Right up top, there, is a podcast where I interviewed a professional in the field, Andrew Terech, who also happens to be a writer. The fact of the matter is, choosing to write a character suffering from psychological problems is going to be a complex undertaking from start to finish, and shouldn’t be done just to make up for that character being otherwise boring.
Writing Mentally Ill Characters
Right now, I am the top ranking result when someone types “How to write like an insane person” into Google.
Before you ask, yes, I’m proud of that. I also feel a little guilty, though, because the article, while a pretty good one (I think) was written as sort of a tongue-in-cheek humorous article about writing itself, not a technical guide to mentally ill characters, and here I am owning that search result while giving no actual useful writing advice on the subject. With that in mind, I’ve put together a short guide to do just that. This is just a general guide, but I h
ave provided links to broader info sources for writing mentally ill characters.
Insane is Way Too Broad a Brush
Referring to someone as insane is a colloquialism. It’s utterly useless from a writer’s standpoint. Insanity, as in the lack of sanity, comes in nearly infinite flavors, okay? You don’t go into Baskin Robbins and ask for, “An ice cream.” You don’t order, “A beer,” in a bar, do you?
Mental illnesses are myriad, variable, specific within their constraints, thoroughly document, and, in many cases, highly subjective. So you need to pick an actual illness, and then . . .
Research Mental Illnesses
Knowledge is key. You need to understand what the actual illness you’ve chosen involves. That means research, research, research. Psychotic is not the same thing as sociopathy, and so on. Most mental illnesses also involve very specific criteria. Your character isn’t “OCD” if they have to clean their sink every night, they aren’t ADHD if they get bored in church, etc.
A great place to start is probably PsychCentral.com, which provides a list of disorders recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5). These are basically the “official” mental disorders, although it’s worth noting such things are in flux.
Learn the diagnostic criteria, learn the diagnoses, learn the medications, learn the symptoms, learn the like responses to treatments, the side-effects.
There are also numerous writing guides on the subject, of which The Writer’s Guide to Psychology by Carolyn Kaufman seems to have a good reputation, and might be worth investing in.
Now, you very well might not use all this information in the books, but there’s a reason you need to learn it all.
Put Yourself in Their Heads
Your goal in writing a character with a mental illness is the same as any other: To step inside them, and bring a world to life through their perspective. It’s not easy to do for anyone, and it’s a tough trick for the mentally ill. Unless you’re playing the role of the omniscient narrator, you’re going to need to spend a lot of time visualizing how those symptoms you researched mess with point of view.
Do you have an ADHD character? The focus of their viewpoint is going to shift a lot. They’re going to notice things another person might not. That OCD character, on the other time, is likely to be extremely focused on certain things, but at the expense of others. Your mild sociopath is going find themselves challenged to accurately attribute the emotional responses of other characters.
I would seriously consider contacting a support organization for the mental illness you’ve chosen to focus on, and reach out to speak with people living with the illnesses and their loved ones for perspective.
Above all else . . .
Remember They’re People, Too
Whether they’re side-characters, protagonists, antagonists, or something else entirely, remember these are people, and have the assorted hopes, dreams, complexities, and underlying insecurities of the rest of humanity, for the most part. The world is full of sociopaths who manage to be good parents and members of their community, depressed individuals who manage to function smoothly within society, and so on. I have, I’m fairly certain, undiagnosed ADHD–and I still manage to get plenty of work done. I have to use coffee, earbuds, a hat to block my peripherals, and a lot of sheer willpower, but I get things done.
Everybody fights their own little battles. Some fight better than others, some face smaller demons, but the common thread of humanity is the attempt–it’s not just necessary to gaining your readers’ immersion in your story, but the only fair way to treat your characters.
NAMI, the National Alliance of Mental Illnesses actually has a writing guide for speaking about mental illnesses. Obviously, this isn’t worth following explicitly in fiction, but taking a little time to look at how people living with mental illnesses wish to be spoken about would not be a waste of time.
I’m not trying to be politically correct here. Political correctness is fascism in stage make up. What I’m telling you is writing is an act of exploration and empathy, and using people as punchlines, cardboard cutouts of villains, or trivialized caricatures is plain and simply bad writing.