People are amazingly diverse and have different life experiences. People struggle with many different things—deaths in their family, unemployment, and more. Mental illness is one of those things that is prevalent in society. As a writer, you may want to add a character to your plot who has a mental illness. However, mental illness can be a tricky and sensitive subject to include, so it’s important to write it correctly.
Is Mental Illness Necessary for a Good Cast?
Mental illnesses are relatively common. As you determine whether to add a character with mental illness to your story, this fact should be an element to consider. In any given year, about 1 in 25 Americans will experience some form of mental illness. Some people have serious illnesses like schizophrenia that will never resolve, although improvement can come through medication. Other people experience mental illness as it ebbs and flows through their lives. When you plan your plot, you may add a character with mental illness as a plot point, add interest in the condition, or use the character as a contrast to your non-mentally ill characters.
How Does Mental Illness Affect Your Character(s)?
Mental illnesses fall across a broad range of symptoms. Your mentally ill character may manifest some or all of the typical symptoms, and those symptoms may change through time. Their coping skills may change as well. Many people with a mental illness will recognize the issue and seek help. However, some illnesses make it difficult for a person to recognize the issue. Conveying those differences through character development should take those differences into account. For instance, those with anxiety disorders may seek relief by grounding anxiety with various techniques. Big, deep breathes can show a character dealing with an anxiety attack, keying the reader into what’s going on while the character grounds themselves. Disorganized speech may indicate a more difficult illness like schizophrenia.
Understand the symptoms of the disorder as well as overlapping symptoms. Many mental illnesses can present in similar ways. However, each illness has unique features that set it apart. You can use those unique features to develop your character.
Get an Insider’s Perspective
Since the array of symptoms and perceptions may vary to a great extent, you should consider talking with others about the experience. Consult with mental health professionals and individuals who have firsthand experience with the illness you have selected for your character. This can give you authentic details about how it feels to the sufferer and their friends and family. You can visit online forums, but always be respectful, discreet and appropriately cautious. Use a variety of sources for your research, and take a little extra time. Thecredibility of the characters will depend on how well you understand the issues from their point of view. Profound knowledge tends to promote compassion and respect, which are traits that can play well in your story. The more insight you can impart through your story, the more believable the characters will be. This leads to authenticity.
A character in your story who has a mental illness can add interest and a thread of real-life issues that many readers face in their own lives. How you develop the character will help determine if the issues ring true.
Looking for more character-developing ideas? Take a look at this other article: How to Write a Convincingly Car-Savvy Character