Last spring I had the pleasure of working on a fan comic project that was intended to give the Scarlet Witch (Wanda Maximoff) a bit of well-deserved redemption. Based on her portrayal over the last few decades, it is very likely that Wanda suffers from some form of mental illness, which directly effects her life, the use of her powers and those around her. Last week I got to see the final version of the project and if you would like to read the comic, the CBR download is here and the PDF is here. I wrote the script for the first two pages of the comic and helped develop the plot of the story, along with an amazing team of other writers and artists.
I can’t remember a time when mental illness, in one form or another, was not a part of my daily life. Around the age of 7 or 8 my parents pulled me aside to have a talk about my father’s diagnosis. He had Bipolar type I, but at the young age I was, I didn’t understand that technical term and took to calling it “Polar bear disease” because that was what I could remember. My father actually went on to do a medical residency a few years later to become a psychiatrist and my mother later got her masters degree and additional certifications to become a licensed clinical social worker.
For this and many other reasons, mental illness was often a part of my life. I grew up with a better understanding of it because of my exposure both to my father’s struggles and to his medical knowledge, as well as my mother’s knowledge of different sorts of therapy and different sorts of treatment. This is also why when I see negative or horribly inaccurate portrayals of mental illness, I find myself quite bothered. Many writers see things like Dissociate Identity Disorder (Formerly know as multiple personality disorder) or Bipolar in the media and then go on to repeat the mistakes of those portrayals.
There are many ways to avoid these pitfalls. Here are a few I suggest as you consider writing a character with a mental illness.
Mental Illness can (and often does) effect daily functioning.
Even when a someone is medicate and in therapy, they may still struggle with small symptoms of their illness. Where someone who is mentally healthy can make a phone call, go to the grocery store, have a conversation without thinking about it, someone with a mental illness may not have such an easy time with any of these tasks. They may be too depressed to call a friend to go for lunch, or anxious about leaving their house to get groceries.
Mental illness is not a quirky personality attribute.
I have seen character worksheets where a mental illness is mentioned but never addressed in the story. It is treated like a character attribute, something to make the character unique and interesting, rather than treated with realism. It’s disrespectful to treat mental illness like it’s just flavor text to make your character more eccentric. If you write a character with mental illness, it should be an intentional, researched choice. Not something you think will make them seem quirky.
Speak with mental health professionals about mental illness.
Psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers spend years in school studying mental illness and the treatment of these illnesses. Once they complete their schooling, they put that knowledge into practice. They are a great resource to learn more about both the technical side of mental health and how treatment is put into practice. There were times while developing the Scarlet Witch comic that I relied on professional knowledge to help shape my script.
Also, it is important to be aware of different roles that these professionals play. I’ve often heard people complain that their psychiatrist did not provide therapy, which is actually to be expected. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who tend to deal more with the medical side of treatment, including but not limited to things like medication management. Psychologists and social workers tend to be the better contact if you are seeking therapy or writing about someone seeking therapy.
Speak with those that suffer from the illness you intend to write about, speak with their family and friends if you are able.
Though mental illness diagnoses carry similar symptoms, people can experience them in different ways. If you intend to write a specific illness, you will want to reach out to those with that illness and get a realistic take on how they live and function with their illness. Being the child of someone with Bipolar disorder, I am able to bring my knowledge of that disease and it’s symptoms to my writing. I have also had many conversations with family and friends, including my father, about their experiences with mental illness. If I did not have that knowledge base, I might feel very lost when approaching this sort of subject matter.
Remember that the character is a person first, that their illness is not the only trait they possess.
Unless the story is specifically about their illness (and even then) it is important to remember that a person is not just reduced to their mental illness. I think a good example of this is movies like “A Beautiful Mind” and “Silver Linings Playbook.” Both films have a protagonist that struggle greatly with mental illness, but there is so much more to them than their mental illness. A personal with mental illness still has wants, dreams and aspirations, often which they must work doubly hard towards. It is important to approach these characters as a whole person, so they do not become a trope or stereotypical portrayal.