“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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