Time to See a Shrink

Time to See a Shrink

Time to See A Shrink

An author questions the mental health of her characters

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.

A version of this article appeared in the 10/10/2016 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Time to See A Shrink
About Nancy’s Book

SISTERS ONE, TWO, THREE,  (on sale January 1, 2017), Nancy’s new novel, is about the Tangles, an eccentric New Jersey family, who suffers a tragic loss when the only son of four children is killed in a beach accident on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1970s, fracturing the family forever. The remaining siblings, three sisters—Ginger, Mimi, and Callie—grow up processing the loss in dramatically different ways. The result is an emotionally gripping, complex, and beautifully developed portrait of a family’s secrets and confessions.

Christina Baker Kline, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Orphan Train, has given the book high praise calling it: “An extraordinarily moving, beautifully written novel…As the story progresses, we grow to know and love the fierce and eccentric Tangles, a family at once familiar and like no other. I was riveted from the first page.”


Nancy Star is a film executive-turned-author whose writing has been compared to Tom Perrotta.

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