Writing Complex and “Mentally Ill” Characters

*Edited to add: I’m getting pushback for using the word “weird” in here, as in “neurodiverse people are weird” (although that’s not what I said or meant). I’m not going to change that word. I grew up in grunge-era Pacific Northwest, and I take “weird” as a compliment, in the way that Frank Zappa and Monty Python’s Flying Circus are weird.  I like being called weird a lot more than I like being told shit like I’m a “different type of normal”. Part of that may be cultural, or semantics, or the fact that I’m not a political-type person: I won’t judge people on their language, or even get angry at people for misunderstanding others, because we all have to work at understanding people different than us. What I will take issue with is people’s treatment of others. So please know that I say “weird” with affection, and because it’s a term that I myself own.

I’m also getting flak for saying you can get readers to identify with your main character by showing they have a special talent, because I guess some people think this reinforces the trope of “magical autistic person”. I too, hate that trope. Just know I don’t mean that. It is true that neurodiverse people often have talent, though, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a character that embodies that, just so as you know it’s not some sort of “magic”. 

 I wrote this article to share my practical experience of writing about the complex and neurodiverse. and share some tips I’ve learned to make people relate to those sorts of characters. Sure, I shouldn’t have to work harder at getting readers to understand characters like this…but the reality is, I do…just like every neruodiverse person has to work harder to be understood by the mainstream of society in real life. My goal has always been to effectively bring readers into my characters’ very different worlds (to “sell those cinnamon rolls” in the inside vernacular of my “weird” friends and me), so that “normal” people can understand a little bit what it’s like. Not all will identify with my stories—not even all neurodiverse people will— because my experiences and beliefs are not the same as all my brothers and sisters. But my point of view and my stories are mine,  and I will defend them as gracefully as I can.

That said, if you are not a neurodiverse person who seeks to write about one, make sure you read my piece here so that you can understand what it takes to see from a different point of view than your own.

Good character development is a skill. You have to bring the reader into a character’s day and life— in the correct place, I might add—and let the reader get to know the person through their dialogue and actions as the plot unfolds around them. It’s an intricate process, and difficult to do really well.

Character development is trickier when you’re dealing with complex personalities: characters who act and feel in ways that readers might not expect, and that might contradict how they’ve acted and felt in similar situations earlier in the plot.

A huge percentage of my characters—often my protagonists—are people who could be called “mentally ill” (I really prefer the term “neurodiverse” (though I don’t think that’s quite correct, either), but since no one knows what that means I’ll use more mainstream terms). I’ve learned a few tricks—mostly through trial and error, because I haven’t found much direct advice on this subject—that have helped me to develop my characters in a way that seems to hold readers, and get them to care about them.

The thing to remember about characters—all characters, not just complex or “mentally ill” ones—is that the way they think, act, speak, and feel is actually a big part of the story. If you populate your stories with people who are completely uninteresting and are just wooden vehicles for the plot to ride around in, you might want to spend some more time getting to know them before you write, in my opinion.

With complex characters, their personalities can be an even bigger part of the plot, because the tension created by their thoughts, words, and actions can do more of the heavy lifting pacing-wise. Notice I said more of it, not all of it: some people might argue with me here, but I’m a very firm believer that a character’s psychiatric diagnosis or other personality issues shouldn’t be the entirety of the plot. It’s how the person interacts with the outside world and deals with stress that’s interesting. I, personally, like to throw my weird characters into a plot that would be viable even if my characters were more “normal”, though completely character-driven plots, like in my favorite book Confederacy of Dunces, are also excellent.
I digress, as usual.

So. Let’s assume you’re reading this because you have, or are planning to have, a complex or mentally ill character. For advice on getting to know a character who is dealing with a mental illness or other issue you’re not intimately knowledgeable about, you can read my post on Writing What You Don’t Know. Assuming you already have a good feel for your character, let’s discuss how to write a book about them.

The inherent problem with mentally ill protagonists is that readers won’t identify with them, just like they won’t identify with those sorts of people in real life, unfortunately. Even if your mentally ill character is the antagonist or a minor character, you’ll have your job developing them, but your job is harder if it’s the main character. That’s because the “crazy” people are usually the bad guys in books: they’re narcissists, psychopaths, people suffering from addictions and/or delusions that cause them to act in hurtful ways, people with anger problems…they’re inherently unlikable to readers or, at the very least, scary. Yet, we make even our antagonists better when we get to understand why they do the things they do and how they think, and we make not just our literary world but our day-to-day lives better if we recognize that even people with severe mental illnesses are complete, interesting human beings, and they almost always have something likable about them. Non-neurotypical people can make EXCELLENT protagonists; the best, in my opinion, though I may be biased. The trick is getting a reader to see what’s likable about your main character—even though they would normally shy away from associating with someone like them in real life—before they stop reading because they can’t identify. So, even if we feel like we shouldn’t have to work harder just because our character is different…we do. Real-life discrimination against neurodiverse people is a FACT that I have witnessed first-hand over and over, and people will discriminate against the characters in the same way. My goal is to make a dent in that discrimination by introducing readers to people with mental illness in the safe environment of a book, so that maybe they’ll look at the issue differently in real life, too. I won’t achieve my goal by slapping readers across the face with my characters’ differences; instead, I have to start out by showing people how we all are similar. I have to show my characters’ basic humanity. I have to not just develop characters, I have to world-build, because neurodiverse people often live in a very different world than most people.

The first trick that I’ve learned to use is to start the story earlier in the plot than I would if my character were more predictable and traditionally “likable”. With complex characters, it’s difficult to begin the story at or near a point of high action, because readers don’t know your character, so the way the person deals with conflict or stress may not make any sense to them yet. Mentally ill people often don’t react well to conflict and stress and, just like you wouldn’t want to be introduced to a schizophrenic while she’s in the middle of a psychotic break, you’ll find readers might not like your mentally ill protagonists if they don’t get a chance to know them a little before you launch into the action. And, if your readers don’t identify with or care about what happens to your character, they’re not going to keep reading, no matter how great your pacing is.
It can be difficult to maintain enough tension to pique readers’ interest if you can’t get into the action quickly, but that’s where you use your character’s complex and interesting personality to do the heavy lifting. Show how your character sees and interacts with the world differently than most people. Interesting worldviews, habits, and speech patterns can be very compelling to a reader.

Another thing I do to get readers to like my “unlikable” characters is to quickly show them interacting with their environment in a way that shows their humanity, in a way that is traditionally “likable”. For instance, they can say something really funny. They can save a hurt animal. They can display a special and wonderful talent, or show kindness to someone to whom others are unreasonably cruel. It’s strange, but often something like this is all it will take to hook a reader, and they’ll be willing to read on even if your character then immediately does something completely nuts.IMG_0621

One thing I will never do to hook a reader and get them to identify with my protagonist is to use pity. Though this trick does indeed seem to work, at least with some readers, it shows disrespect to your characters and to the real people who are like them. In my experience not very many people want pity from others, and your protagonist should have enough about them to grab a reader’s attention without using pity.

What character development tricks do you use for your complex characters? I’d love some tips myself 

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