I’ve encountered a lot of firsts while writing the I’ll Give You series, as it’s been my first fiction project of any length since I started working on the ever ongoing Contrivance in 2011. I’ve had a lot of fun getting to really know new characters for the first time in a long time, though I had kind of forgotten about their capacity to surprise me.
Over six months into writing the series, after having published the first book, one of the four main characters (and, mind you, there were only supposed to be two main characters at first, and this one wasn’t one of them) informed me, in the way that fictional characters do, that she’d had an eating disorder this entire time. Was formerly anorexic/occasionally still struggled, specifically.
I looked back over every instance in the series concerning this character and food. Yup. Body type: hmm. Looked at her risk factors: unprocessed trauma, a dancer in profession, a sometimes perfectionistic self destruction type… yeah, there it all was.
Interestingly, it was one of the branches of disorder I had the least experience with and least knowledge about. And I usually stuck closer to writing what I knew in that regard (plus trauma, due to events of my plots, before I had my own experience with it). Still, I dove into research, the clinical I was largely unfamiliar with, but also finding personal accounts of others, forums, blogs, and more. I took a few online eating disorder assessments to get a feel for the key symptoms and treatment process, but of course I had amply healthy, normal scores, no indicators.
I wove it quietly into the background of the story. Even when mental health got explored as a main theme, it tended to stay in the background, not the main issue we were dealing with and mostly… ish… a piece from backstory.
Still, it informed a lot, lived in the background, and sometimes got brought up in companion pieces. Certainly it was in my head, even as research slowed.
Almost another year later, I was still writing, but also fielding a few concerns building in my head, noting developing obsessions and tendencies over the last year. I took the assessments I’d taken early on in research a second time. This time, my scores had almost skyrocketed, all on the border or in the mild range of disordered eating. Specifically, leaning towards anorexia symptoms, though my BMI still hovered around an okay 19.9 or so. Still, I couldn’t feel too surprised. I’d seen that one coming, a little. (Note: I know such online assessments are not all strictly scientific. I’m just throwing it out there as anecdotal evidence.)
While stumbling through those assessment lists, I’d tried another one, this one for empathy. The score was out of a possible eighty, with scores below thirty indicating a lack of empathy common in people with autism. My wife did it, too, and scored a fifty-eight. I got fourteen.
While I’d foreseen picking up the symptoms of a character struggling with the remnants of a disorder I don’t have, as a schizophrenic writer with a fine, fine line between character and self, often absorbing their traits, feelings, and symptoms, I remained a low empathy person in the real world, as noted on the paperwork when I was diagnosed with autism, and as shown by frustrated people in my life again and again.
I’ve talked to other neurodivergent creative types about their lines between character and self in depth for years. Even then, I experience it differently than almost anyone else I’ve met, aligning much more closely with the few other people I know who experience psychosis, where the line is… blurrier. Thinner. Flexible.
I react more strongly to my characters’ emotions: laughing, crying, tensing, smiling, heart racing in real time on their behalf, sometimes cathartically when I can’t do it out of my own emotions. Yet I’m a poor mirror for other real people, slow to pick up on and respond to social cues, often read as a little flat and quiet, mostly by those who don’t know me well.
I almost slowly become my characters, but fail to lean into the personalities of those around me as strongly. There’s the adage that you’re an average of the five people you’re closest to. I think the people I spend time with can tell you a lot about me, but I honestly feel at any time more like an average of the five characters I’ve spent the most time writing recently, their personalities, interests, quirks, struggles, than the five people I’ve spent the most time with.
Now, this can be a two way street. Maybe as I shift in one direction or another, I relate more to one character or another, and spend more time writing them, though it often seems random. Maybe, a year ago, something in my brain was thinking a lot about neuroticism around food (some of which I’ve always had in sensory issues if nothing else) for me, and I projected it onto a character instead.
I might often project things onto characters long before I realize, Oh, that thought was for me, and then absorb the trait, emotion, interest, quirk, symptom, so on, myself, later, thinking that I first got it from something meant for that character. All possible. Art imitates life; life imitates art. It is easier for me to reflect things already in my head in one way or another than external, sentient people. Still.
Regardless, I find it interesting. I’m trying to consciously turn away from disordered eating and not absorb that dangerous character element, and it’s nerve wracking, but I write this from a Panera with a mac and cheese and some snacks on the table, so I don’t exactly think I’m doomed.
Things to think about.