“Plot Device” Disorders

Last year, for Mental Health Month, I touched on writing characters with mental disorders. As far as I can tell, mental problems have always been something writers have liked to use in their stories, and it makes sense. “Normal” is not what tends to make for a good story. A perfectly happy character who wakes up, goes to school/work every day, watches some TV, and then goes to bed is pretty boring. Stories are based around conflicts, desires, and the way characters overcome some sort of adversity. As mental disorders present their own sort of challenges, they can make for very interesting characters/stories.

Before I left off with some general advice about writing a character that has a mental disorder while not being insulting (namely doing your research and making sure your character isn’t one-dimensional/only their disorder). Today I’d like to retouch on the topic looking a little further into what I’ve come to call “plot device” disorders.

Now, there are many, many mental disorders in the world. The recently released DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disordersfifth edition) contains 17 categories for various disorders–ranging from Anxiety Disorders to Sexual Dysfunction–with several different specific disorders inside each. While I’m sure it is possible to find stories using a full range, certain disorders are much more “en vogue” for use in fiction. For example, it is simple to list famous characters who are presented with disorders such as psychopathy (Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs, Dexter Morgan from Dexter); DID (Norman Bates from Pyscho, Susannah Dean from The Dark Tower, the narrator from Fight Club); and OCD (Adrian Monk from Monk, Melvin Udall in As Good as it Gets) it’s a bit less common to see characters with pica, adjustment disorder, or central sleep apnea (all listed in DSM-V). While it might simply be more “fun” to write about certain disorders over others, it leads to certain issues for writing when a disorder becomes trendy to use in plots.

What brought me to this topic to start today was finding this post in a writing forum today:

Could anybody just tell me more about it [dissociative identity disorder] in general? Because I know very little about it.”

While the question is generally pretty innocuous (they were provided with a link to WebMD with the basics) what worries me the most about seeing questions like this on writing sites is the sinking feeling that the author saw something that has a character with DID and decided “Hey, that’s a neat idea. I bet that would be a fun story,” and that was the end of that. Hopefully the asker of the question is planning on looking further into the disorder and (if s/he decides to proceed does a fair deal of research) but with different disorders so prevalent in fiction, it becomes so, so easy for writers to decide X disorder would be an awesome plot device and jump into using the movie/book/TV show’s portrayal as the basis for their entire character.

Why is that such a problem? Because often times works of fiction still get disorders wrong on a very basic level. And by taking that version of the disorder at face value to throw in your story you’re simply going to perpetuate all those issues. A bump on the head causing, and fixing, amnesia? Not going to happen. Not all psychopaths are going to be serial killers (or are even likely to be). PTSD doesn’t mean you’re going to be acting out flashbacks in real life. From a storytelling stand point, it makes sense why we see these things. It makes for easier or more hair-raising scenes, but that doesn’t make it anymore correct. And with the amount of misinformation surrounding mental disorders, it can be damaging to perpetuate these “facts”.

So, how do you keep from falling into these “plot device” traps?

1. Know movies/TV/novels often get it wrong. Watching a movie with a character with X disorder does not mean you suddenly are set to write about the same disorder. Some media does do a very good job of representing certain disorders (the beginning of Silver Linings Playbook is actually very well done in displaying a manic episode in bipolar, for example) but far too often, disorders (especially popular disorders) are incorrect. Look to real-life accounts rather than fiction for what living with a disorder is actually like (Dangerous Jam has a very in-depth account of one girl’s experience with PTSD and her tips for using it in fiction here. I highly recommend it if you intend to use PTSD in a story).

2. Figure out what the mental disorder is adding to your story. Perhaps one of the most amusing questions I find on this Mary Sue Test is:

Does your character have any of the following psychological disorders or conditions for the following reasons?

  1. Antisocial Personality Disorder – to explain your character’s Jerk Loner personality? 
  2. Split personality/multiple personalities – so your character can do “bad” stuff, yet still have a claim to innocence?

If your entire reason for using a mental disorder is for an excuse or because you intend to use it as a plot device, rethink and do more research. Because…

3. Think about how the disorder would affect your character outside the plot. As I stated before, people with mental disorders are not entirely defined by their disorder, but mental disorders do affect many things in everyday life when you are dealing with one. Pulling out a mental disorder just when convenient for an excuse or your plot will 99.99% of the time come off as incorrect and/or insulting. “Having X” is as much of a personality trait as “she doesn’t like apples” or “he’s hot headed”. Pulling a disorder out only when convenient or just for plot is as jarring as having a character gain or lose any other trait they have.

4. Research, research, research. Really, I can’t stress this enough. You don’t always have to “write what you know” but you should only write that which you are willing to learn about. At least if you don’t want to seem like you’re clueless or to stick your foot in your mouth. There are great resources for first-hand accounts, you can ask in a forum (many people are actually rather open with sharing their experiences if you ask, I find), and you can talk to mental health professionals. There are many great depictions of mental disorders in well-rounded characters out there, you just have to be willing to put in the legwork to get there.


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5 thoughts on ““Plot Device” Disorders

  1. arockyravine says:

    Indeed you really DID do an amazing job writing this up here…! I mean, even though I was a Schizotypal young woman myself, who is now battling PTSD, I think that I would NEVER use either of those as a plot device….! D: ❤ ❤ ❤ For sheer shame, if nothing else…! xD

    • Jessica Dall says:

      Thanks! Having BP/coming from a family with a number of other disorders scattered around, I facepalm quite a bit when someone decides something sounds “cool” rather than actually looking into it.

  2. EelKat says:

    I write a long running series (200+ stories over 35 years) in which the main character has Autism, Schizophrenia, PTSD, and Agoraphobia. It’s set in the 1600s, when these illnesses wee still unknown, so at no point does the series ever say what he has, or even suggest that he has anything at all. Neither the narrator nor any of the characters ever mention it. And yet I will get emails from readers that say:

    “So, how do you research for Roderic? You must be a psychology major or something right? I know somebody with these mental illnesses and you are right on with a lot of the stuff Roderic does. People with Autism really do ____. People with Schizophrenia really do ______. I’m amazed you get this stuff so accurate. So are you like a psychologist or something? What do you write about your patients? ha ha!”

    I write back this answer to them:


    I’m not a psychologist. In fact I never went to school.

    My inspiration and research for Roderic? I was removed from school at age 8, I was told I would never be able to live on my own, get a job, drive a car, attend college, or function as a meaningful member of society.

    I write what I know.

    I have both Autism and Schizophrenia; later hit my head and developed new issues from that; and then later was the witness to an event that left my 5 best friends in a pile of body parts, which resulted in my having PTSD. And I had Agoraphobia for nearly 10 years.

    Speech is very difficult for me. My verbal words are desperately slurred and stuttered and go from either way too fast or way too slow. Most times I know what I want to say, but the words that come out of my mouth are mixed up and in the wrong order so sound like nonsense. Folks often consider me “dumb” due to my being near-mute and desperate lack of getting words out in the correct order. I write 7k words a day just as part of my daily non-verbal speech. That is how I am able to pound out 15k words every day.

    It is very frustrating when I want to talk to someone and they pat me on the head and say something like: “It’s okay, here have a candy. Poor thing she can’t understand us at all.”

    Roderic speaks in the same quasi-non-verbal muddled up speech I do. Roderic’s dialogue is a blundered mes because my verbally spoken dialogue is an embarrassingly blundered mess.

    Roderic is very shy and self conscious and terrified of how others will respond to his lack of ability to speak verbally in any real coherent manner, because I am very shy and self conscious and terrified of how others will respond to my lack of ability to speak verbally in any real coherent manner.

    Roderic AND his flamboyant transvestite son, Etiole, wear long flowing, bright colored, gaudy, heavily beaded and embroidered silk robes, because I wear long flowing, bright colored, gaudy, heavily beaded and embroidered silk robes.

    Roderic’s face was scarred and he lost his hands, because I was in an accident that could have cost me my hands and left me badly scarred had it not been for good doctors, and what happens to me happens to Roderic, but Roderic lives in the 1600s so good doctors and plastic surgery not a part of the picture and while I recovered, Roderic was left mangled, what happened to Roderic is what WOULD have happened to me had I had the same accident in the 1600s, and thus Roderic lost his hands.

    The nightmare world that Roderic lives in every story, is the nightmare world I live in, every day.

    Roderic has Schizophrenia and he can’t tell what’s real and what’s not, because I have Schizophrenia and I can’t tell what’s real and what’s not.

    Roderic has near-mutism Autism, because I have near-mutism Autism.

    Roderic suffers night terrors, panic attacks and other things caused by PTSD, because I suffer night terrors, panic attacks and other things caused by PTSD.

    Are you starting to see a pattern here?

    I write what I know. And I know Autism, Schizophrenia, PTSD, and Agoraphobia very well. I don’t do any research into anything to write about Roderic, I just write the world the way I see it. I can’t write a “normal” character because I don’t know what it is like to be a “normal” person.

    The world as the reader sees it through Roderic’s eyes…that is the world as seen through my eyes. Roderic is an accurate portrayal of someone with Autism, Schizophrenia, PTSD, and Agoraphobia, because he is written by someone with Autism, Schizophrenia, PTSD, and Agoraphobia. I know how Roderic would react to things, because it is how I do react to things.

    Writers who write accurately, write accurately because they write what they know. I’m not trying to write about something I am not familiar with. I don’t go out of my way to TRY to make Roderic seem like a person Autism, Schizophrenia, PTSD, and Agoraphobia. I’m not trying to write about a disorder. I simply write the world the way I see the world and use him as the representative of that POV.

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