Guest Post: Creating Characters with Mental Illness
We are happy to share our space with a guest writer this week. As we have discussed before, character development is a fundamental part of story writing. Nicole Mackey joins us to discuss the ins and outs of including mental illness in our writing in a way that touches on the reality without sidelining the plot. Mental illness is one of the many facets to consider when developing well-rounded characters. We would love to hear your thoughts on this too.
It’s true, our characters can make us crazy. They want to decide who they will be, insist upon it in fact. Whether it is motivation or nail color, they have an opinion on it. One which they are quite vocal about sharing. Night and day, day and night. They won’t let up until it’s in black and white. Well, I say it’s time they felt our pain! If they are going to make us crazy, we can make them crazy, too!
Yes, I am being flippant. Laughter is a good way to break the ice on serious issues. Mental health is a serious issue. One that needs to be talked about a lot more than it is. And that is why I try to include mental health concerns in the lives of my characters. It is one more way to open the dialogue, to get people thinking and asking questions. Hopefully, it is a way to create understanding in a non-confrontational manner. Most importantly, it is a way to normalize mental illness, to show that we, too are human beings and far more complex than our disease. So, how do you start?
When you are creating your characters, you think about eye color and hobbies and interesting little quirks of behavior. You consider past trauma and things to celebrate and their position in the family. But do you ever ask about their mental health? How do they struggle with it? Does it affect their relationships, their friendships? What about their job? Mental illness can have a huge impact on your work life, that is why bipolar and other conditions are covered by Social Security as disabilities.
And let’s not forget their income. Not only does a mental illness make it difficult to keep a job, it makes it difficult to find a good one in the first place. Add to that the cost of treatment and medication and you discover quite the impact. With a lower income, there are fewer options for where you will live, and oftentimes the mentally ill will live in high crime neighborhoods or on the street, or be forced to live with a family who can be abusive.
Quirks and Such
Mental illness can come with a whole range of physical and personality traits that are quirky and noticeable as well. One common problem is a medication side effect known as tardive dyskinesia, which results in uncontrollable muscle movement. Schizophrenics will exhibit something called “word salad”, where they string together words in no cohesive order. Do your research and find out what types of medication are used and what the potential side-effects are, so you know what your character deals with, even if it isn’t a focal part of the story.
Speaking of the focal part of the story, mental illness does not have to be a primary plot point for you to include it. I prefer it not to be, actually. For my characters in my stories, it is just another aspect of life, like being left-handed. It changes how they respond to events and people, but not every mentally ill character needs to be portrayed as dangerous or suicidal in order to move the story. It can and should just be another aspect of a well-developed character.
Finally, a warning. Please do not use stereotypes to portray your characters. Yes, we all know stereotypes exist for a reason. And some aspects of the most common ones will likely be shared by your characters. But make them MORE. Make them real. With fears and feelings and desires and hopes and interests and relationships. Include mental illness, but be very careful about making it the focus. People with mental illness are people first. We want to be recognized as whole and complex, not just as a list of symptoms.
Connect and Consult
So get to know some people with mental illness. Visit some blogs, read some articles. Get on Twitter and ask me some questions. I don’t mind and I have a lot of friends on there who would be willing to help as well. Do not be afraid to write a character with mental illness, but we willing to accept feedback from the community when you do. In fact, it is best to have a friend with mental illness read through it before you hit publish, to spot any potential issues. As we like to say, nothing about us without us.
Break the Stigma about Mental Illness
Mental illness exists and is a part of life for millions, so it only makes sense to see that reflected in our entertainment. By presenting it in a normal, matter of fact and realistic way, we can help break the stigma attached to so much of it. We can normalize it for the millions who are suffering. And we can give a reader the thrill of finding a character just like them. We can make a difference.
Again, we thank Nicole for joining us this week! Be sure to visit her website and show her some love on Wattpad. We would love to hear your thoughts or to answer any questions you have, about writing characters dealing with mental illness. For more guidance on character development be sure to check out The Characters We Birth by A.L. Mabry. If you are interested in pitching a guest post to the OWS Ink editors please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with “Guest Post Pitch” in the subject line.
Nicole Mackey is a writer with a passion for Story. She believes it can speak the truth and create change in a way that few other things can. A little bit hippie, a little bit gypsy Nicole has lived all over the U.S. She even spent a year living in a tent! Currently, she resides in Phoenix where she likes to wander downtown or through the Desert Botanical Gardens in search of inspiration. Her writing spans fantasy, sci-fi and the occasional dabble into the paranormal. Most days you can find her at home, a computer in her lap and a far-away look in her eye.
You can contact her at
Or read some of her work at