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How to Use Mental Illness in Your Writing

Mental illness is always a tricky topic to discuss, especially in the politically correct society of the present. I can tell you though, I work in a psychiatric hospital, and the patients there are often more than happy to discuss their illnesses, whether you would like them to or not. This is how I came to meet Jim Bob, the recovering-alcoholic duckling who likes nothing more than to chill out with his issue of Cosmo. It is all part of their character, and as we readers and writers of fiction know, character is a huge part of the story world.

GollumThe most famous mentally ill character in fiction is of course Gollum/Sméagol. According to a study at University College London (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/media/library/gollum) he suffers from schizoid personality disorder; he has two distinct personalities, but unlike someone who suffers from dissociative identity disorder each of his personalities is aware of the other, as witnessed in the scene where he argues with himself. (Logen Ninefingers could be said to suffer from this, although again he is aware of his other personality, even if he doesn’t recall his actions in this state.)

Gollum’s illness very definitely affects his behaviour and actions throughout the novels. Depending on which personality is dominant at a given time, he is either trying to help Sam and Frodo to achieve their goal, or he is spending his time plotting to steal back the ring. Years of self-imposed isolation suffering from this illness did nothing to help the emotional detachment sufferers have to deal with, and have also completely skewed Gollum’s view of the world, which ultimately leads him to betray his companions.

Another example of mental illness in fantasy that some readers may be aware of is in Brian Jacques’ Mariel of Redwall. The protagonist Mariel suffers from amnesia after being thrown into the sea, and spends much of the book rediscovering who she is, before going on to win the day. Her nemesis, Gabool the Wild, begins to hear voices and suffer hallucinations after he has stolen the bell intended for the Badger Lord Rawnblade Widestripe. Although it is never confirmed what is causing Gabool’s illness, it leads to his demise, when he falls into the pit he keeps his pet scorpion in.

Mariel of Redwall (cover)Mental illness can be used to add layers of depth to a character, but they do not need to be as extreme as the examples stated above. Many sufferers of mental illness are able to function normally in society, if with slight variations to normal routine, but these illnesses can affect their actions. Addicts, for example, may be able to function normally, but only if they get their fix. Deprive an alcoholic from their drink, and they’re in trouble; they will do anything they can to get a fix, no matter how dangerous to themselves or others. They become a liability.

Attitude towards mental illness can also be used to create a new layer of tension within a work; prejudices of all kinds pepper our society, for better or worse, and it’s often against things people do not understand. Couple that with an illness the sufferer is unable to articulate accurately, and bingo, tension is immediately ramped up.

Relationships between characters, especially in fantasy, are often fraught with difficulty as they stand, but add in an illness to that mix, and trouble could be brewing. Travelling with someone who has OCD, for instance, could make the journey a nightmare. Trying to find places they’re willing to stay, things they are willing to eat, time to accommodate their routine, makes what is most likely already an important and dangerous trip doubly so.

So, how to write a character with a mental illness? Firstly, do your research. Two people suffering from the same illness can have different symptoms and act in very different ways, so make sure you know which combination you want for your work. Medical journals are easy to come by online, and aren’t all written in a language only psychologists can understand. They’re also often very interesting to read.

Secondly, try the characteristics of the illness out. Will it work on the character you’re giving it to? Is it feasible for a character with that illness to exist in your plot? Having someone else read your writing at this point is a very good plan, especially if they have not read about the illness. They’ll be able to tell you if the character is working, if there’s anything they think is off about the illness in the setting, and most importantly, if they could live with that character for the length of the work.

clock by 27gramsThere are of course pitfalls to avoid with this sort of thing; there are stereotypical views of illnesses that, whilst often being based on general understanding of said illness, often miss the nuances and subtleties therein. You know the usual culprits; the schizophrenic who screams at the sky, the depressive with the self-harm marks, OCD sufferers cleaning themselves every time they touch something. Yes, these are all symptoms of these illnesses, but they’re not the only symptoms, and there’s nothing worse to read than a character that is a complete stereotype.

As with all aspects of character, caution is recommended, but if you do your research correctly, and write carefully, there is no reason why you can’t use mental illness to create interesting, sympathetic characters that will liven up your fantasy world.

Title image by gaelicwolf.

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7 Comments

  1. Tim says:

    Hmmm, quick quetion, out of curiosity. Bit of spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire Trilogy.
    Would you say Tyrions going mad in the new book? Oh and if you hadn’t read it, that’s grand:P

  2. AE Marling says:

    The protagonist in my high fantasy novel suffers from a debilitating condition called idiopathic hypersomnia. It causes her to sleep more than she lives, and she never feels more awake than when she lucid dreams. Worse, people throughout her life tend to accuse her of simply being lazy, and she has to overcome her own insecurities in addition to her nemesis.

    The condition is rare, and those in this world who are afflicted find great support and understanding in a facebook group. I wish for all those living with a mental illness to find such communities so they can find others who share their experiences. The world has an abyss of sympathy for those who are different.

  3. Alister says:

    Excellent article, with some interesting comments.

    I’ve recently started on the second book of a proposed trilogy, one where the hero has ‘snapped’ following the events of the first (he’s been through the mill, and then some). So easy to fall into cliche with something like this, you’ve prompted me into doing some research :-)

    • Michelle J. says:

      I agree with Alister, this was a a great article. Very thoughful and helpful. : )

      @AEMarling- Wow. I didn’t know that particular disease existed and think that someone in my family may have this. Thanks for posting the information.

  4. Dan D. Jones says:

    Enjoyed the article but wanted to point out that you seem to have fallen into the stereotype trap a bit yourself. “Addicts, for example, may be able to function normally, but only if they get their fix. Deprive an alcoholic from their drink, and they’re in trouble; they will do anything they can to get a fix, no matter how dangerous to themselves or others. They become a liability.” This is overstating things a tad to say the least.

    Most of us either have been addicted to cigarettes or have known people who were. A nicotine addict who doesn’t get their cigarettes is likely going to be ill tempered and out of sorts. But they’re not going to sell their children into slavery to get a fix unless they’re a completely immoral person to start with. The idea that addicts lose control and will do anything for a fix is melodramatic BS. Addicts will often make poor decisions – an addict might very well spend grocery money despite knowing they should not do so – but it’s still a poor decision, not a zombified loss of control.

  5. Lor says:

    Firstly, thank you all for your kind comments, I really appreciate them.

    Tim: unfortunately I have not read up to the new book, so can’t really comment on Tyrion’s condition. Give me a little while to get there though, and I’ll happily discuss it :)

    Mr Marling: that sounds like an incredibly difficult condition to live with, I would be very interested in discovering how you use it in your work.

    Alister/Michelle: thank you very much! I’m glad it was at least a little helpful, though I do feel a little bad that i gave you extra work to do! :)

    Dan: You are entirely right. I fell into the trap of forgetting my work mindset is different to out-of-work; in the hospital “addict” is usually used in the context of those patients who had addictions that make them dangerous to themselves and others, such as alcohol and drug addictions. We tend not to class smokers as “addicts” because, as you pointed out and I know from being a smoker, beyond being a bit grouchy we can often go without a fix. I apologize for not clarifying my viewpoint in the article, and shall do my best to avoid errors like this in the future.

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