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.

Flawed to a Fault

By Chantal Boudreau

Those who know me know I think having heroic characters with flaws in my stories is important for realism. It’s not unreasonable to find a beautiful protagonist who is vain, arrogant or promiscuous, a highly intelligent character who is absent-minded, overbearing or socially awkward, or a physically strong character who is overly aggressive or not so bright. Protagonists might be naive or gullible to begin with, or they could be more mercenary than one might expect.

These are all what I would consider minor flaws and for the most part forgivable because of the characters’ more positive, heroic attributes.  But what about serious flaws – the kind a reader might find more difficult to accept in a hero?  I’m not talking someone who likes to pick their nose or lacks acceptable grooming habits and personal hygiene.  I have a hero like that, Shetland, who appears in Magic University and will be returning in the third book in my Masters & Renegades series, Prisoners of Fate.  Most readers really like him, despite his repulsive habits.  I’m talking extreme flaws that would normally be reserved for villains: addictions with real repercussions, mental illnesses that exceed a mild neurosis, or a propensity for violence beyond what is necessary for self-preservation or the preservation of others.

Now in some cases, you might anticipate these types of flaws in the kinds of heroes who straddle that gray line between good and evil.  If your hero is a reformed villain seeking redemption, they might carry some of their old villainous habits with them, like my somewhat reformed bully characters, Royce, in Elevation and Transcendence, or Crag-Climber in The Blood Runs Deep.  I think it’s important, however, to sometimes have these types of severe flaws extend to the ordinary protagonist and I’ll happily explain why.

When you consider the type of stresses the average fantasy hero has to endure, it is entirely unrealistic to think that the basic “good guy” won’t sometimes fold under pressure or break from the strain. We see this happen with real world heroes all the time. Soldiers with PTSD, emergency workers suffering from mental illness, to the point where some of them commit suicide because they can’t cope with the things they have witnessed, people burdened with heavy responsibilities turning to addiction to escape the pressure. It certainly seems reasonable that characters in fantasy stories might react to their stresses in the same way from time to time.

This is why I have made a point to include protagonists in my stories who do exhibit these more extreme flaws. In the sixth book of my Masters & Renegades series (not yet released) I have a protagonist who turns to alcohol when she feels overwhelmed by her responsibilities, I have a character in the fifth book in that same series (also yet to be released) who has a severe mental break when forced into a situation that challenges her to choose between her core beliefs and love and loyalty – she also happens to suffer from anger management and aggression issues – and my character, Fawn, in my Snowy Barrens trilogy has a combined mental and physical breakdown when exhaustion and grief drive her past her breaking point. All of these characters are only human, and I think it’s important to reflect that in their responses to overwhelmingly difficult circumstances.

Do extreme flaws have a place in proper protagonists? I believe they do and I hoping I’ll see more of this in my future fantasy reading.