From the beginning, I knew that Talia Levin had an uncanny ability to withstand pain. Her story is based in our world, so I knew it wasn’t caused by magic or super cool science. It had to be a real world factor.
My first indication that Talia had more than just a high pain threshold was in writing a scene after she and another character had been tortured. The other woman, a naive civilian, reacted to the beating exactly how you would expect – moaning, sobbing, whimpering. Talia didn’t experience any of that. Yes, I know, I’m the writer and she’s a product of my imagination. But any time I tried to write her response to the pain, it just felt off. The more I got to know her and her backstory, the more I discovered that she really did have a special ability.
But how to explain it? I have a minor in psychology, and during a class on Abnormal Psychology I learned about peripheral neuropathy, disorders that affect the peripheral nervous system. That is, anything that’s not the brain or spinal cord. This gave me a starting place for my no-pain research.
With my textbook in one hand and good old Google in front of me, I went digging. I ended up on a website for Hereditary Sensory and Autonomic Neuropathy disorders (HSAN). There are five types and my next challenge was to figure out which best fit Talia.
Some of you might have seen House M.D. episode 3.14 “Insensitive” or Grey’s Anatomy episode 3.3 “Sometimes a Fantasy.” Both of these feature a young female character who can’t feel pain. Each is diagnosed with having CIPA, Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis. Neither of these episodes had a cure for the girls’ condition, although House was able to diagnose and cure an underlying illness.
CIPA is also known as HSAN Type IV. It is the most popular HSAN type represented in media. Because I didn’t want to copy what everyone else was doing, I opted to use HSAN Type V. It’s very similar to CIPA, but caused by a different set of genes and manifests in a slightly different way.
Writing a character who can’t feel pain has its own challenges. If she gets shot in the leg, there’s no sting from the bullet, but does the force of the impact knock her to the ground? Can she still walk? In Out of Options, Talia dislocates her shoulder. She can’t feel the pain, but I needed to remember that it wasn’t going to act the same as her other one. And if you’ve already read the story, you know that leads to more problems for her.