Self-Insertion in Fiction

posted in: On writing | 0
An obnoxious bank manager

People often ask writers whether they write people they know into their books. And it does happen. Maybe an obnoxious bank manager dies a particularly nasty death in a crime book, or the fellow you had an unrequited crush on in year twelve turns up as the love interest in your romance. I’ll admit there are elements of my father in Adriaen Jacobsz, captain of the ill-fated Batavia in To Die a Dry Death.

And sometimes writers put themselves into their books. That’s referred to as ‘self-insertion’.

I’ve always enjoyed Agatha Christie’s crime novels and she wrote a version of herself into several plots. She’s thinly disguised as Mrs Ariadne Oliver, writer of crime fiction who occasionally finds herself embroiled in a real-life murder case with Christie’s famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. Ariadne Oliver is a great character, given to explaining bits about the art of writing books. I can’t help but think that Christie had a lot of fun with her, using the fictional novelist to tell people a little about her own writing process.

Here’s an example, from one of my favourite Agatha Christie books, Cards on the Table.

‘Don’t you ever write the same plot twice running?’ asked Battle.

The Lotus Murder,’ murmured Poirot. ‘The Clue of the Candle Wax.’

Mrs Oliver turned on him, her eyes beaming appreciation. ‘That’s clever of you—that’s really very clever of you. Because, of course, those two are exactly the same plot—but nobody else has seen it. One is stolen papers at an informal weekend party of the Cabinet, and the other’s a murder in Borneo in a rubber planter’s bungalow.’

‘But the essential point on which the story turns is the same,’ said Poirot. ‘One of your neatest tricks. The rubber planter arranges his own murder—the Cabinet Minister arranges the robbery of his own papers. At the last minute the third person steps in and turns deception into reality.’

‘I enjoyed your last, Mrs Oliver,’ said Superintendent Battle kindly. ‘The one where all the Chief Constables were shot simultaneously. You just slipped up once or twice on official details. I know you’re keen on accuracy, so I wondered if—’

Mrs Oliver interrupted him. ‘As a matter of fact I don’t care two pins about accuracy. Who is accurate? Nobody nowadays. If a reporter writes that a beautiful girl of twenty-two dies by turning on the gas after looking out over the sea and kissing her favourite labrador, Bob, goodbye, does anybody make a fuss because the girl was twenty-six, the room faced inland, and the dog was a Sealyham terrier called Bonnie? If a journalist can do that sort of thing, I don’t see that it matters if I mix up police ranks and say a revolver when I mean an automatic, and a dictograph when I mean a phonograph, and use a poison that just allows you to gasp one dying sentence and no more. What really matters is plenty of bodies! If the thing’s getting a little dull, some more blood cheers it up. Somebody is going to tell something—and then they’re killed first. That always goes down well. It comes in all my books—camouflaged different ways, of course. And people like untraceable poisons, and idiotic police inspectors and girls tied up in cellars with sewer gas or water pouring in (such a troublesome way of killing anyone really) and a hero who can dispose of anything from three to seven villains single-handed. I’ve written thirty-two books by now—and of course they’re all exactly the same really, as M. Poirot seems to have noticed—but nobody else has—and I only regret one thing—making my detective a Finn. I don’t really know anything about Finns and I’m always getting letters from Finland pointing out something impossible that he’s said or done. They seem to read detective stories a good deal in Finland. I suppose it’s the long winters with no daylight. In Bulgaria and Romania they don’t seem to read at all. I’d have done better to have made him a Bulgar.’

In the same book, a character says, ‘It must be wonderful just to sit down and write off a whole book.’

‘It doesn’t happen exactly like that,’ said Mrs Oliver. ‘One actually has to think, you know. And thinking is always a bore. And you have to plan things. And then one gets stuck every now and then, and you feel you’ll never get out of the mess—but you do! Writing’s not particularly enjoyable. It’s hard work like everything else.’

Christie, Agatha. Cards on the Table (pp. 67-69). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot

It doesn’t take much of a stretch of imagination to realize that when Mrs Oliver is talking about her Finnish detective, it’s actually Agatha Christie talking about Poirot. And it really is her talking about ‘accuracy’. Apparently she was chastised by a very few knowledgeable readers for having a blow pipe that was only a foot long (30 cm) in one of her novels (Death in the Clouds), whereas the actual length is something like four-and-a-half feet (1+1⁄2 yards (140 cm). Most people don’t know, and don’t care, about such facts. Star Wars has been popular for nearly fifty years, despite the dodgy physics.

That’s not to say accuracy isn’t important – but people read to be entertained. If I’m reading a book and the inaccuracies start to intrude, with me muttering ‘how is that possible’ under my breath, I stop reading. Life’s too short to waste time on stories that don’t entertain.

And yes, writing can be hard work. Satisfying, ultimately fulfilling when it’s finished, but definitely not easy.

An orchid from our garden

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.