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.


Killing Your Darlings (like actually killing them)*

Death is an important part of fiction.  We spend a lot more time contemplating Hamlet (where almost everyone dies) than A Midsummer Night’s Dream (where no one dies).  And in speculative fiction, the bar keeps rising.  JRR Tolkein may have killed Boromir, but he’s the only one of the Fellowship of the Ring who kicks the bucket (permanently anyway).  JK Rowling definitely raised the stakes with Dumbledore, George RR Martin axed both Ned Stark AND put on a Red Wedding, and don’t get me started on the end of The Hunger Games.

(For those who haven’t read it and are waiting for the final movie, I’ll be vague and just say that Suzanne Collins broke my heart.)

So, how do you pick who to kill?

First, it’s a matter of timing.  You can kill a number of characters all within a short span of time or pages (as JK Rowling does at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), but each death is going to pack less punch.  The reader gets a little numb.  It’s one thing to kill a room full of extras, but space major deaths out if you can.

I won’t tell you to keep deaths to the end of a story or character arc.  It’s frequently a good idea, but Hedwig’s death (at the beginning of Deathly Hollows) was a powerful death that foreshadowed the more serious tone of the last book in the Harry Potter series.

Next, make sure that you don’t have anything really interesting to do with that character later.  That’s one reason you may get a slew of deaths at the end of a book or series.  The story is over, there isn’t anything left for any character to do anyway (except star in fan-fiction).  This is key.  George RR Martin had a stroke of brilliance when he thought to execute Eddard Stark — the character was at a dead end, imprisoned and with no other out but ignominy among the Night’s Watch.  AND it is Eddard’s family’s thirst for revenge that inspires the continuation of the plot.

But the Red Wedding?  Shocking as it was, it ground the plot to a halt.  With the only serious threat against the Lannisters taken out, there was nothing left for the nobles in King’s Landing to do except tear each other to pieces — which turned out to be a lot less fun than I thought it was going to be.  Catelyn Stark’s death was appropriate, but Robb King in the North still had work to do!

And finally, don’t plan your deaths.  I’ve found that the best, most shocking, and most meaningful deaths just happen.  I’ll walk my character into a situation fully intending to carry him or her through, and I can’t.  There’s no way without a corny deus ex machina, or without turning the dreadful foe into an oaf.  It hurts sometimes — I’ve cried after killing characters.  But that’s the point, isn’t it?  We read and write to process our darker emotions, and the most primal of those is the fear of death.

You don’t have to write tragedy.  Personally, I like a little more sweet than bitter in an ending.  But don’t go into a story refusing to sacrifice any particular character.  It’s a lot more fun to keep your readers — and yourself — on pins and needles.


*I’m aware that the meme “kill your darlings” originated as “murder your darlings”, advice given by Arthur Quiller-Couch during a lecture titled “On Style”.  Quiller-Couch spoke about “murdering” frilly turns of phrase, not characters.  But it still makes a great blog post title, doesn’t it?