Despite how much writing can be a pleasurable hobby, there are a staggering amount of “don’ts” that writers are told to avoid in order for their work to be viewed as “good.” Don’t use adjectives. Don’t give any exposition ever. Don’t use clichés or tropes because X audience is tired of them.
Don’t do this, don’t do that, on and on, until you stop and realize that, if you choose to not do all of the things you’re not supposed to do, well… you wouldn’t get much writing done, would you? There’d be no wiggle room for it.
One of the biggest “don’ts” I’ve seen, particularly in online writing spheres, is a stern warning to not over-indulge yourself in your writing. In other words, don’t put too much of yourself, your biases, or your most self-fulfilling desires anywhere in your writing. Avoid manifesting them as anything, from a plot point or a sex scene to even an entire character.
In fact, some argue one shouldn’t self-indulge at all. Thinking about writing a plucky character that looks and acts a bit like you, who finally triumphs over that one bad authority figure in her life? Mmm, better not. That kind of writing is too selfish and self-serving, and there’s nothing of value to be found in it or obtained from it, so definitely abstain from being that kind of writer.
What a load of crap.
It’s like these people have forgotten why writers do their thing to begin with. Writing is utter wish-fulfillment! We write the things we would love to read ourselves, and sometimes those things involve ourselves in a more active, less behind-the-pages way.
We love to write about ourselves and put ourselves somewhere in our writing. We like to have our view of the world seen through a character’s perspective. We like to hear our thoughts, ideas, and words come out of a character’s mouth. And hell, some of us even imagine ourselves interacting with other people’s characters and then write out a scene to see how it would go.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing any of these things. Famous writers, both those who have made bank and those who became renowned posthumously, have certainly done it, and I vehemently argue that it’s good for you in a creative capacity. You have no idea about the original roads that a little self-indulgence can lead you down.
Don’t believe me? Let’s look at some famous examples first, then.
Your Faves Have So Done It
To start, there’s H.G. Wells, the author who wrote what is arguably the most popular, influential, and well-known alien invasion story called The War of the Worlds. Much of the book is set around the town of Woking, Surrey, where Wells lived at the time he wrote the work.
The setting itself isn’t where Wells’ self-indulgence comes in. Many authors choose to set their stories in places they’ve actually lived because it’s easier from a research standpoint. Rather, Wells’ self-indulgence involves what he wrote in the narrative, namely the deliberate destruction of places and people he knew in person.
In one letter about his then-upcoming novel, Wells wrote, “I’m doing the dearest little serial for Pearson’s new magazine, in which I completely wreck and sack Woking — killing my neighbors in painful and eccentric ways — then proceed via Kingston and Richmond to London, which I sack, selecting South Kensington for feats of peculiar atrocity.”
Not only does Wells never apologize for this brand of self-indulgence, but also he’s completely gleeful about it. Look how happy he is! It didn’t ruin him, either. Quite the opposite. His book has never been out of print, has been adapted into film and radio shows, and has inspired scientific minds like Robert Goddard, who invented “both the liquid fuelled rocket and multistage rocket, which resulted in the Apollo 11 moon landing 71 years later.” Not bad, Wells.
Then, of course, there’s J.K. Rowling, author of the insanely popular Harry Potter series. She based the dementors—the soul-sucking creatures who feed off people’s happiness, leaving them with a cold emptiness and the worst memories of their life—on her own experiences with depression.
Before writing Harry Potter, Rowling was a broke, recently divorced single mother, living off welfare and experiencing an extreme bout of depression and suicidal thoughts. Learning to write habitually every day and receiving the proper help got her out of it, but she remembers those feelings clearly:
“Depression is the most unpleasant thing I have ever experienced. . . . It is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad. Sad hurts but it’s a healthy feeling. It is a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different.”
Dementors cause the characters in her books to feel similar feelings to varying degrees, and it’s something that has resonated with many fans who have experienced or are currently fighting depression.
Even better are the ways that Rowling describes how to combat dementors/depression in the books: eating chocolate, which releases endorphins that cause euphoric feelings, and the advanced Patronus charm, where one summons a protector using a powerful happy memory to block a dementor’s attack.
If we look past the magical aspect of this charm, we see that Rowling is being completely metaphorical, instructing readers on how they can cope with and beat their depression by reaching for their happiest memories. The struggle is hard but possible to overcome.
This moment of self-indulgence was an extremely personal one for Rowling, but it has been met with high praise from fans for being both relatable and an extremely original concept.
Additionally, Rowling has another moment of self-indulgence, but this one’s more humorous. Out of hundreds of her characters, she based a single one—the incredibly vain Gilderoy Lockhart—on someone she actually knew.
In the series, Lockhart is a famous adventurer who has made a lucrative business selling books detailing his adventures and the creatures he’s battled, only to be revealed later as a colossal fraud who took credit for other people’s stories after interviewing them and erasing their memory with a memory charm. On the person she based his character on, Rowling states:
“[B]ut I have to say that the living model was worse. He was a shocker! The lies that he told about adventures that he’d had, things he’d done and impressive acts that he had committed… He was a shocking man. I can say this quite freely because he will never in a million years dream that he is Gilderoy Lockhart. […] Other people have contributed the odd characteristic, such as a nose, to a character, but the only character who I sat down and thought that I would base on someone is Gilderoy Lockhart. It made up for having to endure him for two solid years.”
There really are endless cases of writer self-indulgence if you know where to look for them. Leigh Bardugo, author of The Grisha Trilogy, the Six of Crows duology, and the upcoming Wonder Woman: Warbringer, held an impromptu Q&A on her Tumblr where she revealed that she based her disabled character Kaz Brekker on her own experiences:
As another example, Dante’s The Divine Comedy is a complete self-insert story where the Roman poet Virgil gives Dante a tour of Hell, and each group of people in each different circle of Hell is largely based on where Dante thinks certain sinners should go. (Pope Boniface VIII, on whom Dante largely pins his exile from Florence in real life and who is definitely going to Hell according to Dante, is mentioned many times, and none of the souls in Hell ever have nice things to say about him. Are you not entertained?)
Plus, there are many writers who were writing fanfiction—that is, fictional works written by fans of and featuring characters from a particular film, TV show, video game, etc.—for free, might I add, and then did a bit of editing before publishing those stories as original works.
The most infamous case is E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, which started out as a Twilight fanfiction called Master of the Universe.
Under a pen name, James essentially wrote an Alternate Universe fanfiction about Stephenie Meyer’s characters, Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, where she said goodbye to the whole sparkly vampire thing and hello to an abusive take on BDSM culture. From there, she eventually removed her story from fanfic archives and rewrote it, changing Bella’s name to Anastasia Steele and Edward’s to Christian Grey, and then published it as a trilogy.
Whether you love her books or utterly despise them (I have never found any reactions in between), it’s undeniable that James is now a best-selling author, and it all started from her writing a fanfic of someone else’s work.
Perhaps the most unexpected case (which I do consider fanfiction) is Wicked by Gregory Maguire. However, it’s different from the traditional sense of fanfiction in that it’s a revisionist work of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which is in the public domain and therefore fair game to anyone who wants to write such stories and make money doing it, no major name-changing or editing before publishing required.
How Do You Justify Your Own Self-Indulgence?
So if you’re convinced that self-indulgence in your own writing is something you can do now because countless other authors have done it, how do you go about justifying it for yourself?
By being shameless and just going for it, of course.
I need to stress this point for budding writers especially: it’s okay to be selfish and just write whatever your heart desires for a while. I strongly encourage you to give it a shot. Write about your childhood nemesis meeting a horrible end. Write about snogging your favorite character. In fact, write as many self-inserts as possible. Be free!
Know why? Because it’s excellent practice that will do no harm to anyone.
You can teach yourself how to write certain things and how to write them well. If you can write other people’s characters and learn how to keep them in-character with all their speech patterns, social ticks, and reactions in place, then it’s a fair assessment that when it comes time to create and write your own characters, you’ll be able to keep them straight, too.
If you want to write romance, then figuring out how to write romantic scenes and what you would actually enjoy reading (and not roll your eyes and cringe at) can save you a lot of embarrassment later. Writing those kinds of scenes is hard because people have so many different ideas about romance and love scenes, and the romance genre in general is full of sub-par writing that doesn’t offer a lot to learn from.
With a little self-indulgence, all you’re doing is testing the waters, finding your strengths and weaknesses, and developing them. You’re rough-drafting ideas that can later serve as a solid foundation for something much greater, more creative, and more original.
So what are some tools you can use to get started? Well, we’ve talked about one already.
Fanfiction Is Your Friend
Fanfiction is the fan base’s way of saying, “Yes, dear creator, we know your plot and your characters did this, but what if they did this instead?” Whether you’re rewriting the end of Harry Potter, exploring what would happen if Darth Vader had actually raised Luke, or placing yourself as an officer on the USS Enterprise, guess what? You’re just as valid as any other paid writer out there, and a damn creative one, too.
Being brave, stretching out, and letting yourself be creative is really what it comes down to. I can guarantee you that you’ll write some bad fanfiction starting out, just like how you’d write a bad first draft of any original work. What fanfiction is great for, though, is building confidence and, again, learning what works for you and what doesn’t.
Maybe you find out you have a gift for dialogue that you didn’t know about. Maybe you realize you’re too heavy on description and too lacking on action. Those are things you can craft and fix until you feel awesome enough to start an original work. Plus, people can give reviews, leave comments, and provide critiques for your stories that can help you learn what you’re doing well and what needs improvement.
If you’re not ready to create an original character, then fanfiction is also an excellent place to train for that moment. After all, there are countless characters out there that other people have already come up with, and you can learn how to find a character’s voice and determine their motives to keep them in character. (And believe me, people will tell you if you’ve succeeded or not, especially fans. They’re not shy with their feelings about their favorite characters. My goodness, who is?)
But you don’t have to share what you write online if you don’t want to. It could very well just be a secret between you and your computer, unless you have a close friend you can trust to read it and provide honest feedback. Yes, it’s crucial for a writer’s improvement to get out of their comfort zone and let someone else critique their work. You’ll feel weird and want to run away, but as with everything else, the more you do it, the more you adapt to it.
However, if you are feeling bold, there are a lot of free sites you can join if you’re interested in writing fanfiction for an audience:
And when you are ready to start original works and want some reader feedback, FictionPress is a good place to try out.
Roleplaying is when you choose to write or act like a certain character exclusively, without breaking character as much as possible. It can involve established characters, like from Game of Thrones, or ones you make up. The rules for roleplaying are largely limited to whatever you choose to make of them.
I’ve seen Loki, Thor, and other Marvel roleplayers interact with each other online and form their own separate plots and character arcs that go beyond the scope of the films. I have a best friend who’s created no less than four original Harry Potter characters that are all remarkably different and who interact with other roleplayers’ original characters, establishing their own place in a vast canon. I’ve seen a Knockout roleplayer from Transformers Prime who has never once broken character to reveal the roleplayer beneath. It’s really insane how skilled some people are.
I haven’t done much roleplaying in the past, so I can’t recommend the best places to go, but again, Google is your friend.
What I have done is start a Dungeons and Dragons campaign with some close friends, and while it doesn’t involve much writing besides establishing your character’s goals, personality traits, and backstory, it’s helping me with improvisation and trying things I would’ve never done before.
Since this was my first foray into roleplaying, I along with two other friends made up our characters to mirror ourselves with some notable differences and personal beliefs. We’ve had seven sessions now, and already these characters are taking on lives of their own that are separate from us, reacting in ways and saying things that we wouldn’t, if given the choice.
In fact, if you’re having trouble with creating characters, starting with yourself and branching out from there can be a huge help.
Self-Inserts and Original Characters
I’ve lost count of how many writers I’ve talked to who’ve told me they started with a self-insert character—basically, they’re just writing themselves into a story, like Dante—and then their character becomes someone totally separate and beyond them.
That doesn’t mean that these characters have become perfect and flawless versions of their creators. You may have heard the term Mary Sue for characters like that.
There are currently a lot of misconceptions about Mary Sues. Lately, it’s become synonymous with “female character I don’t like.” Case in point, Rey from Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens was dubbed a Mary Sue by certain—ahem—fans just because she could use the Force, knew how to fight and pilot spacecraft, and defeated Kylo Ren in a lightsaber duel.
These people conveniently overlooked the fact that the film took painstaking effort to establish Rey’s skills. We see her living alone on a harsh desert planet, surviving as a scavenger since she was a child. She has trained herself how to handle a quarterstaff for self-defense, later handling even her lightsaber like one since that’s the only weapon she knew, and has been around various spacecraft and their parts for years.
Her experience with a certain weapon and listening to the Force helped her defeat Kylo, who in turn was at a significant disadvantage at the time. He was severely injured, experiencing blood loss in freezing temperatures, reeling mentally from just murdering his father, and had expended much of his energy dueling Finn before advancing on her. If circumstances had been different and Kylo was unharmed and at full power, obviously Rey would have been no match for him at the time, but that’s not what the events of the film gave us.
Meanwhile, Anakin Skywalker is the Chosen One literally because he was born to be, and he blew up an entire droid control ship when he was nine.
See the double standard, yet?
I’m telling you this so you don’t have to fear that you’ll accidentally create a Mary Sue. A character isn’t a Mary Sue just because she has a lot of talents, many people who are in love with her, or even if she is just well-liked. (The same applies for the male counterpart, Gary Stu.)
Rather, a character is a Mary Sue if they are somehow exempt from the consequences of their own narrative, if they never learn, never grow, never have anything bad happen to them, or ever have to face repercussions for their actions.
Those kinds of characters are boring and insincere. In contrast, the characters, or even self-inserts, that have gone through enough development, established their own flaws, and suffered things that their real life version has not are the ones that emerge from the kiln as a completely different entity than how they started out.
In short, they’ve become original characters.
If you’re not afraid of using yourself as a model, if you’re not afraid of being anything less than perfect, then making a self-insert character can be a decent starting point to learning how to create original characters.
Ask yourself, what traits do you like about yourself? Are you honest, compassionate, funny, laid back, or studious? What traits do you dislike? Are you judgmental, irritable, prone to laziness, or wind up crying if you’re super angry? (I’m guilty of that last one, and I hate it.) Are you a survivalist? Do you know any special skills, like martial arts or flute-playing? What’s your relationship like with your family?
All of these things and more can be placed into a self-insert character until you figure out what their ultimate goals are and what trials they’re going to face. Or, if you’re already strong with creating original characters, you can compare how you would achieve those goals and face those trials to how your original characters would react. How you differ can tell you just as much about a character as how you’re similar to them.
There are all kinds of exercises you can do to establish a character’s voice and characterization. Have two characters pen letters to each other. What would they talk about? How well would they interact? Sort your characters into Hogwarts houses, establish their personality types, figure out what kind of bender they are, and everything in between.
You can interact with your characters, too. For instance, and especially if you’re going to put them through hell, write a scene where you take your characters out to lunch. What would you say to them and they to you, if they could?
If you’re still having trouble coming up with original characters that feel real to you, then why not start with some characters that other people have already established? What’s that? You want to actually make money writing and fanfiction isn’t going to cut it?
Oh, friend, do I have great news for you! You can do exactly that, and better yet, it’s legal.
Works that have come into the public domain have fallen out of copyright and can be used by the public however they wish.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is public domain. So is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. You could honestly write a book where, instead of fighting windmills because he thinks they’re giants, Don Quixote goes on a quest to vanquish evil that no one else perceives, like Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, and the monsters in the fiendish, mad realm of Wonderland.
And you could get paid money to write that, if you do it well enough.
It’s why we have fairytale retellings by the hundreds, incredible character team-ups like that of the League of Extraordinary Gentleman, and, oh yeah, Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies.
There’s no reason why, if you have a different take on these classic public domain stories, you can’t indulge yourself and tell them in your own way. People adore these stories; that’s why so many people want to take cracks at them. Authors know if they’re creative enough and their writing is solid, they can add a fresh spin on a timeless classic while paying homage to the original. It’s a great way to teach yourself how to write and write well using characters you did not create.
You can absolutely do this, and who knows? What starts off as, say, a work inspired by Cinderella can become the first of an entire bestselling series about a female assassin that has nothing to do with Cinderella.
You won’t know until you cast off the shackles of shame that come with self-indulgence and just try.
Don’t Stunt Yourself to Adhere to a Standard
Here’s a final round of truth for you: I used to be extremely anti-self-insert and self-indulgence in writing.
I believed the stigma behind it, that it wasn’t real or good writing, that people were being too selfish with it, and that it was embarrassing. I wrote fanfiction, sure, but nothing with original characters, self-inserts, or anything that didn’t involve other people’s characters and keeping them exactly in character. And you know, when I was doing that, when I was being that rigid, I never came up with anything truly original.
I was too caught up in making sure characters never deviated from canon, that the world itself never breached beyond what the original creator intended, that I ended up limiting my own ideas and creativity. I knew what I was good at as a writer, but I didn’t allow myself to grow very much, to risk things, or to try and maybe fail but learn something valuable from it.
It wasn’t until I started doing this self-indulgence thing myself that I actually started getting original ideas. Now I have three original ideas for novels vying for my attention, plus a series of self-insert fanfiction works I’m writing with another writer (that once we finish we can totally change the names for and make money off of later on, heeeeeeyy), and an ongoing D&D campaign.
That’s a lot of creativity going out in a lot of different directions.
It’s weird, in a way. You can follow rules so much that you wind up getting constricted and stunted by them.
When it comes to writing, your only true limits are your imagination and what you’re willing to try, so let me stress again. You’re doing nothing wrong by going the self-indulgent route, and nobody’s getting hurt.
Everyone has to start somewhere to get good, and that somewhere is usually the beginning.
Why not start with you?
Photo credit: anyaberkut