Monday, May 23, 2011

Some of my Best Characters are Crazy - Literally

Carrie Fisher via Wikimedia Commons

We throw the word "crazy" around pretty lightly, but the fact remains - there's a lot of crazy out there.  Estimates are that one in five Americans experience some kind of diagnosable, treatable mental illness in the course of each year.

Much fewer than one in five actually get treated, of course.  Fewer than that talk openly about their mental illness, though in recent years both Carrie Fisher and Catherine Zeta-Jones have "come out" as suffering from bi-polar disorder.

Sadly, there's still a big stigma about acknowledging mental illness, even though research seems to indicate more and more that mental illness is seated in the physical and chemical make-up of the brain, and no more the sufferer's "fault" or choice than being nearsighted or having a gimpy knee.

Then too, one of the symptoms of many mental illnesses is denial by the affected person - not simply because of the stigma, but because many with mental illness feel fine, great, they are winners

Mental illness does not simply impact the person with the condition.  It affects everyone around them: family, friends, neighbors, co-workers.

So, if we are smart writers, it will also inform our writing.

  • Our hero's mother was alcoholic, and he has many unpleasant childhood memories of drunken scenes and next day hangovers.  If his love interest gets slightly tipsy at a social event, he may go ballistic, totally out of proportion to the "offense."  Additionally, perhaps mom didn't die, but disappeared... Will she reappear, still alcoholic and expecting to be enabled?  Or perhaps, totally dried out and wanting to renew the relationship?  Or, did she crawl into a hole and die somewhere?  Our hero may be haunted by a sense of unfinished business and guilt that he didn't "save" her.
  • Heroine's father was OCPD.  He constantly nitpicked at her, any siblings, and her co-dependent mother; now she has a rock-bottom sense of self-esteem, a need to prove herself perfect and to hide any flaws.  Daddy Dearest manages to pull off a jovial, "good guy" appearance around outer circle people, so her new love interest does not understand why she wants to avoid her family of origin, and why even the slightest criticism sends her into an emotional tailspin.
  • Hero had an autistic brother, who he both loves and resents, because the family dynamic was all about caring for the special needs child, and the others were mostly left to fend for themselves.
  • Heroine's mother was hugely obese and a binge eater, and having seen the pain and ostracism her mother received, vowed she'd be different.  She is, but on the flip side of the eating disorder coin, with anorectic tendencies and letting the number on the scale, or the size on the clothing tag, determine whether it wlll be a good day or a bad day.
  • Hero has been diagnosed in the past with clinical depression, and once attempted suicide as a teen.  He's afraid to tell his love interest because she might dump him, and he likes her so much  - but what if they get serious and she finds out from someone else?
  • Heroine thinks she may be bi-polar.  She experiences mood swings of feeling spiritually high, powerful, creative, and energetic, and does most her painting, networking, and partying during those times, but they alternate with days when she can barely crawl out of bed.  She's afraid to seek treatment, because what if medication robs her of the highs and creativity?
Joan of Arc by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Giving one (or more) characters a mental illness not only gives additional dimensions to them, but is guaranteed to add drama and conflict, always a good thing in story, if not in real life.  Mental illness is not new, nor American - every era, every culture has had mentally ill members, even if some have considered it demonic possession or heavenly visitation.  It can be used in any work, from sci-fi to historical fiction.

I'm not suggesting that we cruise the headlines, pick a mental illness "flavor of the month," and crudely staple it into our work.  I do suggest we take a look at our work and characters as they stand, and see if diagnosed or undiagnosed mental illness, on the current pages, or as backstory that influences their current behavior, might fit with their dynamics.  Perhaps part of our heroine's character arc is the epiphany that her mother was mentally ill and it was not her fault that her mother ran away/was half-comatose with prescription drugs/committed suicide.

By highlighting mental illness a bit more, especially if we do your homework and present it in an accurate and respectful way, our work will both become deeper and more real, and also perform the very valuable social purpose of bringing more awareness to mental health issues.

Mental illness has been "done" before, of course, in books, television and movies.  Usually not very well, and often the details and behaviors are distorted for dramatic effect.  Sheldon Cooper (TV, Big Bang Theory) has characteristics of both Asperger's Syndrome and OCPD.  John Nash (film, A Beautiful Mind) in real life had only auditory hallucinations, not auditory and visual ones.

Then there are those, not portraying a role, on Jerry Springer and reality TV.  'Nuff said!

Have you had personal experiences (family, friends, self) with mental illness?
Which illnesses?
Are you working your knowledge & experiences into your blogging or fiction, 
or steering away because of the fear of stigma?