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When I was making my characters, I was a little picky and had trouble, for I am not the best at decision making. However, when I do come up with characters, I usually get some of their concepts from research of the supernatural or symbolism in objects or philosophy to make a character of it.

So far, I've only came up around four characters. All of these are still in development, which means their concepts and character can change. However, I have some form of feeling towards a particular one. I relate a lot to this character, and feel that they are my favorite. Comparing this one to the other characters, I relate to them the most and the ones I like a lot and put lots of thought too. And I like to put myself in their perspectives to make me understand how to write them, but also because I like them as a character.

But this made me question if this character of mine is a self insert or I'm just projecting myself to them, which would still be considered a self insert, would it not? So here comes the question: is it a self-insert or not? And how can I avoid it or overcome it?

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    If you empathize with the character, why shouldn't it take on some of your own identity? You write what you know, and you know your own experience. I've seen authors where ALL the characters are somehow aspects of themselves, and thought the stories turned out okay. But the characters will evolve on their own as you write, so they will be less and less you and more and more themselves.
    – DWKraus
    Apr 2, 2022 at 17:00

3 Answers 3

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I believe all authors insert themselves into their stories in some way, and that isn't a bad thing. It is an effective technique to use for characters who need possess knowledge of the greater world about that story -- so not the protagonists, but supporting characters like the Wise Latina who provides insight on strategies for investment portfolios or the gruff wizard that teaches the ways of calculus and physics.

I think the gripe about self-inserts is that the author tends to go easy on the character, since the character is a proxy for them. The author's job is to put their protagonists through hell, making life as hard as possible, hitting the characters with every dirty trick and underhanded scheme to bring them to ruin.

And, who would want to do that to themselves? As a result, the plots are weaker and the crisis is more simply disposed of, once the character has some minor epiphany.

As long as your stories are brutal to the protagonist, full of conflict and loss and hardship, it is immaterial if you've inserted yourself in the story.

If you don't want to insert yourself into your story, make a list of how you view yourself -- strengths and weaknesses and foolish foibles and admirable traits -- then then only give your character the opposite of those traits.

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Your character almost certainly is a self-insert on some level.

This can be said without even looking at your character for several reasons. All characters are, on some level, drawn from one of two sources: people in our own lives and other characters we see in fiction. There ultimately is no other source. I've seen people try to do otherwise and it virtually never produces a functional character.

And, because there is no person we know better than ourselves, this means that our protagonists, who we tend to delve the most deeply into their psychology of, tend to draw most strongly from our own mentality. This is the case even if the character was intentionally designed with a specific archetype or to be as far away from the author's personality as possible. Even if something else was intended over time the protagonist will come to resemble the author, if only subconsciously, because the author is going to be using their internal life experience to determine what seems reasonably in-character for the character or not (psychologists would call this ego-syntonicity).

I can attest to this first hand. A couple of my protagonists who I intended to fill very specific fictional archetypes ended up taking on some of my personality traits by accident, to the detriment of the story, and I've seen other authors express similar sentiments.

What this means, though, is that the question is not how to stop your character from being a self-insert, but how much should your protagonist take after you. No character should take after the author or real people/other characters 100%, rather a more optimal pattern is to mix and match traits to create unique patterns as to what best fits the story. In this way ask yourself "how does my protagonist resemble me and how do they differ", and just as important "what life events have caused their thought and logic process to be different than mine". The latter is important to keep you from getting writer's block when faced with decisions your character would make that differ from yours.

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Use Character voice

Inserting yourself into the story isn't necessarily a problem, however, if it happens in several characters and they all sound and think like you, then you have problems.

You want the characters to sound unique, and if they don't, I suggest working with their voices.

This can be done by creating character voice journals.

A voice journal is a document that is written in your character's voice. In essence, you keep writing until the character starts saying things that don't sound like you.

Here are some ways to write voice journals:

  • It could be free writing, just let the character talk about anything and everything
  • It could be answering questions. Any character-building questions will do. For instance, how was your childhood? Tell me about your first love? What would you be willing to die for?
  • It could be your character telling you about something that is important to them and that makes them very angry
  • You could put your character into an interrogation and force them to tell you their darkest secrets—perhaps in a bad cop-good cop scenario?
  • Have them tell you about their happiest memory

For all these questions the actual information from answers and interrogations and so on may be important, but the most important part is how the character answers the questions or tries to get away with not answering them. If they resist, push them until they explode. How does that make them sound?

The result should be language that doesn't sound like you and that doesn't sound like any other character (in literature, preferably...)

Place two different characters' voice journals side by side, are they different? Then you're probably on the right track. Can you identify who said what without dialog attributions? Then that's very promising.

You write your longest and most comprehensive voice journals for your POV characters, but even smaller roles can be helped by a shorter voice journal.

If you want to read more about voice, I suggest taking a look at ”VOICE: The Secret Power of Great Writing” by James Scott Bell.

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