Protagonists and Their Authors

There’s a snide little comment that pops up in reviews and online criticism of novels now and again, about how the protagonist is “just a self-insert for the author.” It’s meant as a flaw, even grounds for dismissal. I remember a comment in a college English class in which a protagonist whose name started with the same letter and who was also in a band like the author was dismissed as “too much like the author.”

Are there ways an autobiographical protagonist can go wrong? The term “self-insert” comes from fanfiction, in which authors literally insert themselves into a story to interact with the characters. Overall, autobiographical protagonists can run the risk of being portrayed as some perfect wish fulfillment fantasy for the author.

But there’s a problem with the way I’ve seen this criticism used… It’s almost always directed as a critique at female authors. The above comment in my class? Female author. And when I was doing a bit of research for this post? The commenter listed several male authors as examples of autobiographical protagonists that were okay, and then sneered, “Just don’t be like Stephenie Meyer.”

The fact is that there are lots of autobiographical protagonists written by male authors that seem to get a free pass, even praise. Jonathan Safran Foer, Richard Powers, and Charlie Kaufman wrote themselves into their stories by giving their main characters their own name. James Joyce and Jack Kerouac both wrote novels about their own experiences (Portrait of an Artist as Young Man and On the Road, respectively). Stephen King almost always writes about writers, and Neil Gaiman used events from his own life to develop the unnamed protagonist in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. And John Green used his high school experiences to write Looking for Alaska—and I once saw a speech of his where he talked about his own existential crisis about being remembered in college, and who does that sound like?

I’m sure there are female authors who have written autobiographical material that’s respected (probably because it’s literary, but that’s a whole other post)—but my point is that all of the examples above, as far as I can tell, never receive that same dismissive sneer.

When I wrote my project, I made a deliberate choice to write a protagonist who was very different from me (other than her name starting with the same letter as mine, truly a coincidence in that I liked the sound of it). And I had a lot of fun writing the parts of her personality that are so opposite of my own. It was a chance to live vicariously in a different life, rather than just replaying more of mine.

But as I work to develop my next project, I find myself automatically dismissing protagonists who are too close to me. Not because they wouldn’t be interesting to write about, or because they wouldn’t have a story to tell, but because I hear that snide comment in the ghostly voice of the internet—“too much like you.” Did the authors I listed above, whose works are praised and lauded, hear that voice?

Perhaps it’s telling that “self-insert” comes from fanfiction, which is primarily written by women. Perhaps it’s just yet another way of criticizing and limiting women’s actions. Perhaps it’s a legitimate critique of lazy writing that just happens to be more common among female authors.

Whatever the reason, I’m tired of letting imagined future criticism (especially sexist criticism) stop me from writing. I’m not necessarily going to go out and write an autobiography, which would probably be the most boring thing ever written, but I’m not going to cringe away from a protagonist who might share qualities with me (like the same number of siblings, or liking certain foods, or personality traits).

It’s fun to be someone else in my writing. But if it’s what I want to write, it’s okay to be myself, too.

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About J. Sevick

Just write.
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