writers who genuinely didn’t mean to write their character that way, most of them say that to cover their asses. For them, it was intentional, but they’re just claiming that they didn’t mean to base the character on themselves because they don’t want anybody screaming, “MARY-SUE!!!!!!”
PART 2: WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW
When is insertion not insertion? When you’re drawing inspiration from your life, duh.
Okay, what I mean is that what some people perceive as some kind of self-insertion into a story is actually the author drawing upon details of their own lives for inspiration. That’s not the same thing as actually inserting yourself into a story.
For example, I (as difficult as it is to admit it sometimes) live in Massachusetts, drink Coke, do kenpo, have three brothers, and have brown hair. I’ve included these tidbits (including a “legend” called the Rutland Wolfman) in several different stories, but none of it means I’m self inserting. Why?:
1. I live in Massachusetts. I am more familiar with this state than any of the other 49 states in the union. Several of my stories, original and fan, take place in Massachusetts. Why would I write about any place that I wasn’t familiar with? That doesn’t make it insertion. (Lookit Stephen King writing about Maine all the damned time!)
2. I’m addicted to Coca-Cola. Nyx drinks Coke in the X-Men fics. That doesn’t mean I’m doing a veiled insert as Nyx, it means that she drinks soda and I just went with a freaking name!
3. Kenpo shows up in a lot of my stories and books. Why? Because I love kenpo. Because I don’t study muay thai or tae kwon do. Because kenpo is what I am most familiar with, and I think it’s under appreciated so I want to promote it. It’s not an example of insertion. GOT IT?
4. I have two younger brothers. Vanessa has two younger brothers that I created only because I needed her to have a reason to go into the woods and run into the Wolfman—they never ever appear after that (they don’t even have names!). My X-Man OC Nyx has two younger brothers because my youngest brother wanted me to write a story about him being Nyx’s little brother Blitz, and I wanted a middle sibling to be human but a mutant advocate. Why I made him a brother I don’t remember—it’s just the way I envisioned it. Besides, when you look at the variety of siblings my other characters have, you can hardly point to this as insertion.
5. I have brown hair. I decided to give Vanessa dark brown hair because her lineage is both Amazonian (therefore Mediterranean and Middle Eastern) and Spanish. Nyx has reddish brown hair because that’s how I imagined her. Vanessa had green eyes. I don’t. Nyx has blue. I don’t.
6. I decided to call the monster a young Vanessa ran into the Rutland Wolfman because I didn’t feel like going through my mythology books for a name. That’s it. And ‘cuz the dude trundled by my house that day …
7. Nyx is from Cambridge MA. I’ve only been there once. I don’t live anywhere close by.
8. And yes, my mother did tell me that she had intended to name me “Vanessa” before my grandmother pressured her to change her mind. I had decided to name my Legend of Zelda character “Vanessa” because it was pretty, sounded different, and the list of names I had for her sucked Octoroks. It was never intended to be a veiled, and that never occurred to me until years later.
9. I named Nyx “Dara” after I couldn’t think of a name and my mom suggested it. It never once occurred to me that “Dara” and “Kara” were so damned similar. Ah well—it’s not an insert, and I’m not changing it.
What does that all mean? It means that I drew upon different facets in my life for inspiration for my stories. This is not evidence of self-insertion. Don’t believed me? Read the list of mainstream examples in Part 4, and be sure to have a camera nearby to take a picture of the, “Holy shit, she’s right” face you’ll inevitably get. I wanna frame it and put it on my wall.
PART 3: HOW TO WRITE IT
If you ever have an idea for a self-insert story (not a veiled one, the one where you are literally you,) my best advice to you is: less is more.
· Before everything else, don’t reveal too much of yourself. If you live in or near a large city like Boston, you can say that, but don’t go putting down your address. Don’t mention your phone number, middle name, age (you can allude to it like, “I’m graduating high school soon”), details about your family, the car you drive, your birthday, ANYTHING. Not only is the world full of nut-jobs and crazies, but it’s also full of people looking to steal your identity.
· When you first introduce yourself, avoid putting yourself down a lot or making yourself look extra dumb or klutzy. That gets old real fast. People who write self-insert fics often use deprecating humor as a way to either justify their powers or skills, or they use it to pull an Anti-Sue and deflect accusations of Sueism. Can’t be a Sue if you make fun of yourself, right? Wrong. When self-inserting, you should behave the way you would ordinarily—unless you do something weird and creepy, which I don’t wanna know about.
· Don’t deluge people about yourself—honestly, we’re not that interested. As with your original character, you should dole a small amount of information about yourself throughout the story.
· Here’s a tricky part, and I’m not sure how to explain it: you can bend the rules about yourself a little. If in real life you’d rather jump naked into a terrarium of fire ants than to talk to a girl/guy, in the story you can be a little braver. This is largely because we don’t want to read twenty pages of you whining about how intimidated you are. If your story involves fighting and you can’t lift a paperweight let alone a sword, don’t bother mentioning it. If you’re writing a story where you’re just thrown into the universe from the real world and don’t know how to fight, you could have a spell placed on you or flash forward, stating that several weeks of hard training have gone by.
· Any exaggerations about yourself should be for humor. Remember what Joss Whedon said: “Always be yourself. Unless you suck.” Okay, not the best example …
· All right, how about this: in my self-insert fic Meeting the Wolverine, some of my behavior was exaggerated to get a laugh, but the majority of it was all true, from attacking Sabretooth when he grabbed me, to the awkward conversation with Logan in his room, to lunging for Magneto after he cornered us in the train, taunting him in the Statue of Liberty, that’s all stuff I’d do. At the same time I was nervous, shy, frightened, irritated, belligerent and sarcastic. I got the shit kicked out of me, and I was humiliated by Logan’s response. I was never cool and confident. I was realistic.
· Be careful if you include people you know in your story. If they read it and don’t like how you portrayed them (there will ALWAYS be at least one) they’ll make your life a living hell. Either write them the way they are or, as I normally do anyway, don’t write about anybody you know altogether.
· When writing yourself into a universe that uses magic, mutantism, the Force and whatnot to explain superhuman powers and you wanna get in on the awesomeness, it’s best to keep your powers to a minimum, and no more than three at the most is ideal. If you have ten different powers and you’re so powerful that the canon universe’s most powerful character is in a whimpering fetal position at your feet … you got too many damned powers, and you’re way too strong. People who read your fic and see that you’re beating up on their favorite characters are going to resent you for doing that, and they’ll flame you until there’s nothing but a smoking crater where you and your computer once stood. Start out weaker than the canon characters, and grow stronger as you go on. If all CCs have some kind of weakness, then you must have one too, and you must be just as vulnerable to your weakness as everybody else.
· Need an example? In Meeting the Wolverine, I had a hard time deciding what my mutant powers were going to be. At the time I was heavily into Buffy and still loved (and still do) Disney’s Gargoyles. On a whim I combined the two, stating that vampire enzymes and Gargoyle DNA had altered my mutantism, making my three main powers shape-shifting (from human to Garg), heightened strength (Gargoyle) and healing factor (vampire.) My weaknesses were primarily sunlight, since Gargoyles hibernate during the day and it killed vampires, and a need for blood when the severity of the wounds outpaced the healing factor. I was moderately stronger than most of the X-Men, but Wolverine’s sense of smell was still light years better than mine—if that makes sense as a comparison. The limited empathy was supposed to be left over from my original mutation and actually didn’t feature much in the story because the other powers were more prominent.
· When falling in love with a canon character … you probably shouldn’t. I’m not saying that it can’t be done, it’s that it’s reeeeaaaal tricky doing it, especially if you have yours eyes set on a central character. People will view that as Mary-Sueing, and if it’s not written right, it’ll come across as just weird. If you have a crush on a CC and want to get your fan fictional groove on, avoid all the mistakes I talked about in Week 9 (a little more than halfway down, I think.)
· Don’t make yourself the sole hero in a fic—those CCs are there for a reason too. If you’re writing a self-insert where you’re supposed to be working with the CCs, you shouldn’t be the one who solves all of the impossible puzzles, single-handedly defeats the unstoppable villain, saves the world, and rescues little Timmy from the well. That just makes you look like a Mary-Sue/Gary-Stu, and it’s annoying. You could be the character that figures out how to defeat the villain, or the one that finds the missing clue, but don’t take over the story. Otherwise, why bother having those other characters anyway?
· Now, in Meeting the Wolverine I wrote that I was the one who went to the torch and took on Magneto. This wasn’t the big climatic fight really—it was me trying to save Rogue and stop Magneto. I didn’t steal Wolverine’s thunder—I was helping him defeat the bad guy. He still destroyed the machine and saved Rogue, and Cyke still blasted Magneto. I didn’t do any of that.
· It never hurts to have an Author’s Notes at the beginning of your story to give people a heads up that it’s an insert.
Advice for veiled insertions: don’t even bother. If you’re going to do a veiled insert, you might as well just create an entirely original character. I’m serious. No one likes a veiled insert—it’s like being lied to. If you’re having trouble creating OCs, I plan on going over it in Week 15.
Advice for character disguised insertions: again, DON’T DO IT. People really resent it when they realize you’re masquerading as their favorite character. Either self-insert, make an OC or just write the character the way they are supposed to be.
Advice for unintentional insertions: Go back and reread your story at least three times, highlighting each thing you think sounds too much like you (and be honest about it!) Then go back and rewrite until all glaring similarities are gone.
And remember, while inserts can be fun, its best if you create original characters. Don’t keep going back to yourself for character inspiration—people are going to get really bored with that, and you don’t want to deal with nimrods.
PART 4: FAMOUS INSPIRATION
So, as with all things Mary-Sue, there seems to be a double-standard when it comes to self insertion fanfics—if somebody writes about themselves in a fanfic, they could be flayed alive, but if there’s an actual published work featuring a self-inserted or veiled inserted character, then suddenly it’s literature! Nobody says crap about it! If it’s in a movie, then it’s art! If it’s a song, then it’s music!
Fair? Of course not, but if anybody gives you a hard time about it, you can take comfort that a lot of authors (and trust me, it’s a helluva lot more than this!) have either self-inserted, done a veiled insert, or have drawn inspiration from their lives and written about them in their books:
C.S. Lewis based the Pevensie children in his Narnia books on four real children that he took in during the Blitz. In his Space Trilogy, the main character is actually supposed to be C.S. Lewis himself. He based the character Elwin Ransom on J.R.R. Tolkien, who in turn based Treebeard on Lewis!
J.K. Rowling has stated that Hermione Granger is actually based off of J.K. Rowling herself as a child. She has based characters like Pansy Parkinson after girls who had bullied her in real life, and Gilderoy Lockheart was based on a jerk she knew who behaves, even now, just as pompously and arrogantly as Lockheart did, and is probably telling everybody that he was the inspiration for the books. (Gaah, just knowing there’s a real-life Lockheart running out there is making me queasy …)
Ian Fleming based his character James Bond partially off of his own experiences at SOE and the Royal Navy (Bond was an admiral, after all,) but largely off of World War 2 spy William Stephenson, a.k.a code-named “Intrepid.”
Stephen King has made a few appearances in his fictional worlds, most notably in one of the Dark Tower books as himself, and in the short story The Body, as an aspiring twelve-year old writer living in Maine with a close group of friends. In the story, the four friends set out to find the body of a boy who had been struck and killed by a train. In real life, King actually witnessed the death of a childhood friend when he was struck by an oncoming train.
Kurt Vonnegut has popped up as himself as a secondary character in books such as Slaughterhouse 5. In the book, Billy Pilgrim goes through the same experiences that Vonnegut went through as a POW in WW2.
Hunter S. Thompson writes about himself as “Raoul Duke.”
Tom Clancy has admitted that his character Jack Ryan is really just a stand-in for him.
Clive Cussler is in every one of his freakin’ books.
American strip tease artist Gypsy Rose Lee wrote several mystery novels with herself as the protagonist.
Then there’s Stephanie Meyer … I think the picture says it all.
And in addition to that, the character in her most recent book is called “Melanie Stryder.” That’s a partial anagram of “Stephanie Meyer.” It even sounds like "Stephanie Meyer," same syllables and everything. Wooooow ….
PART 5: AND NOW … THE MARY-SUE LITMUS TESTS
Excuse me for a second while I get a bucket … dealing with theses tests always makes me nauseous ....
Initially, when I first started outlining these blogs, I never ever ever ever ever ever wanted to talk about the blight that is a Mary-Sue Litmus Test beyond what I said back in Week 3. In my opinion, Mary-Sue litmus tests are the most foul things to ever plague the writing world. Worse than the Black Death. Worse than a Twilight novel (and that’s bad!)
Why did I include the litmus tests in the blog on self-insertion? Because, among the tests’ many, many, MAAAAANNNNYYYY flaws, they actively seek out proof self-insertion and little else. The tests are not constructive in any way. In fact, they’re often cruel—and don’t sit there thinking that I’m just being resentful, ‘cuz I’m not—as well as unfair and biased. The tests are created by people who, in all likelihood, do hardly any writing at all, but create the questions based on their own sole opinion of what a Mary-Sue is—which means it varies from creator to creator. No data was collected, no team of English professors and psychologists assembled, no professional consulted—it’s just some jerk sitting in their room thinking that they’re going “help” people.
The tests themselves are often very long, up to a hundred or more questions, which means with more questions you run the higher risk of getting a bad result. The instructions are sometimes unclear, which could cause you to accidentally earn a bad score. The scoring system itself is skewed; last night I answered a question that I didn’t think was so bad, and it gave me six points. The following question seemed more negative to me, so I answered it and got one point. There are also sliding scale questions, asking you to rate your character’s skill/power/so forth. The problem is, if you don’t know, you can’t answer correctly, and it’ll probably negatively tip the Sue scale. The questions can be open to interpretation, which’ll screw you over in the end. And there’s no “no” option to counterbalance the points your “yes” answers have accumulated.
A lot of the questions make zero sense. They’ll ask you if your character has an unusual name, but don’t say why it matters. They’ll ask if your character is unusually skilled in something, but never tell you why that’s supposed to be bad. They might not even specify what a “skill” is either: fighting? Cooking? Knitting? What?!?!
Another thing I noticed was that the questions are usually sarcastic and mean, which intimidates the writer. The results themselves aren’t that much better.
Not that I really wanted to, but I took several Mary-Sue Litmus Tests over the weekend to familiarize myself with how they work. One of them, The Universal Mary-Sue Litmus Test, had me slamming my head repeatedly on my desk because of its infuriating method of questioning.
First of all, it says to pay attention to the rules, then says that it’s divided up into five parts:
Part 1 - All Characters
Questions that pertain to all characters everywhere.
Part 2 - Original Fiction Characters
Questions for original fiction characters only.
Part 3 - Fan Characters & Newcomers
Questions for fan characters (RPG and fiction) and characters you may be planning to add to an original fiction universe you've already established.
Part 4 - RPG Characters
You guessed it - questions for role-playing characters and MMORPG-based characters.
Part 5 - De-Suifiers
Questions that subtract from the final score.
But it doesn’t say if I should test my fanfic character in part 1, 3 and 5, or just 1 and 5, or what. And why bother putting a “De-Suifier” in in the first place? Based on the nature of their questions, it seems to me like they’re just out on a MS witch hunt anyway.
As I continued on, I found myself increasingly unsure of how to answer the questions. Question 1 asked about my character’s name and gave eleven different follow-up questions. I skipped all of them until I got to ‘I’ asking if Vanessa’s name was unusual for the time, place or ethnicity. Well, that’s difficult, because was born in Cibola and give a different name, then brought to the United States and renamed to protect her identity … “Vanessa” might be strange in Hyrule and Cibola, but it’s normal in the U.S.. How do I answer that?
Question 45 asked if she picked up any new skills unusually fast. The thing is, in Cibola Vanessa learned to ride a horse, but I forgot to mention that in the LOZ fics, so it would look like she picked it up fast.
Question 54: “Does your character possess healing powers in a setting where they’re virtually unheard of?” Huh? How the hell am I supposed to know? You’ve got to back a question like that up with some examples. What “setting?” Hyrule? Cibola? Avalon? The Human Realm? How do I answer that? Is that a bad thing? TELL ME!!!
Question 62:“Does your character ever single-handedly take out more armed forces (EG, security guards, soldiers) than you can count on one hand using xir mad kickass skills in one go?” Two things. First, I have no idea. Vanessa’s a warrior and can fight demons, so I think she could take on some mercenaries, but I don’t know what kind. She could probably take on a handful of goons if they’re not all heavily armed, masters of a dozen martial arts, bench press bulldozers, and are hopped up on speed—and I’m sorry, but anybody can take out a security guard if you know how. Second, IF BUFFY CAN DO IT, SO CAN VANESSA!!!
Question 70: “Is your character nobility, royalty, or of an equivalent high status (eg, governor, president, chieftain)?” Well, hang on … Vanessa was a princess of a Cibolan city-state, but it was completely destroyed and its people scattered. If there’s nothing left to rule, does that still make Vanessa royalty? How do I answer that?
Question 79: “Did anything else remarkably strange or otherwise unusual happen in your character's infancy or childhood?” Well, in the world of fantasy books, games, TV& movies, doesn’t that happen to pretty much everybody? Furthermore, what do you consider “remarkably strange?” Does Vanessa as a kid running into a werewolf in a fantasy world where werewolves were largely considered to be real count as strange? Does it? I wanna know!
Question 80: “Is your character ever spared by an otherwise-ruthless villain?” Hey, you tell me—in the original version Lamia spared Vanessa so she could go back and tell everybody what she had witnessed, but in the new established version, Lamia thought Vanessa was already dead and left without bothering to check. How do I answer?
Question 90: “Do you feel insulted, attacked, or defensive when someone does not like your character?” DOESN’T EVERYBODY? And don’t they all have the right to feel a little miffed when somebody says something negative about the character they’ve worked so hard on? And why do you, the creator, care? You haven’t been exactly pleasant through much of this test.
Question 93: “Did you feel that this test insulted or attacked you or your character so far?” Again, why do you care? Why should this add any points to my overall score? (It added 5 points.) And not so much this time, because people who make tests like these are unapologetic bullies and twits.
I took the test twice. The first time I only did part 1, and got a 16 score. When I did 1, 3 and 5 to see what would happen, I got a score of 46. That’s a 30 point increase!!!
The Universal Mary-Sue Litmus Test results were listed as:
Most likely Not-Sue. Characters at this level could probably take a little spicing up without hurting them any.
(“Spicing them up”?! I’ve been developing Vanessa for 16 years—if this stupid test had taken all of her story into account instead of just a few stupid questions, she wouldn’t get a frickin’ 16!)
Fanfiction characters can go either way at this point depending on the writer. For an MMO/RPG or original fiction character, however, you're most likely perfectly fine.
(Why is the test creator bashing fanfic writers while letting original writers get off the hook? One format’s character isn’t any better or worse than the other’s!)
Original fiction and MMO/RPG characters can go either way at this point depending on the writer. Fanfiction characters may need some adjustment, however.
(Wait … what??)
Fanfiction authors beware - Mary's on the loose. There's still a chance you can save this character with some TLC, though. Role-players and original fiction writers, you should also consider tweaking your character.
(That seems fair … what’re they up to?)
Fanfiction authors, you might just want to start over. Role-players and original fiction authors, at this point your characters are likely to provoke eye-rolling and exclaimations of "yeah, right!" from your readers. (Well, at least from me.) Immediate workover is probably in order.
(First, the creator tells us to “start over” without saying why or how. Then they go on to tell the RPGers and original writers that at this point their characters will provoke eye-rolling … at least from them. So, you mean to tell me that you’re probably the only one who’s going to find a problem and everybody else isn’t going to care?)
It's probably a lost cause either way, or you didn't read instructions properly (some people don't do this, which causes freakishly high scores). If it's the latter case, read the instructions and take the test again.
(They don’t have the right to say that it’s “a lost cause.” That makes any writer who sees that become embarrassed and discouraged. A character can ALWAYS be fixed.)
What cracks me up are some of the “disclaimers” and statements the test has. Like in the very last disclaimer, the creator states, “Part 2: If your character receives a high score, it is NOT an attack against you. I am in no way to be accused of bashing your character, capice?” Oh, I beg to differ; every time a question is asked in a negative or sarcastic manner, that’s an attack on your character and, in the long run, you. Every snide remark, every hostile response, just the tests themselves are attacks, because they’re not designed to help you improve—they’re designed to tear you down.
It gets even funnier when another paragraph states,“Furthermore, this test has never been nor probably will be perfect. At best, I can only offer it as a guide, not an instruction manual.” Couldn’t you have said that first? In BOLD?
So, now that you know how stupid and worthless these tests are, don’t feel bad if you’ve taken them, and if you haven’t take them yet—DON’T!
So, I'm going away this weekend, and because I'm not sure if I'll get to write I'm going to preemptively say that there will be no post this coming Monday but there will be one the following Monday (I promise--this'll be an interesting topic.) With that being said, Monday the 24th--Killing the Mary-Sue!
Author info taken from: