The Challenge of Putting Mental Illness in Fiction

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Not sure this will be a long post because this is a delicate topic that everyone seems to have a different opinion on.  Using various mental illnesses is common in fiction.  Many of us can name at least one story where a character has a diagnosis of some kind.  Sometimes it’s done with care and the other times it’s done rather bluntly.  Yet, how often is it done correctly?

I remember seeing various shows and movies where they tried to show someone was autistic or schizophrenic.  The former was usually done the extreme and the other repeatedly showed up as the reason behind a person committing murders.  As a society, we tend to look at all of these things as a hindrance and a portal to abnormality.  Many artists take that and run to the darker side of human nature.  Seems only recently that people are pulling back and showing characters who have these issues and are proving that one can live a full life with them.  Still, they do seem to be the butt of jokes such as Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory.  Comedy can be a bridge to get the audience to consider mental illness, but it can’t always get them the entire way to understanding.

For myself, I don’t use a lot of mental illness in my stories.  I’m too nervous about getting something wrong and pushing the stigma that continues to create trouble.  I might touch on depression and anxiety since I have a better understanding of that.  For example, Quest of the Brokenhearted utilized my experience and thoughts on severe depression.  Kira hit that point where she didn’t want to die, but didn’t care if she did.  I’ll admit that I’ve been there in the past.  It was fairly easy, and oddly cathartic, to do this since I had experience.  Most authors don’t have that to work with when they try to make a character with a mental health issue.  So, research is definitely a necessity.

So, I’m going to open the floor since this is a complicated topic and I’m always on the fence about it.  Don’t want to say anything as if it’s a rule even though Wednesday will have a list of tips that are done in a tongue-in-cheek style.  What does everyone else think about writing characters with mental health issues?  Do you have any advice or experience doing this?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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29 Responses to The Challenge of Putting Mental Illness in Fiction

  1. mothertherealist says:

    I think issues in any form add depth and character; but getting them wrong, as you said, just irks me. Perhaps (also as you said) authors default to mental issues because they need a quick, easy reason for aberrant behavior?

    If you have the time to look into something you are not familiar with, go for it. If not, probably stick to what you know so it sounds credible.

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    • You have a good point on the aberrant behavior. To be honest, someone who goes on a killing spree or tries to take over the world could suffer from an unchecked mental illness. Yet, the person could also just be an evil bastard. It’s odd how we think good, noble, and put together is the natural default for humans. Personally, I think we don’t have one and everyone has some level of mental abnormality, which makes sense since normal isn’t really a thing. Might have gone too philosophical there.

      One of the difficulties with sticking to what one knows is that many people think they do know mental illness. I’ve seen people swear that tough love will help a depressed person because they believe it’s nothing more than being really sad. Those types of stigmas appear to create a sense that we understand without researching, which might be a bigger problem than I realized when I first wrote the post. It doesn’t help that you have people online psychologically diagnosing characters regardless of what the author has done.

      Liked by 2 people

      • mothertherealist says:

        As a legitimate study, yes, I’d hope someone who is mass-murdering others has a mental disorder. They would certainly need to be become detached emotionally enough to do that.

        And, I agree with your side note about everyone having some abnormality.

        And and… all your thoughts might be good for a book in itself: a person behaving mentally unstable and people trying to deal with it the wrong way and the problem is worse.

        Coincidentally, another blog I follow posted this article: https://mymindlessdrivel.wordpress.com/2018/11/11/obsessive-compulsive-disordered/

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  2. L. Marie says:

    Good post, Charles! The only advice I have is to get someone to ask for advice from a good source. One of my classmates has Asperger’s, so I usually go to her for advice. i also talk with my sister-in-law, who is a therapist, or my dad, who is a retired therapist, or a friend who teaches in a special needs program and has two sons with autism. I might ask them to do a sensitivity read also.

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  3. L. Marie says:

    What I meant was “The only advice I have is to ask for advice from a good source.”

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  4. Not mental illness per se, but John Cannon has a mild case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It does show up but is dealt with mildly. I use myself as the model.

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  5. One of the major characters in some of my stories has PTSD. (To date, I have more experience living this than writing about it.) It isn’t anything that I planned; it’s just a logical consequence of that fictional person’s experiences.

    As for advice… If you don’t know from personal experience, talk (if at all possible) with someone who does, but remember that person’s experience with their illness is their experience; others’ experiences will be vary. DO NOT fall into bad cliches. DO NOT use mental illness as the “justification” for your story’s villain being a villain. (‘She can’t help being evil, she had a bad childhood so she’s a malignant narcissist and likes to hurt everyone, that’s just how she is, don’t you dare judge her!’ is the sort of nonsense that will make me throw a book across the room and never read anything by that author again.) Remember than even the most mentally ill person has more to their identity/personality than their illness, so fictional people should have that much complexity, too.

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    • PTSD is something I tried with one of my characters, but I’m not sure how it came out even after I read up on it. Never got the sense that it was the same across the board too, which goes for many mental illnesses. I think that lack of commonality is what makes things a lot more difficult here. As you said, one person’s experience won’t mimic others.

      What if the villain became bad because of the terrible childhood, but you don’t add something like malignant narcissist? Just that he or she grew up rotten. Do you think people made put a mental illness on this anyway?

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  6. kirizar says:

    I suspect, if you go in planning to write about a character with any kind of disability, it will benefit your work and how it’s received if you actually talk with or research the types of challenges that come with whatever flavor handicap you choose. My caveat, however, would be, for what reason are you making this choice? Will it enhance your work? Have you come to care for the character you have developed and now want to test their resilience, adaptability, and failure in the magical world of your own creation? Will other people like or agree with the use of the condition for the role in question? But, I think it will come down to whether you respect the character AND the condition and keep the extremes and comic situations to a higher standard. It is too easy to get it wrong when you frame people or characters by their diagnosis. Instead, write from their human side, and remember, even character’s feelings matter otherwise you won’t make them human enough to relate to.

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    • Respect is a big one. You can’t treat it like a quirk in the same way you’d use nail biting or a love of gummy worms. It’s much heavier and complicated. One concern I do have with asking so many questions comes down to it making the disability a lot less approachable for an author. While we do have to research it, I can see myself turning away after all of that. This can then create a problem if too many authors simply avoid the topic. You get a reduction or absence of characters who are battling such issues. Considering this, I would actually change your second question to ‘will it make the character more relatable?’ Although, I wonder if we’re thinking the same thing. I’m considering more mental illness that one is born with, but your third question sounds more like PTSD and others that are developed due to trauma.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I think it’s always a danger. People want to judge and be offended so easily these days. I did the stages of grieving in one book, and that’s about the limit. I have written physical handicaps, and even that comes with some risk. If I were to do it, I might go with symptoms over diagnosis. That gives a layer of protection from the artificial anger crowd.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Physical handicaps seem to be better received. I think it’s because we have a better understanding. We can wrap our minds around a character being blind, but depression can be confusing. It might just be safer to go with symptoms and not name a condition. You avoid stigmas and expectations that way.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Tournesol says:

    I think it’s okay to write about a person who may have a mental health condition with some research as well as speaking to someone who has been diagnosed with a particular condition you are interested in for a character. Just keep in mind, not ONE condition is a “one size fits all” Not everyone has the exact symptoms. I love shows like Monk struggling with OCD, The Big Bang…we all fell in love with Sheldon (I did), I also fell in love with the character in Atypical and This is Us. (Many of the counsellors I work with love these shows too) I find that showing more and more shows and reading about in stories/novels, helps us be more exposed to different kinds of mental health conditions. I have suffered from depression in the past, still struggle with anxiety but my symptoms are certainly not the same as everyone who struggles with this. I think it is nice and sensitive if an author mentions at the beginning of his/her novel that it is a fictitious character and that you are not generalising for all conditions.

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    • Exactly and that’s why writing about them can cause a little friction. People don’t realize that most mental illnesses are spectrums and depend on the individual’s personality as well. So, a character claiming to have something like OCD can come under fire if they don’t have ‘the right kind’, which is a phrase I’ve heard and throws me off pretty badly.

      Honestly, Sheldon irks me at times because he occasionally feels like the stereotypical autistic/Aspergers character. My son has that and doesn’t act like Sheldon, but some people define him by the character. This means considering him comical and annoying. I do think it’s a good thing that the character exists, but it does feel like some mental illnesses are found primarily in comedy shows.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this great post from Charles Yallowitz’s Legends of Windemere blog with The Challenge of Putting Mental Illness in Fiction

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  10. For me, having a character with a mental illness would be like having someone raped, especially if the illness/rape is going to motivate that character in the plot. Ie: an adult survivor of child abuse witnesses a child possibly being abused and decides to kill the abuser.

    You have to really decide if you want to go there. Is this what your story is about, or will it be a distraction? Will your reader gain insight from this character, or will it carry out stereotypes? These are questiins you are wise to ask and there may not be one right answer.

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    • That’s a tough one. If you make it all that the story is about then it defines rule character almost exclusively. It means you can’t do any other type of story with a character who has these issues. So, that first question might be fairly detrimental to the character. Probably depends on the genre too. I mean, can you have a knight go on a dragon slaying quest while he suffers from severe depression?

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