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.
Readers Want Unique
Different aspects of psychology are vastly underrepresented in literature, and even when represented they are often “Hollywood-ified” in the sense that they’re blown way out of proportion and misrepresented. This is exactly what authors want to avoid. Today, it’s all about equal and fair representation in literature. Readers call for more imperfect (yet, correctly portrayed) characters, characters of varying ethnicities and culture, and characters that see the world differently. I’ve seen books surfacing from the point of view of autistic, alternate gender-identity, and disabled characters with a much greater frequency than ever before.
Readers are no longer satisfied with the status quo of white (or superior-race), able-bodied and able-minded characters. Some authors still oversimplify and stereotype their characters, and their readers notice. Go for complexity. Dare to be different. But, do it well. We’ll cover this last point when we discuss proper research for neurologically diverse characters.
Readers Want to Connect
Mental illnesses are becoming more common, especially among adolescents. These people aren’t just statistics, they are your readers, and they want to read about characters that go through struggles they face and come out champions, or at least deal with trials in admirable ways. Your characters will be a million times more likable and relatable if they experience more than just outward trials where things happen TO them. If they also have to deal with those things through the lense of depression, anxiety, etc. you will increase tension and up the stakes in your story, while at the same time making your characters more complex and real.
Readers Want and Deserve Accuracy
Depression and anxiety are two mental illnesses you might have heard of, but do you really understand them? If you haven’t experienced them yourself, it’s easy to have harmful, wrong beliefs about what someone with a mental illness might experience or how they think or act. Portraying mental illness accurately is a must. I would rather you didn’t write a character with a mental illness than do it poorly.
So, do you have to follow the classic writing advice to “write what you know?”
In a writing conference I went to once, I heard an author repeat this phrase and add, “Write what you know. What you don’t know, research.” We live in such a connected world that there’s no excuse for getting something horribly wrong. Go beyond Wikipedia. For more tips for quality researching, read on!
What NOT to Do
If I haven’t said it enough, I’ll say it again. Don’t watch a movie and call that research and go write a book based on what you saw a single character do. More than likely you’ve only received a surface perspective of what it means to have that mental illness, if the perspective was even correct to begin with. Dig deeper and do the disability justice.
It’s easy to make the villain the one with the mental illness. After all, it explains so much about why they are the way they are, right? But it’s actually harmful to the rhetoric of helping people understand and stop discriminating against those who have mental illnesses if the only time they see these individuals is when they’re being evil. This is already a big deal with race, where villains are given features that can be associated with certain demographics, so let’s make sure as writers that we avoid it in our stories. That’s to say, don’t overdo it. You could write a brilliant villain that has a mental illness, but again you need to avoid stereotypes in order to do this well.
Don’t be rude to people you interview
I cover this in more detail below, but it kind of goes without saying. BE KIND. Treat them like the people they are. Make no assumptions and prepare to be humbled.
Don’t make all your characters have a mental illness
This may be a bit obvious, but if all of your characters are special with mental illnesses, your story will be boring. So unless you have a really good reason for it, you probably don’t want to emphasize unique neurological traits in every single character.
Don’t cherry-pick abilities and disabilities
If your character has autism and is some sort of magical prodigy, make sure that the struggles of being autistic are clear to the reader. Essentially, don’t only take the “cool” things about a mental illness and apply them to your character. There are some mental illnesses, like audio hallucination, for instance, that might sound really cool to use as a superpower, but try listening to a soundtrack that mimics what someone with this illness actually experiences on a regular, if not constant, basis. Your character will be minimally functional during episodes, so that’s important to include in your story too so that the reader gets an accurate picture of the illness even though you’re writing fiction.
Don’t avoid difficult topics
Possibly the hardest part about writing Woven was acknowledging that something truly terrible had to happen to my character in order for her personalities to splinter. Facing her past and including it in the story was a difficult decision, but I grew so much as a writer and person. The best part was being able to write the sequel, Bound, and see that character finally get the ending she truly deserved.
You don’t have to spell your character’s past out in detail, but don’t ignore it, either.
If you write fantasy, science fiction, or a similar genre, don’t preach
I have done TONS of research on Dissociative Identity Disorder. You better believe when I’m in a conversation with someone and they say “Multiple Personality Disorder” or, even more inaccurate, “schizophrenia” to refer to someone who has DID, I kindly point out the differences because I want them to understand the importance of language and accuracy. However, there is not a single place in my book that any of these words are used. Because I write fantasy, and unless it was some bizarre medical-fantasy hybrid, those scientific words just wouldn’t work.
When I’m describing my book to someone I often use the tagline, “It’s the Camelot legend with magically-induced multiple personality disorder” because that’s what readers understand. It’s important to connect with your reader and not turn them off with your new-found knowledge. It’s just as important to speak up when the situation is appropriate and to bust through stigmas surrounding a topic. Be brave, but don’t preach!
What to DO:
If there’s one thing public school did right, it was teaching us how to find proper, valid sources. Bet you wish you paid better attention now, huh? Unlike the complicated mathematical equations most of us forgot, most of the human population can benefit from knowing how to do good, solid research (fake news, anyone?). Here are some tips for making sure your sources are valid, and how to determine how much artistic liberty you should take with your character’s portrayal of a mental illness.
First off, go beyond Wikipedia. I often start there to get a basic understanding, but then it’s time to dive into personal experiences, documentaries, and scientific journals and studies. You need to know everything about the illness your character is portraying. What experts say the cause is, how they handle different cases, what remedies and therapies there are that improve or resolve symptoms, and most importantly, what it’s like to live with that illness. Textbooks are great for understanding what’s happening in the body or brain, but in my opinion, you should spend the most time studying personal experiences. You can get the best idea of this last one from personal blogs written by those with the illness. This is a primary source, and it’s the BEST kind of source for writing your character.
A secondary source would be someone who lives with a person with the mental illness you’re writing about. I would consider a psychologist’s perspective to fit into this category because although they would be a primary source of information, being expert, they haven’t actually experienced the illness, they’ve just seen and dealt with it a lot. They will have very different perspectives. In this kind of writing, the person having the experience is the ideal resource. So interviews, especially in-person or video (look on youtube, there are lots), and blogs, and journals if you have permission to read them are the best sources here.
As a note, here, if you interview someone, please be respectful. You may need to make certain accommodations, or even have a third person there to help with communication if this person struggles with that at times. People with mental illnesses are often overstimulated easily, or episodes of trauma might be triggered by your discussion, leading to them becoming unable to finish the interview. Make sure you put their needs over your need to get answers to your questions. Also, make sure you use discretion with your questions. It’s a good rule of thumb to have someone sensitive look over your interview questions beforehand to make sure you don’t come off as offensive or insensitive. These are real people and they deserve to be treated with respect. Also, a gift (possibly of your book, or a dedication to them inside it, but could also be flowers, a card, etc.) is a wonderful way to thank them for their time and effort.
Have Someone Else Read It
Finding someone who will read your book with knowledge and first or second-hand experience with the mental illness or disability you’re writing is invaluable. They are often called “sensitivity readers”. They can point out inaccuracies, give you more information to deepen a character or clarify, and tell you if what you’ve written is offensive. You can find sensitivity readers in groups on Facebook, Goodreads or other internet forums, and in your own life if you know someone who has experience in the illness you’re typifying. Approach with respect and accept critique with gratitude for their time. Make sure they know exactly what you’re looking for from them so they don’t end up just correcting all of your punctuation or grammar, and have questions prepared that they can answer after reading your story. Again, a thank you note or gift is definitely called for here.
Write Diverse Characters
As difficult as it sounds to do well (and it is), writing diverse characters is important in the world we live in. Just be sure to ask yourself if your story is helpful to the dialogue about an illness or harmful. If you’re not certain, ask someone else to read it and tell you their thoughts. You’ll know you’ve done it and all that hard work was worthwhile when readers come back with comments like these:
“Without giving away any spoilers... I can say this book is not just a fantasy, it has some real life images that suggest what life would have been like back in that time period. I think that is what I liked best about the story, the sense of realism interwoven with fantasy and magic. Read this with a chalice of wine in hand and you won't be disappointed.” - Wendy A., Woven, 5 stars
“The characters were engaging and relatable and the storyline was thrilling, keeping me rooted to every single page.” - Amanda W., Woven, 5 stars
“Woven enchanted us with the unrequited love, while Bound entrances us with the impossible paradox of a love too deep to trust and a spirit too wounded to believe herself lovable.” - Christie B. Bound, 4 stars
We're all writers, we're all moms, writing our way through the "brambles" of life and our stories.