Have you ever heard of self-insertion or author insertion in fiction?

Author insertion is when fiction writing reads like the author is living vicariously (or recreating their own past) through specific characters or events in the story. This is usually manifested in a near-perfect character, often the main character or point-of-view character. This character usually has several things in common with the author in terms of appearance, interests, talents, quirks, or background.

Those similarities may or may not be intentional, but either way, the near-perfect character (also called the author’s avatar) is an idealized version of the author. An avatar happens that way when an author is trying to create a character they think is interesting or complex, but they don’t know how to draw inspiration from beyond their own lived experiences.

Self-insertion usually reads like thinly veiled memoir or autobiography. There is no distinction between the author’s voice and the point-of-view character’s (or main character’s) voice. There’s a reason for that.

Most people tend to function with the bias that their own positive actions are internally influenced. That is, we harbor this thought somewhere of “I’m a good person,” or something similar that dictates that our positively received actions or the positive consequences resulting from our actions occur by the grace of our own character, talents, and personality. We also tend to view our negative actions as externally influenced, that “someone/something else made me do it,” which is known as attributional bias. (It’s also sometimes called self-serving bias.)

However, we also have a general tendency to view others’ actions in reverse: that their positive actions are externally influenced. For example, we might think of a man making sacrifices for his family: “I’m glad he’s doing the right thing by his family, because that’s what a good father is supposed to do.” We’re assuming he is acting out of duty or adherence to status quo rather than out of the goodness of his own heart and love for his family. And yet we might think that same man is trying to ruin our day if he cuts us off in traffic—”That jerk almost killed me!”—because we are assuming his negative actions are internally influenced. That’s known as fundamental attribution error.

That said, readers intuitively recognize the difference in how a character’s motivations and actions are conveyed—whether the character views actions and consequences as internally or externally caused. In most fiction writing, writers create all of their characters using fundamental attribution error, even the point-of-view character or main character. When author insertion happens, writers create the point-of-view character or main character using attribution bias, so the story will read as something very personal for the author.

Here’s an important caveat: If someone struggles with self-esteem or pessimism, or if they are depressed or have anxiety, there is a possibility they might view the world the opposite way from how others do. That is, they see their own actions and the consequences of their actions as a result of their own personal failures or external (and unreliable) luck, while they see the actions and the consequences of others’ actions as a result of those people’s internal goodness or external poor circumstances.

That perspective can also result in author insertion, but rather than having a near-perfect character live out the story on the author’s behalf, the author’s avatar is deeply flawed and must be rescued by another character that is a projection of the author’s ideal friend, lover, or familial figure. The manic pixie dream girl trope is one example of that projection of an ideal lover coming in to rescue the author’s avatar from a mundane and dreary existence.

Be aware of whether you project yourself onto your characters or parts of your life onto story arcs or plot points in your writing. Self-insertion isn’t necessarily a bad literary technique, but it’s something that should be done judiciously. Ask your beta readers, critique partners, and editors for feedback if you’ve concerned about problems with author insertion in your story.