Diversity in Fiction – Mental Health
A while ago I started to do a themed series of blog posts
, using the zodiac signs and their associated traits as the central inspiration for the blog post topic. I’m resuming this because it’s a ready-made series of topics, and it’s a bit of a challenge!
Then, I looked at Aquarius. One of the traits of an Aquarian is the ability to consciously and unconsciously absorb impressions and information, apparently, so I used this as an excuse to look at ‘conscious and unconscious writing’, using Galbraith/Rowling’s latest novel, THE SILKWORM, as an example
. I compared Galbraith’s voice in THE CUCKOO’S CALLING [when no one knew it was really J K Rowling’s pseudonym] with ‘his’ voice in THE SILKWORM, after everyone had found out who ‘Galbraith’ really was. I think there’s a difference, and that made me a bit sad.
Anyway – this time, I’m on Pisces, who are apparently emotional souls. So that made me stop and think. I’ve had my say about elders and their portrayal in Kid Lit … but what about heroes with emotional or psychological problems? Are
people with emotional and psychological issues considered “heroes” by society’s definition or mainstream readership’s (whatever that is assumed to be…) definition? In England, there is the Time To Change campaign
underway, and Mental Health is being put under the spotlight in a more overt fashion. I’m not sure how this is being reflected in terms of what we watch, and what we read.
I’ve suffered from depression, and believe me, there is nothing heroic about it while you’re going through it – not to your own eyes, anyway. It’s hard enough to see yourself as a human, let alone a hero. Other people may tell you different, but at the time it’s almost impossible to believe them. You are both the protagonist and the antagonist of your own story, and it’s hard. But if that’s where you are: yes, it’s not as black and white as heroes and villains, and yes, it’s a complicated, awful and hard. But you’re still a hero.
More heroic to my eyes is my oldest friend, battling and overcoming an eating disorder. To be perfectly honest, if I could block out those years and the things I said and did (and did not do) to people I cared about, I would. I had counselling twice, and I am very aware that depression is a part of me that I need to be alert to, and identify before I permit it to take over. I have the tools to deal with it now, but I am certainly not heroic. Sometimes I am not even likeable. And I think that is why I don’t see myself – the old me, angry, aggressive, unable to express myself, or unable to understand or desire basic social interaction and unable to look at myself in a mirror – in many fictional protagonists. I think it’s also interesting that I’ve chosen to encase this confession – confession? – in protective pictures from the Time to Change campaign. If I had a problem with my mental health issues, I wouldn’t put them on the interwebs in the first place. But for some reason, I need Stephen Fry and Ruby Wax for moral support.
Where it comes to fictional characters, Buzzfeed have, of course, had their say with Disney
. Wikipedia has a list of works of fiction that deal with mental health problems: you can read that here
. However, not all characters listed there are the protagonists, such as “the hobbit with Disassociative Identity Disorder” in Tolkein’s beloved books, and in some cases mental health is a deliberate theme. I was thinking of characters who happen to have
a mental health problem, not books which focus
on mental health. Wikipedia also has a larger list of characters with neurological or psychological disorders
. Again, not all of these are protagonists, such as Renfield from Bram Stoker’s Dracula
, or DC’s Batman villain, The Joker.
So, I’ve asked a few fellow writers to help me think of protagonists who fall under the following criteria, and do some analysis.
1. They have to be MCs, not side characters.
2. When introduced, the reader must realize that their condition or issues are a part of who they are: they must not develop throughout the story.
3. They must not “overcome” their condition suddenly or implausibly: it must be something they deal with as a matter of course, while the main action of the plot itself has nothing to do with their personal struggles and challenges. Things happen to them – they deal with it – they happen to have a mental health problem which impacts their way of dealing with things, but is not the point of the plot. In the same way that some MCs happen to be orphaned or divorced, or physically impaired, or have magical powers, or even don’t have magical powers, but the plot isn’t about that. If you see what I mean. It’s part of their character and part of their conflict, but not the whole point.
This rules out Septimus Smith, the PTSD sufferer in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway
, because he is not the title character – however, he is key to the novel, and so deserves a mention. (Thanks for the suggestion, Kara Jorgenson
It also rules out Harry Potter, although years of neglect and psychological abuse at the hands of the Dursleys should certainly have given him a more obvious complex from the start.
My own suggestions are mainly limited to crime fiction:
Lord Peter Wimsey
, scarred for life after seeing action at the Western Front, the ‘gentleman detective’ of Dorothy L. Sayers’ series – he solves mysteries, mainly but not always murders, but happens to suffer from PTSD as a result of WWI.
, another ‘gentleman detective’ created by Ngaio Marsh, who suffers from bouts of depression. He too solves crimes, finds love and starts a family, all over the course of 32 novels.
, created by Hennan Mankell, whose personal life is disintegrating and who suffers with anger issues, periods of emotional instability, and lives a less-than-desirable lifestyle. Again – the point of the Wallender books is as much the crimes he solves as the character building of Mankell’s protagonist.
Temperance Brennan, created by Kathy Reichs – not to be confused with the Temperance Brennan of the TV show, which is not based on the character, but on Kathy Reichs herself. Both, I think, still fit the bill. In the books, she is a divorced, recovered alcoholic.
Urban Grimshaw and Bernard Hare, in Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew, but this is an autobiographical account by Hare, a disgraced social worker, of his experiences of being part of the ‘underclass’ of 1990s Leeds where he met and helped ‘Urban’, a twelve year old drug user, and his gang. Names were changed to protect the children’s privacy in the novel, and it is now being adapted for the screen with Richard Armitage as Hare, who described himself as “Mr Chips on smack”, and Anna Friel as ‘Urban”s addict mother. This is non-fiction, but there are so few examples I can think of that I included it here anyway.
My Mad, Fat Diary
would also work, but this based on real-life diaries of Rae Earl
, and is now a TV show for Channel 4. Teenager Rae comes back to school after attempting suicide, and her friends have no idea that she has been in a psychiatric hospital for the past four months, believing that she had gone to France. Seventeen year old, boy-mad Rae has both mental health and body issues, but tries to reconnect with her friends and family.
I guess Lolita and American Psycho sort of meet my criteria, but their narrators are both antagonists rather than protagonists, so although they both deserve a mention, that’s not what I’m after.
I think I just need to read more. I hope I just need to read more, and that there are plenty of examples out there that match my criteria.
But what about SFF?
In terms of SFF, I guess there are others:
Elena, from The Vampire Diaries, who is going through the stages of grief at the start of the series/show, having lost both parents;
Game of Thrones is littered with MCs who have serious, serious emotional and psychological scars…
… and then I was stuck, because I really do need to read more, so fellow author Maya Starling
came up with a few too:
Carrie Vaughn’s female protagonist in her werewolf series;
Quite a few of Marvel/DC protagonists – Rogue (X-Men), Wolverine (X-Men), Tony Stark (Iron Man) – and so on. The graphic novel Sin City also has some good examples, like Marv.
But then, the more suggestions we came up with, the further away we were getting from MCs – there are plenty of side characters or secondary characters, but I would be open to suggestions.
Leave yours in the comments!
With this thought in mind, I realised that Maya Starling’s current work in progress has the perfect example of this kind of character. Free chapters are available on wattpad – it’s a very good read so far! Maya will be talking to me later on about Henrietta, her MC, and I can’t wait to share that interview with you all!
[UPDATE: Stephen King’s latest novel, Dr Sleep, fits the bill nicely. Danny Torrence, the little boy in The Shining, is all grown up and battling his own inner demons of alcoholism, self-loathing, and the scars of his childhood at the Overlook Hotel].