fiction writing

Mental Illness in Fiction

I’ve been seeing a trend in book reviews questioning the use of mental illness in works of fiction, as a plot device or even the main theme of a novel. (And yes, that includes reviews of one of my books.)

Also, it happens to be Mental Health Awareness Month, so this is a good time to address the topic.

This post has more questions than answers.

Some reviewers declare they will not read or favourably review any book that uses mental illness as a plot device to create tension or conflict.

But what about the unreliable narrator? What about the psychological thriller? What about the character who does terrible or puzzling things because of mental illness?

When might it be OK?

  • Never?
  • If the writer has experienced mental illness and writes from that experience
  • If the writer has done extensive research on the specific illness in their story and/or interviewed people who have experienced it, and writes about it respectfully
  • If the writer has had the manuscript reviewed by a sensitivity reader
  • If the writer avoids stereotypes or tropes associated with mental illness
  • If there are trigger warnings in the book description and/or at the beginning of the book
  • If mental illness is not explicitly mentioned in the story, even though one or more characters display what might be termed symptoms?

If it’s never okay, that means writers are limited to pure evil (whatever that is) to motivate the serial killer, or inexplicable confusion for the unreliable narrator. Or simply an inexplicable tendency to lie. Is it okay to leave it up to readers to carry out a diagnosis?

And why is it okay to show murder, bloody combat, and child abuse in fiction, but not mental illness?

What about all those characters who remember or discover terrible things that were done to them as children?

Psychological conditions are common in real life and therefore in fiction. It’s just as unacceptable to pretend they don’t exist as to treat them casually and thoughtlessly. But I see objections, in recent reviews and articles, to writers using the terminology or descriptions of symptoms because it’s “unfair,” or because it might “trigger” a reader who has experienced or is experiencing mental illness.

And what about suicide? Is it ever okay to mention or depict that in fiction? Strangely enough, even though a search on “mental illness in fiction” brings up many articles that say don’t do it, a search on “suicide in fiction” yields lists such as “the 10 best suicides in literature.” Is suicide just too useful as a plot device?

And what about trigger warnings? How detailed should they be? What about spoilers?

For what it’s worth, I think it’s undeniable that a greater awareness of mental illness requires us writers to avoid treating it casually in our fiction. We must think of it as something that can affect any of us, rather than a peculiarity of people who are “not us.”

Have you read or written books that mention or include mental illness? Is anyone prepared to revise their published works to address issues mentioned here?

For a more extensive look at the issue, have a look at this post from Rabbit With a Red Pen.

The Wikipedia entry titled “Mental disorders in fiction” lists numerous works that include mental illness.

Three men and one woman under a tree, wearing hats, slanting sunbeams

Writing What You Aren’t

In a recent garden photos post, I complained that I couldn’t think of anything to say about writing and asked for suggestions in the comments. Priscilla Bettis wondered how I deal with writing from a man’s or a kid’s point of view, and Elizabeth Merry offered some thoughts on her approach to this.

And I thought–why haven’t I posted about this before? So now I’m doing it.

All my novels have first person narrators, and several of those narrators are men. One of them is gay, and part of one book deals with that character’s childhood. Since no one (fellow writer or reviewer) has noted any serious problems with my portrayals of those male characters, I have to conclude that I did an at least adequate job in writing them.

To be honest, it’s also a challenge to write from the point of view of a female character more sophisticated than I, or who has had a more adventurous or difficult life.

Woman with white mask, eyes outlined black, red hat and fan
Image by Viola ‘ from Pixabay

Dwelling on these challenges can have a paralyzing effect. In fact, thinking too much about any type of writing challenge can be discouraging. Instead, consider the following:

  • Writing exclusively from one’s own type (middle-aged-verging-on-old woman in my case) is way too limiting.
  • People have more in common than not. Everyone was a kid once. Everyone has occasion to talk with and observe all kinds of people.
  • Writers are good at creating from their imaginations. We can do this.
Group of children kids backs
Image by florentiabuckingham from Pixabay

Here are some practices and techniques that I have found helpful in writing male characters, children, and other characters unlike me–present-day me, that is.

  • Drawing upon conscious and unconscious observations made over a lifetime.
  • Drawing upon the results of a lifetime of reading, as well as listening to and watching different kinds of people in media and movies.
  • Deliberately seeking out writings by or about people like the character I am creating. This is a form of research–filling my brain with concepts, outlooks, and turns of phrase used by people different from me. Having primed the pump, when I go to write those characters, I set myself aside and let the other persona gush forth.
  • Free-writing from the character’s point of view, but outside of the main work-in-progress, is a low risk way to experiment.
  • Recognizing when I’m not capable of creating an intended character, due to lack of information or empathy. I can remedy that by further research, or replace the character with one I feel capable of writing.
  • Asking critique partners and beta readers to look out for problems with characters different from me.

In the end, though, fiction is artifice and our characters are artificial people. Close to real may have to be good enough, if we have approached character creation responsibly and respectfully.

So, fellow writers, how do you approach writing characters who are different from you?

Featured Image by icsilviu from Pixabay

Blog header: Twenty Years a Writer

Twenty Years a Writer, Part 3: Writing From the Inside or the Outside?

There’s a lot of advice for writers on how to structure a piece of fiction from inciting incident to crisis and conclusion. How to create conflict and build up tension. How to make relatable characters. To me, that advice often sounds like the writer is looking at their work from the outside, standing apart from it, assembling pieces and fastening them together.

I prefer to write from the inside.

It’s like I’m creating the structure from within and living in it with my characters. I’m right there with them as they interact, experiencing their conflicts and struggles. It’s like making a burrow, digging into the substance of the story and shaping its hollows and passages with my hands and body.

Looking out of hollow space
Image by Juanetito from Pixabay

Writing from the inside is writing in first person or using what’s called “deep POV.” That is an extremely close third person point of view, just one remove from first person. The narrator doesn’t speak as one of the characters, but is pretty much joined at the hip with them, close enough to hear their inner thoughts. It’s as though that character, the writer, and the reader are one. A drawback of this device is that other characters’ thoughts must be conveyed in dialogue or by some other means.

This inside/outside thing reminds me of Emic vs Etic — a concept in anthropology that distinguishes between ways of describing a culture. An outside observer’s account (“etic”) is scientifically detached but possibly coloured by his or her own culture. That written by a member of the culture (“emic”), while richer and more detailed, may be obscured by assumptions not available to all readers. For example: “The group demonstrates an animistic religion,” vs. “I honour the spirits of sky, water, and stone.”

I won’t say that one approach is better than the other, but working from the inside feels right to me. All my novels and many of my short stories are in first person. Of the fourteen stories in Tales from the Annexe, nine are in first person. Those with a third person point of view are, in my opinion, a bit less intense and immersive.

With my eyes useless, I explored my darkness. Like a trapped insect, I crawled inside the walls of my skull, revisiting memories of sight. … I remembered the weight of the glass cylinder filled with the drug, the small resistance as the needle punctured living tissue, the faint grating of glass on glass as I dispensed death.
(From “The Night Journey of Francis Dexter”)

Writing from the outside may be the preferred method for writers who do detailed outlines and other preliminary work before they begin to write. Working from the inside may be favoured by those who plunge in and splash out a messy first draft with the intent to shape it later, in effect writing first from the inside and then from the outside. And maybe those who start from the outside need to do some work from the inside after they’ve created the framework.

Image source unknown

Or maybe it’s about Thinking (inside) and Doing (outside). Introspective works may be best served by first person or extremely close third person. For action-packed thrillers, close third person may be effective, possibly switching between or among characters. Epic fantasy, on the other hand, with its intricate plots and many characters, demands third person omniscient. And first person or deep POV may be used for specific scenes to add intensity.

Whichever approach a writer takes, it’s helpful to do it consciously and methodically, so as to maximize the impact and avoid confusing the reader.

All this reminds me of something I read about how beavers build their lodges. First they pile up a huge mass of sticks, and then burrow inside it to shape their living spaces from within. Then they plaster the outside with mud to make it weathertight. There is something beaverish about us writers, isn’t there?

Beaver lodge
Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Fellow writers, do you distinguish between writing from the inside and the outside? Which approach works best for you?

Next time: Reasons to Write and Reasons to Publish