To make a character real, they need to mirror the reality that we experience. This is a challenge, because the world each person lives in is highly individual and deeply diverse. As a psychologist, working with people affected by mental health diagnoses is what makes my job so challenging and yet so rewarding. As a reader and an editor, I love to read characters living with these backgrounds. I love it because I learn something new every time. But when it isn’t captured authentically, if the character is the stereotypical depressed mother who can’t get out of bed, or maybe even absent, then I wish they knew the following:
About 1 in 5 adults will experience a mental illness at some stage of their lives. Mental health issues can affect anyone, irrespective of gender, race, culture or socioeconomic background. If you haven’t experienced mental health challenges yourself, then someone you know and love has.
As a writer, this means it wouldn’t be uncommon to find a character dealing with something similar in your book. It can be your protagonist dealing with anxiety, your villain having a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, or your hero’s mother suffering from Munchausen’s by Proxy. In fact, because of its prevalence, the inclusion of some sort of mental health challenges for a character in your book will lend your story authenticity.
Stigma is Alive and Well
We’ve all read the articles or seen the Facebook clips, heck, I personally advocate the message that mental illness are legitimate as a physical illness; they can be chronic, debilitating, and treatable.
But the reality is that gender equality, acceptance of diverse sexual orientations, and equal opportunity for those living with disabilities has been something people have been fighting for a long time, and we’re not quite there yet. Mental health stigma is a very real experience for many sufferers of mental illness, but what amplifies these adverse effects is the internalising of mental health stigma.
The belief that there is something fundamentally flawed with you because you aren’t able to ‘snap out’ of it tends to be incorporated into a person’s self-concept. It can be a barrier to help-seeking and treatment and can undermine your self-esteem. If you have a character with a mental health diagnosis, then be cognizant that it’s hard to feel good about yourself when you’re fighting a pain no one can see.
Each diagnosis is a snowflake
The diversity within any single mental health condition is significant, and every writer needs to be cognisant of this. A label such as obsessive compulsive disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is going to give you a broad understanding of what you’re going to see in your character. But what that looks like for your particular person on the page is going to be a nuanced product of their history, biology, and social context.
It’s considering each of these variables; the interaction of their psychology with the environment that has moulded them (and will continue to do so), is how you’ll move away from stereotypes and two-dimensional characters.
Mental Health is a Roller-Coaster
If you have a character living with a mental health condition, then the usual ups and downs that life likes to pitch at you are going to be amplified. Your key refusing to slot into the keyhole of your front door can feel like the last, fragile straw that breaks you; whilst a smile from a stranger can be enough to bolster your plummeting self-esteem.
Mental health conditions take what our brain does in its everyday life (feel worried about something that could happen, feel sad at the prospect of tomorrow, believe that our workmate doesn’t like us) and dials it up. The emotions are stronger, the thoughts are more powerful, and the urges they provoke are harder to resist. This can vary from the desire to eat an entire New York Cheesecake to desperately needing to control your world to plotting a way to end the prime-minister’s new immigration policy.
Incorporating these challenges authentically can be tricky as some of the choices these characters make can be difficult to understand. Understanding the emotional and cognitive foundation of your character’s mental illness is essential.
Great Characters do Great Things
For all their challenges, mental health diagnoses are a painful opportunity to discover some amazing things about ourselves. The darkness they bring only makes the light brighter. People that live with mental illness need to learn to be flexible, self-aware and resilient, and if that doesn’t capture a character arc, I don’t know what does. If you drag a character into some deep wells of sadness, fear, or disillusionment, then you’ve just created a moving contrast for the heights that humanity can reach for. What’s more, these challenges (like any) are a wonderful way to explore the power of connection. There are supports out there. There are people passionate about helping. So remember, capturing the hardships of mental illness is only the half the picture. It’s the stories of human triumph over adversity that is the other side of the mental health label.
What’s your thoughts? Do you have a character with a mental illness? How did you make sure they were authentic and realistic?
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Yes, what a great post. It’s true what you said about stigma, it’s nowhere near “a done deal.”
I think understanding mental illness makes you even better at creating characters that are out there in the real world. If you can believe it… I was released from a social work program at a university in Calgary Alberta because they “thought” I had a mental illness. Now that’s stigma.
As it turns out, the person that caused the problem for me was the one with mental illness. They ruined my career, and to this day I am working as a care aide. I recently took up writing. My career has ruined and I am in bankruptcy over my student loans.