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Your Protagonist’s Mental Health: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

Delving into the mental health of characters is dangerous, as it will serve as your own mirror, but to ignore the exploration is perhaps more damaging still, relegating your otherwise excellent work into the pile of works featuring "hard to relate to" protagonists. Here are 3 reasons why writers exclude the mental health aspect of their characters.

Lately, I’ve been reading quite a lot of excellent published fiction. Books that make me cry; stories that make me ache. I love those stories, the ones that unexpectedly grab hold of something deep inside of you and yank. And there it is; you suddenly feel vulnerable, as though the author knows what he or she can’t know. Books can do that.


This guest post is by Jonathan Friesen, an author, speaker, and youth writing coach from Mora, Minnesota. His first young adult novel, Jerk, California, received the ALA Schneider Award. When he’s not writing, speaking at schools, or teaching, Jonathan loves to travel and hang out with his wife and three kids. His latest YA novel, Both of Me, was released December 2014.


Not all, though. Some, while well crafted, have as much chance of touching my heart as a dishwasher repair manual, and I think I have discovered why. In most fiction, the final layer of the onion, the mental state of each character, is left unpeeled, mainly because it is painful to do so. Delving into the mental health of characters is dangerous, as it will serve as your own mirror, but to ignore the exploration is perhaps more damaging still, relegating your otherwise excellent work into the pile of works featuring "hard to relate to" protagonists. For here is the fact: the vast majority of your readership have at one point experienced, or are experiencing now the effects of mental illness, and that likely is the most emotionally-charged point of their lifetime.

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3 Reasons Writers Exclude the Mental Health Aspect of Their Characters

1. Misunderstanding of scope.

According to the Mayo Clinic. Mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions that affect mood, thinking and behavior. Depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders and addictive behaviors all fall into this list. Mental illness too often conjures up images of incoherent babbling and rubber rooms, but with increasing frequency, society is realizing just how prevalent these conditions truly are. Our own children struggle, our parents struggle … we struggle. When mental illness moves from “them” to “us,” and we understand that the panic attack in eighth grade or the binge eating in college plants us firmly within the mainstream of the human race,with all our mental fragility, we start to see that unless we address theseissues in our characters they are incomplete. The presence of a possible mental health condition in your character is likely a thought you may have entertained, although perhaps without the stigma-forming term mental illness. Has your protagonist ever broken down emotionally? Mentally? Has your character experienced a mental or emotional death? Likely so, and that is probably one of your story’s most gripping moments, but not for the reason you might think. I’ll wager it’s not your fantastic writing or the tense situation. Breakdowns grip readers when readers connect to them personally. All this speaks to the universality of mental struggle.

2. Motivations based on situations.

Motivation is one of the most discussed elements in writing, and for good reason. The “why” of things opens up new dimensions of character depth. Seven books ago, while writing my debut YA novel JERK, CALIFORNIA, I was told I needed an external motivation and an internal motivation for my characters. Being a beginner, I took the advice as gospel, plunking down two motivations for each character, one based on external situations, the other on a logical internal goal. That was all fine, until I thought about my own life, especially my teen life, when panic attacks, epilepsy, O/CD and Tourette syndrome were my lot.When in the throes of mental illness, my motives were not so clear cut, andnothing I did was logical, at least to my observers. Sometimes my motives were singular. During a panic attack, there was no external motivation. My brainheld me captive, demanding I get out of the room. It didn’t make sense. It didn’t have to. The compulsion was real and raw and unrelenting. Other times, when a kid would mock my Tourette tics, my motivations for immediately cracking jokes were myriad. Humor shifted the focus from my jerks to my jokes; filling the air with words silenced others’ condemning voices; jokes gave me time to plan my escape and think of a good lie to explain what was seen; making people laugh felt like control, something I felt nowhere else I my world, etc. How much more dynamic and nuanced are characters become when their motives are rooted in our shared mental struggles, our shared humanity. How emotionally charged our writing can become.

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3. Misrepresentation fears.

This is a valid concern. Just as I would never write Moby Dick (my knowledge of whale oil in all its forms is too minimal) it would be easy to say, I can’t address this condition or that. I don’t know how it feels. I do not agree that this disqualifies you, but I myself have also shied away from topics, but never completely. I’ll explain. If you have never experienced a down day—if every day is better than the day before—you probably are not the one to write a novel in which on every page, the main character is in the dark place of bipolar 1. But even you, Ms. It’s a Wonderful Life, could bring mental illness to bear in the motivations and decisions of your characters. Think of this dynamic like an earthquake.Millions of people in Southern California feel the earth move. That is shared experience. Some tense, some flee, some feel crushed, some experience confusion. No two responses are alike. Mental illness affects each so differently. You might be a fortunate one never to feel your mind betray you, but you HAVE felt the conditions that cause so many others to crumble. You have felt the ground move. You can explore that shared experience, and from thatplace begin to understand why others might come a bit unglued. My latest novel, BOTH OF ME, includes a main character with DID, Dissociative Identity Disorder. I have not lived with two different identities within my brain, alternatelytaking control and each completely unaware of the other. But I have felt the ground shake. I know what it is like to hide a secret from myself. To wear different masks for different audiences. To feel both love and hate for the same individual. I more than did this character justice.

Do not be afraid to explore the mental health realities of your characters; be afraid not to. Yes, it might make the ground shake under your feet, but in the end, the shared humanity you portray will only make both you and your novel stronger.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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