When Mentally-Ill Characters Talk Back

As I network with other writers, I’m learning that having characters “talk back” to you is a common, even normal occurrence among novelists. It was a big relief to hear I’m not alone in this. But what if some of your characters, like mine, struggle with mental health issues?

Maintain Healthy Boundaries. Mentally ill characters can play mind games like no one’s business. They might flip the scene around on you. “Well what would you do in this situation? I would probably do the same thing, you know. After all, you created me.” And then you – the real-life writer – end up crying on the floor, wondering what on earth you really would do if an alien spaceship abducted your pets and held them for ransom. You might start looking out the windows suspiciously, ducking from the sound of any approaching airplane. You might keep all the pets inside, 24 hours a day. This is why knowing where your character ends and you begin is essential. If you have trouble in this area, I highly recommend the book Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend. While it’s meant for real relationships, I believe it might be helpful for coping with your characters as well.

Develop Compassion. They didn’t ask for it, you know. Your characters didn’t really want a mental illness. Granted, purely one-dimensional characters don’t care. The illness defines them — crazy, evil, psychotic, what have you – and their choices flow directly from this defining illness. But maybe what first appears to be a one-dimensional character is really a tormented three-dimensional soul asking for redemption of some kind. Even the most hopelessly psychotic people have a backstory (think Darth Vader), something that deepens their struggle and shows us the points at which they turned toward the darkness, or failed to receive the help they so desperately needed. As writers, we must advocate for our mentally-ill characters. While we can’t always give them the happy ending they desire, we can at least tell their whole story. We owe them that.

Avoid the Stigma of Mental Illness. Mentally ill characters already feel alone, inadequate, and alienated from the rest of society. They might become defensive and say things like, “It’s you! You’re the problem! You MADE ME THIS WAY!” Writers, be careful. While this would be typical of a mentally-ill character, you must absolutely slow down and think before reacting to your characters when they start talking to you this way. You might be tempted to throw some barbs into your next chapter. Somebody might call them names, or dump pig’s blood on their prom dress. But if such scenes become necessary, try to handle the topic of mental illness with depth and knowledge. Do your research; don’t settle for those old tapes in your head about mental illness. Your characters will thank you for it.

(I mean, c’mon. You just read a whole blog post about how to get along with your fictional characters. You have to admit that’s a little, well… off. Few cents short of a dollar, if you know what I mean. Cuckoo. Loco. Why would you even take my advice, anyway? For all you know, I’m writing from a rubber room, typing with my teeth because the straightjacket confines my arms. Maybe I’m not even actually typing, but the words appear on the screen because of the implanted microchip in my head, which reads my thoughts and automatically uploads them to the New World Order via this cloud-based blog. What if I’m not even human?)

As writers, we have the privilege of talking with our mentally-ill characters long before their rough edges begin gleaming in the darkness like partially buried diamonds. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.