Psychology / Writing

Writing Characters with Mental Illness, Part 1: Motivation and the Empathic Lens

photo_2030_20061012Many bloggers have written about this topic, though (in my opinion) somewhat artificially in that they only offer quick tips on the ways to go about writing a character who experiences a mental disorder. In this two part series, I’m going to discuss this topic in depth by examining the reasons why an author might choose to focus on this aspect of character development. I will also talk about mental illness in the media and outline both successful and unsuccessful attempts by mainstream and literary authors when writing characters with mental illnesses.

Why is this important? The main reason why an author should study the above aspects of character development boils down to one word: respect. Too often an author will decide to take a fictional character and burden them with a mental disorder for the sake of entertainment or plot development without examining the notion that these illnesses are real, substantial disorders that afflict real people. For the respect of those people, an author should not take up this project lightly and should not skip steps in the name of spectacle.

However, we must remember that what we are discussing here is fiction. Fiction, at its core, is make-believe fantasy. As authors, what we write is meant to entertain and to enlighten. We might use a mental illness as a hurdle, an affliction the character is meant to overcome and to grow from. This creates conflict and consequently an alternate story line. In cases like this, it is best to find out what our motivations are when we decide to use mental illness as a writing tool.

1) Motivation: why mental illness? 

Before you begin writing, it is important to ask yourself why you’ve decided that your character will experience mental illness. Just as important, you should ask yourself where you inevitably plan to take this aspect of the story. Are you adding in this disorder because you are intimately and emotionally familiar with it? Some writers will feature certain disorders in their work because they have experienced them first hand or because a family member or friend has suffered.

Other reasons you may want to include mental disorders in your work can include entertainment, general interest, and public awareness. Either way, figuring out your motivations will inevitably tell you where you might take the story. For example, a writer decides to give his protagonist, a law attorney, post-traumatic stress disorder after the character experiences a traumatic car accident. If the author did this for strictly entertainment purposes, the attorney might behave in over-dramatic, unrealistic ways in order to make the story more exciting. Often, in these cases, research and realism take a back seat to fantasy, and the real issues of the disorder get lost in the words on the page.

Now, this is not to say that an author should only write about mental illness if they’ve had an innate connection with it. If you find that your motivations to write a character with this distinction is for entertainment purposes, there are a few steps to take to ensure that respect and knowledge don’t get lost among the hype.

2) The Empathic Gaze: have you connected with your character? 

Authors who have experienced mental illness or who have had a loved one with a disorder will usually have no problem relating theirphoto_13762_20090829 emotions or experiences to the reader. In the same light, a person with an interest in the field of psychopathology or a mental health worker with knowledge of various disorders may not struggle when putting themselves in their character’s shoes.

An author who is experimenting with the idea of mental illness for entertainment purposes will have a much different road to travel. It is very important that the author learns to connect emotionally with their character. Essentially, they must use an empathic gaze. Looking at a fictional individual through this lens, attempting to feel how they feel, talk how they talk, experience what they experience, will humanize this character all the more and allow for the all too familiar title of “the other” to be stripped from their identity. Often, when portraying a character with mental illness authors make the mistake of depicting them as otherwordly, monstrous, or alien. By empathizing with your character, even if they’re the antagonist, you can remove these stigmas and allow for proper representation and respect of the disorder that they experience to come through.

Mental illness, first and foremost, should never be looked at as “entertaining”. When I use the word “entertainment”, in this sense, I am referring to a mental disorder being used as a tool to move a story along, create conflict, and provide substance for a piece of work. Not only am I advocating for an empathic connection with a character who experiences mental illness, I am also advocating for an empathic connection with the disorder itself and empathy for the real people afflicted. This also comes down to doing proper research, and representing mental illness as it should be represented, which will be discussed at length in the final article of this series.

An example of using an empathic lens can be found in my upcoming novel, which is set in the 1960’s and 70’s. My antagonist is Janet Wilcox, a woman who suffers from extreme psychopathy. There is no actual DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) diagnosis for psychopathy as a disorder, but Anti-Social Personality disorder fits much of the symptoms that the mainstream media portrays as psychopathy or “sociopathy”. In the book, Janet’s daughter and her daughter’s friend read her diagnosis aloud from the second version of the DSM, giving the reader actual facts regarding this disorder (albeit outdated given the time period). Although Janet is portrayed as grossly abusive, lacking empathy, and highly manipulative, I humanize her by portraying her as more than just “gone wrong”. I give the reader a chance to see beyond her actions, bringing light to the mental health issues at play. Here I attempted to use an empathic lens with a character that is extremely disliked  given her treatment of the protagonist. I will admit, however, that my representation of Janet’s disorder was somewhat elementary, which can be seen in the violent tendencies she uses. These tendencies are more akin to “movie-type” psychopathic characters than real life persons who may be afflicted with Anti-Social Personality disorder. This is an example within my own writing that shows how representation and respect are important aspects to featuring mental illness in literature. I may have made the mistake of using a mainstream portrayal, thereby possibly misrepresenting the reality of the disorder.

3) Conclusions

In this section we’ve briefly discussed why motivation is important when attempting to write about mental illness. Once that motivation has been established, it is also important to take an empathic gaze when writing a character who suffers from mental illness. Emotional connection is key, in this sense. In the next section we will discuss the ways in which authors have successfully and unsuccessfully portrayed mental illness in their work. Part 2 will examine mental illness as a reality vs. mental illness in the media, and how it is important to become familiar with mental disorders and the personal and societal effects such disorders have.

-Samantha Moore


2 thoughts on “Writing Characters with Mental Illness, Part 1: Motivation and the Empathic Lens

  1. Pingback: Writing Characters With Mental Illness, Part 2: The Media Vs. Reality | Writing Strange

  2. Pingback: Mental Health and Fiction: striking the balance | Suzanne Conboy-Hill - finding fiction

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