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.