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"How do I Write a Reader-Insert?" by Penguiduck


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Oh, yes, the reader-insert. It's probably obvious by the number of reader-inserts that I write, but I consider them to be extremely powerful tools to instill emotions in readers. Here's a bit of insight on what goes on in my mind and the things I take into consideration when I write.

This tutorial and writer's guide is copyright to me. Please do not repost without permission. I will likely gnaw your head off.
Reader-inserts -- How do I write them?


Why am I writing this as opposed to working on one of my many series? Well, for one, I'm a bit at loss at how to continue Vampires, Villains and Violins, which is what I'm supposed to update next. This is one of my ways of defeating writer's block. As for another reason, people often ask me how I write my reader-inserts, how I use emotions to affect the reader, how I incorporate these ideas into physical writing, etc. They seem almost... perplexed, I feel.

Below, I will address several points that a) are commonly asked about or b) I find necessary to comment on. Hopefully, if you're aiming to write reader-inserts, you'll find this to be a helpful place to start.

Please keep in mind that this is how I personally write reader-inserts. My ideas and theories may not work for you. However, they are here so if you fancy a peek, be my guest!

Let's get started with an extremely basic question: What is a reader-insert?

It's rather self-explanatory, I think. By my definition, a reader-insert is a written piece in which the reader is the main character. It is usually voiced in second person, addressing the reader as "you." I always write in second person so this is the point of view that I'm going to discuss.

Now that we know what a reader-insert is, let's take a closer look at the details: What do I hope to achieve by writing a reader-insert?

This is one of those deeper questions that will actually take some thought. I believe that one of the most important aspects of writing is being able to communicate with the reader on an emotional level, and the reason why reader-inserts are so appealing to some people is because of this emotional connection and experience. While we're at it, why don't we compare the three point-of-views using this idea? Generally speaking, there are three "persons" that can be used in writing: first (I, me, my), third (he/she, his/her, him/her) and second (you, your).

Analyzing Point-of-View


Among the three, I find that first person is the easiest to write with on an emotional level. Why? Because all I have to do is imagine someone, mentally impersonate him or her, and then start scribbling down his or her train of thought. It's that simple. Emotions are a piece of cake when it comes to first person since the main character tells the reader all that goes on in his or her head, and it's very easy for the reader to understand why said character is feeling that way. It's as though he or she is speaking directly to you.

For example:

"As he turned abruptly, walking away without a second thought, I shook in frustration. I couldn't believe that he was so shallow! What in the world was I thinking when I agreed to help him? He was nothing more than a pigheaded prick who had nothing better to do than to hurt others..."


OR


"I sat there, dreamily staring at the rose. I turned it with my fingers, noticing every petal, every leaf and every thorn. It was perfect. Though it may not have been an expensive gift, there was nothing that meant more to me than receiving a rose from him. It meant that he cared, that he wished to make me happy..."


Easy to understand, right? There's no second guessing. First person is almost like having the speaker spoon-feed emotions to the reader. And, above all, it flows. It's akin to having someone speak directly to you (even if it's much more elegant than American English), and you develop a strong relationship with the main character. Of course, this can be limiting for the writer as well, though it can be used as a powerful tool to deceive the reader (if that's what the writer is going for) through its strong connection.

Moving on! Let's talk about third person. Regardless of whether you choose to write in third person omniscient or not, it is comparatively more difficult to have the reader understand exactly what the characters are thinking or feeling. This is because none of them speak directly with the reader-- instead, the writer must incorporate other ideas in order address this. They may find that detailing the characters' actions suffices (scowling, nervous tapping, relieved sighing, etc.) or they may simply revert to stating the obvious ("Sally suddenly felt an overwhelming sadness...").

The above devices work, but I don't feel that they instill emotions in the reader him/herself. Now, I'm not saying that third person is not a valid method of writing-- I love writing in third person. I simply think that it relies upon more than mere emotion to engage the reader. Emotion is not its strongest suit. I do believe, however, that third person tends to be easy to write for a different reason-- it provides a fresh perspective, and it also allows the writer to bounce between many characters, giving the audience the opportunity to access a variety of thoughts.

As for second person, which is used in reader inserts, the reader is the main character. Personally, I find that second person is the most emotionally engaging because you are in the story. You make intimate connections with the characters, you develop as the plot unfolds, you eat, breathe and live in this new world that the writer has immersed you in. It's all about you.

At the same time, second person is challenging. Why? When writing in second, the author has so many more things to take into consideration, like how readers are going to react and how to transfer emotions. With first or third person, I feel like transferring these vivid images are important, but in second person, they are vital to the telling of the story. If the writer can't instill emotions in the reader as the main character, the writer isn't doing a good job.

Reader-inserts require a delicate balance. You, as a writer, must respect that balance-- if you are too forceful with how you write, how you depict the main character, how you move the plot along, the reader is not going to enjoy the story. Immersing the reader in your writing is your goal, but you have to do it carefully.

Now that we've established this foundation, it'll be easier to address further points… Onto a new question: How do I shape the main character in a reader-insert?

Some people do not like reader-inserts because they define the main character as a "Nameless Sue," someone who lacks personality and background. While this may be true for some reader-inserts, it certainly doesn't have to be the case.

Writers have to understand that they can't entirely develop a reader-insert "you" as they would develop any other original character. As mentioned before, this is where the delicate balance comes in. Certainly, it's a challenge because you can't shape the main character's personality definitely-- this would make the reader feel forced as the story unfolds. At the same time, you can't have a boring cardboard box as a main character-- that would, indeed, be a "Nameless Sue."

Remember that you are appealing to a variety of readers. No two people are the same, meaning that no two readers will have the exact same preferences, the exact same personalities, the exact same likes and dislikes. You will have to carefully cater to all of them.

Thus, you need to provide a substantial background, a basis for the main character's existence that allows the reader understand why or how she is the way she is today. But! You will still need to remain flexible and keep in mind that readers need to feel like they are themselves. How are you going to do this? Keep reading.

Establishing a Background and a Basis for your Character


This is absolutely vital. As I mentioned above, there are many different readers out there. You will have to make all of them feel like individuals in your story, in this world that you hope to immerse them in. There needs to be some common ground.

You will need to establish a setting, a history for your character, no matter how simple it may be. As we all know, experiences shape who we are today so it's only natural that it will happen for the character. Once you establish a background, it'll be easier for you to justify any small personality quirks or habits.

Time for an example:

In my series Jaharaan Love, the main character loves animals. Now, I realize that not every reader is going to be an animal lover, BUT:

1. I feel like I'm not asking for too much; it's a reasonable interest. The main character likes animals-- so what? The story does not revolve around her undying love for little critters. I highly doubt that anyone would be bothered by this.

2. Oh, look! The main character grew up with a family that works with horses! Both her father and her adoptive brother tend to the horses that reside at Castle Nagasko-- this means that there is some basis for her love of animals. The reader (assuming that she's reasonable) will understand that because of the main character's background, this is how she is.

3. Because this series is a fantasy piece and somewhat medieval, those who live in Jaharaah rely on animals to help them. Animals draw their carts, herd their sheep, carry them from place to place, etc. It's likely that people who grow up in this setting will learn to respect animals, giving the main character yet another reason.


Another example:

Again, from Jaharaan Love, the main character is extremely curious, eager to explore beyond what she is familiar with. Of course, not everyone is so brimming with curiosity and a sense of wonderment, BUT:

1. People who are likely to even bother reading Jaharaan Love, which is a fantasy WWYFF (Who-will-you-fall-for?), are very likely to be curious about this world that I have created. I don't think making the main character curious is an unreasonable personality trait. I'm going to make the assumption that readers would want to learn more, just like the main character.

2. The main character has lived in Nagasko all her life. Although it is a large city, the continent of Jaharaah expands far beyond Nagasko's borders, with a huge variety of races and different places. The main character constantly hears stories about faraway destinations, enchanting Elves, the mysterious Dwarves, etc. This is reason enough for her to be curious, substantial enough for her to wonder and want to explore.


One more:

In my series Vampires, Villains and Violins, the main character is a musical prodigy. Well, first of all, you can't really attribute any reason for this talent because she was born with it. This ability to work with music is not necessarily the result of hard work (although diligence does play a part) -- a lot of it has to do with her natural gift, a tendency to understand and embrace musical ideas. However, there is still background information that I can incorporate to make her talent more easily acceptable to the reader:

1. The main character lives with her uncle, and he just happens to be a violin maker. Not only does he have the ability to provide his niece with these instruments, but he has experience, meaning that he has the means and the enthusiasm to have her learn how to play the violin. He can find her the best teachers because he has connections, and with his knowledge, he is also familiar with competitions and youth orchestras that can get the main character on the right track. Regardless of her natural talent, she has been exposed to the world of music at a young age, and this certainly stirs her passion to practice and become better.

2. The main character lost her parents at a young age. As cliché as this may be, it is reason that the main character has latched onto her violin. There is an empty void in her life, and she chooses to fill it with her music. It’s her way of coping. She dedicates herself to playing the violin because she has no where else to pour her ardor, her emotions and her love.


Just a note!: Be careful with ascribing personality traits to your main character! They should be reasonable and justifiable! Remember to analyze your readers and how they may look at these character traits... will it bother them to know that they have them? Don't be afraid to make a few assumptions, but don't overdo it either.

Now that we've taken a brief look at shaping your main character's background and personality, let's move on to something else! How do I choose what path the main character will take in a reader-insert?

Readers, as people, will react differently to different situations. Naturally, the writer can't describe five varying scenarios for every possible situation that comes along because that's simply ridiculous and an extremely tedious process. You don't want to do that so you're left with only one choice. How do you have your main character react?

Well, regardless of how you choose to have her react, you need to provide a sensible reason for her behavior.

Logically Supporting Reasons for Behavior


Let's explore with an example.

For my series, A Realistic Pokemon Adventure, in my most recent update (chapter nine), the main character is found in a situation where Team Rocket is wreaking havoc upon a gym. Even though Lance bids her to stay where it is safe, she has to decide what to do. There are a variety of possibilities, right?

She can:

a) Do as Lance asks and remain at the Dancing Hall.
b) Rebel against his wishes and arrive at the gym to help.
c) Search around the city and find others who are willing to fight.
d) Run away entirely.
e) Surrender herself to Team Rocket so that others are unharmed.
f) Something else?

You get the picture. As a writer, I can have the main character do a number of things. The reader, however, may not, in the same situation, do what you will have the main character do. This is where writers need to put some thinking into the writing. Previously, we discussed shaping your reader-insert character. Her personality or background may be a deciding factor on what she chooses to do. On the other hand, sometimes the writer will need to carefully analyze the situation in order to choose the most appropriate course of action, based upon more immediate concerns.

In the situation above, the main character eventually chooses to go with choice b. There is a reason for this, explained below:

1. The main character feels the need to help because her ex is the gym leader. Even though she has mixed feelings about him, she certainly doesn't wish harm upon him. I think most readers can relate to this, or at least understand why this is.

2. Team Rocket is after the main character. The reason why they are attacking the gym in the first place is because of her so she believes that she is responsible for their actions. Guilt is a universal emotion, I think, and any reader with half a sense for emotions will understand this.

3. The main character knows how to battle well so she won't be totally defenseless-- despite the dangers, she would likely be able to hold her ground fairly well, especially with Lance's help. Hooray for logical reasoning.

4. The main character has no qualms about disobeying Lance. Having grown up without a father, she has become independent and hates being told what to do. She may respect him as a person, but she does not think of him as anything special just because he is a celebrity.


Another example!

In Vampires, Villains and Violins (chapter 3), the main character encounters Faolan (at this point, she knew him as a wolf), who is seemingly growling viciously at her. In the story, she ends up curling in a fetal position as opposed to running away or standing her ground or even reasoning with the wolf. Well, the reader herself may not choose to do this if she were stuck in such a situation, BUT:

1. Faolan is both faster and stronger than the main character so she logically doesn't stand a chance. Assuming that Faolan is, in fact, acting aggressively toward her, she would not last long if she were to fight or run.

2. She is frightened. While I understand that not everyone may be intimidated by a growling wolf, I'm going to assume that the majority of sane people are. And because she is scared and panicked, she isn't necessarily thinking clearly. Naturally, she will do what her first instinct tells her to do, and that is to curl into a defensive position.

3. Faolan is not usually like this. The fact that he is acting up now tells the reader that something is seriously amiss. She becomes nervous, and, as mentioned above, she does what comes most naturally, letting her instincts take control.


Just a note! Be logical, reasonable, etc. What your main character does should be realistic, but it should also be an action that most, if not all, of your readers can relate to! It is extremely important that you also keep your main character's background in mind so that she can react upon her own experiences. Of course, you'll have to explain these experiences to the reader at some point, especially if these actions are somewhat profound. As long as you provide an adequate background and reason, you can move the plot line along however you please.

We've discussed background, personality, actions-- what more is there? Let's talk talk. As in: How do I write the main character's dialogue in a reader-insert?

Dialogue is verbal speech. Most importantly, I think that writers should stick with the setting and what is acceptable and common in the time period and place. Of course, with a language as complicated as English, you have many ways to phrase things.

How many ways can you think of to greet someone?:

a) Hey, what's up?
b) Hello there.
c) Hi, how are you?
d) How do you do?
e) Salutations!
f) Good morning/afternoon/evening!
g) Howdy!
h) How goes it?
i) What's going on?
j) [insert endless possibilities]


These are all valid ways to greet someone, yes? There are many ways to say the same thing, but I find it vital that you select something that the readers can easily relate to. As mentioned before, readers need to be able to relate to your main character. At the same time, you want to stick to your setting and background.

Selecting Dialogue


English is a versatile language. Even if it is technically one language, there are plenty of "dialects," and these dialects differ because people are of different backgrounds or are from different places. Taking a look at the US (where I'm assuming the majority of these reader-insert fans are from), someone from the east coast is likely to speak differently than someone from the south or the west coast, BUT the language remains English, and therefore understandable.

My point? You have to find the best way to phrase things, and you have to do this carefully. Think about the setting and the background of your reader-insert character, and incorporate this information-- if your main character is a member of royalty from a medieval setting, remember that speech is more formal. If your character has an accent of some sort, try your best to make this evident in your writing. If your character is a girl from our own modern day setting, she will likely speak like any teenager... but even a person from 2010 has varying degrees of speech.

Regardless of what may seem like what the majority of readers would say in actual situations, certain people may still find it odd that the dialogue doesn't seem to come out of their own mouths. Without being able to relate to your main character, the speech likely feels forced. Remember to do your best to have your readers understand the main character and why she speaks the way that she does.

Although this is totally optional for a reader-insert, some WWYFFs include multiple choice answers. I think that this not only helps determine the most compatible guy, but it also gives the reader some freedom to choose what she would say in certain situations.

Just a note! Because you, as the writer, do not know your readers personally, I would avoid using "extreme" language, such as excessive swearing or racially charged remarks. I recall turning down stories because the things that came out of the main character's mouth were... well, they were so incredibly unlike what I would say in any given situation that I could not relate to the main character, the character who I'm supposed to be. Some authors mold their main character like a firecracker, a person who is easily angered and whose every other word is "FUCK" for no purpose other than the fact that she is unreasonably angry. I simply can't relate, and, thus, find it irritating.

Onto something else! The final aspect of reader-inserts I would like to talk about is the emotional effect. How do I instill emotion in the reader when writing reader-inserts?

Let's start by defining emotion. According to dictionary.com, it is explained as: "an affective state of consciousness in which joy, sorrow, fear, hate, or the like, is experienced, as distinguished from cognitive and volitional states of consciousness."

Awesome. Now that we exactly what emotions are, we can work with them. I would like to remind you that even though emotions are separate from logic and thinking, they are still aroused because of some sort of stimuli. This may not happen directly and the evidence may not be obvious, but that doesn't mean that the reason doesn't exist.

Instilling and Supporting Emotions


Why don't we start by taking a look at your own life. You never feel angry just because. People can't live properly if they run around being angry for no reason. You're angry because your boyfriend lied to you or because your siblings won't give you any peace and quiet. You're not angry because you simply felt that being angry was what you wanted to do today (and if by some demented reason you are, I highly recommend that you rethink your priorities).

You only feel upset because something happened to make you sad. Maybe you had a fight with your best friend or maybe you received a C on a paper that you spent hours on. Or perhaps the reason runs even deeper-- maybe you're clinically depressed or maybe the sky has been overcast for a while and you simply prefer the sunlight. You see, you can't necessarily support your emotions with solid proof, but the rationale is still there.

It's the same with any other emotion, whether they are positive or negative. There are reasons for why you feel the way you do, even if you aren't sure of what they are. All we know is that emotions play an important part in our everyday lives, and this is reflected in writing...

Time for an example:

In one of my Fire Emblem one-shots, Bull's Eye, the main character feels very angry at Begnion's commander, Jarod. Now, we all know that anger is a very strong emotion, and there are several ways that I managed to incorporate this into the reader:

1. I started the one-shot by explaining that the main character was very spirited and spunky by nature. She grew up as a noble and as much as she is expected to become a prissy lady, she would much rather run free with her younger brother. She feels that it's incredibly important for her to prove herself to everyone, making her very competitive and easily frustrated if she can't succeed. This vigor is the basis of her personality, which gives her more of a tendency to be angered.

2. It was because of Commander Jarod that the main character's brother was recruited for Begnion's Occupational Army. Her rage mostly comes from her brother's death while under Jarod's service. She blames the commander and is out for revenge.

3. The main character's anger is partially the result of her immense sadness. Her brother was the only one who understood her. He had made her a bow and secretly taught her everything that she knew about archery, something that she would not have the ability to learn otherwise. Since he is no longer alive, she feels as though she has to do something to remedy this unrest in her heart. She resorts to anger, which allows her to blame Jarod.

4. The main character wants to prove herself. More than anything, she wants to be able to rely on her own skills, her own abilities. She may not admit this throughout the course of the one-shot, but it can likely be inferred if the reader puts some thought into it. Throughout her entire life, she has been told what she cannot do. When she leaves home to find Commander Jarod, she is entirely independent, and wishes to prove to herself that she can be independent. By resorting to anger, she has a reason to leave home for revenge, and thus the opportunity to prove herself.


Let's take a look at another example:

At one point in Jaharaan Love (Chapter 21), the main character becomes upset with Velen, the Elven prince. She is confused, troubled and generally worried about discovering that he is keeping a lovely Elven maiden in a tower. The problem? The Elven beauty is unconscious and in a glowing casket.

1. The main character is confused. How many people keep unconscious women locked in a hidden tower? This is a disturbing discovery for our heroine, and suspicions arise in her mind, fueling her capacity to become upset.

2. The main character certainly didn't make the discovery on her own. There was a demon named Xar who led her up the tower with the intention of misleading her into thinking that the woman in the casket was Velen's lover. Because of the sheer fact that Xar wanted to distress her made it entirely possible. He is working against her, giving her an excellent reason for feeling the way that she does.

3. Regardless of how much the reader loves Velen (which is entirely up to the reader in this WWYFF), he is still a close friend to the main character. Having journeyed with him, she trusts him. She feels like Velen had betrayed her trust by not telling her about his lover, and, thus, she becomes upset at how she believes she is being treated.

4. As the plot unfolds, the reader discovers that there is a whole series of events that prevents the main character from learning the truth-- that the unconscious Elf is not Velen's lover, but his sister, who was cursed into an eternal sleep. Because of the antagonists working against her, the main character remains upset. She has no method of finding relief to calm her wired emotions. Velen is never given the chance to explain himself-- at least, not until the conflict is resolved at the end of the chapter.


Just a note! The examples above were both dealing with negative emotions, which I find more challenging than positive ones. Contentment, joy, excitement-- I think that these are easier to convey because no one reads about a positive experience and says, "Oh, I would have reacted differently! I wouldn't have been happy!" It's easier to instill happiness since it is easy to convince the reader to feel joy. If the main character is with someone she loves or if she wins the lottery, it's not difficult to relate to the positive emotion coming from such a happening.

This is essentially all I have for you. Again, as I mentioned when we started, this is what works for me. My ideas and rationale may not work for you, but you are welcome to try them and ask me questions as you see fit. This was written to answer questions and address problems that have been called to my attention for those authors who wish to write reader-inserts.

I sincerely hope that this tutorial provides insight, if only a little, to those who have been looking for some writing support. Please don't hesitate to contact me if you have any comments, questions or suggestions. If there are more aspects of reader-insert writing that I am asked to address, then I will likely write a second tutorial.

Thanks for reading, and I wish you the best on all your writing endeavors! Long live the reader-insert!

--Penguiduck



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