The rise of the Self-Insertion fic -Lawrence Railey
If you’re like me, much of your early childhood was spent pretending you were this or that. Perhaps you were a superhero one day and an astronaut the next. Maybe you were a Jedi or a captain of a starship. You were the hero in your own story.
But as you grew older, you became aware that the world wasn’t all about you. Your story was not the only story that mattered. Indeed, when you read a book or watched a movie, you understood that the characters were not you, and were you in the same situation as they were it was entirely possible that you would do something completely different.
Yet, the story remained enjoyable for you, nonetheless.
Puppy Kickers commonly explain that people of various ethnic, religious, and sexual backgrounds are put off because Science Fiction does not contain enough characters who are like them. Chuck Wendig explains this view for us:
“Let’s imagine that you are, as you are now, a straight white dude. Except, your world features one significant twist — the SFF pop culture you consume is almost never about you. The faces of the characters do not look like yours. The creators of this media look nothing like you, either. Your experiences are not represented. Your voice? Not there. There exist in these universes no straight white dudes. Okay, maybe one or two. Some thrown in to appease. Sidekicks and bad guys and walk-on parts. Token chips flipped to the center of the table just to make you feel like you get to play, too. Oh, all around you in the real world, you are well-represented. Your family, your friends, the city you live in, the job you work — it’s straight white dude faces up and down the block. But on screen? In books? Inside comic panels and as video game characters? Almost none. Too few. Never the main characters.”
It’s worth noting that this was written in response to the Star Wars boycott trolling affair on Twitter. Chuck certainly got taken to the cleaners by the trolls in that regard. But the issue he brings up is one frequently touted by the Puppy Kickers.
For as long as I can remember, Science Fiction has been relatively good about containing a mixture of various races, belief systems, and the like. Frank Herbert’s Dune contains a great deal of reference to Islam and Persian culture. Babylon 5 had an episode wherein the commander of the station introduced one of the aliens to an entire row of various races and religious creeds. Star Trek put a Russian on screen as a main character during the height of the Cold War (itself a more radical move, I think, than having a black woman as a communications officer). Darth Vader was voiced by a black man, and wouldn’t have been the same otherwise. Sarah Hoyt’s own Darkship series contains a gay character in a substantial role and, of course, has a female protagonist. David Weber’s Safehold series has a protagonist who is arguably a transsexual, as she changes her gender to male in order to become Merlin and blend in properly with Safehold’s population.
And I’m not even going to start where Heinlein is concerned.
Point is, the complaint of the Puppy Kickers is patently false. You can see people of your particular race, religion, sexuality, etc… already. Indeed, this isn’t even a new phenomenon. For as long as I’ve been alive, there hasn’t been a major issue where this is concerned.
But there’s a deeper point, even, than this. It’s something that I didn’t really think about until recently, too. I was reading Darkship Thieves and I was practically biting my nails when Athena was doing something I would regard as pretty ungrateful and borderline cruel. And I felt it in the pit of my stomach. I genuinely didn’t want her to do what she wound up trying to do. That’s when it suddenly hit me: I’m reading about a character who is not me. Her motivations are not mine. Her personality is not mine. Everything about her is different.
The story isn’t about me, or my perspective, or what I would do in those circumstances. It was about what Athena was going to do. And the story would not be one tenth of what it was if (please excuse me on this one Sarah) she wasn’t so damn stubborn and self-centered. Her bumbling through the first half of the book is precisely why I was glued to the pages. I just HAD to find out what kind of trouble she was going to stir up next. I liked Athena’s character because she was fleshed out, had her own motivations, thoughts, dreams and issues. She felt like a real person to me.
Sometime ago I read an article about the Twilight series of books. The title escapes me at the moment, but the point of the article was that Twilight’s protagonist, Bella, was deliberately written to be vague, nondescript and almost featureless. She was a fantasy Mary Sue. Bella, in other words, was intended to be a reader avatar for young teenage girls (and, apparently, older mothers who wished they were teenage girls). People could pretend they were Bella and attracting the attentions of a sparkling vampire, just as I once pretended to be an astronaut as a child. Bella was the exact opposite of Athena.
Chuck Wendig’s rant about people not seeing themselves in stories is perfectly in line with this thought process. If we extrapolate his line of thinking, there must be, for example, gay black characters so that gay black men can connect with the story and insert themselves into it. For without a suitable number of these characters, they cannot connect with the story. Or, in simple terms, they can’t make the story about themselves personally.
Except that this is complete nonsense to begin with. There’s a reason Mary Sue stories are often derided, and why there’s a lot of bad fanfiction written in this particular style. It’s the same reason why commercials will spout off something like “there’s just one you.” And why advertising everywhere likes to focus on how special you are. You’re all winners, they will say, the world is yours. It’s a way to feed narcissism. You can only read so many stories like this before it starts getting old and patronizing.
Adam Carolla said it best in a rant several years ago:
“We’re now dealing with the first wave of participation trophy [parenting]” when “everyone gives everyone a participation trophy and then everyone feels good about themselves but it’s not based on anything.”
To the Puppy Kickers, everyone else is the problem, but never them. They overlook the problem of a cultural trend toward narcissism, the over-emphasis on personal feelings, a patronizing notion that everything has to be personal so that everybody can feel good about themselves. Instead, they focus on whether or not your story has a sufficient number of gay characters, or black characters, or whatever particular group is currently occupying the attention of social justice.
Are they saying, then, that it is impossible for readers to enjoy a story without the story being about them? It’s actually worse than that. Again, I will quote our friend Chuck Wendig:
“Also, as it turns out, the genre is often, maybe even always, political. Even when it’s not expressly so, fiction isn’t about some rote operational telling of stories. Science-fiction and fantasy, when operating well, serve as a bellwether for the world in which we live. It’s always been that way. Through history, we examine both the small books and films and comics and also the really popular ones to see what ideas and fears and yes even politics have seeped out of the public consciousness and conscience and into the stories that the public loves and shares.”
You see, in the eyes of the paladins of social justice, fiction cannot be apolitical. It categorically must have an agenda, and just as the stories must be about them, personally, the political angle of those same stories must be their political angles. Sad Puppies understand that fiction can come in both political and apolitical varieties, and that the stories need not parrot their own worldview in order to be enjoyable.
If they truly gave a damn about the word diversity, which they reflexively lob around whenever challenged, they would discover that having fiction of a conservative slant adds to diversity, it does not detract from it. But that’s not how it works with them. Just as the books must cater specifically to their individual backgrounds, the books must also cater to their politics. N.K. Jemisin’s book pushing free birth control is considered just fine, revolutionary even. Tom Kratman’s book about war against Muslim terrorists on another planet is considered crimethink, because they don’t want actual diversity of thought, especially not in stories that are explicitly political.
Since, for them, progress only goes in one direction (i.e. towards more Socialism, White Guilt, etc…), fiction with a conservative angle, or even no detectable angle at all, is at cross purposes to what they consider the genre to be about.
It all goes back to the beginning. They view our genre as escapism, not story-telling. They want to be the hero of a grand story about the Socialist utopia, and since that’s probably not going to happen in the real world, they retreat to the fantasy world to get their fix. They want to be an astronaut today and a commissar tomorrow. So characters must either be blank templates, like Bella, that they can insert themselves into, or be so close to their particular background that they can pretend the story was written about them.
Don’t misunderstand me, to a certain extent, the occasional foray into escapism can be fun, and a way to disconnect from a dreary 9-to-5 existence. But at the same time, like any such luxury, it is best used in moderation. The reason Mary Sue stories are considered so bad is that anyone who cannot immediately insert themselves into the main character will find the story patronizing, fake, and composed largely of cardboard cutouts. Fan fiction is not universally terrible, but much of it can be because many of the fans are prone to writing themselves into the story. And while that is their prerogative, it doesn’t make for good story-telling, generally. The story will have a fanbase of one.
Unlike Athena, the characters in those stories will not feel like real people, with real motivations. You won’t care about them, you won’t want to read more unless the author is deliberately stroking your ego. So much of what the Puppy Kickers do is a sort of mutual stroking of egos. Here, you wrote a story about social justice, have a Hugo and feel good about yourself. A decade from now, nobody will remember the book, because it stunk like yesterday’s meat, but hey…
The Book of Eli is a film that I enjoyed tremendously, despite the implausibility of the primary plot device. The titular Eli was a black man portrayed by Denzel Washington. He was a morally upright character, resolved to complete his task; a modern day Christian prophet. He was totally unlike me. Yet I loved the story and it wouldn’t have been the same without Denzel Washington portraying the character. He was perfectly cast for the role.
And that’s the central thesis surrounding the Sad Puppy affair. We want artistic freedom to create characters that aren’t Mary Sues, that don’t necessarily follow some specific agenda or quota formula. We don’t think the inclusion or absence of a particular trait is important. If a character is envisioned as a gay Jewish black man, then that is just fine. If another is a white man with skin lighter than a Norwegian in a snowstorm, there is nothing wrong with that. Or, if your character is a stubborn woman whom you just want to reach through pages and yell “good God, woman, don’t do that!” to repeatedly, so much the better.
Diversity isn’t the goal. At best, it’s a side-effect. Good story-telling is the only purpose, and the Puppies believe that nothing should get in the way of that.
And, quite simply, this notion that one must share essential attributes with the main character in order to enjoy a story is patronizing, narcissistic, and stupid. A black man can enjoy a story about a white woman. And, in the case of the story I just finished reading a couple days ago, a conservative white man can enjoy a story about a transsexual robot named Merlin living on distant planet.
Books do not have to be self-insertion fics, and they do not need to push a socio-political agenda.
The fact that the Puppy Kickers don’t know any better is disappointing to say the least.