I often hear about writers struggling to write characters with mental illness, because they want to accurately portray mental illness without it being offensive. I believe that there should be more mental illness in literature and the arts because it helps to raise awareness. So, I have put together the following list as a beginner’s guide to writing characters with mental illness.
Do Your Research
Research is a crucial part of all of our writing. We want to bring a certain sense of authenticity to our writing. Researching mental illness is even more crucial because it involves accurately portraying a subset of people. When writing about mental illness, be sure you look at the comorbidity of different mental illnesses. Also, remember that no one person reacts the same to their mental illness, so the best practice would be to use resources like The Mighty to help see different perspectives.
Give Your Character a Life Outside of Mental Illness
Make sure your character isn’t there simply as the token mentally ill person. Even if your book focuses on mental illness, your characters need a life. They need friends and family. They need hobbies and activities to do. The goal is always to make our characters authentic. Making a character one-dimensional where the only thing they add to the story is being someone with mental illness is a dangerous practice.
For example, in (Not) Alone-which is free to download here-Henry is an avid hunter and that is represented throughout the book. It brings a certain sense of reliability to the character. While the theme of the book was mental illness, that wasn’t the only thing about Henry that readers knew.
Use It As a Source of Pride
While having a mental illness may not necessarily be something somebody is proud of, overcoming that mental illness to become successful is something to be proud of. In (Not) Alone, there was a major theme of pride throughout the book. Every time Henry overcame his latest struggle with mental illness, you could feel and see his sense of pride and self-confidence increased every chapter.
Show, Don’t Tell
As writers, we hear this every time we send a manuscript to our editor. No matter how many times we hear it, we inevitably have places in our writing where someone can say “I wish they would have shown that instead of telling it.” The same is true for mental illness. Don’t tell the reader someone has anxiety, show them. Allow the reader to experience the fine details of the story through the character’s actions, details that rely on the reader’s senses, intentionally using words, or the expression of characters’ emotions. Some examples:
- Instead of “I was starting to have an anxiety attack,” use something like “The closer I got, the more my heart beat against my chest. It felt like I was having a heart attack. The anxiety flooded my mind again, making me question everything.“
- Instead of “He was having an anxiety attack,” use something like “He felt like his breath was escaping him and every time he tried to catch it, more got away from him. Henry couldn’t talk anymore. He was afraid that his next breath would be his last. He just focused on moving his legs. The ground felt like it was slowly giving way beneath him. His chest was slowly tightening its grip, causing an unbearable pain. His stomach was in a thousand knots as he struggled to breathe.“
- Instead of “He was experiencing bipolar rage,” use something like “He couldn’t make out the sound of his engine roaring through the sound of his heart pounding within his chest. All he knew was that he wanted to get away from his current surroundings. He wanted the Earth to stop spinning. He slammed his car into reverse as he backed out of his grandparent’s driveway.“
Hire a Sensitivity Reader
I got lucky with my latest book and my editor also served as a sensitivity reader. You can find tons of resources for quality sensitivity readers online, or reach out to your fellow writers or social media followers to get recommendations. Sensitivity readers give you a better understanding of how readers will react to your writing. It gives you the opportunity to fix the mistakes that may not be quite correct or maybe unintentionally offensive before it goes out to the masses.