The changing role of mental illness in fiction


In this bright new world of more openness about mental illness, we writers have to change how we use mental illness and those with it in our fiction.  Thirty or forty years ago if you referred to a character as a retard you were both using the vernacular and being rude.  If you more politely said that he or she was mentally retarded then a certain image came to mind.  Mental illness was not something that was looked at too closely.  But times have changed.

Now when we write our tales we take into consideration just why they might be reacting the way they do.   We can no longer say that they are purely evil or purely nuts.  We now need to see just what made them that way and is it something they evolved into our out of.  With research comes understanding right?  Not always true of course.  There is much that needs to be done to help those who suffer and for those who don’t.

The reason I decided on this topic this week is that when we write fantasy we have a blank canvas to do so much.  In reading or more re-reading Mercedes Lackey’s books I realized that she has done just this.  She has researched what is known and wrote it appropriately for the timeline she is working in.

Today we understand that PTSD is a real and horrible thing.  That men and women who have been in horrible places, seen and done horrible things, suffer from this in many ways.  From the self medicating homeless to the ones who go off into the woods to become hermits, we have a lot of it.  But when writing fiction we have to be careful.  If you are writing urban fiction set in the modern day big city, then you will have people with an understanding of the true cost of war but if you are writing, say a historical fantasy, then how the people around them would deal with those suffering.

And not just PTSD.  After all today we understand a lot more about things like depression, anxiety, compulsive disorders, obsessive behaviors and many others.  When writing our fiction we need to both pay respect to those who are suffering and to the time and place we are writing about.

I haven’t put much of this into my writing so far.  I have of course been dealing with light and dark, good and evil and in the more classic view of the fantasy realms.  But if you looked deeper into some of my characters you could see the hints of what I understand.  As a woman who grew up with a clinically depressed mother, a father who was both a criminal and abuser and a brother who has just recently been diagnosed with bi polar I had a lot of research from just living.  I have not put my family into the stories I have all ready published but do not be surprised in later stories will have a touch of them.

But how do we deal with mental illness as a writer.  There are those who think that people who write fantasy are nut jobs…yes I said that.  I have over the years i have been writing been looked at like I was crazy for doing so.  You are respected if you write a book about the real world or a poorly written book about sex but writing fantasy puts you in a weird place.  We make leaps of logic that makes no sense to those normal people out there.  We don’t write things based on science, we don’t necessarily write about the demons in the dark that the horror writers do, we write fantasy.  We write about elves and dragons and we try to show a light in the darkness.

Personally I find that fantasy is just that.  Many of the stories could be taken to heart as that battle inside our own hearts between madness and sanity, light and dark or good and evil.  We hope to become the hero but fear that we are the villain.  We find ourselves both in what we write and what we read.

So as a writer if you plan on use mental illness, you need to really do research.  Not just online, go and speak to people.  See how they respond.  It will help you write a real character.

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