A self-insert, sometimes abbreviated to SI, is an original character meant to represent the author. Other characters that are copies of people (often people that the author knows), but not the author herself, are not self-inserts but should be approached with a similar frame of mind.
Self-inserts can range from being a relatively reasonable original character to being an idealized Mary Sue version of the author. Often, SIs in comedic fics are aware of their status as a SI character.
Self-insert fic is not inherently bad. However, it has been repetitively misused with recurring themes and associated patterns that it is almost universally detested.
Self-inserts and Mary Sues
Self-inserts are not always Mary Sues, although there is a very heavy stigma against self-inserts because they are a very easy way to make Mary Sues.
Mary Sues are very lazy, and there is nothing lazier than simply taking the real author and 'upgrading' all of her traits to make her smarter, better, and more awesome than she otherwise would be. At the same time, self-insert Mary Sues often disregard the positive or interesting traits of a real person, preferring more 'cool' alternatives. In other words, in the search for what the author wishes she could have, she discards everything she really is.
This is by no means a good thing, but it is also a fairly recognizable stage in writing ability. While Sues of this variety are perfectly fine to make fun of, and the author is to blame, the author doesn't deserve to be hated or attacked for his/her creation. There are few people in the world who don't wish to be stronger or better than they are. It's only maturity and experience that allows writers to move past this stage.
On the flip side, there are plenty of good self-inserts that are well-rounded representations of the individual they are supposed to represent and are legitimate characters in their own right. They, too, should not be mocked for being what they are.
Self-inserts and Avatars
Avatars are not self-inserts. A self-insert character is a character that is meant to BE the author him/herself, regardless of name changes, different origin, or added powers/abilities. An avatar merely is an author's representation in the work, whether to promote their ideals or to communicate the author's message. An avatar may be similar to a self-insert, may have a similar background, or may even be an allegory for an author's experiences, but is not meant to represent the author directly.
Self-inserts Found In Fanfiction
Self-inserts ofter cross over the 'Real World' and another continuum. They usually do this one or more of three ways:
- Bringing canon characters to the Real World. The self-insert snatches a character away from their home story. Done well, this can be an interesting fish-out-of-water story that explains how fiction-land and the Real World both manage to exist. Done badly, this is kidnapping and date rape.
- Traveling from the Real World to another continuum. In what is known as Trans-Dimensional Hopping, the self-insert hops from their world to another. Done well, this can be an exploration into the world of a canon through the eyes of a normal, unadjusted person that reveals exactly what it's like to try and adapt to such a drastically different setting. Done badly, this is just another tag-along Mary Sue that derails the plot.
- Forming a 'neutral ground' setting and both snatching and hopping at the same time. This is very uncommon, but a Sue can use a neutral ground to interact with characters rather than picking between going to a canon or snatching from one.
Many self-inserts in fanfiction are used in humor fics so that the author can pretend to hang out with their favorite character or characters. This often breaks the Fourth Wall to varying levels. How the characters feel and react to this varies with how out of character they are and how reality-bending the SI is. The reaction of canon characters often ranges the full gamut from slavish obedience and adoration to full-out hate for the SI in question.
Rarer than self-inserts in humor fics are SIs who are in serious (non–canon-breaking) fanfic wherein the SI fully participates in the world.
Means of Crossing Over Universes
There are four main ways to portray the relationship between the self-insert, the Real World, and a canon. All others are permutations of these four:
- The Real World and the canon take place in separate universes. This means that a self-insert will have to travel through dimensions and reality to get there. Often this version of snatching and hopping involves a plot device to make transit possible, such as a T.V. Portal or the 'I died in a car crash and I am now in another world!' explanation.
- The Real World and the canon take place in the same universe, but an alternate reality. This means that the canon is a sort of AU to the Real World where the elements of the canon are true. This is most plausible for settings that take place on Earth. As in the first explanation, a plot device is usually needed for travel.
- The Real World and the canon take place in the same universe, in the same reality. This means that the Real World is happening in the same space as the canon, but perhaps not the same time or location.
- The self-insert does not include the Real World. Occasionally, the self-insert will have been made such that they live in the canon universe originally, rather than relying solely on universe-hopping. Thus you are more liable to see an SI who has lived in Metropolis or Tokyo their whole life rather than one who has was born in South Park. This does not always prevent the SI from kidnapping the canon characters, however.