Writing Mental Illness: A Resource For Fiction Writers

In my current work in progress, one of my characters experiences symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety and other mental illness. I want to be able to present this character with honesty and compassion, giving the reader a sense of the realities of this man’s life.

And so, I’ve been doing a little digging around the internet, trying to find the best sources for accurate information on various mental illnesses. Information including typical symptoms, first-hand accounts of what these disorders are like from the inside, as well as available treatment options.

My goal is to present this character with a sense of reality and offer an honest look at what it means to live with mental illness. I went looking for examples and resources on how to best convey my character. I found some very thoughtful insights on the subject, and thought I’d share what I found.

First I wanted to find out about mental illness in general. This website for Mental Health America includes a wide variety of resources, including a list of specific mental disorders with more detailed information on each. For example, this page on OCD. I like that it also links to other mental health organizations such as National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) and National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) for even more information.

My search also led me to some resources for how to write about mental illness. Because I believe this is an issue we must address compassionately, I want to share what I found. If you find yourself writing characters with mental illness of any variety, I would encourage you to do your own research into the specifics of the disorder you are trying to portray. In the meantime, here are three articles that give helpful advice on how to (and not to) write about mental illness.

My research also started me thinking about how mental illness has been portrayed in fiction, movies and the media. And about how that portrayal impacts our societal view of mental illness. Tragic events in recent years, such as the death of actor Robin Williams, have loomed large in the media and brought an increased awareness to the realities of mental illness. However, these issues are far more common than we seem to be willing to admit, and it shouldn’t take the death of someone so famous to encourage conversations about the subject.

I went looking for examples of how mental illness has been portrayed in fiction. I found this list 11 Of The Most Realistic Portrayals of Mental Illness in Novels as well as this other list Top Ten Books Dealing With Mental Illness of specifically YA books about mental illness. To be honest, I’ve not actually read any of the books on either list, though I hope now to remedy that. If you’ve read any, and have a suggestion of where I should start, I’d welcome your input. If there are others not on these lists, I’d love to hear about those as well.

Too often media (including books and movies) have contributed to the stigma attached to mental illness, portraying those afflicted with it as dangerous or even in some cases evil. Words are powerful. And as writers, we have the responsibility to present mental illness in a fair and accurate light, not to paint it in the broad brush strokes of evil madmen. If I can stand against this trend in my small way by presenting a character and the realities of what his experience is, then I will make the effort to do so.

And on that note, here is an excerpt from my new short story, “Shattered”

Jana didn’t come to me as I expected. Night approached and I wondered if I should go to her. To be sure she was alright. But that meant going out. Outside, where the voices could not be silenced. I could feel her unhappiness. I wished I knew what troubled her. Was it Andreú? Something else? I wished she would come to me.

I paced around my tiny room in the men’s dormitory, my hand touching each talisman as I passed. I circled three times, four, five before I stopped, facing the door. I would go to her.

Before I could open my door, however, I heard the tower bells begin to ring. I’d only heard the sound one other time since coming to this place. It signaled an alarm of some kind, and summoned all residents to the main hall.

My heart raced, pounding painfully in my chest. I broke out in a clammy sweat, and I thought I might black out, or vomit. Maybe both. I wanted to scream, but couldn’t breathe. I thrust my hand into my pocket, gripped the small figure I carried there. In the shape of an owl, I had worn the thing smooth over many years. It brought little comfort to me now as the bells continued to ring.

3 Reasons Why I Do My Research in the Children’s Library

As a writer of fiction, I find myself facing lots of questions as I begin a new project. No matter what I’m looking for, my first stop has become the children’s section at my local library. Whether it is the ankylosaurus, Annie Oakley or, more recently, 16th-18th century sailing ships, the information in the children’s library is the same as it would be anywhere else. Here are my reasons to start at the children’s section.

1. Discover the World as a Child Would

The children’s section of the library is filled of course, with shelves full of books, and organized like any other part of the library. The fiction sections are laid out just like the adult shelves, in order by author’s name, but rather than being sorted by genre, they are sorted by age group and reading level. The non-fiction section is exactly like the adult library, sorted and shelved according to the Dewey Decimal System.

However, there are some major differences between the adult section and the children’s section. First, and most obvious, the shelves are shorter. So I may have to sit on the floor to peruse the books in my subject of interest, but I won’t have to find someone to help me reach a book on the top shelf. Also, the children’s section of the library is noisier. There is a play room where kids can go and discover fun things about our world (currently, it’s set up like a grocery store!). The librarians aren’t stern-faced cliches glaring over the rims of their glasses to shush anyone. And there are wonderful displays such as a fully outfitted doll house and a beautiful fish tank.

I love the creativity of the children’s library. Also, since I write for children, it makes sense to me to read about the things I intend to write about as a child would. I can always do more digging on a subject if I find it necessary. A book written for children focuses more on the interesting details rather than the technical aspects of a subject. They are usually beautifully illustrated which lends even more to the imagination and creativity. In reading them, I can find myself fascinated by the subject like a child would be, curious and full of wonder.

2. Don’t Get Caught up in the Details

I don’t know about you, but for me, research can become very distracting. I will uncover ten new questions for every one I find an answer for. Or I can be drawn off subject by a fascinating side note. Internet research makes this sort of thing even harder to avoid. I get fascinated by the numerous tiny details of a subject and find myself moving away from the matter at hand – the story.

With children’s books, I can get a broad overview of my subject without getting so caught up in the details. I get distracted easily, so the broad brush strokes offered by a children’s book can actually help me narrow my focus to learn just what I need for the story I’m working on.

3. It’s Not All About Me

Finally, the best part of doing my research from the children’s library? I get to spend time with my sons reading and talking about sailing ships or dinosaurs or spider, if they insist. And they get to be part of my work. So yes, I do my research in the children’s library. I get to take my kids to the library, spend time with them and learn new things with them, find out what interests them.

My boys will not be small forever, and reading with them, sharing my love of words with them, is priceless. They are the reason I keep writing in the first place. We may as well enjoy the ride together.

Research is an integral part of writing. As long as there is something to write, there will be research needing to be done. Currently, I’m learning about sailing ships from the 18th century. Next up, I want to learn more about space travel. Maybe after that it will be the geography of Japan, or the traditions of Santeria. I may not be able to learn everything in the children’s library, but it’s an excellent place to start.

How do you go about your research? I’d love to hear about your methods.