Prior note: As with all my posts, this is aimed at writing fiction, specifically I write young adult fantasy. This isn’t meant for a story about mental illness or neurodivergence, rather it is about writing these things into a story.
Also note, I do use mental illness and neurodivergence interchangeable because there’s not standardised definition of neurodivergence and these are new language terms. I know some people see and use them in different scenarios but I’m of the opinion (and of course this may change with time) that because society is built for those with “normally functioning brains”, pretty much all become obstacles. Simply less or more problematic ones.
When it comes to mental illness in characters there are a couple of points I want to focus in on:
–When to label it. Especially if like me you’re writing primarily fantasy. Mental illness has always existed, but hasn’t always had a label. So who’s to say it has a label in your world?
You can clearly show a character who is neurodivergent without ever straight up saying it.
Sometimes it’s also powerful to just show not tell. An example could be Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, it’s never been officially stated that he had depression. Yet, he’s often used as an example of depression in media. It wouldn’t make sense in the context of the show to say it outright, but it’s still representation and could be helpful to some children to see and understand it.
–How to talk about symptoms. Trying to talk about symptoms when we know they are symptoms can be hard. We end up using technical terms that bring you out of the story. For example, a reader is going to understand a relate more to a character picking at her palm, tapping his leg or playing with their hair, than the word stemming.
I know fidgeting and stemming are not the same thing. But at the end of the day, even people who do stem will refer to it as fidgeting when talking in normal conversations, not in the mood to explain or just prior to diagnosis and understanding.
If we’re working in a setting that does not have the same level of understanding of mental health as our current society, it’s likely characters will talk about it in simplistic terms, the same way we do when explaining to children. Because they themselves are trying to understand it.
–When are symptoms skip-able. I’ve often heard, I can’t represent this, because I don’t want my character to have that symptom. And this could be for a number of reasons. Well, you ever heard the expression, “you don’t look like…”? If you do some research, you might be surprised by how many symptoms are not necessarily, and in some cases, not even common.
It’s weird the way society picks and chooses wheat mental illnesses look like. Usually due to media. If you think a character fits, you want to represent something, but there’s something not quite right, do your research.
–Where to research. Research is an important tool in writing. Especially on delicate topics such as this one. I can’t stress this enough because there are so many bad representations that can be harmful. And I’m not just talking about stereotypes! Media often shows “cures” or “treatments” that are absolutely harmful, they normalise things that should never be socially accepted.
So where to research?
YouTube is a good tool. There are a lot of YouTubers who are neurodivergent and happily telling their story and their experience. Make sure to watch several different people with the same mental illneses so as to ensure you can see not only the similarities, but the differences.
Friends and family. Having a friend who you can ask questions can be a huge help! It can be a bit awkward at first, but if you explain your writing and that you want to be as honest as possible with your representations, people are often open to help. If they aren’t open, obviously leave them alone! But people who have lived this first hand and are dealing with your specific questions are going to be the most accurate resource.
Experts, but with caution. See, papers and officialy published articles are great, for seeing things from the doctor’s point of view, of course. But when writing and when reading we don’t care too much about that, we care about the character and what they’re feeling and what they are going through. Experts can be great for understanding what is actually going on. Why would doing certain actions help or harm? Why do they act the way they act? But it can also be dangerous.
There are a lot of non-specialised experts. People who do publications and psychology without specialising in a specific area for example. And there information will be correct, but maybe not helpful. People who actually specialise in your specific needs are going to be far more helpful. So, for example a specialist in child PTSD, is a better source than just a normal family therapist.
–Specialised beta reading. Once all your research, writing and editing is done, it’s time to pick beta readers. And if you can afford to be a bit picky, try and find people who have experienced what you’re writing and see if they relate to that character. They might not, and that might not be a sign you did it wrong. Not everybody with generalised anxiety is the same after all. But it’s certainly going to be a far better hint than your own intuition.
Also, last of all, always write from experience. Your own, your friends, your family, or just that which you’ve observes in society. People-watching is an amazing writing tool.
As usual, check out my book, stories I’ve written plus other social medias: here.
This one more than ever I’d love to hear about all of your experience and tips!
I tend to stick to writing only that which I understand and know thoroughly and slowly branching out and trying to learn more. But sometimes I’m still hesitant. I never want to offend anybody.