Narrative Techniques: Author Surrogates

A series exploring storytelling techniques. This essay looks at effectively creating characters which are surrogates for the authors.

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© 2017 Epytome / Used With Permission

An author surrogate is a character within fiction that acts as a proxy for the author within a novel, and writers have been known to create surrogates of themselves from as early as David Hume in 1779. It has been used strategically for comedic effects (a bit like Stan Lee’s cameos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) or to make ones work a bit meta by design. On other occasions it may have been an entirely unconscious decision.

Author surrogacy is most notable in works of fan fiction or by amateur writers. This may be due to the fact that when starting out, writers often draw inspiration from what they know best, and that is often their own lives. Budding artists are known for instinctively drawing people that look like them when tasked with an impromptu portrait, and author surrogates can manifest for the same reason. We know ourselves.

Designing characters can be a daunting task at first and—consciously or not—one may draw the foundations of a protagonist (or antagonist) from oneself. Bella from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight has often been criticised for being described as a spitting image of the author. As Bella is idealised as a perfect character (sometimes known as a Mary Sue or Marty Stu) it can come across as pompous or even narcissistic. It doesn’t come across as humble, and that can quickly turn off readers.

A Mary Sue/Marty Stu within fan fiction acts as a character that is portrayed as a genius or savant, often with unusual skills or talents that somehow manage to save the day, get the hottest woman/man of high ranking and seemingly touch the lives of everyone they encounter. The first use of the term Mary Sue was a direct parody of such characters in Star Trek fan fiction in the 1970s, in a fanzine called Menagerie by Paula Smith. It has since stuck in popular culture as a quick way to lambast what is seen a shoddy, underdeveloped writing in perfect characters.

As this is a common technique used in fan fiction, the first signs of this within a published work can also cause alarm bells to fire. As stated before, this technique isn’t often used by accomplished or veteran writers, and when it is, it is used for an effect. The work stops seeming like a story within its own right and more like a wish-fulfilment fantasy for the author. As a result they are often seen as lacking in development, too perfect to hold any interest from the reader or lazy writing.

That’s not to say one shouldn’t try this technique when designing characters. It can be a handy tool for those struggling to design a protagonist or love interest, for example, but only if the author continues to develop the character until they stand up in their own right—the same piece of advice for when designing characters based on or inspired by friends, enemies and/or loved ones. With the right frame of mind and dedication, a writer can use themselves to kick start a character into life, but just like a child is not identical to their parent and are people in their own right; a character should not be a replica of the author in serious fiction.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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