How to Not End Up in the Library: Dis Displacement-Dissing Dissertation/Discussion Disservice — Self-Insertion and Displacement ‘Fics

So, I was going to post something from my Massive Pile Of Fem!Elite Fics (why oh why do I still have a Massive Pile Of Fem!Elite Fics?) to start off my vacation from The First War, but this kind of hit me in a flash of inspiration and so we’re doing that instead.

What exactly is “that”, though? A discussion of two very common -and very commonly reviled– tropes-slash-genres in fanfiction, the self-insertion and the displacement.

The what and the what, now?

Before we get into the discussion in earnest, I think it’s a good idea to actually explain and establish what I am talking about when I say “self-insertion” and “displacement”, because these terms are not widely agreed-upon or solidly nailed down in what exactly they mean. They are both terms that describe a type of character, and can also be used to describe a ‘fic where the central plot point is that such a character exists in the narrative. Both can exist in a state of one-but-not-the-other, or can overlap.

For our purposes, a self-insertion is a character that explicitly replicates the person of the author, inside of the story, and which the author claims “is me”.

Characters who the author seems to have an unusual fondness for, and have a tendency to express the author’s physical and personality traits and serve as a mouthpiece for the author’s opinions, can be accused of being implicit self-insertions, which is certainly valid, but represent a sort of a gray area where the information in this essay becomes more applicable the more obvious the insertion is and vice versa. For this reason, the self-insert doesn’t need to have the author’s name or have grown up on modern Earth, but these things make them much more self-inserty.

A self-insert is not necessarily any character from modern Earth who fits the stereotypical demographics of a fanfiction author- although depending on the setting they are very likely to be displacements, who we’ll get to below but for whom much of the same advice applies.

A self-insert is also not necessarily a character who represents the author directly and admittedly influencing the plot of the story, for instance by yelling at the characters like some kind of demented vox dei or spawning things into their world for no other reason than Because I Said So. That’s just breaking the fourth wall. The important thing about the self-insert is that they are in equal and strong measure correspondent to the author and also engaged in a two-way exchange with the setting where they both influence it and are influenced by it- they are integrated into the setting in a way that an animator reaching into the frame to draw a mustache on a character is not.

Some people use “self-insert” to refer to any character who has the author’s screen name or IRL name, or the “[Y/N]” placeholder characters in second-person ‘fics, which is actually usually pretty weak in this definition because 1) the resemblance to the actual author isn’t really that strong, since there’s not a whole lot in a name if you think about it and they often present themselves as more of a fantastical version of the author; and 2) these characters tend not to be really affected by the narrative and have fourth-wall-breaking powers, which weakens their integration. Gary Stus who act as authorial mouthpieces also fall into this category… I’d say about fifty percent of the time, since their god-mode powers can keep them to some degree estranged from the setting.

Halo Reaching Out! also seems to use the term to refer to the fact that it is written in first person, which is just silly.


For our purposes, a displacement is a character who originated in a setting other than the one of the story and is transported to the story by some preternatural means. If the setting is another fictional one, the displacement is also a crossover, although an origin in “the real world”, modern or historical, is also common.

Displacements can also be self-inserts, although they may also have no resemblance whatsoever to the author.

Displacement-ness is strongest when the character being moved is alone or in a small group- if enough of their original setting comes with them, then it becomes hazy whether they really traded that setting for the new one or the whole world is now just some kind of amalgam of the two (although if that’s the case it can still be a crossover).

The term “displacement” or “displaced” comes from fimfiction, where it refers to something slightly narrower- a very specific subgenre of story where a red-pill-type character goes to a convention cosplaying as something from a second, non-MLP franchise, is sold a prop or costume part by a vendor at the convention, and is then simultaneously transported to Equestria and given all the abilities and equipment of the character they are dressed as.

Yes, there are enough of this exact plot that the entire fimfiction userbase organically decided on a specific name for it (sometimes they are also called “cosplay ‘fics”). And yes, they are generally just as big Gary Stufests as they sound. Displacements in the more general sense on fimfiction are often called “Human-in-Equestria” stories, because, well, a human goes to Equestria in them. We have seen how well that usually turns out.

So what does all of this mean?

Costs, Tradeoffs, and a Very Strong Statement

I’m going to say something that’s probably going to turn some heads, but I know what I’m doing and I fully intend to back myself up here:

Barring some possible weird exceptions so far out of the mainstream that I literally cannot think of them, displacements and self-inserts universally weaken a story.

I’m serious! Simply by the definition of their existence, specifically the fact that they call attention to the artificial nature of the story, a displacement or a self-insert strains the story’s internal logic and harms the reader’s immersion. There is no way to ever completely eliminate this problem, because if you do make the character 100% a native of the setting with no connection leading back out to point at the author behind the curtain, then it’s not a displacement or self-insert any more.

But that doesn’t mean that these tropes should never ever be used, or for that matter that there’s anything special about them because of the above, because all tropes and elements of writing have unavoidable costs. You can have the most elegant, concise, evocative paragraph in the world that perfectly wraps up every point you want to make in the story… and it will still weaken your story because it adds to the wordcount the reader had to sit down and read instead of going out and mowing the lawn or whatever; conversely while a blank page incurs no cost at all it also does nothing worthwhile. Writing is a series of decisions to try to maximize the positive impact of each element you could implement, while minimizing its negative impact.

With that in mind, what makes self-inserts and displacements so thorny is that many of the things that they can add to a story are not directly related to their self-insert or displacement nature, but many of the things they subtract are directly related to that nature. Generally unless you really know what you are doing, you are better off having that character be something else that can also hit those positive elements without incurring the costs of the SI and/or the displacement. So here are some of the costs (and how to manage them), some of the benefits (and how to emphasize them), and some of the costs that people seem to think are benefits (and why those people are wrong):

There Is No Such Thing As A Sensible Displacing Mechanism

You can sort of kind of get close to this with displacements where the setting they end up in is, for instance, just a different time or location or a parallel universe of the setting they started from… sometimes. Sometimes the canons are just too different in their basic nature to plausibly coexist in any sort of reality. And this is just plain impossible with self-insert displacements who are supposed to have come from the “real world” where the setting they are going to is a fictional property.

There are two big things to take away from this.

The first is that you need to think long and hard about whether you really need the character to come from “the real world”, or from some other world at all, in order to tell the story you are trying to tell. Nine times out of ten they really don’t; some everyday Joe from within the setting or someone from a world like “the real world” without the fictional version of the setting they are going to would be able to hit all the same beats. If that’s the case, you can cut yourself out of a lot of strain on the readers’ immersion without really losing the reason the story exists.

The second big takeaway is that you will not fix your displacing mechanism by trying to explain it in more detail- you will, in fact, only make it worse by drawing more attention to it. If you really need to actually do a displacement or a self-insert, just have them get knocked on the head or something and get it over with and never look back. Trying to explain it with God or quantum physics or whateverthefuck is just digging yourself deeper.

Nobody Wants To Watch Your Character Freak Out For A Whole Chapter

It seems like every second or third displacement/SI ‘fic has to go through this whole big rigmarole of the character not believing they’re in the setting and having some kind of meltdown over the fact that they’re All Alone On Da Bolevrad Of Borken Dreamz. These are always a complete pain to read, not in the least because it’s always the exact same scene repeated over and over again with pretty much insignificant variation.

Nobody cares about this, and it is perfectly OK to skip over it. It is a combination of sorrow-sponging and logistical filler. I’m not saying that you have to write about the character being absolutely overjoyed to have been displaced (that’s nearly as obnoxious, especially when the reason why that’s the case is because the character’s life just suuuuucked so much where they were originally from, and tends towards Gary Stu wish-fulfillment as well), but that doesn’t mean we have to see them struggling to adapt.

You Are Not Interesting

A  lot of people seem to be under the impression that there is something inherently compelling about a suburban teenager wandering around a magical kingdom and/or interstellar space.

There is not.

You can have a young, inexperienced character without that character coming from outside the reality of the setting. You can have a wisecracking, pop-culture-reference-slinging character without that character coming from outside the reality of the setting. That character is still likely to be incredibly annoying since there is a very high risk-to-reward ratio on those tropes as well, but at least they won’t be bogged down by the inherent risks of SIs and displacements as well.

Some people seem to think that unless a character matches the demographic profile of the intended audience, the audience won’t be able to empathize with or appreciate the character, and thus we have ‘fics which try to make the protagonist be ‘relatable’ to the presumed upper-middle-class socially awkward teenage audience of fanfiction by having them be an upper-middle-class socially awkward teenager. I don’t really have a lot to say about this other than that it is, in my overall experience as a die-hard fan of armor-plated dinobird aliens, immortal robotic owls, and magical technicolor talking horses, rather silly and kind of insulting to your readers. More to the point, you can (once again) have a character with all these traits without having them be “actually you” or displacing them from some other setting.

Even If You Are Interesting, You Are Not Interesting Enough To Insist On Being You

So, say that you’re not an upper-middle-class socially awkward teenager, but are actually some kind of a badass! You’re a research scientist, or a special forces commando, or one of the three actually funny standup comedians who will ever exist in the world, and you have a lot to bring to the land of fiction beyond just moping and being “relatable” and probably also banging some attractive character or another for really no reason.

That still doesn’t mean you need to be a self-insert. There can, in fact, be a character who has whatever makes you special, but is still native to the setting. Hell, you can still have a displaced character from “the real world” who has your skillset without that character explicitly being the author.

This last bit seems like a ridiculously nitpicky point to make, but a large percentage of SI authors seem to be abnormally fixated on making their SI an exact match for themselves in terms of personal information and history. Narratively, absolutely nothing is changed by the protagonist being named Jack Duhe and not John Doe, but for whatever reason authors are adamant that their actual name be used. And then they conclude that they don’t want their actual name on the Internet, and do stupid things like replace their last name with asterisks so it looks like people are swearing at their character all the time instead of just. CHANGING. IT. As near as I can determine, this is largely or completely intended to accomplish some kind of voodoo wish-fulfillment, which is strange, because writing “Tom ate a candy bar” does not make me less hungry right now, and writing “Tim ate a candy bar” certainly is not any worse.

Bizarre.

Some people are also weirdly insistent on making their grizzled military badass characters Displaced instead of native to the setting. Nine times out of ten this is because the setting does not have America in it, and for a certain class of fanauthor America is love, America is life, and America is obviously way, way better than anything a fictional setting could throw at us even if that setting has kilometers-long FTL starships or Literal Goddamn Magic in it. Unsurprisingly, these types of characters tend to be massive Gary Stus.

All The Issues Of A Crossover Apply To Displacement Fics As Well

A displacement ‘fic is really just a crossover with “the real world” as one of the canons, which means it’s just as susceptible to Stu-Overs and general confusing idiocy as any other crossover, in addition to everything I’ve discussed up above. BatJamags makes a very good study of these phenomena here.

There Are A Few Things Only An SI Can Do

I’ve talked a lot about how commonly an SI or a displacement can be replaced by a character who is native to the setting, but there is one thing an SI or IRL displacement can do that a native character can’t- they can be aware that the world they are in is fictional, and know what happens next.

Nine times out of ten, of course, this is not used or explored much if at all and instead plot regurgitation reigns supreme, keeping the character’s foreknowledge from ever affecting anything of substance. But it can be a redeeming quality, I guess- after all, Edge of Tomorrow was pretty damn awesome.

Conclusion

This big long list of downsides for self-insert and displacement characters isn’t intended to forbid you from ever writing one. What it is intended to do is serve as a description of why those tropes are dangerous, and you had best have a very good reason for using them, and you should carefully consider the alternatives.

So, really, it’s just like any other trope or decision in writing.


25 Comments on “How to Not End Up in the Library: Dis Displacement-Dissing Dissertation/Discussion Disservice — Self-Insertion and Displacement ‘Fics”

  1. crazyminh says:

    I see your points in this HNTEUITL, Admiral, but I’d honestly disagree with your concept that self-inserts and displacement fics universally ruin a story.

    I’m currently writing a Warhammer 40k/XCOM “displacement” (in the vein that a MEC trooper and the Volunteer are transported to the 40k universe) fic. The difference between this and something like John and the Dragon writer is that my story is intended to focus primarily on how the XCOM operatives manage to adapt to the grimdark future of the 41st millennium. The MEC trooper doesn’t have the engineering staff of XCOM to maintain his MEC suit, and he also doesn’t have his cybernetic limbs. The techpriests can fix his stuff to a degree, but their vastly different ethos and approach to technology makes this a difficult proccess. Over time, his equipment becomes more and more of a chimera of 41st millennium tech and 21st century supertech. The volunteer has to dealwith suspiscion and mistrust because of their psychic powers.

    I believe that the statement requires a addennum.

    Self-insert and Displacement fics tend to weaken the story, but can be used as a tool for creating
    story threads and narrative tension when applied correctly

    • BatJamags says:

      If I might jump in here, it’s important to note that the Admiral didn’t use the word “ruin,” he used the word “weaken.” His point is that they call attention to the artificial nature of a fictional story by introducing an external element that wasn’t meant to integrate naturally into that world. The point is not that a good story cannot be produced despite that fact, but that you have to recognize the problem it poses and are facing something of an uphill battle in compensating for it.

      Personally, I think plenty of great stories involve someone being suddenly thrust into an unfamiliar setting and having to learn the ropes, but there’s usually a clear point to that being the case.

      • GhostCat says:

        For example, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and all its progeny. It’s a well-loved trope, but one that can be badly mishandled.

        • AdmiralSakai says:

          Also, Yankee is one of the milder examples because the two settings fit relatively well together. Displacements, after all, are a type of crossover, and all the rules and considerations of a crossover still apply.

      • AdmiralSakai says:

        Yes, this, exactly. If you know what you are doing, the displacement might allow you to gain more than you lose, but the risk-to-reward ratio is extremely high.

      • GhostCat says:

        Having an antagonist that is experiencing a setting for the first time can be a more natural way of delivering exposition to the audience than dumping huge amounts of info in great long paragraphs in the narration – but the key point is having it be natural. There are just some things that aren’t going to organically be a part of a conversation and certain subjects are going to affect different characters in different ways; asking a blacksmith about the current political situation will get you a different reaction than asking them about available means of transportation. A lot of it depends upon the circumstances, and the reactions of the secondary characters go a long way towards selling it. If someone accidentally touches a Shiny Thing and falls into an alien world, then no one’s going to hold their hand and explain things to them because that’s just not natural. (Like the three seashells in Demolition Man; the future cops think it’s hilarious that Stallone doesn’t know what the three seashells are for because everyone knows what the three seashells are for.) If someone is viewed as a contemporary, then there’s going to be an assumption that the person has a certain basic level of knowledge regarding the setting. Having the same character deliberately pulled into the alien world gives more options, since the character(s) who pulled the antagonist into the setting know that the antagonist isn’t familiar with the setting and need more information than would commonly be discussed. It’s essentially the difference between having your country cousin visit from two towns over versus having someone from another country visit; you’d get annoyed at your cousin because they should know how to do things, but you would generally be more understanding with a foreigner since they would be unfamiliar with the local customs.

  2. Elysium16 says:

    The final nail in the coffin for self-inserts is how unrealistic they are.

    I mean, honestly. If I were to find myself in Smash Bros., I wouldn’t instantly accompany Kirby on his journey to save the world—I’d hop right on the Nope Train straight to Fuckthat Ville.

    • meironmaiden says:

      Another example: all the Mass Effect self inserts. Unless your ass is heading to Andromeda, you’re very likely to get huskified. Star Trek SI fics are also fun (the ship’s reactor runs on WHAT?! )

      • AdmiralSakai says:

        Unless your ass is heading to Andromeda, you’re very likely to get huskified.

        I’ll just take the huskification, then, actually, thankyouverymuch.

        • meironmaiden says:

          Hell with it. Find an active ardat-yakshi. There’s worse ways to go.

        • meironmaiden says:

          On a more serious note, I have fallen into a lot of the traps you noted and my latest fic is a self insert because I just wanted to crank out a halfway decent fight scene and was feeling lazy. If i actually continue that one, I’ll be spending a lot of time fleshing out the character so that he’ll fight like me but not actually be me.

        • AdmiralSakai says:

          This. So much this.

          The focus is on the fighting style, not that it’s specifically you or a standin for you that is executing it.

      • crazyminh says:

        Usually antimatter.

        But *gag* apparently mushrooms now.

        • meironmaiden says:

          Antimatter or forced singularity cores if Romulan. Neither one makes me want to be on any Star Trek vessel. Especially given the frequency of warp core mishaps.

        • crazyminh says:

          I do love me some Majel Barret saying “Warning: Warp Core Breach Immenant…”

          …I know she’s dead, but she left behind tons of sound files for future trek. Why they replaced the most iconic female computer voice with some rando is beyond me.

    • GhostCat says:

      Since I was just working on the next chapter of my current fic, I got to thinking that canon Jack’s reaction to getting tossed into the future is actually very logical. He’s a badass warrior with a very unique skill set, so he could immediately set out to destroy FutureAku if that was all he cared about – he’s more than competent enough to succeed – but instead he devotes all his resources to returning to his own time period. That’s his primary focus, and most of his fights with FutureAku happen because FutureAku instigated them. This is because Jack knows that killing FutureAku isn’t going to change the world-as-it-is because that damage is already done. Jack knows time travel is possible, because it happened to him, and that the greatest benefit to himself and the world would come from getting rid of PastAku.

      • AdmiralSakai says:

        And notably, what he does not do is spend an entire chapter either moping about it or going “HECKS YEAH, TIME 2 BANG SUM POLYGONAL CHICKS”.

        • GhostCat says:

          I’m sure there are fics like that, although most of the SJ fics I can remember off the top of my head featured some variation of Sue as the primary romance target for the poor guy.

  3. CunkToad says:

    I call for a petition to refer to self-inserts as Christopher McCraws from this point onward!

    • AdmiralSakai says:

      He’s not even that explicit of a self-insert, compared to some of the others we’ve seen here who are also displaced. He just shares so many of the exact same negative traits the author himself does.

  4. Jack shadows says:

    I feel morbidly curious on what is in a female Elite fic.

  5. MoldyCheesenBorgirLurkingUnderADesk says:

    “The second big takeaway is that you will not fix your displacing mechanism by trying to explain it in more detail- you will, in fact, only make it worse by drawing more attention to it. ”

    I’m glad you said this, I’d been starting to get a hunch that this was the case but just chalked it up to me being bad at doing le magic portal science

    • crazyminh says:

      Oh Hai, mate! We haven’t “met”, but I presume you used to be DaCheesenBurger (apologies for my awful spelling, but I’m using a phone keyboard)? If so, welcome back to the library!

      • HyperrealsticMoldOnCheesenBorgirBun says:

        I’d hold off on the welcome back, I’m prolly gonna disappear for another few months soon lol


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