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Creating a Character with Relatable Mental Health Struggles
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
November 2018
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
November 2018

This guest post was written by this month's guest editor, Jacquelyn Middleton author of Until The Last Star Fades

Drawing on Personal History

Several years ago, I fainted in the makeup hall of Toronto’s busiest department store. It was a Saturday, just before eleven, and my mum, sister, and I were having mother-daughter makeovers. But while I sat in the chair with a cosmetics consultant whirling around me with lip gloss the color of melted grape popsicles, I was silently dissolving into a severe panic attack. My old friend anxiety had begrudged me a day off.

Like my fondness for grilled cheese sandwiches, anxiety and panic attacks have been with me since childhood. They’ve brought me tearfully to my knees while I clutched an ice cream at the mall—I was seven. They’ve left me chasing breaths while I rode the subway to a Maple Leafs hockey game—I was thirteen. But at twenty-six battling a racing heart, sweats, and tightness in my throat, anxiety floored me—literally—in that cosmetics department. When I came to, I was so mortified, no amount of blush in the store could compete with the color rising on my cheeks.

I carried this embarrassment for years, swearing my family to secrecy until one day in 2015, when I realized that my worst experiences could make fantastic fodder for my first novel. It was around this time that I also noticed how few novels featured characters with mental health struggles, and those that did, treated them like throw-away traits like blue eyes, freckles, or a fondness for white wine. Nothing on the page showed the reality—my reality. As someone dealing with these issues every day, I felt unseen and misunderstood. How could these authors get it so wrong?

Writing What You Want to Read

Anxiety and depression aren’t disorders characters try on like a trendy pair of jeans. But, instead of silently fuming, I set out to write the books that I wanted to read, books that would give mental health warriors (like myself) their due and show them as the smart, resilient individuals they are.

In that instant, I became an own voice writer and the end result was LONDON BELONGS TO ME and LONDON, CAN YOU WAIT?, two novels starring Alex Sinclair, an aspiring playwright with anxiety and a history of public panic attacks. Getting Alex’s story out in the world prompted me to finally seek help for my own anxiety, and in the process, I was diagnosed with its best friend—depression, albeit in my case, something called ‘smiling depression’ (aka, high functioning depression). Apparently, I’ve had it all my life.

Hey, why not use that in my books, too, right?

So, I have!

UNTIL THE LAST STAR FADES, is a contemporary romance/women’s fiction story featuring Riley, an NYU senior with smiling depression who meets Ben, a hot mess of a struggling Scottish actor.

Readers React

With the publication of my three books, I have had many readers email me to say, ‘thank you for telling people how anxiety really is.’

How beautiful is that?

I’ve always felt that if one person with anxiety or depression comes away after reading my books and feels understood and not alone, I’ve done my job, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. We need more representation of mental health in novels. And when I say more representation, I mean realistically and empathetically portrayed mental health. Who would be better equipped to do that than someone with those very challenges?

I’ve come to realize that my sensitivity, anxiety, and depression are a gift. They help me see the world through a unique perspective, and they urge me to write with compassion, love, and understanding. I hope more own voice authors share their experiences so readers see themselves within the pages and stigmas are crushed. After all, it’s the stigma that often keeps people from seeking help. It’s dangerous and needs to stop. Now. And books written by own voice authors can start that conversation.

Inclusion Through Research

But don’t get me wrong. Characters with mental health challenges can—and should—be written by all authors, even if they’ve never felt panicked or weighed down by a depressive episode.

I believe no topic should be off limits to an author who is willing to learn and write with an open mind.

I’ve written about dyslexia, lupus, and other health and family situations that I’ve never personally experienced.

How did I do it?

Research and lots of it.

I spend weeks compiling information to make the characters and their experiences real. I’ve interviewed people, collected real life accounts, joined Facebook support groups and joined the conversation.

If you want to write honestly, especially about issues you haven’t lived with, you must put the hours in. Be diligent for facts. Beware of stereotypes and clichés —they are the easy way out and always perpetuate ugly stigmas.

Not sure what I mean?

What comes to mind when someone mentions depression? A person who sleeps all day? Someone who can’t keep a relationship, or maybe a coworker who is unreliable at work. Yeah, you’ve seen these one-dimensional characterizations of mental health, too, right? Sure, depressed individuals do have moments of unbearable despair when life is crushing them from the inside out, but their affliction doesn’t define them. They also have moments of success: they go on dates, they get promoted, they’re wonderful, caring friends—all while their depression ebbs and flows.

And that’s just it.

Mental health issues aren’t static.

They change.

And symptoms and signs differ from person to person—one size does not fit all.

Authors must learn to avoid the stigma trap because readers with the issues you’re writing about will spot these unrealistic characterizations within seconds. I won’t lie. It will take countless hours to learn how people cope, behave, and triumph with mental health challenges, but if you want to write honestly, it’s non-negotiable, and your readers will thank you for it.

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Comments
  • Bayla Travis

    What a great article! Yes, characters with mental health struggles are complex and how that characteristic serves to raise the stakes in a story can take so many different fascinating directions. I head up the shewrites playwrights group and I'm also a psychologist with an MFA in creative writing. If you need assistance developing a character or plot trajectory (any genre), feel free to reach out for "consultation" at [email protected] or via shewrites. ~Bayla