Even the Strong…

I’m sure I’ve addressed this in my blog before but I still think it’s important enough for ongoing attention. In my opinion, the possibility of having to deal with mental illness or disability doesn’t arise enough in genre fiction storylines, fantasy included – at least not as much as a proper attempt at realism would demand. Sure, you’ll see psychotic villains with a range of mental illnesses, it’s acceptable for the bad guy to be “crazy,” or a less than admirable anti-hero displaying some disorder or another as an explanation for deviance or unethical ways, but you aren’t nearly as likely to see it in heroes or secondary characters. This begs the question “why?”

One would think, under the stresses, traumas and difficulties most genre fiction heroes face, they’d be inclined to suffer a break here or there even if they might otherwise be reasonably stable. Post traumatic stress disorder, depression, unhealthy coping mechanisms like alcoholism or drug abuse, problems with anger management might all come into play at some point with heroic types – after all, it happens to our real-world heroes all the time. Wouldn’t it make sense to expect similar things in our fantasy worlds? I do.

I believe this lack of inclusion, in part, has to do with the social stigma that mental illness carries with it. People often avoid talking about it and those who do admit to suffering from a mental illness of any kind risk subjecting themselves unfairly to ridicule and exclusion. The topic makes others uncomfortable, stand-offish, and trying to be truthful about such things can bring with it a loss of respect from those who would have respected you otherwise.

I feel, as well, some writers think that while it is okay to attribute “lesser” flaws to heroes, mental illness is taboo. They view as too great a weakness for a proper hero, who of course must be mentally and emotionally strong out of necessity.

How unfortunate, because I’m sure a lot can be gained by adding that type of realism to your story. Showing that a hero is ultimately human can help readers become more invested in them, as characters respond in a reasonable way to hardship, tragedy or even old age. Revealing that the strong can sometimes break adds an interesting complexity to a plot and more dimension to explore. I believe it can also help reduce the stigma that’s out there. Suggesting that all heroes, especially the reluctant ones, may not be gifted with an iron will and an unbreakable resilience isn’t a bad thing either. Some people called upon to do great things can be very ordinary people in some ways.

Confronting mental illness is never easy. I’ve seen kind-hearted, hard-working people face prejudice as a result. Wanting to share their trials, I’ve had both secondary characters and heroes suffer from mental illness in my stories. I’ve allowed a secondary character in my Snowy Barren Trilogy to succumb to dementia and heroes and villains alike suffer from depression, guilt, anxiety and the anti-social consequences of isolation. In the Masters and Renegades series, I use protagonists who are plagued by addiction and in one instance, a particular character, one who was initially quite resilient, is subject to a nervous breakdown after multiple traumatic losses. Victims from the strain of being subjects of an experiment, several of my characters in my Fervor series have broken – some, like Francis and Grace, quite badly. Even the strongest individuals have their breaking points.

On a personal level, I for one would like to see mental illness addressed more often in genre fiction. I have lost friends, good people, to suicide and alcoholism. I have family and friends who have battled with clinical depression and bipolar disorder, people who have had to endure the stigma despite making great contributions to society. It would be nice to see societal attitudes change.

Maybe if genre fiction does its part in tackling these issues in a fair and objective way, we can hope to get there someday. It certainly would be a good start.

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15 comments on “Even the Strong…

  1. Great topic, this is something I’d love to see more in fiction. I’ve actually gotten character ideas by browsing the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

  2. I completely agree. The majority of the characters I’m writing about suffer from some form of mental illness (social anxiety, agoraphobia and uncontrollable anger). I’ve always wondered why more fiction doesn’t include such a poignant part of the real world.

    Something recently that tried (and did a reasonable shot at it) was Homeland, which had one of the main characters suffering from manic depression. It’s definitely worth a watch.

  3. I really like the idea of a hero reaching a breaking point that you’ve used, Chantal. In fact… I think that is the full issue I’ve been toying with in my WIP, but just hadn’t realized it yet. Really, there is only so much a person/character can take before stress or anxiety is bound to fracture a part of them. Thanks for the inspiration and great post!

  4. Great post, Chantal. It does seem that mental illness shows up more in the bad guys than the good.
    My wife was telling me about an article she read recently written by a fellow who is both a Shamanic healer and a Western doctor. Where he is from, mental illness is looked upon in a completely different light. Not only are people who have them taken care of, they often become Shaman and healers and such. I’ll see if I can dig up a link to the article.
    Thanks for posting this. Very thought provoking.

  5. An excellent and very thoughtful post, Chantal. As writers of fantasy, we have to be brave enough to ignore stigmata and prejudice, or we’re not doing our genre any good.

    For the record, the hero of my first novel, The Bones of the Earth, is on the autism spectrum. I carefully built that into the characterization, but did not mention it explicitly – mostly because during the period of the setting, the 6th century, there was no concept of “autism.”

    I would like to see more realistic and diverse characters in fiction. The fantasy genre, especially that from the commercial publishers, is very narrow.

  6. This is a great post! Most of the mental illness we see is in contemporary fiction that deals specifically with that issue. It’d be nice to see more of those issues in genre fiction. Does anyone have any recommendations of good stories with it?

  7. This made me think of the stories I’ve written. Do any of them contain these items? In “Dancing in the Shine” the female character has been emotionally and physically abused for years. At one point the stress of finally making the decision to leave reaches a breaking point and she collapses to the floor. She’s back and forth, strong one moment, retreating inside the next.

    I don’t think any of my other stories qualify. Well, “Fowl Summer Nights” is about a senior who…well, I’m not sure if you’d call her senile or a little out of touch with reality. You might. And she’s the heroine. Or at least the main character.

    I have seen several movies and read books where the hero has a drinking problem. Drinking is an old crutch. I’ve often thought about writing a story with an alcoholic character because I grew up in a family which had many. I’ve witnessed first-hand the destruction, the hard times and good times. This would be easier for me to write than one about mental illness because I’d be worried I would get it wrong.

  8. Lady Poe was thought to be mentally ill, and was shunned by League circles for must of her life. When it was revealed she was actually suffering from Shadow tech poisoning, she became something of a celebrity. She never quite got over the bad taste in her mouth how the other Great Houses treated her.

  9. Terrific post, Chantal, and something that hits close to home for me. My son is autistic; my father was an alcoholic; I’m…well, I’m just a wacko. ;D

    I’ve always been fascinated by the notion of people pushed to their limit, and what they have to do to cope, or what happens when they can’t cope (which, especially in fantasy, is a more realistic turn of events, since our modern understanding of mental illnesses, etc. isn’t be nearly as astute). Stories where characters undergo all of these traumatic experiences and somehow come out looking all cavalier just don’t ring true.

    Again, wonderful post, Chantal!

  10. Thank you. As someone who has both mental and physical disabilities, I really appreciate this post.

    Everyone deals with things in different ways, and all too often by gaining bad habits or disorders. I definitely agree that a hero in a story should have something to conquer, aside from a proverbial (or real) dragon, because they are human, or we want to be able to relate to then. I too try and include characters with all sorts of difficulties in my stories. I think it’s very important, to show people that heroes are not without flaws, but that they rise above them.

    And it’s not fair or true, the stigma. I know people with depression (myself included), other mental illnesses, physical disabilities, and the like, who are stronger than quite a few “normal” people I know. It’s not the label that makes the difference, it’s how we deal with whatever trials are thrown our way. For some it’s a disability, for others loss or financial burden. They are all things to be overcome and worked through.

    Keep up the great writing!

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