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  • May 2010
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    Writing Characters with Mental Illness

    Mental illness is generally poorly understood.  Many stereotypes about people who experience mental illness show up repeatedly in literature and film.  How many times, for example, is madness used to explain an antagonist’s cruelty?  Using clichés and stereotypes is not only lazy writing, but can perpetuate harmful and inaccurate perceptions.

    Last week at Coyote Con, I took part in a wonderful panel discussion on writing characters with mental illness.  The thoughts below are a summary of the ideas I presented there and make up the first part of a two-part blog in which I offer suggestions about the development of interesting, complex characters.

    THINGS TO DO TO HELP YOU GET IT RIGHT

    READ BASIC BACKGROUND MATERIAL

    Start by developing a basic understanding of mental health issues.  Read abnormal psychology texts, scholarly articles, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders– IV (DSM-IV).  Much good information can be found online (e.g., www.APA.org), but have caution!  A lot of what you find on the web is inaccurate and sensationalized.  Look for evidence that the site is credible.  This background reading will provide you with a *basic* understanding.  Don’t stop here!

    ADVANCE YOUR UNDERSTANDING

    Read memoirs of people who have lived with mental illness.  Interview people, if possible.  Don’t rely on films or other fictional attempts to portray mental illness.  Most of the time, they get it wrong.

    OBSERVE EVERYDAY BEHAVIOR

    Remember that many (but not all) symptoms of mental illness are extreme examples of behaviors and emotions we all experience.  Consider the range of experiences and the way different people respond to them.

    CONSIDER CULTURE AND TIME

    Societies have drastically different responses to mental illness.  They differ in their concepts of 1) the causes of mental illness, 2) the symptoms of mental illness, and 3) the treatment of people who experience mental illness.  Think about the world you’re creating and the attitudes people have toward those who are different.  Be careful not to use modern Western attitudes by default.

    Here’s one example of a culture-specific syndrome:

    KORO – is observed primarily in Southeast Asia and China.  It is a syndrome in which an individual is overwhelmed by the fear that his or her external genitalia are retracting and will disappear.  Men suffering from the syndrome will sometimes clamp their penises tightly in the lid of a box to prevent the feared retraction.

    If you’re developing a character in an alternate world, you may very well have to toss out a lot of the information about how people today experience a syndrome.  Cross cultural research shows that mental distress and mental illness are influenced by the beliefs of the society and pressures of the environment.  For example, among cultures with strong beliefs about the powers of the dead, some mental distress is believed to be caused by associating with ghosts.  In polar climates, there are specific phobias of being lost in the snow and hypothermia that you don’t see in tropical areas.

    By answering the following questions, you can start to develop an understanding about the kinds of experiences that might cause your characters mental distress, how the characters are likely to display their distress, and how the society will treat them.

    QUESTIONS TO ASK ABOUT YOUR CULTURE

    *What traits are most valued and most reviled? (e.g., physical strength, patriotism, cleverness, treachery)

    *What are the main motivating emotions of the society (e.g., honor, guilt, love, vengeance)

    *Is mental health related to religious beliefs? (e.g., a sign of a god’s favor, a sign of sin)

    *How does the society treat people who are different? (e.g., honored, shunned, try to “cure” them)

    These suggestions represent only the first steps to creating a believable character, but they’re important steps.  Next week, I’ll follow up with things NOT to do when writing a character with mental illness. 

    7 Responses to “Writing Characters with Mental Illness”

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