More thoughts on writing characters with mental health challenges: my approach so far

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the challenges involved in writing characters facing mental health challenges. I have been thinking about this quite a lot because one of the protagonists in my novel (working title Feeding Jasmine Valentine) has challenges with her mental health. It’s a fantasy novel and it’s perhaps a little bit unusual for one of the hero’s of the story to be struggling with their mental health, but that’s why it’s important to me that to do a decent job. While I can’t claim to have an encyclopaedic understanding of the genre, I’ve not seen many fantasy books in which the person with mental health challenges gets to be the hero (although that being said there are quite a lot of characters out there who are clearly struggling with trauma), while I have seen plenty of poor or stereotyped bit characters, and I wanted to do something different.

From a personal perspective I’ve had my own challenges and have many friends who have had mental health experiences. Poor representation does none of us any favours.

I’d like to think that I have an advantage here, in that in my day job as a mental health researcher should give me a bit of additional insight, and that have been working alongside people with their own mental health experience for a number of years. 

I thought it may be helpful to try to describe the approach I have been taking here, which really boils down to a very simple set of things:

1. Characters with mental health challenges are not just walking chapters from a psychiatry textbook, and can’t be reduced down to a list of symptoms to tick off through a creative project. I’ve seen this done before, and it’s just really offensive.

2. I started with the character first. What kind of person was she (and it is a she in this case)? What did she like, or not like? What did she do?

3. I identified the significant symptoms that were causing her problems (I didn’t start with a diagnosis, and actually am still a bit unsure what that would be), and then tried to understand how those symptoms my interfere with her wanting to do the things she wants to do. 

So the approach I’ve taken, which I think is OK, is to start with the character, and then think about how her mental health influences her experiences and what she does. It was not to start with a set of symptoms and then build a character around those, as my hunch was that this would result in a really reductive simplistic character who was defined by her mental health, rather than it being part of a much bigger picture.

I hope these thoughts are helpful to anyone who is trying to write about mental health, let me know in the comments below.

Thank you for reading. I also make art and films. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here. 

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