On Writing Mental Illness in Speculative Fiction

I’m not sure if write what you know is the most common piece of writing advice out there, but it’s got to be in the top three. And taking that advice, one of the themes I usually include in my work is mental illness and wellness. I struggle with it. I have an anxiety disorder, and I am no stranger to depression either. And a lot of people in my life deal with depression, anxiety, bipolar, and a smattering of other more arcane diagnoses.

So you’d think mental illness and wellness would be a natural pairing with my interest in creative writing. Especially since writing is one of my favorite coping mechanisms. And yet, I have found it to be an incredibly difficult theme to handle. It takes a deft touch to handle a suicidal or deeply anxious major character without the reader losing interest, or disliking that character.

I think that’s the nature of mental illness. It’s a stopping force, and a story (and the characters in it) need to go go go. Especially in speculative fiction. Maybe Holden Caulfield can mope around in his depression for a hundred pages, but Harry Potter sure can’t. Which is probably why Potter doesn’t seem to have PTSD despite nine years of abuse and neglect at the hands of the Dursleys.

That said, mental illness is something I’m going to keep including in my stories. I want to write about it, and I need to write about it. The trick I’m working on now is keeping a plot moving even when my depressed or anxious characters would rather just hide in their rooms all day. Through trial and error, it seems like the key is to not let a character’s state be static. If a character is struggling with mental illness, they need to be either getting better, or getting worse.

Which isn’t how mental illness works in real life. It’s a never-ending slog of medication, therapy, and maintaining healthy habits (like exercise, writing, and knitting) while avoiding unhealthy behaviors (like overwhelming myself with my own expectations). “Better” or “worse” is something that can happen quickly, but more it can take months. Or years. So it becomes a balance of mentioning the slog, but keeping it “off page”, and then forcing the depressed or anxious character into action through events out of their control.

The young necromancer spent years repressing his unsettling, unwanted powers. But outlaws just kidnapped his little sister. So who cares about upsetting people any more? It’s zombie time! He’ll just have to deal with his issues later, once things settle down and several months fly by in a brief passage.


It’s not easy to get that to work over the course of a novel. But I like how it’s turned out in a couple of short stories I’ve written (links below). Check them out if you’re interested in finished examples of my writing theories in action, or if you just enjoy short speculative fiction and have a few minutes.

“Saint Peter” — an artificial intelligence reaches out to a suicidal young man in an attempt to save his life. I posted this one not too long ago, but here it is again anyway.

“She Swallowed a God” — a family’s dysfunction and mental illness reframed as a fairy tale. This one is a flash fiction contest entry that didn’t win, but I really like how it turned out anyway. So there.

On Writing What You Know

I had an unusual experience for a Southern Californian over the weekend.  Like thousands of other sun-entitled San Diegans, I made a cursory search for that ordinarily useless umbrella, couldn’t find it, and left to go to the Pride Parade without it.  And then I got drenched by the aftermath of Hurricane Dolores.

Rainwater stung my eyes.  My body chilled to the point of shivering.  I got blisters from walking in wet shoes.  I ended up trespassing on private property with my husband, two good friends, and a dog so we could shelter under someone’s eaves while we waited for my brother-in-law and his car to rescue us from our own stupidity.

I have no regrets though, because now I have a whole new set of sensory experiences I can bring to my writing!

If you want to be a writer, this is how you have to see the world.  Any new experience is writing fuel, be it pleasant, awkward, uncomfortable, or even painful.  Remember the details — what it felt like, looked like, smelled like.  Journal about it if you like, or just let it sit in that big stewpot on the back burner in your head.

When you sit down to write, put your characters through your own experiences.  And when you have the time, make some experiences for yourself.

Are your characters in a lot of fights?  Consider some martial arts classes.  You don’t need to be a kung fu master or skilled swordsperson.  A few classes in martial arts — or any discipline, from painting to piano to plumbing — will give you some idea about what the skilled practitioners are doing.

Are your characters on a long trek across your fantasy world?  Go for a hike!  You don’t have to stay out for months and months — a few nights camping without a toilet or a shower will give you ideas about how glorious, yet uncomfortable and exhausting, living on the road and sleeping in the open can be.

Straining to create a new character?  Take traits from people you know.  Are your characters in love?  Draw from your own loves, and crushes, and one-night-stands, and that short, awkward relationship with that guy who was into you, but you weren’t into him.

Do your characters intoxicate themselves?  If you aren’t going to intoxicate yourself — or even if you are — spend some time watching other people intoxicate themselves while sober, and talk to them about the experience.  The last thing the world needs is one more stereotyped, inaccurate ‘drug scene.’

You often hear the writerly advice, “Read, read, read!”  Do that, read everything, but get out and live too.