Authors writing themselves into their works is nothing new. Many people think the young man who slipped out of his linen clothes to elude his captors and ran away naked from the garden of Gethsemane was the Apostle Mark himself. And, in As You Like It, there’s a slightly dim-witted countryman called William who seems to have no real purpose in the play – is this the Bard making game of himself?
You can see I’m not talking Mary Sues here, although some self-inserted characters come perilously close. I find the wikipedia description of these women or their male equivalent, the Gary Stu – useful, that they’re primarily functioning as wish-fulfillment fantasies for their authors. Many of the ‘author appearances’ make the feet of clay all too apparent and so don’t fit into this category.
Autobiographically inspired novels like ‘On the Road’ clearly portray the writer and his/her friends, foibles and all, to some extent or other. Sal Paradise is Jack Kerouac, ‘Jeannette’ in ‘Oranges are not the Only Fruit’ is Jeannette Winterson and Philip Carey in ‘Of Human Bondage’ may be Somerset Maugham, more or less. Paul Morel in ‘Sons and Lovers’ could be the young D H Lawrence and elements of Dickens’ life appear in David Copperfield.
Sometimes, though, the reader sees what he or she wants. E M Forster insisted that Maurice Hall wasn’t him, although the similarities in appearance, Cambridge background and sexual awakening by a man of ‘lower class’ has made fans of ‘Maurice’ wonder. Harriet Vane is evidently based on Dorothy L Sayers – similar educational background, similar unhappy love affair – although she possesses too many faults to be a Mary Sue. Except in one thing; Sayers was infatuated with Eric Whelpton (one of the models for Peter Wimsey), but to no avail. Could Harriet’s happy ending with Peter have been a bit of wish-fulfilment?
Certainly in fanfic the wish-fulfilment element looms large. In Age of Sail stories, there’ll be a young woman who’s beautiful, talented, clever, witty; a right pain in the bum. She’s the best shot on the ship and can probably outdo the officers at swordplay. She might even be in disguise as a man, some very capable second lieutenant. I’m struggling to think of an equivalent character in a major novel written by a woman, although two male characters spring immediately to mind – James Bond and Stephen Maturin. This pair of bold adventurers need no introduction, nor do their stories. Ian Fleming based Bond and his adventures on various people and incidents, including his own – for example some of the scenes in Casino Royale reflected his own attempt to scupper some gamblers he thought were Nazi agents.
Maturin fascinates me, as does his creator, Patrick O’Brian. It would be easy to overegg the similarities between the two – secrecy, dissimulation about background, a daughter with special needs – but the fact remains that Maturin at times feels like a Gary Stu, despite his faults. Brilliant shot, wonderful espionage agent, a bit of a super hero (he takes a bullet out of his own abdomen and survives torture, storms, abandonment on a scorching hot island, a night on a freezing cold mountain, etc). I can’t help wondering if O’Brian was using Maturin in part to be what he’d wished to be, (or pretended he’d been) including a spy, an Irishman and a wonderful father to his disabled child.
Self inserted characters exist today. There’s a lady in my Cambridge Fellows books who bears more than a passing resemblance to me and I know that there are others knocking around. Of course, the tendency is, when I’m reading something, to try to spot a character who might just be the author in disguise. I daren’t say anything because of the risk of a suit for libel, but might that beautiful lady in the latest book by xxxx really be her and can that ridiculously sexy man, the one all the blokes fawn over truly be yyyyy? And will you share your favourite ‘self-inserted’ characters in the comments?