Benefits & Risks of Writing Mentally Ill Characters

In light of Mental Health Awareness Month, I thought it would be fitting to discuss weaving in mental illness throughout creative fiction writing, whether it is a diagnosis of your MC or a side character, at the forefront or not. In a lot of films, novels, and shows, a diagnosis is often portrayed without it being outright stated. And sometimes, it is.

RISKS:

  1. If you outright state the diagnosis, you better know how it looks! Your readers, especially those who have the illness, might tear you apart. Or, close the book. Or trash talk it behind your back.
    • Worst of all, it will insult those diagnosed, or portray the disorder inaccurately, a false window into what it’s like to struggle with the disorder.
  2. If you do not state the diagnosis, but know which one you are giving your character, it also must match up and make sense for the reader to relate to, whether they can identify it or not. Again, a faux representation can do more harm than good.
  3. Making up a new diagnosis altogether could be interesting or horrific. Of course, if you are creating an entirely new world of existence or dystopian type of novel, it could work. I’d be very curious to see if one does this successfully! Hmm…might even have just given myself a new novel idea.
  4. Know the history of mental health if you are portraying an illness in a different decade. For example, “hysteria” was a medical diagnosis for women since 1880, and was only removed as a diagnosis in 1980! The short story, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (written in 1892) is an exceptional portrayal of women being stifled and labeled for wanting more out of life, without shoving the diagnosis down your throat, which brings me to my next point.
  5. Don’t shove the diagnosis down the reader’s throat! Mention it in a natural way, and then show it. Only mention it again if it makes sense to later on.
  6. If you add on multiple diagnoses, or give your one character too many to show, it is confusing and way too much, even if realistic. Many of my clients have multiple diagnoses, but to portray them within one character can become chaotic and hard to follow. Fiction writing is all about streamlining what internal struggles get in the way of the external plot, and vice-versa: what internal struggles the external plot triggers within your character.
    • I made this mistake–I showed too many issues within one character, his background riddled with trauma. Which, as stated above, can be absolutely realistic. Thank God my wonderful editor helped me narrow my focus and told me: although it is realistic, it is simply too much for one character in a fiction novel to carry.

BENEFITS:

  1. For stating the diagnosis: readers will connect more with the story–highly likely for those who suffer from the same one, or a similar one.
    • It will be easier to find if someone searches “books about x,y,z”
  2. For portraying the diagnosis without stating it: can reach a broader audience for those who enjoy reading character-driven stories, regardless of their particular struggle.
  3. Readers who struggle with mental health issues or a mental illness/disorder, can connect and feel understood, possibly even inspired or helped in some way.
  4. For those who do not struggle with a mental illness, it can shed light onto what it is like, creating a landscape for conversation and compassion.
  5. It is realistic for humans to struggle. The main character(s) will have SOME flaw(s), an internal struggle, that keeps them from getting what they want. Therefore, it will help layer your story.
  6. It’s interesting! Let’s be honest, it is. It’s intriguing. Compelling. Touches our hearts.
  7. It invokes emotions, and when a reader’s emotions are lit up, he/she is more likely to keep reading, to feel like he’s/she’s right on board the journey with your character.

Let me know your thoughts, or if you have any additions to either list, or any questions in the comments section below.

Thank you! 🙂

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