One of my strengths as a writer is characters with mental illness. It is something I find fascinating and have read a lot of nonfiction and fiction about different kinds of mental illness. I’m also the person who sees the person standing by the grocery store with a large sign saying “Meat, eggs and dairy hold the spells in” and stop to ask more.
Statistically, one in four people will have a diagnosable mental illness in their lifetime (National Alliance on Mental Illness). Chances are, you already know someone who has a mental illness or has had one in the past. Most mental illness stems from the things you and I do, see or feel every day, but taken to an extreme of duration or severity. Everyone feels sad sometimes. If it lasts too long and is too severe, it is clinical depression. Everyone’s had times where they thought someone called their name in a crowded room, or thought they heard the telephone rang when they were in the shower, but it turned out no one had called. Normally, we can easily dismiss these things we thought we heard and go on with our day without questioning our own sanity. Make those moments more severe and more difficult to dismiss and you can get the auditory hallucinations of schizophrenia.
Writing realistic characters with mental illness isn’t just taking a list of symptoms from the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostics and Statistics Manual. It is taking the time to understand the effects on the character, and how they react to what they are experiencing. People don’t always suffer from mental illness. Most learn to cope in some way or another, even if some coping methods can bring along a new set of problems. Their age, experience, and relationships with other people will also affect how they deal with the mental illness.
That guy who was holding the sign at the supermarket? He was in his fifties. He had paranoid delusions long enough that he’d gotten past the initial instincts people often have of running and fleeing to try to find somewhere safe from his persecutors. He’d stayed alive long enough that he knew some tricks to how to stay safe, and he was brave enough that he was willing to risk the consequences of being caught in order to warn his fellow countrymen and women about how to protect themselves as well. He cared about us and he worried for us, and I have to appreciate the time he was taking to try to help us when, from his perspective, we were the ones who were blind to the true dangers of the world. We were the ones that needed help.
Mental illness is a difference in perspective. Some people may receive different information from the perceptions that they use to construct their own inner world. Within that world people usually have much the same emotions (albeit in different proportions), desire for human connection, desire to bring something valuable to the world, fears, hopes, regrets as anyone else, it can just be harder to connect to others who’s internal worlds are so different from their own.
As writers, we are also constructing different internal worlds all the time. The difference between writing and mental illness is how easily we can move from one internal world to the next, while people with mental illness often have difficulty leaving their internal world and trying to see life from another’s perspective. The richness of every person’s mental landscape can be just as detailed as our science fiction settings, and just as interesting to reveal.
Reading the list of symptoms of a condition can give you some ideas on what to include in a character you want to have a specific diagnosis, maybe give you some ideas for quirks you haven’t thought of before, but developing good characters means developing their internal world. Science fiction words and fantasy worlds have rules as to way the universe operates, and it affects what the characters believe and behave and how the plot unravels. Mental illness is also an internal world that has rules that affects what the characters believe, behave and feel. Just like with other worldbuilding, everything needs to be internally consistent based on the rules of that world.