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


Author Jessica Levine on Writing About Sex: Is It Necessary?

Jessica Levine

Remember how Thomas Hardy handled the rape of Tess of the d’Urbervilles? Tess is sleeping in the woods when Alec approaches her in the darkness and fog, then the narrator reflects, indirectly, about what is to befall her. There’s a chapter break and, the next thing we know, Tess is a fallen woman.

White spaces worked in the Victorian novel, and they still do. And we know what happens in the sexual act. So why should novelists bother to write about sex? As E.B. White put it in the title of his book, is sex necessary? At this moment in history, when we are bombarded with gratuitous sexual content in movies and video, writers may hesitate to join the fray. And if one doesn’t enjoy exhibitionism, writing about sex can feel embarrassing.

Working on early drafts of my novel The Geometry of Love, I avoided the task. I even had a version in which my characters’ love for each other was unrequited. When I finally wrote the love scenes that needed to be written, I was pleased: I had enjoyed the writing and felt I had created something fresh and interesting. However, when the time came to go to press, the feeling of exposure came up again and I wanted to excise the sex scenes. Thankfully, my agent held me firm with her praise, and I left them in the book.

Consider the power of sex in literature. An erotic scene can arouse a reader sexually, a lyrical one might trigger tears. A funny one can leave you doubled over with laughter. A violent one can induce nightmares. Although writing about sex may feel uncomfortable or redundant in our over-sexed age, it’s worth doing because sex scenes provide the writer with an opportunity like no other to catch and focus the reader’s attention. How can one best use that opportunity? The answer is that sex scenes need above all to serve the novel’s mood and content. In fact, writing about sex is most successful when it deemphasizes the sex itself and focuses instead on tone, emotion, character. This is all the more necessary given that sexual acts — whether passionate or violent, “safe” or the cause of pregnancy or disease — often provide major turning points in plot.

Sexual language is in itself jolting. When Henry Miller wrote Tropic of Cancer he expanded the vocabulary available to literary writers, adding four-letter words and more. And with those words he described scenes, relationships, attitudes that hadn’t been described before. I first read Tropic of Cancer in my twenties and, although I was repelled by its misogyny, I felt that it granted writers an intoxicating liberty to apply language to sexuality. Miller captured the rebellious spirit of American writers of the 1930s who, in decamping to Paris, removed themselves from the puritan atmosphere of the literary culture back home.

Another writer whose treatment of sex made an impression on me in my twenties was Richard Wright. The sequence in which Bigger rapes and murders Bessie in Native Son remains burned in my brain although I read it decades ago. I remember not the choreography of the scene but the sense of an abandoned tenement engulfed by moral and emotional despair, of a man dehumanized by racism and poverty, of a woman stripped of power. The crime committed becomes symbolic of the hell of Chicago’s South Side with its abandoned tenements and lawless subculture of violence.

The depiction of sexual violence in literary fiction often serves the author’s indictment of the attitudes and systems at its source, whether they be racism and sexism, as in Native Son, or the vicissitudes of ethnic conflict, as in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. In that novel, set in the tumultuous context of 1970s Afghanistan, an older boy rapes a younger one, whose best friend stands by as a passive witness when he could have prevented the assault. The two friends, whose relationship had transcended ethnic differences, are forever alienated from each other by this betrayal. Often interpreted as a story about guilt and redemption, The Kite Runner also explores structures of social and political power: the victimized boy is a servant and the friend who could have saved him belongs to the well-to-do family employing him. What is the responsibility of those in power to defend the subjugated? Can amends be made once a life has been destroyed by sexual assault? The questions raised go far beyond the violation that has taken place.

Formally, there is always something new that can be done in writing about sex. Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow focuses on the sexual obsessions and activities of twenty-year-old protagonist, Keith Nearing. The narrator, who repeatedly calls the sexual act “the indescribable deed,” ends up describing his encounters by relating the conversations held during them. The result is something I haven’t run across elsewhere in fiction–sex scenes rendered through dialogue and only dialogue. What could be more literary than this¾sexual activity reduced to the linguistic utterances it elicits? It’s as though the room were pitch-black, and all we can do as readers is eavesdrop as we imagine what is happening in the fiction of the lovers’ physical union.

With a few exceptions, like Anaïs Nin, the literary treatment of sex was in the twentieth century seen as a male province until the publication in 1973 of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. As sexually explicit as the works of male authors like Miller, this novel was considered a trail-blazing, feminist literary manifesto. Isabella’s quest for the “zipless fuck” came to represent the Sexual Revolution because of her desire to have the kind of sex men supposedly want and get ¾ casual, quick, fulfilling.

However, many episodes in this novel stage the humorous anticlimax that happens when sexual fantasy bumps up against reality. For example, when the married Isabella and her would-be lover, Adrian, drive to a hotel hoping to have adulterous sex for the first time, they get lost on the way so many times that, once they’re finally in bed, Adrian is too exhausted to perform. The drive to the hotel, full of dirty talk, recalls the passage in Madame Bovary in which Emma is seduced in a carriage galloping madly around the city of Rouen. Like Emma, Isabella has been raised on romantic myths and misguided by them.

And, much like Madame Bovary, Fear of Flying dives into the huge chasm that exists between sexual fantasizing and what happens when you act on those fantasies. Sex, when Isabella does get it, never assuages the enormous needs that propel her through life. And when an opportunity for an actual zipless fuck with a stranger on a train presents itself, she is repelled. As Isabella explores her freedom, she is repeatedly disappointed. The book is still highly readable today because Jong turns her protagonist’s disillusion into a creative romp satirizing received ideas about women’s sexuality, with Freud as a special target.

Whether a sex scene is violent or erotic and pleasurable, it can make an outsized impression. Writing about sex consequently has a special ability to distort time both for the reader and for the characters in a story. In Susan Minot’s novel, Evening, the narrative alternates between the deathbed of Ann Grant Lord, age sixty-five, and a retrospective of her life. Going backward in time, Ann remembers obsessively a weekend forty years earlier when she fell in love with a man she met at a friend’s wedding. The scene in which that passion is consummated goes on for pages and pages, with every gesture described in minute detail. The description, lyrical and exquisite, creates an almost surreal slow-motion effect, giving the reader the sense of events spilling out from the temporal container in which they occurred. And this is indeed what has happened in the consciousness of the protagonist, who is obsessed with her memories of that encounter.

When I sat down to write the sex scenes for my novel The Geometry of Love, all these readings and more gave me a sense of how much range writers have in addressing sexuality. My main aim was to have the love scenes serve the development of character and plot. The protagonist, Julia, is stuck in an unsatisfying relationship and yearns to be with another man. Unable to act because of her loyalty to her partner, she ends up, early in the novel, sleeping with a third man, an old friend whose sense of humor undoes her defenses and opens her up to the possibility of exploring other relationships.

The scene needed to be playful as Julia can only shed her paralyzing gravity by laughing her way out of it. The encounter, which takes place in an old Volkswagen bus parked on a farm, is comically interrupted first by a goat butting up against the van door as it tries to climb in, then by a drive to a drugstore to pick up condoms. In contrast, when I staged a later sexual encounter with Julia’s soul mate, I used poetic language to emphasize the intimacy and eroticism of the moment. In the thick of the adventure she has embarked upon, Julia ultimately embraces her deepest feelings and allows them to inform her life.

In the end, because of the way it grabs our attention, writing about sex will have a disproportionate impact on readers. Language will be noted, scenes will be taken as symbolic of a character, time, or place, and emotional impact will be high. Writers can take advantage of these opportunities in order to create powerful and memorable works. Writing about sex in fiction consequently becomes the opposite of gratuitous: it becomes a valuable tool for charting human experience and experimenting with the ways in which language can record it.

Jessica Levine’s stories, nonfiction, poetry, and translations have appeared in Green Hills Literary Lantern, The Huffington Post, Poetry Northwest, representations, North American Review, The Southern Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and many other places.  She earned her Ph.D. in English at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Delicate Pursuit: Literary Discretion in Henry James and Edith Wharton (Routledge, 2002) and has also translated three books from French and Italian into English. Her first novel, The Geometry of Love, was published by She Writes Press in April 2014 and has received glowing reviews from Foreword, Booklist, and other publications. You can find links to some of her online work at

THE GEOMETRY OF LOVE attempts to solve the problem of a tangled love triangle

The Geometry of Love Jessica Levine

The Geometry of Love

By Jessica Levine

SheWrites Press: April 8, 2014

286 pages, $16.95

Jessica Levine’s debut novel, The Geometry of Love, asks whether a woman with a fiercely creative spirit can ever be content without being married to her muse. It is an astute psychological study of a young woman named Julia Field, an aspiring poet 10 years out of college and 10 years into a relationship with her brilliant British boyfriend, Ben. Julia has put her creative impulses and career on the back burner to follow Ben, who is now on the tenure track at Princeton. Although she is very much a Manhattan girl who thrives on the city’s energy as a source of stimulation and happiness, she has moved to a house in the New Jersey countryside not far from the university, where she is employed as the math department secretary. A chance meeting with Ben’s college roommate, classical pianist and composer Michael, stirs up long-dormant desires, and conflicts and quandaries ensue.

Levine has written an intensely focused novel about one woman in her early 30s who is trying to sort out her life. She is preoccupied with several questions. How did she end up in this place? (Shades of Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.”) Did she make the right decisions along the way? Has she compromised too much? Is she truly satisfied with her long-running relationship with Ben, who is by all accounts (including hers) a devoted, charming, attractive, and economically stable guy with a bright future? What happened to her creative impulse and her desire to be a poet? Is anyone to blame, or is that just how life works? Will cautious Ben propose to her now that he is on the verge of obtaining tenure? Does Michael have a place in her (or their) life anymore? Is it time for Julia to think of herself for once? She has the opportunity to take over her father’s successful financial advising business but that would necessitate living in Manhattan; can she and Ben live apart during the week and alternate weekends between her apartment and their house near Princeton? Would Ben be willing to live in the city and take the train to work? How can they make it all fit together?

From the description above, one could well view the plot as nothing more than a soap opera for smart people, a look into the lives of privileged people struggling to cope with “first world problems.” The Geometry of Love is generally successful in achieving its goals of closely examining the nature of relationships, love, desire, and creativity, but it’s also not surprising that readers seem to have fallen into two camps, love it or hate it.

To some, Julia is immature, unrealistic, impractical, self-indulgent, and neurotic. She is, perish the thought, less than likable. To others, she is just a perfectly normal person, full of complexities, contradictions, and confusion, and thus eminently sympathetic.

I lean strongly toward the latter position, due largely to the strength of Levine’s writing and her deep understanding of what makes these characters tick. I found Julia, Ben, and Michael, and a cast of intriguing supporting characters, to be alternately sympathetic and annoying, and on some occasions even infuriating – just like most of the people in the real world. I found myself immersed in Julia’s world, wondering what would happen next, what the main characters would do, and how what eventually becomes a very messy situation would sort itself out.

Julia and Ben have what appears to be a strong and loving relationship that has stood the test of time. Everyone believes they belong together. On paper, Julia should be fulfilled and content. But recently she has grown increasingly restless, and the meeting with bearded, bohemian Michael has led her to question her life with renewed intensity. She feels she has reached the fork in the road where she must make a commitment to her future; the rest of her life lies ahead, but what kind of future does she want? Her relationship with Ben is comfortable, but it often lacks the spark of truly happy couples who like as well as love each other. It’s clear that Eros plays a key role in creative inspiration for Julia, and that is missing in her otherwise “ideal” life.

“[Ben] saw a relationship as a kind of cathedral under endless construction,” notes Julia. “But I saw it – now – as a living organism with its own peculiar cycles of growth and aging. Woody Allen’s words in Annie Hall came back to me: A relationship is like a shark; it needs to keep moving or it dies.”

Julia soon becomes torn between her intense feelings for Michael – who seems to be her muse – and her devotion to Ben. She is caught in the age-old conundrum. Should she choose passion and poetry or “the good life” of an Ivy League professor’s wife, which would still allow her considerable freedom? Should she follow her heart or her mind? Can either one be trusted? The plot is rich and complicated and develops in a realistic manner until the home stretch, which feels rushed and slightly contrived.

But even when the characters make questionable decisions, acting (or failing to act) implausibly, they don’t necessarily seem unrealistic because people in this type of situation often behave erratically. They can be desperate, deluded, destructive – and full of rationalizations that are convincing only to themselves. The destruction left in their wake by lovers inhabiting their own insular world is very real, and some of it is given short shrift here. There is a lot of thinking and talking about the consequences of various courses of action, but the realistic ramifications are not explored as fully as I would have liked (and as Levine did so well in the first three-quarters of the book). If The Geometry of Love were an actual geometry problem, Levine’s solution would be correct, but in showing her work, one can see that she has omitted a step or two.

Despite these relatively minor drawbacks, The Geometry of Love is an involving read that poses many questions sure to generate lots of discussion; it would make an excellent choice for a book club. Levine deserves particular credit for writing realistic sex scenes between mature, passionate people, and her exploration of female desire is especially impressive. These scenes are central to understanding the characters involved in this love triangle, and we learn a great deal about them through Levine’s skilled handling of this sensitive material.