Are your characters telling secrets about you?

by Tess Gerritsen

Because the upcoming TV series “Rizzoli & Isles” is based on the characters from my thriller series, the show’s writers have been reading my novels to familiarize themselves with Jane and Maura’s personalities and back-stories.  A few weeks ago, they flew out to Boston for a research visit, and I got the chance to meet them.  Over dinner, the lead writer turned to me and said, “Maura Isles has Asperger’s, doesn’t she?”

Her insight startled me, because I had no idea it was so obvious.  I never set out to make Maura an Aspie.  I never even knew that she was an Aspie… until I discovered that I’m one, too.

I’ll admit that Maura reflects some aspects of my own personality.  Some of her biographical details come straight from my own life — where she went to school, what car she drives, her taste in music, food, and wine.  Also drawn from my own personality is her belief in science and logic and her drive to understand why things happen.  Nevertheless, she’s a fictional creation, someone I thought I’d simply made up.  

I didn’t realize that it was me emerging on the page.

Those who’ve read the series know that Maura is uncomfortable in crowds.  She’s not skillful with small talk, she likes her solitude and she doesn’t have a huge circle of friends.  In fact, her friendship with Jane Rizzoli is more a matter of their linked occupations rather than from any interpersonal connections.  None of these details struck me as strange, because that’s the way I am too, and I always thought of myself as normal.  My father was this way as well, very much a lone wolf who was obsessive about his work as a chef. 

Growing up, I was the awkward kid who never said much in class.  My few friends were the other awkward kids, the ones who were always last to be chosen for field hockey and volleyball.  When an equally geeky boy I liked took me for a ride in his truck, we didn’t go to the movies or lover’s lane or anywhere that other teens might go.  We drove to the Salk Institute to ooh and ahh at the cool research buildings, where we fantasized about working someday.  

Even though I felt okay about myself, I was always a little envious of people who could walk into a room and circulate and instantly make everyone like them. I’m unable to circulate; I get stuck talking to one person in the room and I have no idea how to move on to anyone else.  I marvel at how good others are at small talk, and how easily they make friends.  I assumed they just had a gift, that they were special.  I never considered the possibility that they were the normal ones.

Then, at a literary dinner last year, I had the privilege of sitting beside a spokesman for an Asperger’s support organization.  Neither one of us was any good at small talk, but we were both really good at being obsessive about a particular topic.  His topic was Asperger’s.  He began to describe the characteristics: Trouble looking people in the eye.  Uncomfortable in crowds.  Tend to focus on minutiae.  Good with numbers. 

“This is starting to sound like me,” I said.

“It doesn’t mean you have it,” he said.  “Now, if you also had synesthesia…”

“Does it count that I see colors when I hear certain notes played on the piano?”

Now he got interested.  “What do you see?”

“If I hear an F, I see yellow.  If it’s C, I see orange.  If it’s B flat or E flat, I see purple or mauve. That’s been true ever since I was a kid.  I assumed that everyone saw those colors.”   

“Yep,” he laughed.  “You’re an Aspie.”

It was something I hadn’t realized until that conversation.  Yet the TV writer, after merely reading my books, immediately saw the diagnosis.  She understood something that I myself hadn’t perceived: that Maura Isles has Asperger’s.  

Just as Maura’s creator does. 

It’s discomfiting to realize how much I’ve unwittingly revealed about myself in my books.  I wonder how many other secrets my characters have told about me.  It’s inevitable, isn’t it?  When we sit down to tell a story, our character’s voice has to come from somewhere.  It’s shaped by our own experiences and personalities, by our own perceptions of the world.  Without meaning to, we spill ourselves onto the page in so many subtle ways.  

It doesn’t mean that mystery writers are all homicidal maniacs and romance writers are lusty women. Our characters are just as likely to be our complete opposites, so readers shouldn’t assume they can psychoanalyze a writer based on how his characters think. But every so often, we writers allow ourselves to walk onto the page.  We take a turn in our own story, and speak the truth straight from our hearts.

We just won’t tell you when we’re doing it.


32 thoughts on “Are your characters telling secrets about you?

  1. Karen in Ohio

    Wow, that would be a revelation, in so many ways.

    As a reader, I often wonder how much of an author’s own life is in their books, and where they found out about particular subjects, especially ones they seem to know so intimately. It doesn’t always follow that they have personal life experience with those topics, but I guess it’s true more often than not.

  2. Cornelia Read

    What a great post, Tess. I ostensibly write about myself, but am often amazed at the ways in which the character becomes so different from me.

    I’m slightly Asperger’s, and my daughter has very severe autism. So, you know… the spectrum… I get it.

  3. PK the Bookeemonster

    Seeing colors in music sounds like a gift to me. I liked your post; thank you for sharing. Do they have a date yet when the show will begin to air?

  4. karenfrommentor

    Great post Tess.
    That’s so cool that you just happened to be seated by someone who had something to impart to you that was so pertinent to your own life. I love it when stuff like that happens. I think that the characters that we know best and return to again and again are the ones that are most reflective of ourselves when we write. And that it makes sense that we would sprinkle little bits of ourselves into their story line. The fact that the writers for the new tv project are taking the time to really reaseach your characters must make you feel great, even if it also makes you feel a little bit naked.

  5. Colette

    Tess, what a brave post! While I never knew that Maura has Asperger’s I could feel that she was the character you (as the author) related to the most. How interesting!

  6. Allison Brennan

    I sensed the connection about you and Maura as well, even before we met.

    My characters take on some of my characteristics and values. Often, if my two main protagonists have a major disagreement about something important to the story–such as the death penalty or a criminal justice related issue–it’s because I have the argument with myself, or can see both sides so clearly that while I may lean one way or the other, I understand and empathize with the opposing view.

    And sometimes, not 🙂 . . . I agree, I won’t share who I’m most like! I know which heroine of mine I’d most like to BE because I admire her and she doesn’t have major angst in her backstory!

  7. Judy Wirzberger

    "Know thyself," Aristotle said. Actually one of the most difficult things to do at times. I’m just finishing JT’s cold room and your books have slunk their way to the top of the TBR pile. What a wonderful experience you are in the midst of. Congratulations and enjoy the ride – hope it is a long one. Looking to run into you one day.

  8. Kathryn Lilley

    I love this post, Tess. What a tribute to your writing that you were able to convey a character’s reality so keenly that someone could actually diagnose that syndrome, when you weren’t aware of it yourself.

  9. Jessica Scott

    What a great post. I’ve been uncomfortable reading some of my old stuff because in creating fictional characters, I was actually creating a fictional biography based on what I wanted to be. Having set those books aside, they were nonetheless a huge learning lesson for me because I learned to create actual characters rather than just put how I would react on the page. Those books will never see the light of day but I still see certain things about myself coming out on the page.
    I see elements of myself in all my characters, oddly enough, I relate to my male characters better than my female characters. Probably because I’m still somewhat of a tomboy, or maybe because I’m surrounded by men all day everyday in the army, but its still a truth about my writing that I’m learning to use rather than fight.

    Great post!

  10. Rachel Stevens

    As an Aspie myself, I picked up on Maura a long time ago, and loved the books more because I could truly identify with her views on things.

    I saw the TNT teaser for Rizolli & Isles last weekend for the first time and can’t wait to see it. Congrats again for not only getting it picked up, but actually made.

  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Fascinating post, Tess. My son has Asperger’s, so I also know the traits. He’s a fantastic reader and plays piano, too. I’ve never asked him about seeing colors, but I’m going to today.
    I don’t think we can help infusing our characters with our own traits. Our views of the world give them dimension, drive, motivation, passion.

  12. Pepper Smith

    I have always thought we put more of ourselves into our characters and stories than we realize. Or maybe on some level we do realize it, and that’s why it can feel so much like walking into a room with no clothes on when other people read our work. (Or maybe that’s just me feeling a bit naked, because my book has just come out.)

    I had not realized that about seeing colors with music. That turns music into a visual as well as an aural experience. As a musician and singer, I find that very interesting.

  13. JT Ellison

    Hey Tess, does your prosopagnosia fit into the Asperger spectrum too? It sounds like you’ve been gifted with some rare beautiful talents, I’m not at all surprised to see that find its way into your writing. Maura is my favorite character too because of her alienations.

    T. Jefferson Parker’s book THE FALLEN is a wonderful story of a detective whose brain injury results in synesthesia. Highly recommended, it’s one of my favorite because it delves into this lovely rare phenomenon.

  14. Berenmind

    Question for: Rachel, Cornelia, Tess, and Stephen:

    What is it that characterizes your Asperger’s (or your son’s, Stephen)? Have there been diagnoses?

    Tess mentioned being an awkward kid and the music color thing. What is it for you others?

  15. Gayle Carline

    I’ll never forget the author at a writer’s conference who said, "all novels are semi-autobiographical." It’s not about being serial killers or sex maniacs – it’s about the little pieces of ourselves that slip from our fingers onto the page. I thought I was giving my protagonist personality traits that differed from my own, but when she’s given the chance to express her thoughts, she and I share a lot of opinions, and we think things out the same way.

    As for Asperger’s – my son has a friend with Aspie’s. Prior to becoming an author, I was a software engineer for almost 30 years. I thought my son’s pal was just a budding engineer!

  16. toni mcgee causey

    Excellent post, Tess. I had picked up on the similarity between Maura and you after meeting you — and that Maura had Asperger’s. The synesthesia is fascinating.

    I’m curious — does being able to put a name to a certain subset of behaviors help you deal with them in a more comfortable way? As in, this is simply how you were created, how you are, and here’s X that explains it, so it’s not that you’re lacking (re: small talk, crowds, etc.), it’s just that you’ve got strengths elsewhere?

    I know parts of my personality have imbued several of my characters. Ironically, the one I think I’m most alike, personality-wise, isn’t the one most people assume is "me." This amuses me, because I know why people assume that (it’s the difference between the public persona and the private one).

  17. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Berenmind – I’m kind-of away from the internet today, so it’s hard to squeeze in a reply. But, yes, he was diagnosed at age seven, and he’s eleven now. But we knew something was up from early on, at least as early as age three. Characterized by some very impressive melt-downs, lots of OCD behavior, and a different way of viewing the world. It’s a challenge, every day, but he’s a wonderful, beautiful, intelligent and talented kid – much of that coming from the way his Aspie mind works.

  18. Berenmind

    Thanks Stephen. Sounds like you’ve got a really amazing kid there……and HE has a pretty great Daddy!

  19. Zoë Sharp

    Fascinating post, Tess, and amazing how many creative people are on the fringes of this. Actually, I have a theory that the ability to ‘see’ stories and possible plot strands in everyday things that normally people filter out of their conscious mind, is a form of mild autism that all writers suffer from.

    Although, ‘suffer’ is definitely the wrong word. To my mind, it’s something to be celebrated ;-]

  20. tess gerritsen

    Sorry all for not participating in the discussion earlier. I’ve just spent the past 36 hours stuck in airports and driving through drenching rain and just got home. I love all t he comments and am intrigued that so many of us — or those we love — fall into that could-be-Aspie category.

    PK: re Rizzoli & Isles, Angie Harmon’s been quoted in the news saying the show’s premiere will be on July 12. Here’s hoping the country tunes in that night!

    Berenmind, yes, James Hayman and I both share the same agent, Meg Ruley of the Jane Rotrosen Agency. We’re incredibly lucky to be her clients.

    Rachel, I haven’t seen the Rizzoli & Isles teaser yet, so you’re way ahead of me. Guess I’ll have to keep TNT playing 24 hours a day and hope to catch it.

    JT, interesting question about propagnosia and Asperger’s. I suspect that if there’s a link, it has more to do with the fact that Aspies have a hard time looking people in the eye, so we don’t get the chance to study faces and familiarize ourselves with them. Weirdly enough, I’m really good at recognizing actors on TV shows or movies, because a face on TV can’t look back at me, so it doesn’t feel as threatening. I’m also pretty good at recognizing peoples’ pets — again, because looking a pet in the eye isn’t scary.

    Toni, putting a name to it does make it easier to deal with, because it explains so many things. It makes one feel less like a weirdo, and more like a recognized variation of normal. And because it’s now recognized as so widespread, we know we aren’t alone.

    And from all the comments by the other murderati gang, it sounds like our personalities can’t help but bleed onto the page. Yes, it does feel like walking naked into the public eye. The trick is keeping the public guessing just which character is really us!

  21. Louise Ure

    Dead right, Tess. I think I’ve probably given away a great deal. Not that I can’t write in a different character’s world view, but that I’m unlikely to make my protagonist vastly different from the way I see the world. Of course, they’re probably younger and better looking, but then again, I once was, too.

  22. Berenmind

    Louise. I think I want to become a murder writer now. I will write myself as younger and better looking with a wonderful outlook on life……happy as a clam in my own shell…………as long as I am killing someone.

    (Cornelia knows who my first victim will be….. Mwahahahahahaha)

    j/k everyone………….. : )

  23. tess gerritsen

    Pari, after coming to this revelation, I now feel more comfortable with myself. I always felt a little guilty about being a loner. Now I shrug and say, "well, it’s because of my, um, condition." And my family understands me better. They understand that I’m not being cool to them — I’m just in cave mode, when I need to be by myself.

    Because my job requires I be a public person, I’ve learned to turn on the switch when it comes time to go on book tour. It’s stressful, but as long as I have time to myself at the end of the day, I can handle it.

  24. Barbie

    I LOVE this blog post. SO saving it to my favorites!!! 🙂

    I want to be a writer some day and I have such difficulty separating some aspects of my characters from myself. I know a lot I show it’s involuntary, but there are certain things that I don’t like or don’t believe in, that I don’t want my characters to be that way… It’s one of the things I really have to learn.

    I love Maura and I’m SOOOOOOOOOO excited for the show!!!

  25. Paula R.

    Hey Tess, I completely understand where you are coming from. I am writing my very first novel, and I find that the protag is me. That makes it so much harder to right. Though here circumstances aren’t the same as mine, everything she is, her insecurities, her doubt, her fears are all mine. How do you get around that and push through to the end? I guess this is where fiction takes over and reality steps aside quietly. Thank you for sharing this piece of you. I often wondered how much of a writer shows up in their books.

    Peace and love,
    Paula R.

  26. Ray Rhamey

    I loved this post and your openness to insight. In one of my novels, I have a child who seems to have Asperger’s (it’s not; he retreats for another reason). Now you have me wondering what my characters are saying about me!

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  28. Dennis

    Wonderful post… Very informational and educational as usual!
    Post very nicely written, and it contains useful facts. I am happy to find your distinguished way of writing the post. Now you make it Thanks for taking the time to talk about this, I feel fervently about this and I take pleasure in learning about this topic. Please, as you gain information, please update this blog with more information. I have found it very useful.

  29. Allison Davis

    Tess, this is one of the great truths of writing. Taking risks by putting parts of your own vulnerability (our own) into the character gives that character life and edge — putting in the scarey (by being exposed or open about them) parts for us, brings the reader way inside. Stephen's Hayden is exactly that as is Maura — in fact, it's a Murderati trait I think… Hard to write that vulnerability into the character without imbuing some of yourself there. Good thoughts for those of us still editing manuscripts.


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