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4 Tips for Writers Creating (Realistic) Characters With Depression

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There’s been more and more talk about mental health in social media and the news. Our literature and movies are beginning to reflect that. However, they’re not always accurate, and sometimes, issues like suicide are broken down into sensationalized sound bites. How can we as creators change that up? Based on my own struggles and the frustrations of friends, I’ve compiled a list of four tips to remember when writing your next character.

1. Having a character with depression won’t make things “too sad.”

I once heard someone ask, “How do I make a character with depression likable?” The question itself irks me. Do you dislike your friends when they’re upset or distressed? No. It may be harder to be around them at times, but you don’t leave them high and dry in their trouble, do you? Of course, not. (At least, I hope none of us do.) Struggling with something doesn’t make you unlikable. The idea itself doesn’t make any sense. The characters with the most struggles are actually the most interesting to write and read. They’re more realistic as well. Who do you know that’s never had a single problem in their life? Nobody. We all have struggles. Not to mention, the entire concept of a plot is literally centered around conflict — or, you guessed it: struggle. That’s what moves the plot forward. Without conflict, a book would literally go nowhere. Nothing would happen. You’d fall asleep in your chair trying to read it.

That doesn’t mean you should throw in a character with depression “just because.” Depression is a high-maintenance plot point, just like grief or death. You really have to see it through. That being said, don’t let that scare you away! We need more representation of the mental health community in our media. Are you ready? Let’s get down to it.

2. Remember, pain isn’t pretty.

I have to bring this one up, because I’ve seen it in literature before: don’t glorify suffering. Just don’t. This applies to any kind of suffering, really, but let’s zero in on depression and suicidal thoughts. There’s this tendency to assume pain equals beauty, and it makes me want to tear out my hair. Pain doesn’t equal beauty. Pain of any sort is misery. What you do with that misery can be beautiful, but the pain itself isn’t. Honestly, why does pain get so much credit? Yes, pain changes people, but it’s the people who change. The pain did nothing. The person survived. The pain is what they survived. That’s like someone pushing you off the edge of the pool into the water, and you are able to swim to shore. You wouldn’t say, “Wow, look what that person did by shoving you off.” No, you’d give credit to the person who swam despite being shoved off. See the difference?

Following that same line of thought, depression isn’t dainty. It’s not a dramatic sigh and collapsing onto the couch. It’s not a twinge of sadness here and there or a serene calm while tears run silently down your face. It’s often more like irritability and lashing out. Saying things you don’t mean but can’t take back. Staring at yourself in the mirror and seeing the spark in your eyes that you always took for granted is gone. Feeling like just a shell of a person. Just going through the motions and feeling disconnected from reality. Depression is going into the bathroom to sob, turning on the fan so no one can hear you and coming out, acting like all is good in the world. It’s a crushing sense of worthlessness, and a constant voice in your ear that says, “You’re not good enough. You never will be. Your family is better off without you.” And you are so beaten-down, you believe it. It can be a cold numbness or a raging fire of guilt, isolation and anger. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Depression is not beautiful or theatrical. It’s hellish.

The same could be said for suicide. Real life doesn’t operate like “Romeo and Juliet.” There’s no beauty or sweet irony in two young lovers ending their lives. It’s downright awful. I don’t know how else to put it. Let’s just tell it how it is, OK?

3. Don’t depict romance as a “cure” to depression.

Speaking of lovers… cut the twisted romance. Especially with women who are depressed and suicidal, there seems to always be a male character who swoops in to save the day. Let’s be real. It’s actually very unhealthy to invest your emotional well-being all in one person. You shouldn’t cling to a partner as a God-like savior or protector. When that happens, the likelihood of abuse is very high. So, if you have a character whose worth and survival revolves completely around their significant other — if you absolutely must write this — please portray it as unhealthy and dangerous as it is. Don’t put a relationship like that on a pedestal and suggest it’s ideal, because it’s the farthest thing from it.

Like we already established, people with depression aren’t unlovable. Not in the slightest. I would love to see a healthy relationship involving a person with depression. Notice, I said healthy, not perfect. Writing this, I’ve realized I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen one. Isn’t that sad? Looking back, all the relationships involving people with depression I have seen either had 1) predatory or abusive elements or 2) the person’s depression suddenly (almost magically) being healed so that they’re now “more worthy” of love. Yuck. That’s the problem we’re facing. The good news, is that we as creators, writers and storytellers have the power to change that.

4. Don’t be afraid to try.

There is no one, all-encompassing right answer. Just like with other diseases or conditions, Depression doesn’t manifest the same way in everyone. Your experience might look a little different from mine. To avoid contradicting other people’s experiences, some authors write a very generic description of depression that lacks depth. I challenge that. Get a little specific. Cover all your bases, understand the basics and then apply it to your character’s life.

Think about an illness like cancer. There are so many types, and each type doesn’t always behave the same way in each person. Applying this to a character with depression, this isn’t a right or wrong kind of deal. One person may become hyper detached and numb, another may feel so much emotion it seems like it’ll crush them. Some people may experience both, or a sprinkle of this and a sprinkle of that. Learn about it all. Take it all into consideration and be sensitive. Tackling mental health in writing or other forms of media can be difficult at times, but it’s so very needed. Don’t be afraid to fail or get a few things wrong. If you read this article, you probably care a whole lot, and that’s the first step in the right direction.

I also wrote four tips for writing a character with a chronic illness, and a lot of the concepts overlap. You can read that article here.

Originally published: March 12, 2018
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