Self Inserts: Writing with Trauma

There has been some discussion in one of my writing groups about self inserts in fiction and whether they are ok. Now if you’re unsure about what a ‘self insert’ is, a self insert is inserting themselves into the narrative. This can be in the form of some experiences a character has or even a full character profile being based on them. Now not everyone will agree [nothing is ever that simple] but I, & many others it seems agree that self inserts can be very beneficial. Often they allow for more well rounded, real feeling characters to come out of the prose because they are based in reality. Based on you. They can also add greater realism & emotion to the prose itself because readers connect to the characters & experiences more. I personally feel there are also other benefits – benefits to the writer as well as the story. Not all writers are going to feel comfortable with self inserts, some writers may also not feel the need to write inserts – they may consider it unnecessary due to the nature of their story or their own character. But self inserts hold power. They have the ability to allow writers to view themselves, their lives, a certain moment etc. in a new perspective, allow them to distance themselves from it, allow them to grow from it. Writers who struggle with trauma – I highly recommend writing self inserts.

If you’ve read my grimdark debut The Bloody Maiden & follow me on social media you’ll most likely have noticed that the main character Prudence, is in fact a self insert. She has my eyes, my pale skin, the colour I’ve been dyeing my hair since I was a teen, my many bad traits & we both suffer with the same kind of mental health issues. But despite this very clear self insert I wouldn’t begin to describe TBM as an overly personal novel. Prudence is very flawed but none of her character is anything I’m particularly disconcerted by. It’s none of the parts of myself that feel uncomfortable to share with the world – no matter how dark some parts of her are. In contrast however, one of my current WIPs is a very personal novel, not because any characters are me in their entirety, but because the little that they do share with me is that much more closeted. Things that do feel awkward & in many ways painful to write. But that is why I must write them. By writing about facets of myself, my life, my past, my trauma that I struggle with I allow myself to fictionalise them. To separate them from myself & view them from a distance, almost as if I’m desensitised to them. It enables me to take the facts, lay them out in a fictional way that cannot hurt me, assess them, & pull them apart. It allows me to see how they function, how they have worked to twist & hurt me. It allows me to stare deep into their roots & confront them.

It may not be for everyone, in the same way that medication or therapy or powering through is not for everyone; but for me self inserts & fictionalising my trauma has allowed me to… not overcome it necessarily, but to see it for what it truly is. Something that happened, not something that defines me. It allows me to take back control where before I had none. To take the narrative & rewrite it in my own image. It gives me the power. Puts it in my hand that then helps me heal that little bit more. Healing from trauma is a long, slow process & for many it’s a process you never finish completing because there’s always more healing to be done. But writing about it helps. You’ll have seen many authors talk about how once you’ve published your work, once it’s out there for others to see, you have to let it go. You have to separate yourself from it because it’s finished & it’s better to move on to something else than keep fretting over something you can’t change. Writing a self insert to confront your trauma is like that. Once it’s fictionalised it becomes much easier to stomach in a way. It becomes something that is no longer part of you but its own entity. A monster you once had to battle rather than a fight with yourself. It trivialises it – not in a bad way, but in a way that enables you to look at it & think: I’m not scared of you. You can’t hurt me anymore. It’s freeing.

So even if you decide you’re never going to be ok with sharing it with other people… try writing a self insert. It doesn’t matter the genre, the plot, how different it is to your own life. My own life is not a violent adventure of swords, pirates & monsters but that world gave me the freedom to write a lot of truth about myself. It may feel uncomfortable, awkward or even really raw & painful to begin with. Try. It may just free up the space it’s taken up in your head for so long for better more positive things.

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