Tips on Writing Characters with Depression

First: What is depression?

Think of depression as a brain and body hibernation, tainted by shame. When your character feels stuck, and/or has a biological predisposition of depression in their genes, a state of depression can set in.

Unless you are writing about certain historical periods, modern day humans are hardly given permission to pause and reset. And when we are, it is often limited. So, if your character tries to take off work outside of vacation time, or cancel plans, or say no to an invitation, it can be met with resistance, even if they sick and suffering. Same with school. This then stirs up shame, and your character will question what is wrong with them. And this can deepen them into the grip of depression.

In some novels, like My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga, depression is not always outright stated, but referred to by something else. Warga’s MC calls depression the “black slug” inside of her, swallowing all of the good up.

The following are ways to elevate how your character looks, acts, and feels when suffering from depression:

Physical Changes Your Characters Can Experience Include:

  • Heart rate decreases it’s fluctuation, meaning it can stay lower at times and not rise as much due to low physiological arousal
  • Slumped body
  • Brain fog
  • Dissociation
  • Low and slow breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Slower paced speech
  • Low appetite or higher appetite for comforting foods
  • Digestive issues–constipation usually due to slower physiological arousal

Thought Changes Your Characters Can Experience Include:

  • Black & White Thinking: thinking in extremes–either/or, all or nothing, seeing themselves or others as good or bad, right or wrong, perfect or failure, lovable or unworthy. Nothing in between.
  • Fortune telling: character assumes she knows the future and that it will be the worst case scenario
  • Heavy, painful thoughts.
  • Overgeneralizing: assuming the same thing will happen over and over based on one or two negative experiences.
  • Self-hatred
  • Self-criticism
  • Negative Filtering: only focusing on the negative of a situation, filtering out the positives.
  • Discounting positive traits: believing things happen for other reasons unrelated to your character’s strengths. Looks like: “I only did well on that because anyone would have.”
  • Mind Reading: jumping to conclusions about what another is thinking or feeling based on little information, believing they are a burden to others.
  • Personalization: thinking behaviors or moods of others are somehow the character’s fault.

Behavioral Changes Your Characters Can Display Include:

  • Oversleeping or inability to sleep/stay asleep
  • Procrastination of tasks
  • Neglects self-care and hygiene
  • Irritable, can be snappy with those around them
  • Declining invitations or canceling last minute
  • Substance abuse or dependency
  • Teary-eyed
  • Crying
  • Sobbing
  • Quiet in social settings
  • Withdrawing
  • Pretending to others they are fine
  • Self-harming which includes: cutting (shallow without bleeding or deep cut with bleeding), scratching self, burning self, bruising/punching self, nicking, hair pulling, binge-eating with or without purging, skin picking, and excessively working out
  • Reaching out to others for help, or opposite–refraining in order to not “burden” others
  • Indecisiveness
  • Quit easily
  • Does not plan future events or show excitement toward things they used to enjoy
  • Perfectionistic tendencies/frustration and intolerance of mistakes, whether from self or others
  • Overly apologetic toward others
  • Leaving their home or bedroom a mess

Cognitive Changes Your Characters Can Display Include:

  • Fatigue
  • Brain fog
  • Easily distracted
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Poor working memory and short-term memory
  • Difficulty remaining present

Spiritual Changes Your Characters Can Experience Include:

  • Questioning their beliefs and the meaning/purpose of life and/or themselves
  • No longer going to their place of worship
  • Look into other beliefs for potential help

Financial Changes Your Characters Can Display Include:

  • Overspend for momentary joy; money declines
  • Avoid / miss work often, financially unstable
  • Overwork to bury self in something; financially successful

And of course, provide evidence along the way that can push them deeper into depression, or why they are depressed in the first place, and how their internal dialogue matches or mismatches with how they behave. Depending on your character arc, your character(s) may work their way out of the depression, or submit to it.

Feel free to comment below with feedback, ways you have created depressed characters, or questions.

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