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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