Psychology is a powerful tool to use in fiction. Even if your characters aren’t human, giving them human traits and struggles will allow your readers to connect with them on a much deeper level. In this blog post I’ll discuss the value of using psychology in your writing, the best way to go about researching, and most importantly, what NOT to do when including mental illness in fiction.
Disclaimer: I’m not an expert. I hold no degrees, wrote no thesis, and have limited life experience with many of the topics I mention here. I have done what any good writer does when confronted with the need to include something in a story that they aren’t familiar with: research.
My interest in using psychology in fiction started when I wrote my first published novel, Woven. Without giving you too many spoilers, one of the characters has a magically-induced form of Dissociative Identity Disorder, known more commonly (but incorrectly) as Multiple Personality Disorder. People with this disorder show dramatic shifts in personality and identity, and every aspect of their being is affected: temperament, dialect, memory, physical ability, intellectual knowledge, and even gender.
Psychologists now believe that DID largely occurs in individuals that were abused as children, and the mind literally splinters, or dissociates, in order to keep from being damaged by living out the memory of the trauma. Re-integration of the personalities allows for the divided individual to acknowledge each split inside them and become one, if they choose, or at very least live more harmoniously. That’s DID in a nutshell. There are a lot of stigmas associated with the illness, plenty of ways to incorrectly portray it, and fortunately for me, plenty of real-life stories to sift through as I wrote this character in my book.
I even found out while writing Woven that a family member was diagnosed with this mental illness. She’s also a writer, and she agreed to read Woven once it was finished. To paraphrase her words, there were parts of the story that were so real they were difficult to read because she identified with the character so completely. In other words, I nailed it. She loved my book, and her response validated all the research and effort I had put into compiling it.
So what does knowing my experience do for you? Let’s start with talking about what adding or deepening the influence of human psychology can do for your story and those that read it.
I wrote my first children's play in high school. It was about a little boy who found a watermelon and imagined it was a dinosaur egg. A nosy neighbor girl insisted it was a 'plain ol' melon' which caused the boy to doubt his sense of imagination. In a final climax, the two fought over the fruit and in the scuffle lost control as it rolled down a hill. The girl gave up on it, but when the boy finally found the cracked rind, he was able to find value in the 'ruined' melon by imagining the dinosaur inside had hatched and he resumed his game to find it.
My theater teacher chose my script to be performed in class. As I watched two actors portray the children, I realized the magic of script writing. The actors enhanced my story by adding vocal inflections, movement, and props. They used my creativity as a point to jump off from and created something all their own.
Now, I'm writing a full length musical. It's a bigger task, but the rewarding memory from high school keeps me chasing the dream. I've been working on this collaborative project for over a year now and I am amazed at how often script writing skills reflect on my career as a novelist. Here are a few reasons why I think you should try writing a stage play.
We're all writers, we're all moms, writing our way through the "brambles" of life and our stories.