This was a first time for me. Not the first time I’ve consulted an expert—that’s business as usual for a novelist. For my first novel, I interviewed a New York City medical examiner and asked how deep someone would have to bury a body for it not to smell above the surface. (Just several inches, in case you’re curious.) I’ve shadowed talk show producers and change-management specialists (who are brought in during a company restructuring to help keep employees from leaving). But making an appointment to bring my characters to a therapist? That was a surprising development.
It happened after I gave an early draft of my novel Sisters One, Two, Three to a reader who is a former editor. The manuscript was at that rough stage when a writer needs to make sure the story holds together. The reader responded with praise, but she had a question: “By the end, that character doesn’t act like a narcissist at all. How can a narcissist totally change her behavior?”
Wow. This was surprising to hear. To me, the novel was about a family with a secret, mothers and daughters, tragedy and redemption. But a pathological narcissist whose narcissism suddenly disappears?
Now understand, I don’t think a narcissist is a liability in a novel. Narcissists can be fascinating, as long as you don’t have to live with them. But was this character pathological? Was her core behavior inconsistent? Was the reader right? I’m sure editors have tons of experience with narcissists, but they’re not trained mental health professionals.
Neither am I, but I do know this: a writer who asks for an opinion on an early draft is a diagnosable fool if she doesn’t listen with an open mind to what the reader says. So as a reasonable and well-therapized writer, I decided to bring my characters to a therapist.
I chose Dr. O., a smart, perceptive psychiatrist who—disclaimer—I’ve seen professionally, on and off over the years, since I belong to the class of people known as the worried well. I proposed a plan to Dr. O: I’d bring my characters in for an evaluation, and since they had no insurance, I’d pay their fee myself. I’d provide a synopsis of the novel they were occupying and a description of their salient psychological features. As for pathology, I would leave all diagnosing to her.
Dr. O agreed, and I began to fret. Novelists write fiction, yes, but within the story flit little bits and pieces of things the novelist has experienced, observed, imagined. This results in occasional awkward moments when a family member reads the novel and recognizes those little bits. How would this work for a therapist who’s been given entry into the deepest part of the writer’s mind? Would Dr. O be analyzing my characters or me?
Once we figured out how this would work, my fretting fell away. Dr. O would relate to me as if I were a psychoanalyst in training under her supervision. This was something she regularly did—worked with trainees, listened to their evaluation of patients, responded to the facts as presented. Bottom line: Dr. O got it. My book was fiction, not memoir, and her task was to pay attention to the workings of the characters’ minds, not the writer’s.
So what happened? I got confirmation that the characters in my novel, though flawed and complex, were not pathologically disturbed. Phew! Was one of the characters a narcissist? Did this character change in a way that was problematic? No and no. Phew, again!
Something else came out of our discussion, though, something important. I was reminded that although writers bring their experiences and observations to the creation of a story, readers do the same. This is why one reader, a smart former editor, say, bringing her life experience to a novel, sees a character as an unlikable erratic narcissist, while another reader, who’s lived a different life, sees the same character as damaged but doing the best she can, and deserving of our sympathy in the end.
It’s funny how stories start out from some combination of a writer’s imagination and experience, but they end up reconstructed out of a new combination, the imagination and experience of a reader. That’s the real magic, that second incarnation, the one between reader and story. My diagnosis? That’s the relationship that matters.
Nancy Star is a film executive turned author whose writing has appeared in the New York Times, Family Circle, and Diversion. Her novel Sisters One, Two, Three will be published by Lake Union in January 2017.