When I was a little girl, my favorite game was make believe. I grew up in the late nineties and early two thousands and thus the games were often flavored by games I’d play on my computer or tv shows I would watch. The funnest part of any of those games was that there really was no rhyme or reason for the things we did. Problems would be created just so we could pull out solutions from nowhere and move onward. The acting to said problems and solutions were often melodramatic or required errant quests to far off places only to end in an anticlimax where the item was easily available and the issue was resolved. The key part of the make believe was that it created a daydream of fancy which had no real consistency besides that at the very end everything would be okay and we’d move on with our lives.
It’s this trend that I’ve seen grow as I myself grew up with the internet. When I started to continue my bouts of make believe on that medium. My earliest writing wasn’t scribbled in the margins of notebooks while I was waiting boredly in school, but was in private messages traded back and forth on Neopets. That interest evolved when I found forums which had larger more elaborate stories based on the idea that we played out the role of the characters we choose to represent us as our forum avatar. Sometimes in character to the medium they originated but oftentimes not. It was in these places I created what would be my first self insert character.
Let’s define that term for a moment, self insert. What is a self insert? In truth it can be a lot of things. It could be argued that any main character an author creates is a part of them, represented in text but that’s not what many people think of. A self insert is often the first character people who create stories either by themselves or when they craft stories with others. The reason for this is often very simply because it’s the easiest frame of reference. Whenever you create anything it is always easier to make something or someone who matches your experiences, your world view and your habits. In modern fiction this is considered lazy writing or wish fulfillment, but in truth it’s something that’s very natural. It probably wouldn’t surprise anyone if lots of older fictions have self inserts as protagonists but we as a modern audience can’t pin because we don’t know enough about the author to judge it as such.
Self insertion is often considered synonymous with power fantasies. But that isn’t always the case. No matter what the intention sometimes people write stories about characters who are similar to themselves yet still keep the world interesting and the problems dynamic. A good media example of that is the show Doug. The protagonist spends a lot of time in the show writing himself as a more fantastical version of himself facing a fantastical version of the problem he’s faced in the show. While these characters face the problem, they never are shown to instantly have the answers or an unreasonable amount of power to just fix the problems like a power fantasy based character would. This is even shown in it’s fullest when Doug writes a story with his friend Skeeter who makes a character who is a power fantasy at it’s fullest which upsets him greatly because of how it derails his story.
Power fantasies are as a whole considered poor writing and people often compare them with another literary term made popular by fictions, in this case Mary Sues. This isn’t in fact unreasonable because Mary Sues are often characters in power fantasies because Mary Sues are characters who often warp the narrative to highlight them and them alone. Though not all power fantasies are Mary Sues, and not all Mary Sues are power fantasies even though they have a lot of crossover.
I think a good way to examine this is to see the differences between Mary Sues in fan created content versus Mary Sues in original content. A Mary Sue in fan content is often a character who for better or worse warps the previously established narrative to be all about them. This can be an original character or a pre-established character who has been altered by the author. A Mary Sue in original content is often a character who is the chosen one and who all the other original characters base their lives around. There’s lots of different types of these characters, but it’s very easy to see how all of them could be construed as power fantasy. There are a few medias that examine this thoroughly, one is the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer called Superstar, in which a character previously unseen is somehow pushed up to Mary Sue status in the Buffy verse up to and including doing things like defeating an enemy only Buffy herself should have been able to beat. Another is a webcomic called Ensign Sue Must Die by Kevin Bolk, which shows a Mary Sue being added to the new timeline of the Star Wars universe and the realistic annoyance the characters create. Though while these characters are more exaggerated versions of the Mary Sue type of character that do crossover with power fantasy, Mary Sues are characters that have also been seen in older fictions though not as obviously. In this case we’ll go for a very simple definition which I’ve found in other mediums that I think fit. A Mary Sue is a character who either because of luck, natural talent, or narrative device, does not actually struggle. With this definition there can be several characters who fit this label without being an overt power fantasy. This leads me to the next point of storytelling that is very prone to all three of these elements, the isekai genre.
An isekai for those who aren’t familiar is the genre of fantasy for being reborn, transported or summoned to another world. This genre comes in a variety of flavors, but tends to follow the same rough formula.
One: A normal person ranging from their late teens to older, is taken to another world.
Two: Said person has to learn how to adapt to the new world and usually find something strange or special about themselves that helps them along.
Three: They use their modern world knowledge in such a way that is advantageous to them.
That is the standard isekai model. There are several variations of course based on the type of world they’re sent too, their gender, how they treat relationships in that world, the position they’re given in society (that is whether they start from the bottom, middle or top) and whether or not they themselves are actually important to the world’s politics and systems. This genre has become very popular in the last couple of years though of course it’s not by any means a new story trend. If we only look at North American media, it is the exact same concept as Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Redneck In King Author’s Court or the Barsoom series written by Edgar Rice Burroughs (the book series the film John Carter is based on). The iskei genre is a remnant of another make believe that children often explore, what could they do if they went to another world? What strange things could their knowledge of our modern world do? As the world gets darker and escapism seems more attractive is it no wonder these stories which can often lead to power fantasies of their own are so popular.
This leads me to one more genre that I myself greatly enjoyed that has seen a major upturn in popularity, the Literature Roleplaying Game. Lit RPGs are loosely as it states, novels that take place in worlds that reflect the rules and tropes of Role Playing Game settings. Sometimes these novels take place in actual games, like in Start Player One, The Gamer, Sword Art Online or .Hack//. Other times the world itself simply follows similar rules to a game. This genre often has a lot of crossover with iskei with varying amounts of success, but it’s very prominent of it’s own sub category. The main reason why is because the genre itself usually has a game like structure which actually quantifies the abilities and skills of a person in easy to understand stats and skills that can be increased or decreased through training in a visible and measurable way. The appeal to this type of world is very obvious as humans are usually more satisfied with progress we can actually see and measure as much of our own traits, talents and skills are nebulous since we often have no real measuring stick for our progress. This itself is a trend I can’t quote older sources for besides the obvious one of tabletop gaming which is where all the video games pull this information. Games use numbers like that because it’s the easiest measurable way to determine a character’s range of ability as compared to the world around them combined with chance and dice rolling so they can simulate combat. Though this is not necessarily as good as a tool outside of combat, as the most common reference point for these worlds is Dungeons and Dragons which as a Role Playing Game system is statted for it’s rules as a combat simulator rather than a story building game (though of course story can be built around that system).
All these different types of stories, characters and trends I believe stem from that early childhood play, that make believe, the escape of imagination to worlds that can be quantified to numbers and easily conquered. These types of stories and characters aren’t inherently bad even if a lot of bad quality fiction has resulted from using them, especially since at the end of the day what constitutes a good or bad story is entirely subjective. I know not all authors are like me, not all authors started their early writing life with self inserts and fantasy with no stakes, but I do know that at least some of them did. Some people like me played out games of fancy with their siblings, wrote private message games where they pretended to be better stronger versions of themselves, eventually created more complex worlds and settings with other players both in person at the tabletop or online in chatrooms or on forums. For some of us, these stories created from our childhoods shaped our writing style as it is today and we’re better from it. Because writing like any and all skill comes from practice, and not all practice is perfect. Some people say perfect practice makes perfect, that you have to only practice the right things to learn how to get better. But I don’t think it’s true. Sometimes you have to practice the wrong things, the silly things, the nonsensical and the overpowered. Because even if those plots seem childish and won’t in and of themselves make good stories, the practice you get being that character and crafting the story with them helps you all the same.
So if you want to write your self inserts, power fantasies and Mary Sues, go ahead. Because practice is still practice and if it gives you joy to create then go ahead. Writing is supposed to be fun after all since a lot of our creativity and imagination stems from the days when it was all just make believe.