Tips to Creating Characters with Mental Illness

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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’.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

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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24 Responses to Tips to Creating Characters with Mental Illness

  1. A most tender topic, for sure. I was raised around and married into mental illness and even after all the experiences and years of distance/healing, I would not feel qualified to craft a character with a mental illness. Best of luck to those who try and those who succeed in educating the world that mental illness IS complex and never the choice of its hosts.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It really is a difficult challenge to take on because of all the nuance and stigmas. The other side of the coin is that I see a lot of people complaining that there aren’t many characters who battle mental illness. Specifically in your more action-oriented genres since romance and drama have tackled it at times. Not sure if anyone has successfully pulled this off. Doesn’t help that you will always have some people complaining that you got it wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. To this list, I would add, Don’t use your mentally ill character as ‘inspiration porn’ so readers without any mental illness can look at them and think, ‘Oh, how inspiring that this pitiful person with OCD or dyslexia or depression or PTSD was very nearly able to pass for a functional human despite being who they are! If this poor excuse for a person can manage to get through life without killing themself because their life is pointless and just an inconveneince for normal people, anyone can!’ (Yes, some people do think that way. Don’t encourage it.) I would add, Don’t make the character’s problem a source of “comic relief” in your story; don’t give the character OCD, for example, just so the reader can laugh at them. (Any writer who gives a character a serious mental illness for “comic relief” should ask themself why they had their “empathy chip” removed, and seriously consider having it reinstalled… )

    Liked by 1 person

    • Have to admit that I’m not sure I fully understand the ‘inspiration porn’ part. Do you mean generally having someone overcome a mental illness or it being done in a way that makes the person seem ‘less than human’? The reason I ask is that I do think having heroes who can do great things while having a mental illness or simply overcoming it is important to fiction. I’m always on the fence about how central the issue should be though. I’d much rather read about a hero who happens to have severe anxiety or depression while going on a quest than it only being about them handling their mental illness. I do agree about the comic relief thing. I mean, comical quirks are one thing, but to make it a blatant mental illness is plain wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Adele Marie says:

    A good post which shows writers how to tackle mental illness, it can be difficult if you don’t know enough about it. Luckily, for me in writing anyway, I have my own to draw on.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I wonder how many other authors draw on their own mental issues. I know I find it easier to write characters who are facing depression and anxiety, which turns oddly therapeutic at times.

      Liked by 1 person

      • L. Marie says:

        John Green wrote about OCD in his latest YA novel, because that’s what his own experience.

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      • I was just going to say… if the person writing about the mental illness IS the person dealing with said illness… My mother would have NEVER written anything about her struggles because she was working so hard to move beyond them and by writing about them, it would have made her face some of the horrors that she buried. My ex husband sits in a psychiatric prison of his own creation due to his unwillingness to want to face things. In both cases, I have chosen to respect the way they handled/are handling their illnesses. My own issues? I know that when I write a poem about trying, making it over the obstacles, etc., it is generally because I am either trying to or have made it over, myself. AND it is therapeutic for me. God Bless us, everyone.

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      • Another obstacle to writing about your own mental illness can come from those around you. It might not be common, but you hit a problem if you have to bring up how the actions of others may have made your mental illness worse. I know a few people who tried to publicly talk about their issues, but it required outing friends and family as either unsupportive or triggers. That stopped them from talking even fictionally. It was like the other people were more concerned with their own reputation than allowing a loved one to do something that could make them feel better.

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  4. Interesting post, and comments too. I don’t know if I’d ever tackle this, but you’ve given me food for thought.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. L. Marie says:

    Great tips! I know authors who have written about characters who deal with the issues the authors themselves deal with (or who have family members who deal with them). It’s not easy to pull back the curtain on some really hard moments in life.

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  6. Well done, Charles. Excellent tips.

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  7. mothertherealist says:

    Well-said.

    I think many characteristics need this thorough treatment. After that, we as readers do not mind and enjoy having issues as part of a character.

    I remember my boys and I reading the Michael Vey books (wherein the lead has mild Tourette Syndrome), and thinking that Richard Paul Evans hardly mentioned it at all by Book 4ish. It seemed like a completely unrealistic, unnecessary characteristic he added just for the publicity of adding it -which I know wasn’t true, since he admitted to suffering from it himself- but is how it came off after so long a time in the series.

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    • This is one of the challenges with adding a mental illness or any disability. At some point, you need to stop bringing attention to it left and right unless it’s the core of the story. If your hero has OCD, but their story isn’t about handling it then you will hit a point where it shouldn’t be mentioned at all. Otherwise, the main story suffers from this addition and the character becomes defined solely by their disability. Personally, I like it when it is mentioned early on in a story and then it’s just part of the character. I guess with your example, my question is if the Tourette Syndrome disappeared from the character or simply didn’t get brought up in conversation? I can see how the first one is a problem, but the second feels like the way we should really write characters. A hero who just happens to have this obstacle, but it isn’t their main, or even minor, foe.

      I look at it a little like this. When somebody chalks up my actions to my anxiety then it frustrates me. It feels like, in that moment, everything I do is defined by that issue. It’s fairly insulting and I would think it would come off the same for a character, especially one in a series.

      Liked by 1 person

      • mothertherealist says:

        Welllll…. I feel like he referenced A LOT in the first book. The funny thing is that his character had it as a disability and was teased for it, but then had this AWESOME lightning power that was building up in him.

        The point I was referencing was that the book felt like …story, story, story, Oh, wait! I haven’t mentioned that I get that nervous swallowing thing with Tourette’s in a while- HERE!- story, story, story. 🙂

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      • I get it. He started with it being a major factor and then it came off like he forgot as the series progresses. That is a tough one. I can see it being mentioned openly less often after the initial adventure, but still a factor. That does run the risk of it being abruptly underused and weakening the character.

        Liked by 1 person

      • mothertherealist says:

        As I thought.

        It was a good trait, too, particularly because he also had the character be a bit shy and reticent to take the role of leader.

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  8. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this fascinating post from the Legends of Windemere blog with Tips to Creating Characters with Mental Illness

    Like

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