This post will probably end up a little bit of a ramble but I’m almost certain I get to a point so if you would kindly stick with me while I meander about the place before finally attempting to stick the landing, I’m hopeful it won’t be a complete waste of your time. Though that sentence probably was.
As the Autumn Season of anime gets well and truly underway there have been a barrage of posts belittling Black Clover for being too generic shounen and having little of its own identity. We could look at that argument for hours but at the end of the day most of us will agree it is pretty standard shounen but that isn’t actually what is wrong with the show so far. What’s wrong with the show has been the execution of standard shounen tropes where Black Clover has done little to impress, though it is kind of getting better. But that isn’t really the point. The point is that this argument being stirred up got me thinking about a different criticism that is often levelled at characters and that is that they are bland, self-insert character and by default that must make them terrible and the bane of all creativity. (Incidentally if you actually care about my thoughts on Black Clover so far – or Weekend Otaku’s – we’ve been covering the episodes so far here.)
I’ve always found it quite interesting that people see self-insert characters as a problem or that they paint them all with the same brush. Part of the issue comes from the confusion between a character being a self-insert or whether the character exists as a sense of escapism or wish-fulfillment for a certain audience. Because self-insert isn’t about asking the audience to become one with the character but rather for the author to express part of who they are through a character. Whereas a character created for the sake of wish fulfillment might very well only exist to encourage a certain audience to want to be them and imagine themselves in those shoes.
In that respect, self-insert characters come in a wide range of tones and colours with a wide variety of personality traits. The author wants to be that person or express something through them. Maybe you as an audience member don’t connect with a particular character because you don’t really relate to what the author is trying to share, in which case the show probably won’t ever work for you, but the character exists for a reason.
Okay, now people who have waded through many bad self-insert fan-fictions (not that every fan-fiction is bad, including ones that have self-insert protagonists) will now point out that the sole reason for self-inert characters is that they become overpowered Mary Sue and Gary Stu characters to help lonely authors have their own wish-fulfillment play out in front of them. And, you can’t really argue that there are a lot of these characters out there and not just in fan-fiction stories. For these writers, what they want is to overcome all and every weakness and as a result their characters (no matter how individualised they may have started) all end up at around the same generic kind of default lack of personality that is the main reason people criticise self-insert characters in the first place.
But that doesn’t inherently make self-insert characters bad. It means that some writers fail to execute the self-insert well or don’t really think about the overall character progression and more just individual moments for their character. It means that somewhere in the back of our collective understanding of characters we’d like to be, a large number of people all have the same basic view of ‘perfect’ and somehow it is never all that interesting.
However, what is an author was to self-insert all of their flaws and issues into a character? What if they were to project a deeply flawed version of themselves and then give themselves the agency needed to overcome some of their issues (at least for the duration of the work of fiction)? What if that self-insert character is actually kind of funny and charming and maybe even just a little bit appealing?
Basically there are as many ways to do self-insert as people can imagine, and history has shown that people can be very imaginative if you give them enough time and reason to be so. An individual author may self-insert again and again and while each of their characters might have a certain similarity they could all end up quite different if the author chose to foreground and project a different aspect of who they were onto the character.
So much like the criticism of Black Clover being too generic not being a particularly helpful criticism (pretty much all genre fiction has standards within their genre it is all about execution) crying self-insert over a protagonist isn’t particularly enlightening given you could probably argue that every character ever created shares some of their creators mentality. Nor does being a self-insert necessarily doom your character to being generic, over-powered, or dull. Those things will come about by poor planning and writing but not because the protagonist was a self-insert in the first place.
Turning it over to you, what do you think of self-insert characters? Any you love? Any you hate? Do share in the comments below.
Thanks for reading.
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17 thoughts on “Friday’s Feature: Not All Self-Insert Characters Are Created Equal”
Tokyo Mew Mew’s sequel is the first thing I think of when it comes to self-insertion stories. In my opinion, it fits all self-insertion criticism to a T: special protagonist, becomes the center of attention, pushes everyone else to the side, finds love, etc.
Interesting post. I for one think one of the most important thing about pretty much everything I watch are the characters. If I can somehow establish a connection with them, and feel for what they are going through in general, it makes for a much more entertaining watch.
Self insert characters was a term I wasn’t yet familiar with, so I actually learned something as well here 😀 And just for the record, your post wasn’t meandering at all. Now knowing what they are, I agree with the things you wrote here (and for the record: I still absolutely hate, I repeat hate Asta lol 😂😂😂).
Oh yes. There’s a lot of hate for Asta out there and it is mostly justified at this point.
Haha…it almost feels like this hate can be compared to Jar Jar Binks 😂😂😂
Jar Jar vs Asta? Who is the most annoying of them all?
Hmmmm…..actually, I think Asta would even win this contest, as much as mesa hates to admit that 😂😂
This could be a new fun game. Which character is more annoying than Asta? We already know he has the single most irritating voice in existence but does he top most annoying character ever?
Hmm…that really is a great idea for a fun game 😀. I have actually thought about this for a bit now, but for me Asta wins it. That said, I don’t know as much anime as you obviously, so there are probably even more annoying characters out there (though I’m not sure I ever want to see an anime that has an even more annoying character than Asta in it😂😂)
I’ll admit, Black Star from Soul Eater comes close in the early episodes to being as annoying as Asta. Later on his character gets a bit more rounded so even though his annoying traits persist he’s a bit more tolerable. Still my least favourite character from Soul Eater (with the exception of Excalibur who is too annoying for words to ever properly convey and only doesn’t win this game because he is not a main character).
Yeah, I’d struggle to think of someone off the top of my head as annoying as Asta.
Haha, well if I discover a more annoying character than Asta I will be sure to let you know 😀
Black Star and Exacalibur huh…Soul Eater is still on my list, but I will keep my eyes out for those two when I am going to be checking the series out. Thanks for the advance warning lol 😂
The other characters are fantastic but I think the hate for Excalibur is universal (fortunately he’s in about four episodes).
I only think self-insert characters are literal blank slates in the personality department or overtly perfect. These types of characters just aren’t realistic and it can really drag down a show where everybody else seems to be a normal person to some extent. Basically, I agree with you.
It does seem like some people treat wish fulfillment or self-insert characters as inherently bad. As per everything else, such elements have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Although you called your post meandering, it provided a lot of food for thought on self-insert characters and it has me left wondering about the other buzzwords people use to complain about shows they dislike without bothering to explain or expand on their stances.
Glad it did something then. I tried rewriting this post and it actually got less clear so I kind of just let it go but I still wasn’t happy with how unfocused it seemed.
Seemed more like a stream of consciousness, yeah. A bit different than usual, but it was a nice change of pace.
Agreed. I’ve read a lot of self insert fan-fictions. I’ve specifically searched for them because I accidentally read one, and then two and then kept on reading because I wanted to assure myself not all self insert fiction are bad. And they aren’t. There are some out there with more nuances to than the characters from the original fic. Self insert works better when authors keep the flaws they know they have and later find ways to overcome them, instead of simply creating someone perfect from the start to the point even when they’re clearly wrong, according to the story they are somehow right.
“to the point even when they’re clearly wrong, according to the story they are somehow right” – this attitude is so annoying in any story but in self-insert it just feels horrific. Like the entire point of the story is that the writer had to create their own universe just to be right in.