“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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Mental Health Month

Today, in honor of Mental Health Month, we’re going to take a little detour. This morning, I woke up to an email in my inbox from my mother which contained a link here, talking about mental health month blog day. As they put it on the site:

Mental health affects everyone and everything we do. Yet, mental health is a topic many don’t feel comfortable discussing. Join us on May 16, 2012, to spread the importance of good mental health and reduce its stigma.”

And I can understand that. While mental health problems don’t have the stigma they once did, they aren’t something everyone’s willing to talk about. You can even see a hint of the stigma in how my mother introduced the link: “In case you’re interested – with your pseudonym of course!

You see, I come a family that’s rife with mental health disorders. There are people with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), GAD (General Anxiety Disorder), ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), Bipolar Disorder (Do they have an Acronym for that?) and who knows what else. I, myself, was diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder in college. And while it isn’t something I generally lead off telling people about me, in honor of the day I have decided to forgo the pseudonym and speak honestly.

It can be difficult living with a mental disorder, I’m not going to say it isn’t. There are some opportunities I regret having missed, and there are old friends I would still like to apologise to who reached the point where they couldn’t deal any more before I had things undercontrol (which, with the help of medication and a very strong support system of my friends and family, I thankfully do).

But, on the flip side, there has also been good that comes out of it. For one, there is something inherently freeing about acknowledging that you have a weakness–and that feeling also makes it easier to understand others’ weaknesses. It is estimated that nearly 30 percent of the adult population in the United States has some sort of mental disorder. Even outside of my family, I can’t say I’ve ever been at a loss for people dealing with issues that are nearly invisible from the outside. For the vast majority of people with a mental disorder, that disorder is something they’re dealing with, not their defining characteristic.

And that leads me to my main pet peeve when it comes to people talking/writing about mental disorders (yes, of course I’ll wrap it back around to writing, this is my blog we’re talking about after all):

“But he seemed so happy”

This exact saying generally comes up after a suicide. Most recently, I saw this one on Facebook after the news of Junior Seau’s death. For those who don’t know, Junior Seau was a football player who used to play for the San Diego Chargers. There is also a restaurant named for him/that used to be run by him in the area. Having grown up in San Diego, I had a lot of San Diegian friends posting about his suicide on Facebook, including one girl with whom I went to high school who had spent time as a waitress at Junior Seau’s restaurant. At the news of his death, she wrote, “[He] always seemed so happy when I talked to him…at his restaurant.”

While I suppose this is a natural reaction in some ways (You only kill yourself if you’re really sad. When you’re really sad you look really sad. He didn’t look really sad, therefore, why did he kill himself?) but it’s based on one major assumption, that depression (or any other disorder which can lead to suicidal thoughts) is the only defining trait for someone suffering from it.

It is possible to be depressed and still seem happy. It’s even possible to be depressed andfeelhappy some of the time. Too often, disorders become labels that people use to try to explain the entirety of a person. And they aren’t. They’re certainly a part of the person, but someone isn’t their disorder.

The same is even more true for characters in novels. I am certainly not against authors writing about characters that are suffering from disorders/illnesses the author doesn’t have. Saying that someone can only write about a character that is bipolar if they are bipolar is like saying that someone can only write about a character being from New York if they live in New York. There are just two important things I ask writers to keep in mind, though:

1. Do your research. You can set a story in New York, even if you’ve never been there, but you’re most likely going to want to read up about the city a little, look at some maps, look at some pictures…you know, do some research before you start writing. If you don’t, everyone who reads your book who has been to New York is just going to be rolling their eyes as they read something that shows the author had no idea what they were talking about. The same is even more true when it comes to mental disorders–perhaps because they have been so stigmatised for so long. There are some stock images people tend to get when they think of someone as “mentally unstable” (generally involving straight jackets and padded rooms, at least in my experience) and then, with how “trendy” certain diagnoses are getting to be (“Yeah, she’s all over the place, I think she’s bipolar” “Oh, I don’t get along with people well, I think I have Aspergers”) there are plenty of preconceived notions that are just plainly wrong, if not insulting. Read up to make sure you aren’t just using things you vaguely remember as facts for your novel, or you’ll end up with someone walking to the Statue of Liberty from Midtown Manhattan (you know, instead of taking the ferry, it’s on its own island…)

2. Make your character more than the disorder. I’ve touched on this briefly before, but it’s really the truth. One of the worst things you can do is give your character a disorder and act like that is all of the personality they need (“Oh, that’s Joe, he’s bipolar, so he’s, like, crazy all over the place. And that’s Jane, she’s depressed so she never smiles. Awesome aren’t they?”) A disorder can definitely be a part of a character, it can even be what a story is about, but it isn’t a way to get out of actually developing who your character is. I really can’t stress this enough. After all, just because your character “seems so happy” doesn’t mean they can’t be battling depression.


(If you’re interested in writing your own blog for Mental Health Month today, check in with the people over here http://www.yourmindyourbody.org/mental-health-month-blog-day/ for more details, or use #mhblogday to stay in the loop on Twitter)