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December 1, 2012
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First person narratives and self-insertion

:iconle-kaikai:
Le-Kaikai Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2012
This was derived from an creative discussion amongst friends. Basically, could first person narratives be considered self-insert stories?

In this case, self-insertion refers to authors who add themselves to stories (often as main characters), or characters whom readers identify so closely with that the story "revolves around them."

An annoying modern trend I seem to be finding in books told in first person is a severe lack of physical descriptions of the main character (or the narrator). SMeyer has been criticized heavily for her obvious self-insertion of Bella (both for herself and the readers). In contrast, the classic Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri is literally about Dante himself in a large, complex, hypothetical situation.
The difference between the two works is that Bella is intended for readers to "role play" in a sense, while Dante is his own unique character.

Even reading novels that have physical descriptions of the narrator/main character seem to be told in a role play fashion, essentially inviting the reader to take the place of the main character.

Of course, first person narratives could be set up as self-insert stories, especially in fantasy-like stories, under the assumption that the reader is reading that particular story as a means of "escaping reality," or something similar.

So, could first person narratives naturally be aimed towards self-insertion to some degree?
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Devious Comments

:icondamonwakes:
DamonWakes Featured By Owner Dec 3, 2012   Writer
I like *neomerlin's quip about first person not inserting the author any more than third person inserts some guy called Jimmy. And I agree with the people who have mentioned that any character will include some element of the author.

That said, I really don't think first person stories are intended to have the reader include themselves as that first person narrator. It doesn't match up with how first person is used day-to-day, for one thing: when I say "I went to the shops this afternoon," I'm not inviting you to imagine that you went instead. :shrug: Also, second person really is used in that way: just look at all the SomeGuyxReader junk that turns up on the front page. Or those "choose your own adventure" books where "YOU are the hero!" When I read first person books, I'm always very aware than someone is there, telling me this story.
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:iconhardhatshetland:
HardHatShetland Featured By Owner Dec 3, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
Personally, i'd say first-person is better for character-driven stories; by which I mean, stories which rely a huge part on what's going on inside the character. When I read a first-person story, it shouldn't, ideally, resemble a narration, but it should instead resemble the character's train of thought as they experience the events of the story, and reveal facts about themselves that no-one else in the story knows, but only when it's relevant to do so, otherwise it just seems like unnatural exposition. So, in a way, it would add a whole new layer to the story that would be completely missed if it was told by another character. Granted, the same thing could be accomplished if you used some kind of invisible, all-knowing narrator, but personally I find that... odd, to say the least.

When it comes to self-insertion as you define it, i'd say, and I think you're saying (correct me if i'm wrong), that that can only really be possible if you fail to reveal anything significant about the character that would set them apart from you as a person, or otherwise establish them as their own character with their own thoughts, beliefs, and personality; so if any old Joe on the street can assume the role of the character, then that kind of defeats the point of having a first-person perspective in the first place, in my opinion.
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:iconavenvia:
Avenvia Featured By Owner Dec 2, 2012  Student Writer
Personally, I prefer first person to third. Not that I don't like third person, but many of my favourite books seem to be in first and neither would I consider them to be self-inserts. Especially since they often feature multiple first person narrators.

When it comes to my own writing, I write both for the sake of variety and practice. But I don't really like the idea of an omniscient narrator following the characters and describing their actions or just being able to read one character's mind to describe it to the reader.

I'd agree that it's probably easier to write a self-insert piece in first person and easy for an inexperienced writer to screw it up and start writing in their own voice instead of the character's. But in the hands of a good writer, I find first person is an excellent way to see things through a character's perspective and understand their mindset better. Just my opinion, though :shrug:
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:iconle-kaikai:
Le-Kaikai Featured By Owner Dec 2, 2012
I like first person when it is told through the perspective of the character and not a self-insert. Though I prefer third person.
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:iconavenvia:
Avenvia Featured By Owner Dec 3, 2012  Student Writer
In most first person books I've read, the perspective is very much not of a self-insert, hence why I'd disagree that first person is naturally aimed towards self-insertation. The only examples I can really think of that aren't teen literature or obviously geared towards people's fantasies would be books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, where they are partially autobiographical.

It might seem like first person is used for self inserts, though, because it's easier to screw up than third person, in my experience, and inexperienced writers are way more likely to lean towards self-inserts. But I've read a few crime thrillers (I don't really like the genre so I haven't read many) which are written in third person but also carry at least some degree of wish fulfillment for the writer.
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:iconmadoldhag:
MadOldHag Featured By Owner Dec 2, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
Writing in first person doesn't necessarily mean self-insert, but I agree with the "roleplaying" to a certain degree.

When I am writing in first person, I see the situation and setting through the active character's eyes, I notice what they notice, not more. I forget to mention details the narrator/character won't think about even when a reader might want to know more. Even when the setting is different from reality, I only mention details when they are important or unusual for the narrator/character at that moment/in that particular situation.

As for physical descriptions of the main character. Hm ... I try to give some information when it makes sense and fits. Through action or dialogue if possible. Preferably when it shows us more of his personality, too.

First person and third person both have their advantages and disadvantages. You can have a badly conceiled "improved" copy of yourself in a story written in third person, too.
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:iconle-kaikai:
Le-Kaikai Featured By Owner Dec 2, 2012
Theb what you write is good self-insert, in the sense where the character is still distinctly there with his own voice and personality.
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:iconmadoldhag:
MadOldHag Featured By Owner Dec 2, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
I wonder where the self-insert is when I write as a person who is nothing like me and who is far from being the person I would like to be. I wouldn't want to live in the world I am still building, not really, and my main character ... even though I feel far more attached to him than is reasonable I wouldn't want to meet him in real life (even though I would love to see more characters like him in books, movies, games, what ever ... yes, yes, I know that these are different media which work differently).
Writing in first person sometimes feels like someone from a parallel universe and/or from the far past was channeling me.
There might be some deeply hidden self-insert or wish fulfillment, but should I really search for it? I tend to over-analyze things anyway, and there is no need to resurrect my inner editor after I flushed her ashes down the drain.
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:iconslytherinsheiress:
SlytherinsHeiress Featured By Owner Dec 2, 2012  Professional Writer
The only time I do self-insertion is when I'm making fun of myself. Otherwise, I prefer to write about people who aren't like me.

I don't think one could paint all first person narratives as self-insertion. Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack is an apocalyptic sort of tale from the first person point of view of a twelve-year-old girl. I highly doubt that Jack is Lola, though she might share one or two of his qualities. :)

Twilight, on the other hand, and 50 Shades of Grey are very blatant self-insertions.
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:iconle-kaikai:
Le-Kaikai Featured By Owner Dec 2, 2012
Random Acts of Senseless Violence sounds like an amazing book...
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:iconslytherinsheiress:
SlytherinsHeiress Featured By Owner Dec 2, 2012  Professional Writer
It's a really good book. It's told in diary form, too, rather like Anne Frank's diary (the diary is, in fact, referred to as Anne). Check it out and let me know what you think. :) I read it last year and I still think about it every so often.
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:iconle-kaikai:
Le-Kaikai Featured By Owner Dec 2, 2012
I'll add it to my list of everything to read. First I must honor a promise to read the Skulduggery series.
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:iconcarusmm:
carusmm Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
Self-insertion is comically not a problem.
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:iconmr-timeshadow:
Mr-Timeshadow Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2012
Well, way back in high school I wrote a play in which I was the narrator and therefore seen as a villain by the characters. I never spoke directly to readers; just narrated.
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:iconneomerlin:
neomerlin Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2012  Student Writer
No more than writing in the third person is naturally going to be aimed towards writing about my friend Jimmy.
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:iconladyander:
LadyAnder Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
No it's not. I would say that 1st person is a very easy way for a writer to self-insert. It is just the nature of the POV because it is very easy to write ones own voice as the voice of the character. I've done it by accident and I've seen another writer do it. Also, you can have self-inserting in other POV's as well. I'm not sure I understand your definition of self-inserting. I'm don't understand why you say that Bella is a self insert of Mrs. Myers. I don't know much about Mrs. Myers personally, neither have I've read many of her own comments about her writings to even know if that it is true. I'm also don't feel as if Bella was written for the reader to insert themselves as her. She was written too poorly for much of anything. I don't insert myself into novels. I can't say I've read something purposely written for me to insert myself into a novel. Many protagonist are written for the reader to be able to identify with them. I think Bella was written in a way that readers could identify, many did seeing the popularity of the series. I can't say I did, the further the story got the less I liked her and could identify with her. I thought her to be insane way before the end.

Also, the worse thing you can have a character doing in a 1st person narrative, is for them to describe themselves. There are only a few instances where that is okay. Most of the 1st person novels I've read say very little about what the character look like other than distinguishing features. Why would a person telling a story through their eyes tell about how they look? How much does a person give physical details about themselves? That sort of thing really has to be written in carefully otherwise its just awkward. In fact, just describing a characters features can be awkward especially if the author goes out of the way to list them. I would rather have the author pay more attention to the story that the character is telling and let the story tell who they are and what they look like than for them to list physical description to me. Telling me how a character looks isn't going to make me care about them. Many of these books also pay little attention to detailed description in general and it isn't limited to 1st person. I've seen it done in third person novels as well. It just many writers today write to the point and describe what is relevant. They don't need to go into great detail about a character if the reader can supply what they look like. I'm not fond of that thinking but that's the way it is.
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:iconle-kaikai:
Le-Kaikai Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2012
Okay, one thing at a time. First, I agree with you when you say " I would say that 1st person is a very easy way for a writer to self-insert. It is just the nature of the POV because it is very easy to write ones own voice as the voice of the character."

What part of my definition confuses you? I'll try to clear it up as best I can.

Stephanie Meyers has admitted that Bella is literally herself (and Edward is her dream boyfriend, which, in a way, is another self-insert). However, she also stated that she purposefully gave Bella so little detail so the reader could easily take Bella's place in the story. So really, Bella is just a blank character that is just a stand in for the reader to replace. The ultimate self-insert.

Perhaps my initial post was a bit misleading. I'm not saying a character in first person should stand in front of a mirror and describe every tiny detail about themselves.
" I would rather have the author pay more attention to the story that the character is telling and let the story tell who they are and what they look like than for them to list physical description to me."
Yes, this is what I meant.
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:iconladyander:
LadyAnder Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
Wow...I think Mrs. Myers failed at her purpose.
If one writes a story about a character, it's about them not the reader. How the character responds to the conflict, is the characters responses not the reader. All she accomplished was a shallow character. Character and story aren't separate. It seems as if she thinks they are.

Also her saying that Bella was her makes the whole, reader self-inset thing kind of void. The only person inserted in the novel was her considering the novel to me felt like ultimate wish fulfillment on some level. Reading this confirms that it was her own wish-fulfillment.
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:iconraspil:
raspil Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2012   Writer
i'm not a fan of 1st person unless 3rd person isn't effective enough to drive the story down the reader's throat. if i'm going to write 1st person because of this, there is no way i'd ever insert myself into the story. that's a noob move.

Bad writers put themselves in the story. Good writers do it so no one can tell
this
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:iconle-kaikai:
Le-Kaikai Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2012
I prefer third person. Authors can still insert themselves in third person, but I don't have to worry about inserting myself in another character's role. I'd rather read the story like I watch a movie and not actively participate in it.
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:iconwitwitch:
witwitch Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2012  Student Writer
I just finished a first person short story. I didn't describe the narrator's appearance, simply because it wasn't relevant to the story. I chose first person specifically because I wanted the reader to see the story unfold through this person's eyes. It would be a different story (literally) if I told it through a different character's eyes.
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:iconle-kaikai:
Le-Kaikai Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2012
This is the case where what matters most is the voice of the person telling the story. Personally, I have a harder time differentiating myself from the first person narrator if their voice doesn't match their character, which is usually what happens when the author tries telling the story in their own voice and it contrasts with the character whom the voice supposedly belongs to.
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:iconwitwitch:
witwitch Featured By Owner Dec 2, 2012  Student Writer
Ahh. I see what you mean. I always just interpret it as bad dialogue.

The worst dialogue is when it reads like subtitles from a Kung Fu movie.

"Your powers are weak. Prepare to die!"
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:iconsaintartaud:
saintartaud Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2012  Professional General Artist
I don't think it's necessarily a tendency of only first person, since there are numerous characters throughout literature that are based largely on the author's own life written in third person. Offhand: Lessing's Martha Quest, Lawrence's Paul Morel, Joyce's Stephen Daedalus, Dickens's boy heroes, etc.

I do, however, think that first person holds a greater likelihood of the author mistaking the voice for themselves, and I have criticized Palahniuk before for having his own voice, which he projects onto every narrator, no matter how much they might differ. This works if the narrator is close enough to the writer. There are good chunk of writers whose first-person narrators are thinly veiled versions of themselves (Thompson, Bukowski, Celine).

So self-insertion is not inherently bad, it's more the way it plays out that's problematic. The main thing I hate is wish fulfillment for the author (which Dickens could be accused of to an extent).
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:iconle-kaikai:
Le-Kaikai Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2012
"I do, however, think that first person holds a greater likelihood of the author mistaking the voice for themselves"

Yeah, this is what I was thinking of; authors who tell a story in their own voice and not the character's voice. It turns into a fantastical story about the author rather than a story about the (in most cases) much more interesting character.
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:iconpinkymccoversong:
PinkyMcCoversong Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2012  Professional Writer
I think the first thing you need to define as self-insertion.

All narratives are designed to make the reader identify with a character. If you're not relating somehow to the protagonist -- even in the case of an antihero -- you're probably not going to be invested in the story and you will probably put the book down.

So if self-insertion means identifying with the main character, then ALL stories are aimed toward self-insertion.

If you're just saying that anytime a writer uses first person they are probably angling toward self-insertion simply because it's a first person narrative, I sort of wonder how much you've been reading. Most writers will tell you that, yes, all of their characters have some element of them selves -- their life experience, their ideas -- but being a writer means going beyond that and creating a character that works for your story. Authors write first person narratives where the main character is a different ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation. Authors write first person narratives where the main character is an elf, or a dwarf, or a shape shifter. Authors write first person narratives where the main character is struggling with issues they've never been through, or issues they have been through, or issues their friends went through. But it's a story, and unless it's a memoir, I don't see why first person = self-insertion.
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:iconle-kaikai:
Le-Kaikai Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2012
I'm not disagreeing with the relating to the character bit. If you can't relate to the character, then why should you care about their story?

I'm referring to the self-insertion where the character is purposefully created for the reader to disregard them and read through the story as if it were affecting them personally.
The initial argument that led to this question was one of my friends insisted that first person narratives detract from the main character in a way that the reader will insert themselves fully into the character's shoes. In this scenario, the character himself becomes nonexistent while the reader assumes his role in the story.
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:iconpinkymccoversong:
PinkyMcCoversong Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2012  Professional Writer
If the character has been purposely created to be anyone, then the writer hasn't done his job. So a) your friend is off base and probably hasn't read a whole lot and b) that sounds like a really boring story.
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:iconle-kaikai:
Le-Kaikai Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2012
More often than not, it is a really boring story.
However, when you refer to not reading "a whole lot," what are you specifically referring to? What do you believe should be read to qualify as "a whole lot"?
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:iconpinkymccoversong:
PinkyMcCoversong Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2012  Professional Writer
More than a few books that are assigned in school, more than one or two favorite books over and over. Anyone making a grandiose statement like that probably isn't reading very widely or very often.
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:iconle-kaikai:
Le-Kaikai Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2012
Fair enough.
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:iconwolfiekid:
WolfieKid Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2012  Student Writer
All characters are self-inserts to one extent or another. We've had this discussion in Creative Writing classes for all three years of my study and pretty much all of my classes have agreed. x3 No matter how diabolical, unique or outrageous a character, you can always find yourself in them, even if only minor ways. It's writing what you know, even if you think you're writing something or someone entirely opposite to yourself.
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:iconle-kaikai:
Le-Kaikai Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2012
I totally agree with you, Wolfie, but that's not exactly what I was referring to. XD
I'm talking role play styled fiction, similar to what fangirls write when they insert their crappy OCs into fanfiction.
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:iconwolfiekid:
WolfieKid Featured By Owner Dec 2, 2012  Student Writer
So you're talking about BAD self-insertion. xD
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:iconle-kaikai:
Le-Kaikai Featured By Owner Dec 2, 2012
Yup~! :'D
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
Bad writers put themselves in the story. Good writers do it so no one can tell ;p

I just wrote a thing from the perspective of someone who is a very different background than me, and male on top of it. But the ambition and curiosity were pulled from myself. I've got a pretty good data set on these things. Does that count as a self insert? It's not escapist, but it's me.
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:iconle-kaikai:
Le-Kaikai Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2012
I do believe that characters may share similar traits to the author (following the whole "write what you know" thing), but that's not self-insert.

What I was specifically referring to was characters that are practically created solely for the reader to replace the actual character with themselves. In this sense, the actual character the author created is just some blank template the reader fills in with their own being, leading to the reader engaging in the story as if they are the actual character.

Perhaps this is one of those things that makes more sense in my mind.
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
It makes sense, but I don't think it's related to writing in first or third person or whatever. It's more about why someone's writing—is it for themselves or others.
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:iconle-kaikai:
Le-Kaikai Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2012
But how could you tell the difference whether someone is writing for themselves or others?
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
Ask them. If it's been traditionally published, it's been edited to sell, so that's not a question.
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