We are not our books

by Tess Gerritsen 

An entry over on Sarah Weinman's blog alerted me to a fascinating study claiming that signs of early Alzheimer's Disease are detectable in an author's work long before other signs of dementia become apparent. University of Toronto researchers compared Agatha Christie's early novels with novels she wrote late in life, and based on a drop in her vocabulary and repetitive use of phrases, as well as other indicators, they felt it was clear that she was already suffering from dementia when her last books were written.  

That study got me to thinking about how much we writers reveal about ourselves through our stories.  I'm not just talking about dementia, a nightmarish diagnosis that strikes terror in any writer's heart.  Nor am I referring to the quality of the writing itself.  I'm talking about what clues our books may reveal about our personalities, our attitudes, and our beliefs. Can you judge a writer's character by his books?  If Jane Trueheart writes tender romances, can we assume she's the sort of woman who adores animals and children, weeps at sad movies, and doesn't possess a mean bone in her body?  If Jack Slaughter writes bloody serial killer books, do we shudder at the thought of being his next-door neighbor?

It's natural to assume that an author's books reflect his personality.  As a physician, I've noticed that each specialty tends to attract certain personality types.  Ophthalmologists are painstakingly neat people, orthopedic surgeons are jocks, dermatologists are natty dressers, and pathologists are least likely to be chatty.  These are generalizations, true, but I'll bet that most doctors who read this are nodding their heads in agreement.  Can we say the same about writers?  Does the genre we choose say something about our personalities?

I'm part of several different genre communities, and have mingled with a number of writers from every field.  As a former romance author, I've attended RWA conferences and Romantic Times conventions.  As a thriller writer, I know quite a few suspense, mystery, and thriller authors.  I also count, as good friends or acquaintances, authors who write science fiction, fantasy, or horror.  If there's some common personality type that defines all the people who write thrillers and all the people who write romance, I haven't noticed it.  I know many warm and generous women who write romance.  But that genre also harbors some of the scariest, most aggressive people I know — not at all what you'd expect from people who write about love.  

You would think that those who write bloody crime or horror novels would be the truly scary people.  I myself have fallen into the trap of assuming that a sicko book must have been created by a sicko author, and then I'm startled when I finally meet the "sicko author," and discover she's a sweet, shy vegetarian who can't stand the thought of animals being hurt.  Weirdly enough, If I were to pick which genre has the gentlest people, I would say it's horror writers.  So far I haven't met any nasty ones. Maybe they're just really good actors. Maybe at night they shed their human masks and assume their true reptilian forms.

While it's always a temptation to assume a fictional character is really the author in disguise, I know so many authors whose characters are their polar opposites.  Actors will often tell you that their favorite roles are villains, because it's their chance to play someone completely unlike themselves.  I too have the most fun when my character is completely unlike me.  I live my whole life in my own skin; when I dive into my fictional world, I really love the chance to think and behave like someone else. Which is why Jane Rizzoli is bold, aggressive, and courageous.  Just like me… not.  With the exception of Maura Isles (who comes the closest to my own personality), my characters have had no resemblance to me at all.  Yet readers make any number of assumptions about me, because of things that my characters do or think.  Over the years, various readers have written to tell me that I'm a bitter feminist who has a real problem with men, that I'm an ageist pig (because one of my characters said "old fart"), that I'm a nutso liberal or a whacked-out right-winger, and that I should clean up my foul mouth.

 And there's one thing they all agree on: I am a very creepy person. Because my characters are creepy, and of course we are our characters.

Every writer has had to deal with reader preconceptions of who we really are.  Every horror writer has probably  heard: "You're not as scary as I thought you'd be."  Every adventure writer is supposed to be tall and manly.  And thriller novelists are expected to show up in black leather.  (Which explains why so many of them do.)

But you can't judge a book by its cover, and you can't judge a writer by his book.  

With two exceptions.  

All science fiction writers are seriously intelligent people.  I can't think of any exceptions.  Of all novelists, the highest I.Q.'s will be found among the SF crowd.

And people who write funny books are funny people in real life.  You can fake readers into thinking you're tough, adventurous, ruthless, passionate, outrageous, or bloodthirsty.  But you can't fake funny.



21 thoughts on “We are not our books

  1. J.D. Rhoades

    Two words: Ken Bruen. Ke writes some truly dark, violent stuff, and he’s one of the nicest people I know.

    And then there’s you, Tess…you write some bloody, twisted passages as well, but you’re a total sweetheart.

  2. R.J. Mangahas

    I have to agree about Ken Bruen. A true gentleman.

    Another example I can think of is Gary Braver. He writes some pretty intense thrillers. You meet the guy in person though, he’s pretty funny. I took one of his workshops on thrillers and there were quite a few laughs involved during the course of it.

  3. pari

    Yes, Tess.

    Bruen is a great example.

    Another couple of examples are Donna Andrews and Jennie Cruisie who sometimes right kind of ditzy heroines but both of whom definitely are NOT.

    Also YES re science fiction — and I’d include fantasy too — as being super intelligent. I know many many of them in NM and they’re amazing.

  4. caite

    I can agree that you are not a creepy person.

    But as to that Alzheimer study, I am a little concerned by my limited vocabulary and repetitive use of phrases. Except that I have always been that way…

  5. Allison Brennan

    ROFLOL Caite . . . I was thinking the EXACT same thing!

    Toni is truly funny in real life. NO ONE tells a story that makes me laugh like Toni does.

    My agent tells me she’s always saying, “No, really, Allison is a very nice person.”

    But speaking of authorial voice and personality . . . when I read Alex’s THE UNSEEN I could picture her in the role of Laurel McDonald . . . I don’t know why, but it was more the dialogue than anything. 🙂

  6. Louise Ure

    This post was a howl, Tess. And I particularly agree with the last two points about humor and science fiction writers.

    Am I my characters? No. Except for that crusty old aunt in Forcing Amaryllis who loved crossword puzzles and smoked like a dragon.

  7. Vikki

    I started a new book this fall, the first scene is written from the perspective of a seriously twisted serial killer. I scared myself. I hope that writers aren’t what we write because I’ll go ahead and turn myself in as harmful to society

  8. J.T. Ellison

    A wonderful post – I was just talking about Barry Eisler during an interview this week – you read Rain and expect this dark person, yet Barry is one the most lighthearted men I’ve ever met. Most incongruous.

    At the same time, Lee Child and Jack Reacher? Put it this way, if I’m ever in a dark alley, I’d like Lee to have my back.

    It’s an occupational hazard, really, trying to discern what parts of the authors have made it into their books and what parts are made up. I do think we put a little bit of us in every character, unwittingly or not.

  9. toni mcgee causey

    It’s bad enough that people already think I’m crazy, but now I have to use big words so they won’t think I’m senile? I’m doomed.

    [I do secretly like to blow things up, though.]

  10. Cornelia Read

    I am pretty much my protagonist, except that she thinks up good comebacks on the spot, is a crack shot, and doesn’t mind confrontation (I don’t even like to have to place the phone call for pizza delivery). Oh, and she still likes her first husband.

    The similarities are not because I thought I’d make a good character, but because I have a tremendous paucity of imagination.

  11. Jill James

    Tess, nice to know you aren’t as scary as your books. I’ve met you at a booksigning and you weren’t scary at all. 🙂 But, boy are some of your books very scary indeed.

  12. Fran

    Let me add Kevin O’Brien to the mix. He’s absolutely sweet, a true angel. But read his books? I know one person who did and now is terrified of Kevin, even though he’s met Kev and KNOWS what a sweetie Kevin is.

    I love the whole post, Tess, and the last two comments had me nodding and chuckling. Absolutely spot-on!

  13. ec


    When I’m introduced as a writer to people who haven’t read my stuff, they invariably assume I write children’s books. Apparently my aura says Cookie-Baking Soccer Mom.

    On the other hand, people who haven’t met me but know I write fantasy novels of the sword-and-sorcery variety frequently assume my characters are based on me and all the other dragon-slaying elves with whom I’m acquainted. Sometimes I’m tempted to mail these folks some cookies, if only to further confuse them.

  14. Susan

    I think we tend to write what jazzes us when we read. If a serial killer sets my heart to thundering, I’m more likely to write about SKs than knitters.Why? So I don’t fall asleep on my keyboard.Susan


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