Friday, June 17, 2011

Alexithymia: What it means for us ... and for our characters

On Monday, I mentioned I'd be posting about alexithymia today, and I linked to the Online Alexithymia Questionnaire, a 37-item self-report measure that gives you an instant score and some indication of whether or not you are reporting significant levels of this particular trait. Higher scores indicated higher levels of alexithymia. Several of you reported back, and your scores varied tremendously (my score was 67, if you're wondering).

Before I go on, I have to say this: the people who follow this blog, in addition to possessing keen intelligence and thoughtful natures, are some of the best sports in the world.

So what is alexithymia?

It's considered both an "affect-deficit disorder" AND a continuous personality trait (like introversion-extroversion, we ALL fall somewhere along a continuum).

Basically, it's a disturbance in emotion processing that includes:
  1. difficulties identifying and verbalizing feelings
  2. a tendency to focus on somatic (bodily) sensations that go along with emotional arousal
  3. limited imagination, with a focus on the practical and concrete
People who have full-on alexithymia (less than 10% of the population, and no, it's not a simple gender difference) tend to have trouble talking about feelings, recognizing feelings in others, and telling the difference between emotional and physical sensations. These individuals tend to have few dreams or fantasies, and a logical, practical cognitive style that excludes emotions from the problem-solving equation.

Keeping in mind that this is a continuum, you might either recognize yourself or someone you know in that description. I know I did.

Note: Alexithymia is NOT a DSM-IV disorder. However, it does tend to co-occur with psychiatric disorders. It shows a lot of overlap with autism spectrum disorders like Asperger's disorder. It also occurs in large percentages of individuals diagnosed with depression, PTSD, panic disorder, eating disorders, and substance abuse.

Now, as I expected, most of you reported very low levels of this trait. For those of you who scored high: DO NOT PANIC. Remember this was a quick-and-dirty measure, that there is a continuum, that less than 10% of folks have actual alexithymia, and that many folks who do are highly successful individuals (I know some of them personally).

As writers, you can see how alexithymic tendencies might make the job hard. We're supposed to have loose, flexible, and vibrant imaginations. We're supposed to be sharp-eyed observers of the human condition--and able to render that condition in naked, unflinching emotional detail using only words. We're supposed to use language so skillfully that it evokes emotions in other people.

Understanding the underpinnings of human emotion, both the animal impulses and the feelings driven by our thoughts and interpretations, is probably important for most writers. Based on what I've read (which includes novels and blogs), many writers have an instinctual understanding of these things.

HOWEVER, here's what I've been thinking: a little alexithymia in our characters might not be so bad.

In fact, it might be essential.

So you're an intuitive, feelings-oriented writer? Great! But ... you know what's not so compelling? A character who knows exactly what she's feeling and why, all the time. A character who just tells the reader (or her co-protagonist) flat out: I feel guilty, and here's why. I'm sad because blah blah blah. I'm elated, all due to XYZ!

Where's the fun in that?

This is where alexithymic tendencies come in handy. Those statements above? ALL TELLING NO SHOWING. The opposite of what we're supposed to be doing.

We're supposed to be showing the reader what that character is going through, demonstrating the effect a situation has on him/her--and doing it so well that the reader feels present in the situation. You don't get that kind of effect by having the character understand every twinge of emotion and interpret it perfectly. You get it by painting a picture, one that goes far beyond simple emotion words. You get it by letting the character be confused and distressed, and by not allowing him/her to have it all figured out. By trusting yourself and your reader enough not to over-explain.

Examples of (just a few of the many) authors who have done this very well: Courtney Summers (Cracked Up To Be), Barry Lyga (Boy Toy), Heidi Ayarbe (Compulsion). If you've read any of those books, you know what I'm talking about. They are RAW. Brimming with emotion, in some cases to the point where it actually makes the reader uncomfortable. But in each of them, the protagonist is sincerely mixed up as to what is driving his or her feelings, including what exactly those feelings are.

Their characters have alexithymic tendencies. And ... that's a good thing.

Does this help you understand alexithymia? Can you think of any books that include characters with alexithymic tendencies? Do you notice the difference between characters who do and those who don't? Which do you tend to write? And, if you took the Online Alexithymia Questionnaire, did your score correspond to the type of characters you gravitate to or tend to write?


  1. this is fascinating, but I'm stuck trying to imagine someone who can't tell the difference between emotional and physical sensations. Can you elaborate?

  2. I was thinking asperger's when I started reading the post. ;)

    This is a brilliant suggestion, especially if you write YA. Teens are crazy with emotion, but can't always recognize it for what it is.

  3. This is really interesting. It's a great point to consider about characters, especially main characters. It's much more interesting to see them struggle with their issues than just realise what they are as soon as they crop up. That makes for healthy living, not entertaining reading!

  4. Really great point- the best emotional pull is when we don't know exactly what the mc is feeling all the time- when we want them to go one way but they're going another or when we're there for the build up. Interesting stuff and great post!

  5. Sarah, this is completely brilliant. "So you're an intuitive, feelings-oriented writer? Great! But ... you know what's not so compelling? A character who knows exactly what she's feeling and why, all the time." <----- wonderful. But even, less removed, this made me think of something else. Even if a writer is showing rather than telling, having the character know exactly how and why they feel and even if they are showing through actions, etc, isn't great either. Having them figure it out (or not) and having them make us squirm and squick and raise a brow in confusion and challenge reader comfort levels and deduction methods. Yeah, that works. Great examples above. I also thought of LHA's Wintergirls. Have you read it? Another good one.

  6. I think utilizing a snippet of alexithymia in our characters could add some tension, a bit of a tease. And hey, we had the same score. ;)

    My family is totally dysfunctional. You could label me the psychologist of the family. Everyone seems to come to me for answers or a shoulder, even when I was little. *shrugs* Because of this, I think I've developed a sensitivity to others' emotions or lack of, should I say.

  7. So true! A character who knows exactly what she (or he) is feeling and blabs about it all the time is not all that compelling. As a reader, we do want to see that confusion in the characters, that struggle to come to grips with their emotions.

  8. This is SO awesome. I LOVE reading your posts. Really gives me a lot to think about when developing characters, tension, dialogue, conflict, the whole shebang. Thanks!

  9. I ditto lbdiamond above!

    And your post gives me hope, as I am writing a first draft with a character who is (and I never had words for it before reading your posts) a smidge alexithymic. I just thought her confusion was my confusion!

  10. i scored low on that quizzy thingy, but my characters do have a tendency to be alexythemic. i didn't know the term for such a thing. but i've thought that some people tend to "feel a bit more deeply" than others... but i like this concept better- because it speaks to the awareness of emotion as opposed to the presence of emotion, which has way more heart! great post (per usual) tons to think about!

  11. So if I am the complete opposite? I'm emo? LOL. Good point about character though. They shouldn't always get what they or or others are feeling. Makes life more interesting. At least in books.

  12. It's really interesting, but I get the feeling this isn't supposed to be the same thing as a person who is just very cerebral, and suppresses their emotions constantly because they feel weak, or loss of control or whatever, right?

  13. Interesting stuff...I guess there is a name for everything! LOL My score was in the 60s, I think, but recalling past situations it seems like it may be a slight sliding scale, depending on circumstances. I'm usually clearheaded about what I'm feeling, but there have been a few times in my life when confusion ruled. Is that what you mean by the term continuum here? That it might slide depending on circumstances?

  14. Cool series of posts, as always! I'd say, in general, the more messed up the better. Simple feeling statements ("I was so pissed" or "I went and cried in a a corner") make the character seem one-dimensional. In first person especially, messed up feelings keep it interesting. I think there's more leeway in a third person novel; sometimes telling is just more efficient. But I totally agree, showing is the way to go 99% of the time.

  15. Fascinating. Now that I know more about it, I can think of someone who has this who doesn't have another disorder and someone who has it in conjunction with another disorder.

    And I can see how someone on the complete opposite end of the spectrum could be a bit much - wearing his or her heart on their sleeve. I know someone like that. It's all about discussing feelings and not much else.

    Yes, characters who are a little clueless about feelings can definitely up the tension in the story!

  16. What I found interesting is if you check 'Undecided' in every case, you end up with the score of 111.

    I'm curious if anyone scored higher than that.

    When reading the questions, I think people's scores could drastically change depending on on the timeline they are imagining the hypothetical situations. For example, question 4 says, "When other people are hurt or upset, I have difficulty imagining what they are feeling."

    I think, if someone all of a sudden starts crying, you wouldn't know, in that moment, what they are feeling or why, but depending on the next few minutes of interaction, you could swing either way, into understanding or into further confusion. Also, the statement doesn't address if it's a stranger or someone close to you, which would also change the answer I think.

    Therefore, I find questionnaires like this difficult to answer because of all the possible variables.

    Or am I just completely crazy?

  17. Not a simple gender difference, but oh, my, when a guy character who is a 'manly man' DOES feel something and it's shown, we go wild. We love that combo. Great advice, Sarah, about not over-explaining, and about letting the physical showing of an emotion happen, but with moderation. (On the other hand, I'd love to know: how many ways can you say 'her stomach clenched.")

  18. I find this phenomenon fascinating. That disconnect is the source of many frustrations, for sure...

  19. I think it's odd that I scored a 97 when I have an extremely overactive imagination. I have had people in my critique group say that my characters don't react to things as much as they should.

  20. I scored 77 (apparently that means that I have very little of the traits).

    Doesn't really surprise me, because I can read people as well as I can read myself.

    Sometimes this isn't good in my writing, because I can forget that people won't leap to the conclusions the way I do and won't understand how some of my characters do it.

  21. Fantastic post. Actually, you pinpointed something I've always struggled with - the over explaining. A really great book drags me in and makes me feel just as conflicted as the MC and it's not possible for that to happen if the author is telling me every step of the way what's going on and how they are feeling. Excellent point about just a tiny bit of emotional ambiguity being a positive thing in some cases:)

  22. This is a really great point to make. Our characters shouldn't always answer questions, nor should they understand all their feelings.... just like real life.
    I knew a girl with this condition, and I must say it's a little chilling. Once her teacher diagnosed it, her parents moved to TX where there's a special school for children like this. It's more serious than it may sound at first.

    Thanks for reminding us of ways to enhance our characters!

  23. Emotional states from melancholy to jealousy to joy (etc) can be present with no awareness occurring whatsoever, even in the diagnostically non-alexithymic. How many times have you been told by a freind "You seem frustrated/down/annoyed,/happy" and it's only at that moment that you click, "Hey, i guess I am feeling happy".
    I'd wager that even in those highly emotional intelligent among us an occasional inability to notice or recognise one's emotions would still occur.

    A more interesting self-report measure for writers may be the Two-Factor Imagination Scale (TFIS), which also measures alexithymia: