People often say ‘you have to write what you know’ (and I’ll leave the rant on my definition of ‘what you know’ for now) but there’s a difference between using your emotions/ experiences and putting yourself entirely in your character’s shoes*. The latter being what can be referred to as ‘self insert’.
The risk, with self insertion is, of course (how I see it anyway) that you might end up making the character an image of who you want to be instead of who you are, making them unrounded characters.
I like using that quadrant of the 4 ‘awarenesses’ to illustrate this. Basically you can divide everything about your personality into 4 parts, being the things about you that…
- Both you and the people around you are aware of
- The things only you know
- The things only they know (that for x amount of reasons you don’t learn - varying from ‘they’re afraid to tell you/ don’t see telling you as relevant’ to ‘they thought you already knew’ (like if you tend to talk too loud but have no idea yourself)
- The things you don’t know about yourself that others don’t know either (tbh I find it very hard coming up with examples for this one, and it’s often describe as ‘the one we don’t even know exists’.)
How people see themselves vs how others see them is not the same thing. They may overlap, depending on how much self insight the character has, being one of the keys to a character, imo. My point is that looking at a character that’s different from you, it’s much easier to be aware of the traits in point number 3, the ‘the things you don’t know about yourself that others do’. Because if the character is very similar to you, there are things you might be yet to learn, things that are important for characterisation, and your character might be lacking something to feel as real.
* You can write a character in first person or a ‘close third’ without it being self insert.
I write characters quite often in 1st and close 3rd and they certainly aren’t self-inserts. The further away they are from me, the more hilarious (at least to me) their 1st POVs can end up becoming.
Leaving experimental fiction and discovery writing** out of this discussion, it is an absolute and non-negotiable requirement that the writer knows something very important about the protagonist that the protagonist does not know until the climax of the story. If the writer fails to do this, the writer isn’t finished planning their story.
Stories require conflict and, because of that fact, the protagonist is required to need and desire something that the story world refuses to give them. Good conflicts have both an external and an internal component. The external component is something outside the protagonist that the protagonist needs to confront. Usually that external component is the story’s antagonist. Meanwhile, the internal component is something within the protagonist that causes problems for the protagonist. Maybe they have a misconception about how the world works or a big character flaw that keeps biting them in the behind. Whatever that internal thing is, it is always something that the protagonist does not understand until the story’s climax. That act of having a sudden “ah-HA!” during the climax is that welcomed thing we call Character Development — an important element in making a dramatic story engaging to the reader.
I think there are two main approaches to writing a story. One is the “planned” process whereby everything is planned ahead of time, and then written; the author knows everything she needs to know about the characters, and everything that is going to happen, before she starts.
Then there’s the “discovery process” in which the author starts writing know there is something she and the protagonist need to find out together. This is my process, not because I chose it but because it’s just how my creative process works. I’m not a planner. The story unfolds and the characters evolve as I go along.
One way isn’t better than the other. I think they’re just innate to way we as individuals think and create.
Oh definitely. I should probably point out that I’m (VL too, is my guess) not addressing the process, but the end result, looking at a character’s ‘third point’ from the angle of how the character turns out in the end, and whether that works or not. I’m a discovery writer by far. My brain remembers by association, and tbh my brain is a much better than planner than I will ever be. (This sounds completely far out, but I’m a much better thinker when I don’t have to think.) The thing is, I used to be a 100% discoverer. I’m now down to 85% or something - I’m actually able to make careful plans, rooting in association to what I have learned from experience - meaning I don’t really think too much about it, I start doing basic outlines in the sense that - I’m not pulling out a piece of paper and start drawing lines with a pen, saying ‘this is where I need to go’ - but I try to use what I have learned to avoid stepping into the same holes.
With self insert, it’s one of those things where I try listening for warning bells. During the process; during drafting, re-drafting and my forty-eight rewrites, I will fail picking up of all of my warning bells at least once. As I go through it, I learn what works and what doesn’t. I’m pretty sure it’ll take me a very long time to learn using less calories. I’ve always had a deep respect for people who do visual art without doing too many edits - because they’re able to do what they want to do, without even really knowing that’s what they wanted to do! It’s a creative intuition that I’d like to achieve - one day - perhaps one day, if I am lucky.
The thing is - tl;dr - when I look at end results that I like, that feels right, they often tend to align with ‘good rules for writing’ - without me having decided up front I’m gonna follow a set of rules (or not). The discovery is the best part of writing, imo.