Friday, May 22, 2015

Why A Mental Illness is Killing Your Novel

Have you ever read a story that involves a character whose mind might not be… completely right?
If you haven’t, you’re probably not keeping up with the popular and fashionable (and I applaud you for it). If you have, then you know that this sort of character is very, very popular. Today, I want to explore with you why this sort of character often does nothing to help the story, and may even harm it.


Characters with mental problems can be very useful. Villains with schizophrenia or Heroes with amnesia can provide the most delicious plot twists. Maniacs and madmen tend to produce a thrill in the reader.


Because the mind is hard to understand, and when someone’s mind turns against them, it creates excellent emotions and conflict. (In addition, schizophrenic villains can have whacky motivations without anyone being able to complain it’s whacky.)

However, I’ve read a lot of stories (published and unpublished) where the villain or hero or ally have a mental illness or disability and it doesn’t do anything. The story would be no different (plot-wise, emotion-wise, and even character-wise) if that character didn’t have schizophrenia. Actually, it would be a weak story without it.
Most every story that involves a mental illness should not depend on that illness to make it a good story. There are those few exceptions that are about the mental disability, and I respect those.

There are all kinds of mental disabilities. Have a link if you want to see a few. 

How many of those have you seen in novels? Lots of stories will include a psychopath or sociopath (yes, they’re different), but very few include someone with Trichotillomania or Selective Mutism. You’ll find characters with depression, insomnia, amnesia, and dyslexia, but little to no characters with Stockholm syndrome or dyspraxia.
I’m not here to tell you that all mental illnesses must be represented in literature. They don’t. But then, no mental illness need be represented in literature. Books and movies would survive without them just fine. However, the real world has mental illnesses, and we want to portray real life in our writing, yes?

So. When should you have a mental illness in your novel?

Truth is, I’m not sure I can answer that question for everyone. An example of a good mental illness would be from the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. I’m not a huge fan of this series, for several reasons, but I do admire the good use of a mental disability. In this series, most (or was it all? I don’t remember) of the demi-gods have dyslexia. Their half-god status gives them this disorder. It’s not to ‘include’ the demographic of people who have dyslexia, and it’s not because it will make them ‘cool’. It springs as a natural cause of their existence. That’s the right way to use a mental disorder or illness.

Instead of telling you when you should, I’ll give you a reason or two why you shouldn’t, and then a tip or two on using mental disorders:

1. Don’t use a mental disorder just to make the villain ‘cool’. I see this all the time. Villains who weren’t ‘scary’ enough before suddenly get the gift of having something happen to their mind. They suddenly are schizophrenic or pyromaniacs or hyperactive or OCD. Unfortunately, this move does nothing to help the novel. Sure, the more ignorant readers will assume this disorder makes the villain somehow… better… than the average villain.

2. Don’t use a mental disorder just to make the Hero’s quest harder.
I see this one a lot, too. If the hero has amnesia or insomnia they’re supposedly more relatable, and if they have depression, suddenly they’re the best character ever. The hero can have these things, but unless there’s a legitimate reason why, it won’t convince anyone but those aforementioned ignorant readers.

I’m not against mental disorders and illnesses. In fact, I have a character with Multiple Personality Disorder, several characters with PTSD, a character with amnesia, and a slightly psychotic character. However, I am against character with mental disorders and illnesses that have no place, rhyme, or reason. Furthermore, when the author has no apparent knowledge about the disorder beyond common hearsay, it’s ever worse. So, a few tips:

-Research: this is my favorite word. When you want to write a story about a claustrophobic character suffering from childhood amnesia, make sure you know more about these things than a certified psychologist. Well, maybe not, but when you want to write about this person, you should be equipped to do a good job.

-Find a reason: no mental disorder shows up ‘out of the blue’. Even disorders from birth are caused by gene mutation or physical harm/shock. If your character has PTSD, you need to know where they got it, what triggers it, what they experience from it, why they still have it, if they’re trying to stop it, and so forth. For instance, I have a character with PTSD who has a breakdown whenever he hears a particular song. This song was playing while he and his fellow soldiers were gunned down by an enemy sniper. He and another were the only survivors. Since then, he can’t listen to this song without panicking and having an emotional breakdown.

-Don’t go with the usual: be a little hipster, you little hipster. Don’t go with your villain being a sociopath just because there are a lot of sociopathic characters out there.

If you want a metal disorder, that’s perfectly fine. Many stories can benefit from them. But do it right. Don’t settle for mediocre, and don’t settle for bad. Write that mental illness in a way that won’t kill your story, and won’t kill the reader along the way.

What about you? Do you like stories with mentally ill characters? What stories have you read/watched that are good examples of well-written mental illnesses?

NOTE: Starting next week, I will be posting Friday evenings or Saturday mornings instead of Friday mornings. Yay for abrupt changes in schedule, yes?


  1. Interesting thoughts. Do you think the same rules apply for short stories/horror? (i.e. The Yellow Wallpaper, The Tell Tale Heart, etc.)

    1. There is always an exception for every rule. Some horror stories will use a mental illness as the main point of the story, and as such fit under a category that I mentioned in the post. I don't read a ton of horror, and so don't feel very qualified to slap a rule on them as well. However, I'd say even those horror stories shouldn't throw in mental illnesses just to make them more... scary. The best horror isn't about excess scary-factors, it's about using just the right kind of scary to produce the most... scare.
      Dost I answer thine question, or doth I avoid it altogether?

    2. Yeah that makes sense. Thanks!