A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes (Or, Wish Fulfilment: Is it OK?)

There is the infamous tar and feathering of SMeyer for her dream guy by the online community, and the condemnation of Mary Sue's and a fair amount of Crucible witch hunting for author insertion. But it begs the question: what exactly is the spectrum of wish fulfilment, and is it ever okay?

In many ways, writing itself is a form of wish fulfilment, beside the cathartic relief, in which you as a writer experience pretty urgent desires for adventure, love and triumph that you share with your readers. That is the secret to the runaway bestseller, to the eleven-year-old at heart wanting to belong in a magical school for wizards, or a misfit thirteen-year-old girl who's beginning to believe boys think she's ugly and repellent.

But it's when wish fulfilment detracts or damages the novel that I have to stand against it. It's almost inevitable in new and/or young writers, and is something that you grow out of with experience and practice. It is important to keep in mind, though, something that Marie Lu said in an interview: "June (the protagonist) has qualities I wish I had in myself. So she was created as who I wish I could be".

When wish fulfilment nosedives, it's common to find a least one mention of the term: Mary Sue. It's not a term I like to use, mostly because of the unnecessary connotations it's accumulated over time. It's usually the product of an author's deep, DEEP love for a character - they don't let anything bad happen, or let others chew them out, and they give them everything, unwilling to make them sacrifice or face challenges.

From memory, I think she:

• was super good at everything without working for it
• had every attractive character fall in love with her
• was just so fucking amazing that she never struggled or was wrong

Now, I want to get this straight because I don't really follow Mary Sue discussions and I honestly believe this: Mary Sues are not the so-called embodiment of evil a bad thing because they represent wish fulfilment and/or author insertion, but because they are poorly written instances of wish fulfilment and/or author insertion.

And, of course, "wish fulfilment" has been interpreted in two distinct streams:

1. a means by which the author can fulfil their personal fantasies
2. a story/technique to allow the reader to pretend they are the main character

These are by no means bad. If the story is well-written, they are often the same or are intertwined. But, if only one is to be present, it's most certainly better for that to be #2, since there are few reading experiences more banal than watching the author play out their personal dreams that aren't relatable to you as a reader.

I recently had an email that asked: "How do I use my personality in my characters without making them all the same?" In a Being John Malkovich way, I suppose. And here's my answer. 

There's this episode of Teen Titans Go! called Nevermore, in which two characters accidentally enter the mind of the darker/drier character of Raven. They encounter different aspects/emotions of her personality, most of which they have never encountered in the Raven they know. Happy, timid, brave, angry, etc. They all wore different cloaks, and though they had the same face and voice, their mannerisms and their behaviour was fundamentally different - they were all apart of Raven, but were individuals in their own right.

Everyone is like this. You have so many different aspects to who you are as a person, and it changes on a day-to-day basis. I have a long school day on a Tuesday, and the way I behave and tolerate others afterward is completely different to how I am on a Wednesday when I'm only at school for half the time.

You have so many different parts to who you are that you could populate a small city with the different variations of yourself over your life. Teenage you and toddler you? Completely different. Use sprinkles (you know, the kind you put on icecream) of yourself, and you'll find that if you're honest about yourself, you'll find more interesting traits.

It's unrealistic to think that we can continually write these characters who have nothing in common with us. We have to write what we know to some extent, and that has some foundation in our interests, passions and experiences. It's the theory of empiricism.

But, remember to be honest and brutal about yourself. We want real you, not job interview you. And really, the greatest pitfall for any character, any author-insertion or wish-fulfilment vessel, is the lack of risk and drama, the absence of conflict and danger - The worst thing for a protagonist is convenience.

So, what about you? Pro wish fulfilment? Do you disagree, is there no successful way to insert yourself, or is it inevitable? 


Emma at: March 15, 2012 at 8:02 PM said...

You make some excellent points, and I agree with you :) Author inserts and wish fulfilment can be fine if done/integrated properly.

As for "Do you disagree, is there no successful way to insert yourself, or is it inevitable?" I believe it's inevitable. When creating characters you draw from your experiences and yourself, so even if you pull a character completely from your imagination you might have a few (or many) things in common with them without even realising it. Additionally, I think characters with some elements of the author in them can be more real - writing about a feature of yourself in a character, intentionally or otherwise, and being honest about it makes for a more honest and real person. Still, as you said, one must tread with caution (like with everything, really) - I don't like taking all of my traits, or all of someone else's, and transplanting them into a character. Take that sprinkling you suggested :)

JeffO at: March 15, 2012 at 9:15 PM said...

I also don't know if there's any way around self-insertion to some extent. And as far as I'm concerned, if the character is well-developed and the story compelling, who cares if it is an author fantasy or wish fulfillment or whatever? And how do you know when it is, anyway?

Sage at: March 17, 2012 at 6:59 AM said...

"We want you, not job interview you." Love that.

IMO, wish fulfillment is perfectly fine as long as it doesn't impede the author's ability to give real conflict to a character and have the character react in realistic ways. If you love or identify with your characters too much to run them up a tree and throw rocks at them, you need to take a step back and look at whether you're too close to the character to write the story.

Donna at: March 19, 2012 at 3:45 AM said...

I think it's unavoidable for an author to insert at least some of themselves into the characters that they're writing, even if it's on a subconscious level. It can't be helped. But when it goes to the lengths of Bella Swan, it's gone way too far and have crossed the line into convenient perfection where the only imperfections a character has is that she doesn't view HERSELF/HIMSELF as perfect (I'm a loner, I'm plain, I'm not popular, I have a zit). In Marie Lu's case, while I wasn't thrilled with LEGEND I did like June. She was totally bad ass but it fits her situation. She was born and raised to be an agent of the government. She SHOULD be bad ass. But if you have a character be a bad ass for the simple sake of being a bad ass, then the line's been crossed, I think.

nindogs at: July 2, 2012 at 1:31 PM said...

Thanks Emma!

I think you're right, there is that empiricism to creating characters, whether conscious or not. And I do find that characters have more "meat" to them if you will if the author has integrated some of their own traits into them and instead of abhorring it, enhanced it and nurtured it. I think you find the strongest voices with those characters as well.

nindogs at: July 2, 2012 at 1:35 PM said...

I agree - as long as it's enjoyable, I have no problem.

I think there's an inauthentic everything-going-right-for-the-protagonist-even-if-it-defies-science quality to author fantasy, wish fulfilment, etc. To a degree where you become suspicious of where the story is going to take you or what the "filler" scenes will contain - a lot of fan-fiction interactions, I've found.

nindogs at: July 2, 2012 at 1:36 PM said...

Absolutely. I agree with you completely.

nindogs at: July 2, 2012 at 1:38 PM said...

I think you're examples on either side of that spectrum have hit the nail on the head, if you will. :) I find that "unable to see perfection in themselves" flaw completely and totally infuriating! And I agree with you about June, and bad asses in general. There is a line and there is what is necessary and what is not.

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