My Novel/My Selves: Using Subpersonalities to Create Fictional Characters

By Jessica Levine

Where do fictional characters come from? Often they originate in people that writers have known, perhaps loved, or even hated. A mother in a novel resembles the one in the author’s life; a boyfriend has character traits suspiciously like those of the author’s husband; and so forth. A first novel, especially, can be what the French call a roman à clef, literally a novel with a key, in which the author’s life is rendered under a thin veil of fiction. In such cases, acquaintances and biographers invariably have fun pointing to the real-life sources of the cast of characters. But novels are also like dreams in which different parts, or subpersonalities, of the writer’s self enter into dialogue and concerted action to further healthy integration.

What is a “subpersonality”? The term has many different uses in psychology. For this essay, I mean a part of the personality of a healthy individual that has a specific identity rooted in a phase or role of that person’s life. Take Dr. Kimball, for instance. She may wear many hats: a general practitioner in her medical office; a wife at home; a mother to her children; a would-be Olympic swimmer at the gym (in her own imagination). When stressed, she may revert to earlier selves: perhaps there is inside her an abused child; a stressed high school student; a binge-drinking college kid. All healthy individuals have “multiple personalities,” not as in a clinical disorder, but in the sense of having lived through different experiences and roles that have left their particular imprints, coping strategies, wounds, and lessons.

In my former practice as a hypnotherapist, I often led clients into a trance state in which they could conduct a dialogue between their subpersonalities. (This is sometimes called “conference room” work, because the client visualizes different parts of the self negotiating around a table.) In depth work, darker parts of the personality invariably emerge: the wounded child, inner critic, addict. For instance, a businessman with a procrastination habit might experience a dialogue between the achieving self and the self-saboteur; in such a case, an internalized, destructive father figure might also appear. The goal is to heal and resolve inner conflict in order to achieve a more integrated personality.

After many years of practicing hypnotherapy and writing fiction in tandem, I began to feel that the novelist is often doing subpersonality work on herself, consciously or unconsciously, when she stages characters that have sources in her own life and experience. This became most clear to me when I was studying Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. In this novel, a triangular love story takes place between a young New Yorker, Newland Archer, who is divided in his affections between the virginal, cloistered May Welland and the Europeanized, sexually more experienced Countess Ellen Olenska.

The three characters in Wharton’s novel represent different aspects of herself that correspond to different periods of her life. May Welland represents the young Wharton who, born and bred in 1860s and 1870s New York, was brought up according to the repressive Victorian rules of the day. She is the virginal, sheltered “Young Girl” that was the ideal of the period. Newland Archer represents Wharton’s longing to escape American provinciality for Europe and a broader experience of life and culture. Thus, Archer’s situation caught between May and Ellen is a figure for Wharton’s own negotiation between America and Europe, and what they represented to her, as she tried to decide where to live. Finally, Ellen portrays the modern woman Wharton became after she divorced and left the stifling milieu of her youth in order to settle in France, where she acquired more freedom socially, culturally, and sexually.

Because my interest lies in psychological fiction, I found myself taking the same approach in creating my characters. I am writing a series of three novels, each one of which focuses on a different cousin in a female triad. While the structure of my fictional family bears some resemblance to my own, the cousins are actually drawn from different aspects of myself. My first novel, The Geometry of Love (She Writes Press, 2014), is the story of Julia Field, a New Yorker, accountant, and poet, secular in outlook, someone who wants to follow the rules in both love and work, but finds herself breaking them. This character corresponds to my youth in New York, where I attended a traditional, very authoritarian private school. I was at the time highly invested in being a successful student, as teachers’ praise for my academic accomplishments compensated for the vicissitudes of having an alcoholic mother at home.

In my second novel, Nothing Forgotten (She Writes Press, April 2018), the protagonist Anna is a New Yorker who has moved to California. She is married and on a spiritual path marked by her Jewish roots and Buddhist thought, when a lover she knew in Italy in her youth returns and upsets her equilibrium. Here I was consciously staging a dialogue between, on the one hand, the wild, adventurous part of myself that came into being during the year and a half I lived in Rome in my early twenties and, on the other hand, the more settled person I’ve become, engaged in parenting and in a spiritual quest drawing on different meditation traditions. Anna’s quest is to achieve integration of those two personality parts into one human being who can satisfy both her need for adventure and her craving for internal peacefulness.

The third novel I am projecting, tentatively titled Shambles and Light, will focus on the third cousin, who appears briefly in the first two works. Robin is a hypnotherapist who uses shamanic practices and lives an experimental lifestyle in San Francisco. Here I am bringing in my experience as a therapist, my interest in using altered states of consciousness for spiritual development, and the insights into relationships that I’ve been privileged to acquire through listening to clients’ stories.

The reward of tapping into the multiplicity of one’s own experiences and emotions, the dark as well as the light, as they are embodied in one’s evolving personhood, is that one ends up creating characters that are believable and vivid by virtue of their origins in reality. In the process, the author undergoes an integration of self parts that can be healing and energizing beyond the book itself.

Author Photo: Chris Loomis 

JESSICA LEVINE is the author of Nothing Forgotten (She Writes Press, 2018), which earned a starred Booklist review and which Foreword Reviews called “women’s fiction at its best” and The Geometry of Love (She Writes Press, 2014), chosen as a Top 10 Women’s Fiction Title for 2015 by Booklist, which called it an “outstanding first novel” in their starred review. Her literary history, Delicate Pursuit: Discretion in Henry James and Edith Wharton, was published in Routledge’s Outstanding Dissertation Series. Her essays, shorts stories, and poetry have appeared in many publications, including The Southern Review and The Huffington Post. She has also translated several books from French and Italian into English. Jessica holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of California at Berkeley, where she was a Mellon Fellow. She was born in New York City and now lives in the Bay Area. Learn more at