I’ve been trolling Instagram and Youtube lately. Hanging on every post and new video from a handful of authors whose personalities I seem to dig. Embarrassingly, I hadn’t read most of their books yet. This past week or two I’ve been trying to correct that. I finished the first book of a self-published author and so-called AuthorTuber and started in on the first book of traditionally published AuthorTuber.
Both books are engaging and both books have some glaring errors. Not typos, but things like the author trying to talk about firearms and ballistics when she clearly knows very little. The other drops comic book and nerdy references like they are candy, but they are often superficial and feel like fan service of the most basic level.
Now, don’t get hung up on the problems. I have enjoyed both books tremendously, primarily due to their relatable and engaging main characters. There’s something about their personalities that I seem to dig…just like their creators’. In both books the main characters felt familiar. Their reactions to things, their physical descriptions, their voices. Both of these enjoyable books’ main characters look like, sound like and often act like their respective authors. And that got me to thinking about author insertion.
Critically speaking, author insertion is often panned as a terrible thing. Just look at the flaming Stephanie Meyer’s took for Bella in the Twilight series. When you brush away the physical association of Kristen Stewart in the role and look strictly at the book’s description of her and read and watch Meyer’s interviews and FAQs it’s pretty clear that Bella is in many ways a fantasy version of Meyers herself.
Here’s the thing, we as writers have only our own minds and experiences to draw from when we create our characters. Therefore, a certain amount of author insertion seems unavoidable. As newbie authors, I think it is even easier to fall into this. Who do you know better than yourself to draw from as you search for your main character’s motivations and reactions?
What I struggle to accept is that author insertion hasn’t happened many times before and in many critically acclaimed works. Why haven’t I, or others noticed it more until lately, though? I have a two-word answer, social media, or if you want to use publishing industry jargon, author platforms.
In today’s reading world we turn our authors into mini reality stars. We want to hear what they did that day. We want to inspect the minutia of their lives down to the type of coffee they drink and what their recommendations are for candles and planners. We want daily tidbits on every outlet. On Instagram, on Facebook, on Twitter. In fact, most publishing houses make it almost a requirement for them to invest in an author’s book. Self-published authors have even more need to put themselves out there since their book only gets the promotion they create themselves.
The end result of all of this exposure is that we readers now know our favorite authors quite well. We certainly don’t know everything about them, but the author platforms that do the best are the ones that put up their true selves, warts and all. We respond by loving them all the more for their realness. When you know someone fairly well and read their work critically, author insertion becomes easier to spot. And I spotted it big time in these two first-time authors’ books. Once I thought through some of my favorite books by other more authors I could see traces of author insertion there too. Jim Butcher, the author I consider a master craftsman of fiction and my authorly hero, has an undeniable resemblance to how he describes the main character of his Harry Dresden series. Especially, in the earliest books of the series, I see striking resemblances of reaction and voice between Butcher and Dresden. I don’t think I would have noticed it had I not sought out every one of his appearances on writing panels at Cons that I could dig up on YouTube. What? He’s my author hero.
And now that I’ve spotted it there, I can’t stop finding author insertion in other works. It is literally everywhere. But here’s the thing, the authors that keep going, keep getting better, you see it less and less in their later works. For the really good ones, it disappears entirely as an identifiable thing.
What do we take away from my unscientific research into author insertion in fiction? That is a common occurrence for first-time authors and that a critical reading by one of their author platform followers could probably easily spot it. But, is that bad really? We like these authors, so of course, we’d like a main character who has a lot in common with them, and that is nothing but good for their readership. I would simply say that when they sit down to write that next book, that they push their comfort zone some. Give us someone entirely new to meet and relate to.