Background: Lucy and her younger sister, Sarah, have gone for a meal at Cynthia Jackson’s. Cynthia’s daughter, Hannah, is married to Lucy and Sarah’s brother, Danny. Hannah’s brother, Phil, is in town, and Danny and Hannah are trying to encourage a Lucy/Phil romance.
“I’ve made vegetable curry,” said Cynthia. “I hope that’s fine with you all. What with Hannah being vegetarian, and Phil vegan, I thought it best to make something we could all enjoy. I’m as sure as I can be that everything’s vegan.”
Okay – so, as if his sister being veggie wasn’t enough, Phil Jackson had to take just bloody awkward to new heights, and insist upon being vegan.
“I’d love to be vegetarian or vegan,” said Sarah. “I’ve often thought of it.”
I rolled my eyes. “You have? You surprise me, Sarah. I can’t see you giving up your McDonald’s – hamburger or milkshake.”
“I hardly ever have McDonald’s any more.” My sister was blushing. I had to be right about this: Sarah liked Phil.
Well, he was an improvement on Farooq, at any rate.
Trouble was, Phil wasn’t looking at Sarah. He couldn’t take his eyes off me. And Danny and Hannah, for their part, couldn’t stop looking hopefully, from one of us to the other. They clearly had their hearts set on a Phil and Lucy romance.
Addressing mental illness in our fiction should be positive.
Yet, if it’s done poorly, it can definitely do more harm than good. It can reinforce stereotypes, and cause offence.
And it’s complex. With certain controversial issues, we’ve actually come full circle.
For example, rape.
Everyone says that everyone says syndrome is, in my opinion, at work here. People regularly claim that stranger rape is what we hear about, not date rape.
As a survivor of the former, I would disagree. Stranger rape is more common than people realise, and I hear it discussed less frequently than date rape, nowadays.
And to constantly hear that it’s “just a stereotype” that people are often raped down alleyways – not sure that’s going to help much, if you’re one of the many people who is raped in an alleyway. Which, yes – does regularly occur, hence the fact that it became a “stereotype”, to begin with.
Ideally, we should address mental health issues in fiction, as much as possible, but we need to take care, when doing so.
We will cause offence. The subject is a controversial one. But we should aim to be as sensitive as possible, and hopefully, that way, we will do more good than harm.
My novel, Distorted Perceptions, does address mental health issues, in many ways. Real and raw – not the “pretty” version. I also hope to explore the subject further, in future fiction projects.
I’m now hoping to expand upon this, and create a series of connected blog posts, and this, therefore, is the second post.
I’ve covered aspects of the subject before, but felt that it deserved more specific attention.
Of course, when it comes to why we might want to address the subject of mental illness in our fiction, often personal experience will be a factor.
Certainly, in my own case, my personal experiences of both mental and physical health issues do motivate me, and make me especially determined to not only cover, but do justice to, the subjects of mental and physical illness.
I definitely don’t want to limit my writing to what I’ve been through.
My characters aren’t me. In fact, they experience many mental health issues that are similar to mine, and many that are not.
I feel that, having been through mental illness of any kind, does make us more compassionate, and able to relate more readily, to many of the extreme emotions, much of the deep distress, associated with other conditions.
In combination with research, this natural sense of empathy and understanding will be invaluable to us, as writers.
Never more so than when it comes to exploring less familiar mental health symptoms, in our own work.
Many mental illnesses are very similar, in certain respects. If you’ve had problems with alcohol, or even eating disorders, this can help you to relate to aspects of heroin addiction, even though you would obviously need to thoroughly research the subject, in order to do it justice.
Also, OCD has a great deal in common with, for example, BPD and Bipolar Disorder – so don’t assume that you necessarily understand very little about a particular mental health problem, merely because you have never had a particular diagnosis.
I would actually advocate thorough research, even if you do have the same mental illness as one or more of your characters, because every case is different. Additionally, not every diagnosis given is even accurate, or as clear-cut and definite as may have been implied by health professionals.
Let’s begin at the logical starting point, and ask why.
Why should we address mental health themes at all, in our fiction?
The subject tends, after all, to be controversial, and often dark. And in truth, not every work of fiction does need to address mental health themes.
Yet, mental illness is a part of life.
It happens. It has a huge impact upon, not only sufferers but carers, and many others. It has an impact upon both individuals, and society in a wider sense. It needs to be addressed, and to ignore it is damaging, and potentially dangerous.
Fiction, whether it takes the form of a novel, novella, short story, screenplay, or any other type of story, is a powerful art form.
The need for characters, within our fiction, to reflect the true diversity of people that make up society – in terms of, for instance, race, religious beliefs, sexuality, and class background – is, increasingly, being recognised.
We all deserve to find characters, within the fiction we consume and enjoy, with whom we can identify, for a variety of reasons.
The fact is that, within real communities, people do struggle with mental health issues. If far fewer characters apparently deal with similar challenges, we need to examine why this is – and begin to rectify the situation, through our own stories.
I aim to address the subject of mental health in fiction in future posts, on this blog.
Let’s begin with what Literary Fiction is not: Genre fiction.
Genre fiction includes, for example: Romance, Crime, Thriller, Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy. There will be many subgenres within any particular genre.
Some authors of genre fiction have a very specific niche, and stay within this, whilst others move around within different subgenres, or even genres.
Particular novels may blend two or more genres, with varying degrees of success.
Genre novels adhere, at least to some extent, to conventions and formulas. There will be strong reader expectations, such as the crime being solved, by the detective in a Murder Mystery, and a happy ending in a Romance.
It doesn’t necessarily follow that genre writing is not high quality, or lacking originality. The standard of genre fiction varies widely, and it’s a misconception that genre is automatically inferior to Literary Fiction.
Equally, it’s wrong to assume that Literary Fiction is merely pretentious, and not as genuinely enjoyable to read as genre fiction.
Identifying a Literary novel in a bookstore or library should be relatively straightforward, aside from the section in which you discover the book.
In precisely the same way that a genre and subgenre can usually be established, at a glance: The cover.
Book cover trends vary over time but, whatever the current design trends might be, the tendency is for covers to Do What It Says On The Tin.
It’s how marketing works, and the most immediate way to communicate instantly to potential readers, whether your story is likely to appeal to them.
One vital aspect of Literary Fiction is the tendency to address deeper themes.
It’s true that there is genre fiction out there that also does this, but with Literary Fiction, there’s more focus upon this.
Without the restriction of having to stay within genre rules and guidelines, there is greater opportunity to explore the themes thoroughly – and, often, although not always, at a slower, more reflective pace.
The boundaries are set by the writer, and not the market.
Literary fiction can be successful, and make money, but the tendency is for it to be less popular and commercial than genre fiction.
That’s a major down side. It’s more challenging to market a work of fiction that is less conventional, and doesn’t tick any of the standard boxes.
Character development can be emphasized – something that particularly appeals to me, personally.
I believe characters to be the heart of great fiction.
The quality of prose will be of a high standard.
This is probably one of the few definite requirements.
It often does mean a poetic style, although not necessarily. The style may be more precise than poetic. And we’re not talking purple prose, either – but genuinely fine writing.
For an example of what I would consider to be quality poetic prose, refer to “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath.
Literary fiction is often experimental.
It sometimes has a lack of plot, in the ordinary sense, although not always. Some genre novels have almost a literary feel to them, and are on the borderline.
Some would define Literary Fiction as effectively its own genre.
This makes sense, in some respects.
But, however Literary Fiction is or isn’t defined, it does have immense value.
Whilst not “better” than genre fiction, it can often unique perspectives, that simply wouldn’t be possible within the confines of a standard genre.
It’s vital to understand the why behind your characters’ actions and reactions – and to communicate this, via your story’s events, to the reader. I always return to the importance, as I see it, of character development, and exploring character motivations is very much a part of this.
With the possible exception of minor characters, it’s usual for each character to have an arc – a definite pattern of change in that character, from the starting point of the story to the climax.
Sometimes the change will be drastic, and sometimes, very subtle, but there will almost always be change, of some description.
Events in real life shape us, and alter our perspectives, and it’s the same way for our fictional people.
So, in terms of needs and motivations, these will shift and change accordingly, as the story moves along.
Your plot will be influenced by the actions and emotions of the various characters, and these actions and emotions can’t be understood without knowing what motivates the characters, on multiple levels.
Most people are familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, represented by a pyramid. Human needs range from the most basic survival – life or death – needs, to the highest human need, for self-actualisation.
At different times, and in different circumstances, our needs will change. When we’re fighting for mere survival, we aren’t focusing upon any need higher than that.
So, there may be times, during the course of your story, when your characters are literally fighting for their lives, and at these times, many of their usual priorities, hopes, and dreams, will fade into insignificance.
But there’s more to it than this, of course. Desires, goals, dreams – all change over time, even outside of life and death situations. True for all of us, and same applies for our characters. Motivations will be consistent, and yet, evolving, also.
The motivations of one character may be in direct conflict with those of another.
This is excellent, from a storytelling perspective, because conflict is essential, in order for your plot to progress, and remain interesting.
The timespan of your story is another consideration.
In my own case, my WIP begins in 1983, ending in the early 1990s. My protagonist, Lucy, is seventeen, at the start.
The epilogue takes place in 1993. The change between a girl of seventeen, and a twenty-seven year old, who has been through the novel’s various events, will obviously be significant.
Many of Lucy’s motivations and needs will be very different. These will have changed gradually, over the years, and the challenge is to not only understand these developments ourselves, but to communicate them effectively, and skilfully, to the reader.
There’s so much more to say, on the subject of character motivations, and character arcs, and it’s difficult to do justice to such a vast, and important, subject. But, for now, these are some thoughts on character motivations, which will hopefully be of interest.
I’ve already shared a post about writing romance, but romantic relationships aren’t the only type that need attention – in reality, or in our stories.
It’s worth considering that, in the context of a story, we will often tend to focus upon maybe one to three close friendships.
This is fine. But it’s also useful to keep in mind that our main characters will generally have a wider friendship circle, of some description. It can sometimes be beneficial to include a name or reference here and there, in order to reflect this.
When developing a friendship, consider the backstory – the history behind the friendship.
My main character, Lucy, has been best friends with Charlotte since primary school. As well as going to school together, they used to be neighbours. This does mean that they have a great deal of shared history. Yet, they have also grown apart, in many respects. By the end of the novel, Charlotte isn’t Lucy’s exclusive “best friend” in quite the same way. At the same time, that shared history will always be there – and that would be the case, even if the friendship ended.
Think about the “why” behind the friendship.
There are usually multiple reasons. In the case of Lucy and Charlotte, obviously they would have become friends partly due to circumstances – because they lived so close to each other, and went to school together. So, yes – the met at school, through work, or at the local chess club, part is always going to be there.
But then there will be other factors, including shared interests, shared secrets, a similar sense of humour – or, going deeper, the same core values. Maybe the friends are actually opposites, in many respects? Which can be good or bad – or a bit of both.
All friendships have their ups and downs, and this definitely needs to be reflected.
In some stories, it will be a major plot point, or a subplot – but, even if it isn’t, it should ideally be communicated, to some degree. No friendship is perfect, after all. The problems and misunderstandings are part of what makes the relationship feel realistic. In this way, hopefully, your reader will be able to relate, and being able to relate leads to caring.
Make sure that your friend characters are fully developed in themselves, and not simply “sidekicks”, with no other obvious role in life.
They need to have their own lives, and not everything they do will be about their friend, even if said friend happens to be your protagonist.
Hopefully, these tips will help you to create believable friendships in your fiction. You might even start to envy your fictional characters, for having such strong friendships. That’s a good sign, because it shows that you believe in your own characters, and can feel the strength of their friendships.
There are many resources that can help with our research online, but definitely, a lack of material dealing specifically with how to write about these issues, in our fiction. I hope that this will change and, even though I can by no means claim to be an expert on substance abuse, I’m going to share what I am able to, at this point in time.
Just one more quick note first, though – to mention that addiction covers much more than substance abuse. I recognise that addictions to gambling, shopping, and so on, are very real. I simply can’t deal adequately with those, in the context of this one post.
Drug addiction, alcoholism, and binge drinking are also subjects that feature heavily in my WIP, making it natural that I would make it a priority to discuss these matters, here on my blog. 2020 update: The WIP, referred to here, is my novel Distorted Perceptions, which was published this year.
It’s vital to know about the physical effects of any substances your characters are abusing.
That’s the absolute minimum, so start your research there.
Know how the drug alters the personality and behaviour of your character.
If a character is introduced to readers prior to the addiction, contrast and changes will be easier to demonstrate. Early warning signs should be evident.
Know in yourself, at least, how the character was before. It may mean delving into back story. Was there any trauma, in the character’s past, that contributed to development of the addiction?
There will be some perceived benefits.
What does the drug do for the character? Does it numb physical or/and emotional pain? Ease symptoms of anxiety? Alcohol, for instance, is often used in an attempt to self-medicate, by sufferers of social anxiety.
There will be specific ways, in which the addiction clearly controls the character. Make sure that you show some of these.
How does the person fund their habit?
Any committing of crimes, such as burglaries? Has the addict become a dealer? And, of course, to say that it is not easy to escape those networks, is an understatement. Attempting to do so could place the person, along with loved ones, in very real danger. This would be an obstacle to recovery, even if the character was able to “get clean”.
How have relationships with family members and friends, who are not themselves addicts, been affected?
People, however close, will draw the line somewhere, and most will, ultimately, walk away. So much damage will have been done, possibly over years or decades. There can come a point, at which the strain is more than the relationship can take.
Usually, an addict will reach a crisis point – rock bottom, basically – and then decide to change.
Is your character able to give up drugs, drink, or both – as applicable? Does the individual subsequently relapse?
Do your research regarding the long-term health implications.
There could be serious, and even fatal, physical health consequences. Equally so with mental health. The addict is at an increased risk of suicide.
Access your own inner darkness.
Even if you haven’t had the precise experience that you’re describing, you can probably relate, on some level, to aspects. If you were drawn to write dark fiction, in the first place, there’s a reason.
Survivors understand survivors. Research the specifics, but beyond that, write from the heart.
Writing about drug addiction and alcoholism is no easy task, but I hope that these tips will guide and inspire you, as you attempt to realistically portray substance abuse, in your fiction.
I felt the need to address child death, in particular.
It’s such a specific, and heartbreaking, subject – and one with which I myself deal, in my fiction.
One way in which child death can occur is following a terminal illness, and this is something with which I actually haven’t yet dealt, in my own work.
In such cases, the child, along with loved ones, could have potentially been fighting a long, excruciating battle, which he or she has finally lost. The story may have been following the characters throughout the exhausting process of hoping and praying, and trying out various treatment options. The grief, when the death finally takes place, could be laced with a degree of relief – and, at the same time, guilt, for feeling this way. Of course, all of this would apply, no matter how old the person was, who had died in this way. But something like this happening to a child would make everything that much more intense, and add an extra layer of tragedy to the outcome.
Then there is death by sudden illness.
Again, this hasn’t come up in my own writing. An example that comes to mind, however, is cot death. Shock, and possibly total disbelief and denial, are likely to be reactions. Guilt, blame, and questioning.
Accidents, resulting in death, are an area in which I do have experience, from a writing perspective.
For me, this has generally been in the form of road accidents. In terms of how it will affect loved ones, there is certainly much in common with the sudden death due to illness. Shock and denial are likely – as are the guilt, blame and questioning aspects. Some of the close family members may be witnesses. Of course, that could also be the case with the cot death example. But with a car crash, it’s very possible that some of the child’s family were actually involved. Survivors’ guilt could be an issue, and it may even be that the accident really was the fault, or partial fault, of whichever family member was in the driver’s seat.
Miscarriage is another form of child death, and can be overwhelming, and also isolating.
The effects can be felt by fathers, siblings and others, as well as the mother. And there can be a lack of validation, because people don’t generally regard the loss as a bereavement, in the usual sense. Which it still very much is. A couple in my novel, who later lose their daughter in a road accident, do also lose a baby, prior to this, through miscarriage. The double loss, along with other relationship problems, contributes to the mother’s eventual breakdown, and effectively, the disintegration of the whole family.
Abortion results in an even more complex form of grief, and is one of the most controversial, and deeply painful, subjects out there.
One of my characters does have an abortion. Her pregnancy is the consequence of her being raped, at the age of fourteen. The girl’s own mother bullies her into going through with the operation, believing that she is doing the right thing. However, the guilt, along with the loss of her baby, leaves the young girl feeling suicidal.
And yes, suicide is another form of death, which it is too easy to avoid, as writers.
Again, controversial, dark, and complicated. And, in my view, too important to be ignored – or worse still, dealt with poorly.
When it comes to child death, in its various forms, I believe that we do need to go there, in our fiction.
Research any specific issues that come up, in connection with your particular stories. Also, allow yourself to go deep, and feel the raw emotions. When you find yourself able to do so, you’ll know that you’re doing your characters justice. And potentially, your novel could be a source of support and hope, for many of your readers.