If asked several years ago, teenage me would have claimed that I never wrote from experience. I assumed that people who wrote from experience were just writers who lacked imagination. Presently, every protagonist I write is, in some form, an emotional surrogate I have created, and I am prouder for it. I suppose, then, the question is this: What changed?
I studied, I learned, and I grew up.
When I first started writing, I wrote because I could. I had discovered the depths of internet fiction, riddled with grammatical errors, and thought, “Boy, if this is all it takes, I can do better.” This was back in 6th grade, when I thought grammar equated good writing and stole tropes that I found were popular on fanfiction sites. My characters were parodies of people, without a shred of true emotion in their construction. This was such a dark time that I don’t even consider the results a part of my writing history, anymore.
Instead, I often start my story in 8th grade, when I still maintained that sense of elitism, now stealing tropes from fantasy shoujo manga, but also wrote to start exploring emotions I myself did not feel. Middle school was, frankly put, boring for me, so I created an adventure for myself (with enough angst and edginess to shame me almost a decade later). In retrospect, my taste in genre was probably affected by my introduction to Ragnarok Online the year prior. That was my first venture into roleplaying before I knew what it was called – back then, it mostly consisted of script format conversations in Windows Messenger that I fondly called “character chats”.
In 9th grade, I discovered play-by-post roleplay, where the whole purpose of the game was to write from the perspective of someone else, and through roleplay, I had the opportunity to explore experiences that I never had: What would feel like to be a young man trapped in supernatural servitude, wanting but unwilling to help future victims? What would it be like to be the scorned younger half-brother of an entitled hero of the people? What if I was a prince whose entire religion centered around the purity of water?
As you can see, I often roleplayed male characters, partly to balance out gender ratios in narratives, partly because I couldn’t conceive of how to write a female character that was not ‘me’, and that was wholly unacceptable. In roleplay communities, I had some less-than-stellar experiences with Mary Sues that derailed the collaborative story in order to focus narratives on themselves instead, and it only cultivated my disdain for self-inserts, which I failed to distinguish from ‘writing from experience’.
So roleplay inflated my ego – I received a lot of praise from older writers for my characters and posts – and also developed my ability to imagine being other people. In other words, roleplay helped me develop empathy. Processing thought processes other than my own were easy. This showed in my school relationships as well, and I became designated peer counselor in many of my social circles.
Then came junior year. Until then, I had been blessed to find my real life dull. After all, dull is just another word for peaceful (not always, but in this case, yes). In 11th grade, real life started hitting hard, and I had no idea what to do with myself. I had spent so much time putting thought into how people other than me would think that I had no idea how to articulate or process what I, myself, was feeling. I didn’t understand myself, and I didn’t know how to fix how I felt.
I started writing a novel, presently titled Fragmented, about a sixteen-year-old girl who discovers a pair of rose-tinted glasses. The glasses allow her to see a world overlapping with reality, a reflection of her city’s mental and emotional state populated by whispering wisps and strange, hodgepodge, gargantuan creatures. As she grows more and more dependent on this world to cope with the stress of her own life, she fails to see that her dependence is exacerbating rather than helping her problems. The world she sees through the glasses grows more cluttered and dangerous as she continues to use them, and it isn’t until the grand finale that she realizes that the world she sees is worsening because of her. The world she sees through rose-tinted lenses reflects the city’s mental health, but her immediate surroundings reflects her own. It isn’t until she confronts the one who created these glasses that she is able to wake up from her weeks of dissociation.
I now recognize this character as my first and only self-insert.
Through writing this story, through projecting myself through this protagonist, I was able to develop a better sense of myself. Upon reading my writing later, I discovered that I must have subconsciously known exactly what my problems were all that time because it was all written into the story. It’s so obvious now that I can’t imagine how, at the time I wrote it, I didn’t realize that this protagonist was me. I think that simply serves to demonstrate how out of touch with myself I was.
This protagonist described the world as grey, not in color, but grey in feeling. Days were grey. Time was grey. Work was grey. She was grey, so grey that her name, Aurora, was a mocking misnomer. Grades were a stressor. She never felt she was doing enough. Her familial reputation hinged upon her getting into an elite college she didn’t care for, and she was never doing enough. She would force herself into leadership positions and overextend in order to bolster her college application, but because she didn’t want to do those things, she couldn’t bring herself to do her best in them. Doing activities for pleasure brought brief relief, but guilt would always settle in.
She constantly talked herself down. She smothered all desire for creative pursuits – art brings no financial fulfillment. Art is something you can do once you’re older and successful. She knew that. And yet she admired the art of others unabashedly, longed to feel paint under her fingers.
Other problems were evident in the story too. For example, though this protagonist possessed and communicated with her parents, they were never physically present in the story even once. Phone calls and memories of conversations ghosted through the narrative. The protagonist only had the one person she considered a friend, the rest orbiting her life as acquaintances. Even then, when push came to shove, she never opened up to her friend, choosing instead to hide her problems and concerns. She didn’t want to burden her friend.
I didn’t realize this was a story about me until late into my senior year. I had decided to skip ahead, not worrying about the bothersome details, and write the climax of the story instead. So I wrote a confrontation between the protagonist and a spectre of her own making in the rose-tinted world. The spectre was trying to emotionally hurt the protagonist by spouting all the ugly thoughts and feelings she had been trying to hide. Part way through writing the vitriol, the frustrations the protagonist had never voiced – “You hated everyone who encouraged you, who told you that you can do better – how could they possibly know when you, yourself, don’t?” – “The hole in you is just brimming with envy. The truth is, you hated her, and you hate her for making you feel guilty about it” – I realized that I was venting my own thoughts.
It was a revelation. It was enlightening. It was utterly horrifying. However, I had already plotted out the entirety of the story, and I knew as a writer what this moment meant for my protagonist. By finally accepting that her negative emotions existed, that her negativity didn’t mean that she was ungrateful or weak or playing the victim, she was able to exorcise it. By realizing that negativity was normal and that it was okay to be unhappy, that what gave unhappiness power was her own fixation on it, she was able to move on.
And upon realizing that she was me, I was able to do the same.
I have since learned that ‘writing from experience’ does not need to mean a self-insert. Writing from experience is not cheating or a lack of imagination. Writing from experience is bleeding your humanity onto the paper. Writing from experience is forging a connection with your writing and your reader. Writing from experience can be at once cathartic and healing. I would argue that, perhaps, it is something necessary for both author and audience.
The way I see it, the difference between a self-insert and writing from experience is the depth of it. A self-insert is surface details. ‘From experience’ is the heart. The aforementioned protagonist was me down to extraneous details, from the racket sport and the school stresses to her values and thought process. Of my current diverse array of characters, there are none whom I can claim to be like me. However, I can relate to every single one of them in some form, even (especially) the villains.
For example, take “Overwrite”, the last short story that I posted to the blog. The story has two prominent characters. One is the narrator, a nameless identity who, after beta-testing the world’s first virtual reality video game, awakens in supposed reality believing themself to be Meridan of Greengale, the protagonist of said video game. The other is Kyle Morrison, the man who wrote the story for the game and also invented Meridan.
Both characters are completely different from each other, which means that it is impossible for them both to be self-inserts. However, they are both a facet of myself and my experiences. For example, the whole concept of the story comes from my own experiences with waking from a dream. I have, on rare occasion, lived whole lifetimes in one night’s dream, and sometimes when I wake from those, I am confused as to who I am. For a good minute, I might believe myself to be an immortal man searching worlds for his deceased boyfriend or a swordsman who goes around picking up female bartenders. I wondered what a disaster it would be if I ever woke up and the dream persona lingered, so I decided to explore it in a story.
Beyond that, the character of Meridan draws upon some of my more negative experiences. They believe that they have failed a dear friend in some way, and it is this guilt and perceived responsibility that drives them to action. I care deeply about a small number of people, and I have not been perfect. I could draw upon that core feeling of guilt and shape it to fit the character of Meridan. I suppose that’s a good way to put it, actually.
A self-insert is putting details into a mold in your shape. Writing from experience is pouring different substances into the mold of your character.
In any case, though some might find it alarming, Kyle Morrison is also heavily based upon my own experience with my feelings. He comes off in the story as callous and perhaps a little dangerous. To me, as I wrote it, he was a writer who had the chance to get to know a character firsthand and was milking it for all he could. See, I sometimes wondered, if a character of mine came to life in any sense, how would I react?
The fact is, I enjoy watching my favorite characters suffer. This is true both in media I consume and in stories of my own design. I feel that if I had the opportunity to get to speak to a character I wrote, my primary curiosity would revolve around how they feel about the main conflict I wrote for them. After all, nothing else would be able to surprise me – I would know all their surface details and know their motivations for most things. I would know how they react to situations I posed them. The one thing I would not know is the intensity of the emotions they felt in the scenarios I wrote them in, and I think that I would like to know.
Of course, I doubt that I would indulge in such curiosity if my character come to life was actually another human being with their own life to return to. However, that wouldn’t be the case for everyone. It was an easy enough tweak for me to remove one moral limitation, and thus, Kyle Morrison walks the words of my story.
Writing from experience is surprisingly freeing, and I learn more about myself every day I do so. Writing from experience motivates me to always be aware of myself, to consider my feelings and observe them rather than letting myself get swept up in them. Writing from experience has made me an optimist, even – every time I get sick or injured lately, my response is, “Sweet, now I remember how this feels. I should write this down.”
It took me a long while to get to this point, but I am better for it. I truly believe that writing from experience has helped and will continue to help me develop into both a better writer and a better person.