(See my previous Literary Blog Hop contributions here.)
This month’s Literary Blog Hop prompt, via The Blue Bookshelf, is:
How do you feel about fictional characters who are obviously closely based on the author? Is this an example of authorial superego? Or just a natural extension of the “write what you know” advice?
Once upon a time, I was a regular snarkypants on Deleterius, a LiveJournal community dedicated to making fun of really bad Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings fanfiction. Most of these had “Mary Sues,” or obvious self-inserts only perfect, in them. While a Mary Sue (or her male counterpart, a Gary Stu) doesn’t by herself a terrible piece of fiction make, she’s often a red flag. A perfectly draped red flag that hugs her curves in all the right places and brings out the depth of her sparkling amber/onyx/emerald/sapphire/amethyst eyes.
The author-insert version of a Mary Sue in “original texts” – meaning “not fan fiction” is a “Canon Sue”: see, e.g., Wesley Crusher or Bella Swan.
Not to cop out, but: whether a Canon Sue is annoying or not depends entirely on how zie’s played. To me, the main character of Nella Larsen’s “Quicksand,” Helga Crane, is a pretty obvious self-insert, to the point of very nearly being a Mary Sue. Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl features a Cather self-insert in nearly every single one of the main characters, except perhaps Sapphira, who is obviously Cather’s mother. Sapphira has Willa Cather in every single character in addition to having the actual Willa Cather appearing in the final chapter, which makes it a sort of self-insert novel-essay hybrid thingy that still hasn’t been duplicated successfully in American literature. (For good reason – the debate still rages regarding whether Cather herself succeeded at it.)
Some self-inserts work rather well. Jack Torrance in The Shining? Totally believable. Every other drunk writer who is Totally Not Stephen King in every other King book? Not so much. Even the best (or most prolific) writers reach a point at which self-inserts stop being “strong characters based on what the author knows” and start being caricatures. Stephen King needed several books to reach that point; Stephenie Meyer blew past it before she ever put pen to paper. I don’t even know what to make of 50 Shades of Grey.
So: when in doubt, try not to be your own characters. Even if you are. Unless you being your own characters makes them better. Which it might not. Except when it does.