As I said on Monday, this can be a very sensitive topic. So, I’m going to try to rein in the urge to crack jokes as much as I can. Still, this is a 7 List, which tends to have a few guffaws. Let’s get right into it.
- Research. This is hands down, without question, rule 1, the most important thing when it comes to writing a character with a mental illness. Maybe you have personal experience or helped a loved one through an issue, which can help. Yet, many people don’t have the specific hands-on knowledge of whatever they are going to use. This means you read up on the mental health topic and, if possible, talk to experts or sufferers to learn more.
- Not every villain needs to suffer from a mental illness. We seem to think that this gives them more sympathy because ‘they could not help themselves’. In reality, the author can perpetuate the stigma that those who suffer from mental illness are inherently dangerous. You can offset this with a hero who suffers or simply don’t make it clear or note that the villain has an issue. Those are simpler, riskier versions that not doing it in the first place though.
- You don’t always have to make the mental illness a big deal. It can be a secondary personal situation for the character. Otherwise, the main plot might get overshadowed or hampered by you putting more attention on this one thing. Now, this isn’t to say it should be ignored completely, but you should only make it the main focus if it’s the main obstacle of a story. For example, an adventuring party could be on a quest to slay a dragon. The priest suffers from OCD, which gives them specific habits that can cause some problems. Yet, the audience will turn on the character and story if they repeatedly impede progress. So, it needs to remain a personal hurdle.
- Make sure you know the terminology. This could just be me having a pet peeve, but I do get irked when depressed is used for sad. Yes, people with depression can be sad, but it’s not the same. Many times, you don’t even know the source of the sadness. If you need to use the term then you should make sure the degree of sadness meets the weight of the term. Same goes for anxiety even though it does get dicey with the word ‘anxious’.
- Try to avoid characters doing psychoanalysis on their friends unless it fits their personality. You can’t always do this because sometimes dialog is how real people can come figure these out. I mean, that’s what therapy is. At the very least, you can minimize it and have them figure things out then move on.
- Jumping off #5, be careful with how you have the other characters respond to the one with mental illness. If they dote on them too much or act with horror then that can weaken all of them. There can be a period of confusion, fear, or other negative emotions, but this should be an obstacle instead of the norm. Eventually, they need to accept or cast away the character instead of always acting like they’re in shock. The former has an interesting example, which is the character Brick Tamland from the Anchorman movies. Played by Stever Carell, he does appear to suffer from a mental health issue, but nobody treats him any differently. It’s done to the point where he’s just one of the gang and his ‘oddities’ are part of the social norm. This is a comedy and might not be the perfect example, but it does work as an ideal.
- Not every mental illness can be removed completely. It can be inspiring to have a character take on such a challenge and come out ‘cured’, but that’s fairly unrealistic. It is much more common for people to get a handle on these issues and find a way to live with them. This can be medication, therapy, change in living situation, or other coping mechanisms. As the author, you have to decide what they will do and how it will work in the story. After all, it’s kind of difficult for a warrior to get a handle on their OCD when they’re in the middle of a battlefield or on a quest. The stereotypical ‘snap out of the illness’ might have dramatic effect, but it almost never happens. I’d say total fiction, but there could be one case out there somewhere.