Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Mental illness is an area frequently misunderstood by authors and readers alike. The temptation to examine the human condition through characters who think or behave in ways we find strange is a common theme in literature, and yet more and more of society is waking up to the fact that frivolous depictions of mental illness can have serious real-world implications.
That’s why in this article, I’ll be looking at how authors can strive to fairly and accurately present mental health problems in their stories and characters, and examine the reasons they might want to do so. Real people are the sum of a great many parts, so I’ll be looking at important but widely misunderstood, or misrepresented, contextual factors that authors should consider when creating their characters.
What’s the harm?
Because mental illness is so widely misunderstood, it may not be readily apparent to authors why depicting it accurately is so important.
The most vital thing to grasp is that in a society where mental illness is still commonly misunderstood, many people get their primary impressions from works of fiction. This has led to a great many misconceptions, for example the idea that mental illness leads inexorably to violence, and to confusion regarding disorders – for instance the perception that schizophrenia is the same as multiple personality disorder, or that obsessive compulsive disorder is the mere impulse to keep things clean.
Misconceptions like this mean that those suffering from mental health problems often face a world which believes they are exaggerating their problems, or that they are a potential source of harm to those around them.
In fact it’s becoming increasingly clear that mental illness exists on a wide spectrum, and is a part of many people’s lives – a 2013 study found that an estimated 43.8 million adults in the US had experienced mental health problems within the past year.
It’s clear that mental illness is an issue which both affects and is misunderstood by a great many people. Consequently, authors find themselves in an environment where, whether they’d wish it or not, anything they write about mental illness has the potential to shape their readers’ opinions. This prompts a single, very important question…
Should I write about mental illness?
As mentioned above, writing about mental illness carries an automatic responsibility. The best answer to whether or not you should write about mental illness is therefore ‘yes, if you feel like you have a relevant insight.’
This insight could be anything – whether it’s a commentary on how those with mental health problems are treated, personal experience of mental illness itself, or just the desire to depict a character who is experiencing a mental health problem but is not defined by it. What’s important to note is that with the current societal view of mental illness, it’s reckless to employ mental illness in your writing without thinking about what it says to your audience.
For example, if an author was trying to establish a young character as uncomfortable at home, it might seem easy to write their parent as possessing a mental illness which makes their homelife difficult. This might not be an inaccurate depiction of some people’s situation, but it does feed a harmful stereotype for no good reason – it would be just as easy to create an unpleasant homelife via a bereavement, or relationship problems between parents.
This is what I mean by ensuring that your use of mental illness includes relevant insight. If mental illness can be functionally replaced by another situation in your writing then you’re in a territory where that choice is likely to do more harm than good. This includes characters who are characterized as having mental health problems simply because there doesn’t seem to be another way to motivate them…
The ‘insane’ villain
Writing about real-world mental illness, or realistic characters who are experiencing mental illness, is one thing, but literature also has a long history of ‘crazy’ characters. These characters possess a fantastical, fictional form of mental illness which bears no relation to real world instances, but rather serves as a starting point for motivations or situations with little other justification.
This can be seen in books such as Fight Club, where the protagonist exhibits a form of multiple personality disorder, committing acts of intense violence against others with no awareness of his own behavior. Though the story is undeniably titillating, it would not be unfair to argue that people experiencing mental health problems have been unfairly demonized by Fight Club’s narrative.
Other extremes in villainy
Mental illness is often embraced by authors as a great explanation for the actions of larger-than-life villains. The logic goes that the character is fueled by their mental illness, and this explains any actions which logic or previous characterization don’t. While this is problematic in terms of how it reflects on real mental illness, it can also ruin a story by providing insufficient backstory for a character.
In situations such as this, writers often fall back on justifying a character’s mental illness rather than building their characterization. In Hannibal Rising, for example, Thomas Harris recounts the events that led to the mental illness of his famously cannibalistic villain.
The problem is that the character’s actions and beliefs can’t be fully justified to the reader, since this would be ideology rather than the ‘madness’ such authors intend. The end result is that backstory is replaced by a kind of themed trauma – the character is ‘broken’ by circumstances which give a shape to later obsession.
This means that their actions are not a result of consistent characterization, but rather written to coincide with the theme of their supposed mental illness. This leads to simplistic characters who do not read as real people – in fact the idea of themed madness might remind some authors of the comic book superhero Batman and his enemies. These characters are commonly depicted as possessing a specific form of ‘madness’ which revolves around a particular motif: riddles, jokes, penguins, etc. When handled lazily, supervillain the Joker does not need any more reason to commit crimes than Hannibal Lector needs a reason to eat people – their psychological damage is their sole motivation, and the reader must look elsewhere for character depth.
Ideology, on the other hand, has a far more complex relationship with character. A belief system must be created, and then coincide with a person’s later experiences. Character consistency is once again required, and authors find themselves writing deeper and more fully rounded characters.
In real-life, mental illness is just one part of a person’s life experience, and is far from the sole arbiter of their personality. The ‘madness’ which often motivates fictional villains is a caricature of real experiences, and because of this it seldom leads to well-rounded characterization. This is not to say that characters with mental health problems should be erased from fiction, simply that the caricature of the insane villain is generally a poor addition to a story. This is especially true when considering that real people have committed the full roster of criminal acts acting on nothing more than ideology, and in fiction there are even more options in driving characters to their extremes, from unique circumstances to paranormal and science-fictive devices.
These are devices offered to allow authors to use the extreme villain without resorting to stereotype, and of course the real goal should be to portray mental health problems in a realistic manner. To do that, nothing beats research.
Research is kingResearching mental illness is essential to its accurate portrayal in your writing.Click To Tweet
Researching mental illness is essential to its accurate portrayal. This is particularly the case when identifying particular types of mental illness, such as depression. Unfortunately, many people have a homogenized concept of ‘mental illness’, where the symptoms of many different conditions are interchangeable. Others have only a surface understanding of what particular types of mental illness entail – many people’s understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, begins and ends with the movie Rambo.
This can make it dangerous to ‘diagnose’ a character unless you have a firm grasp of the symptoms and experience of the type of mental illness you’re attempting to depict. Putting a medical label on a character means many readers will take it as read that their behavior is representative of people with that condition. On the other hand, not naming a specific condition leads back into the homogenized idea of a general, misleading ‘madness’. The only answer is to know a great deal about what you’re talking about.
Likewise, it’s important to have an understanding of the many casual terms which surround mental illness. Some authors don’t know the difference between the derogatory ‘mad’ and the legal term ‘insane’, and many people would be hard pushed to draw the line between ‘psychotic’ and ‘psychopathic’, despite the fact that one is a common medical term and the other denotes violent behavior.
Another area authors should strive to research is the historical and social context of their character’s mental illness. Views of mental illness, and its treatment, have varied wildly over the last few decades, let alone the last few centuries, and even now there is no worldwide consensus on the treatment, or even definition, of most types of medical illness. Again, many authors are content to rely on a simplistic idea of different treatments, with ‘asylums’ in the past and cure-all medication in the present, but researching how your characters would have been treated in the time and place of your story will help build a richer world and a more believable narrative.
Change with the times
The dawn of social media has brought with it a wave of increased understanding of mental illness. Every day more readers inform themselves about mental illness, and take up the banner of building a world where it is understood to be a medical issue.As authors and readers we are now at a point where ignorance towards mental illness is scorned.Click To Tweet
As authors and readers we are now at a point where ignorance towards mental illness is scorned, and poor representations are held up as harmful. While no-one is born with an encyclopedic knowledge of mental illness, it’s a sensible author who keeps abreast of the latest developments in the field, both in the interests of writing compassionately and authoritatively, and of not alienating an increasingly knowledgeable and engaged reader base.
The day of the crazed serial killer is nearing an end, bringing with it the dawn of more fully realized characters whose mental illnesses are only one part of deeper and more relatable characterization. The authors who write these characters are the vanguard of a new approach, not just in terms of how their work reflects on the world around them, but on the consistency and accuracy with which they develop characters.
For more factors to consider when creating your characters, check out Why authors need to take care when writing the other gender, and When can you include accent and dialect in your dialogue?
Have you written a narrative that deals with mental illness, or do you want to but not know where to start? Let me know in the comments.What To Consider When Writing Mental IllnessClick To Tweet