On Writing Characters With Mental Illnesses

One thing I tend to see over and over again throughout YA books, specifically contemporary or romance, is characters with a mental illness. Almost every book I pick up happens to have a character, normally the protagonist, dealing with some sort of anxiety disorder or depression. This is never a bad thing- Unless it’s done wrong.

So how do you keep from doing it wrong? Before you can think about that, you should be sure you know what you’re talking about. What is a mental illness? A mental illness is a condition that changes a person’s mindset and emotions, and can make it difficult to function and cope in everyday life. What counts as a mental illness? More than you’d think! Mental illness is more than anxiety and depression ((though they make up a big component)).

 A very brief list of mental illnesses:

  • OCD ((Obsessive Compulsive Disorder))
  • Schizophrenia
  • PTSD ((Post Traumatic Stress Disorder))
  • Asperger’s/Autism
  • Bipolar disorder
  • BPD ((Borderline Personality Disorder))
  • ICD ((Impulse Control Disorder))

I’d like to repeat: This is not an exhaustive list. This just barely scratches the surface and if you plan on writing a character with a mental illness, I implore you to look into the different kinds.

Now onto the tips!

One thing to remember throughout the entire writing process: Apart from forwarding your story, representation is the most important part. You- Hopefully -threw in a character with a mental illness because it pushes your plot on, or maybe you have an already existing character develop it throughout the storyline. Great! You’re done!

Except the smallest part of adding a character with a mental illness is adding the character.

So what’s next? Research. Research is a vital part of every writing process- I doubt you have a worthwhile writing session unless you had to use Google, whether it’s trying to recall the name of a certain town or diving deep into a foreign culture. Even when you believe you are an expert on something, do your research. Look for sites labeled .edu , .gov , and .org. These sites have the most reliable information.

And, obviously, first person accounts! Tumblr is full of them. You’ll never run out! Type your chosen term into the hashtag search and start looking. You’ll not only come across story upon story, but blogs that can help you figure out what you need to.

And don’t forget to talk to people! This is almost the same as looking at first person accounts, but much more personal and deep. Conduct interviews, ask questions to people who openly talk about their struggles, and, above all else, be respectful. And if there’s someone that you know and trust going through a similar situation, talk to them.

Finally, be realistic. How many YA romances have you read that starts with a fourteen year old girl dealing with depression, who then meets a boy, and then her life is changed, and suddenly they’re dating and she’s happy? They’re all over the place. And it’s not exclusive to girls, either- I’ve heard of adult romances with a guy dealing with violent PTSD being magically ‘cured’ by the woman he falls in love with ((not after emotionally and verbally abusing her, of course)). And I’m not even going to get into all the problems when it comes to most stories revolving around LGBT.

    Mental illnesses are not pretty.

They aren’t a moody aesthetic on Tumblr with a grunge filter and rain.

    Mental illnesses are ugly.

Remember what I said about representation? One of the most important things to remember. More people with depression would enjoy and relate to a story where the protag doesn’t get a happy ending versus they’re cured and suddenly flawless than not ((and, no, I’m not saying to kill off your protag or add a suicide scene)).

   People don’t always get happy endings.

If you want to give your characters a happy ending, you have all the power in the world to do that- And make it good, too. But you can’t do that without it being realistic. So take a good look at your outline ((or brain map, for pantsers)), and make sure everything adds up. Is this something that would happen in real life? Am I missing something? If someone on the street or in the halls told me this happened, would I believe them?

So there you go! Tips on how to write people with mental illnesses. Next I’ll be covering physical illnesses, so be sure to follow me so you can see that.

If you liked this, be sure to check out my mailing list to be notified each time I make a post. You’ll also gain access to things I don’t show anyone else, like excerpts that won’t go up on social media and announcements I won’t share elsewhere.

❤ Max

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