This does not refer to my fantasy novel, but rather this trope. In short, an Author Avatar is when an author inserts themselves into a story. Usually this is pretty obvious, and in the worst cases results in a Mary Sue/Gary Stu. Generally, few authors would insert themselves into a story if they didn’t want to be the hero. Those that insert themselves into the story to have bad things happen to them, well, that’s indicative of some deeper issues that I’m not going to get into.
I have said before that I believe it’s almost impossible for a writer to keep some part of themselves out of their characters. Some try to actively shun this, such as Terry Pratchett, who says that none of his characters are like anyone he knows. Other writers have more obvious inspirations, such as Charles Dickens, who based one character on his wife’s friend (whom he apparently didn’t like very much) and was most upset when he admitted it. Although not confirmed, it’s strongly suspected he based the character of Mrs. Havisham on a real person.
However, I also think it’s ill-advised to consciously put too much of oneself or one’s friends and/or family and/or acquaintances into one’s works. I will grant that the one person I know best is myself, which means surely I can get that character down accurately. The problem, of course, is that most people see themselves through a lens darkly, myself included. It’s really, really hard to write oneself in a way that isn’t, well, improved, shall we say. Hence, the Mary Sue/Gary Stu. Even if the Author Avatar isn’t perfect, there’s a real risk the story is just some kind of author fantasy. Viewed from that perspective, “Twilight” tells the readers much more about Stephenie Meyer than she perhaps really wanted people to know. Then again, considering how many women though they were just like Bella Swan, perhaps that tells all of us much more than we want to know about humanity…
So, why do this? Well, I can of course only speak for myself, but I think it’s because I want my life to be awesome. I saw a question that was supposed to be inspirational which was, “If your life was a script, what would you write?” Or something to that effect anyway. My first thought was, “Well, I’d have superpowers.” Also, I’d have a henshin. This tells you something about me and why I play role-playing games. I like fantasy because, in theory, I’d like to live in a more fantastic world. Note – in theory. In practice, a fantasy world has many of the same problems as this one but with (potentially) the added problems of incompetent wizards, scarily competent witches, time-traveling aliens, new life and new civilizations, enemies from a past life returning for vengeance, enemies from the future traveling to the past for vengeance, crazed sorcerers trying to take over the world, crazed cyborgs trying to take over the world, attempting to re-take a lost kingdom back from a dragon, destroying an artifact of great evil, suffering from a radioactive spider-bite, and so on and so forth.
But still the idea is so very appealing. What would it be like if I had superpowers? What would it be like if I could throw fireballs? What would I do with a starship? What would I do if I could write the script to my own life? One of my favorite internet comic book reviews does just that in his videos. One, to highlight the ridiculousness of some aspects of comic books (for instance, mysterious characters are stupid and should explain themselves), but two, because he can. He is literally scripting part of his own life, so he’s a hero in it. I’m kind of jealous for that. My own job, while necessary, is not the sort likely to endow me with superpowers or any magical items. The biggest fights I get into are with inanimate objects and occasionally hedges.
I must confess I actually do write Author Avatar-type stuff down. And then I hide it away and never, ever let it see the light of day. I’m not proud of producing Author Avatars, even unintentionally. One of the first novels I wrote, which embarrasses me now, follows the adventures of two people who are pretty much me and the person I was dating at the time. Yeah, I know, it’s lame. I think I can salvage the story, one day, but for now I’ve shelved it and resolved to be more careful. I really try to avoid basing characters on myself and people I know. How they interpret my characters is up to them, and since human beings as a whole are not as unique as we think, it’s not unlikely my characters will resemble people I know whether I have them in mind from character creation or not.
I’m not saying there isn’t drama in real life, or real life situations. Plenty of authors write modern fiction. That’s just not for me, although I have made rare exceptions. Sometimes real life shows a potential for drama that I can’t ignore. Sometimes it’s not very nice. “Squandered Blessings,” for example, is drawn quite a bit from my real life. Some of my short stories for the now defunct “Pagan Edge” e-zine were also drawn from my experiences. And of course the character of “Dave” in my “Nevermore” stories is in fact my friend Dave, who should really have his life turned into a Coen brothers movie (the hardest part would be getting the story into a screenplay format). But that’s my thanks to Dave for giving me the idea (along with a few others) and even contributing.
Otherwise the characters in the stories are not me, or people I know. This is a conscious choice on my part. It helps keep me from getting too involved in the story in a way that isn’t going to turn out well. In general, I don’t think stories starring Author Avatars are very good and I want to write good stories. Do I base my characters on my experiences? Certainly. I don’t claim not to. Do my characters sometimes exhibit traits I personally exhibit, or have hobbies that are the same as my own? Yes. Do I have favorite characters? Yes, but that can be a different problem. My job as a writer is to tell stories, not tell my audience how awesome I’d be as a superhero. Honestly, I don’t think that would be an interesting story to share. I’m not saying that can’t work for other authors (although I think it’s a shady proposition to begin with) but it certainly doesn’t work for me (hundreds of pages of never-to-see-the-light-of-day-fan-fic bear this out; trust me).
In short, I am an author, not an author avatar.