Creating Mentally Ill Characters
By Emily Glossner Johnson
As a person with bipolar disorder, I’m drawn to mental health issues and characters with mental illness in literature. As a writer, I often create characters with mental illness. I have written about characters battling schizophrenia, agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder, addiction, and depression. Characters with these afflictions appear in five of my ten published stories, and one as yet unpublished story.
I have met many people with mental illness along my journey through the mental health system. What surprised me during my four hospitalizations and two partial hospitalization programs was how “normal” the other patients seemed. (“Normal” is a difficult, slippery word, but in this case, I mean it as typical, usual, and expected in the way a person who isn’t afflicted with mental illness might be.) We all suffer symptoms, especially in the psychiatric ward or a partial hospitalization program, but we’re also capable of being articulate, expressive, and in control of ourselves. Of course, there are exceptions, and I’ve seen them, but they do seem to be the exception and not the rule.
In general, a writer should always work to create fully developed, multidimensional characters—characters who feel like people you could know. In the development of any character, there should be depth and complexity. Characters should seem as though they have had lives before the pieces of literature they appear in, and lives they will resume after the pieces are done.
When creating a character with mental illness, my advice is to first come up with the character separate from his or her illness. What are the character’s likes and dislikes? Where is the character from? What is his or her back story? What are his or her habits, traits, and passions? People with mental illness are not solely their illnesses; the same should go for characters with mental illness.
When it comes time to add the mental illness to the character, I believe a writer needs to be compassionate and accurate. A writer needs to avoid stereotyping, ridiculing, or stigmatizing these characters. One common stereotype is that of a ranting, raving “crazy” person with nothing else to him or her but the illness and its manifestation. Ridicule and stigmatization often follow on the heels of this. A writer might make the “crazy” character nothing more than comic relief. Or the character might be someone to fear, or a person entirely incapable of functioning in society. This all feeds into the stigma surrounding mental illness… the idea that it’s a joke, or that a person with mental illness is nothing more than a collection of symptoms, or that people should fear and avoid people with mental illness.
So how can a writer be compassionate and accurate? By doing research. Several excellent resources are the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI — http://www.nami.org), the National Institutes on Mental Health (NIMH—www.nimh.nih.gov), the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA—www.dbsalliance.org), and WebMD’s Mental Health Center (www.webmd.com/mental-health). On all of these sites, you can find specific mental illnesses and plenty of information about them. Another or additional option is to read books about the mental illness you wish to depict. Get to know the illness well so that your representation of it will be realistic. Your research may take a bit of time, but it’s worth it if you’re intent on creating quality fiction.
If you get to know your character as a person first and then know well how to show his or her illness, you should end up effectively creating your character. Finally, first hand research can be excellent. If you have family members or friends with mental illness and you feel comfortable doing so, talk to them about their experiences. Many of us are willing to share and appreciate the opportunity to educate and enlighten others.