Have you felt compelled to write about a character with a specific medical or mental health condition?
You’re not alone. Library shelves abound with novels featuring characters who are facing everything from HIV to PTSD. Many writers have chosen this path, some to raise awareness or break down a stigma about the condition in question and others because it’s a key factor in the story they want to tell. While the former reasons seem more altruistic than the latter, all are actually valid.
As a new writer, one of the first things you learn is to give your characters flaws, hardships, and obstacles to overcome. These obstacles often factor heavily into your plot, and since everyone can relate to facing hurdles in their physical or mental health, choosing one for a character (especially the main character) in your novel can make for a very moving story.
But only if it’s done correctly.
Unless you have personal experience with a medical condition or mental health issue, writing about it can feel somewhat like bumbling through a darkened maze. So here are my three tips for how to include medical and mental health conditions in your novel…and how to do it the right way.
Is there a wrong way?
You bet your sweet Aunt Sally there is, and it rears its ugly little head frequently in books and on TV. The ER doc who gives a cardiac patient enough morphine to drop a T-Rex. The sprained ankle that leads to an angst-filled debate over possible amputation. The screeching, straitjacketed schizophrenic who switches personalities at the drop of a hat.
These are all examples of how a writer can get it horribly wrong. Mistakes like these not only offend those who have experience with the injury or condition in question, but they also misinform those who don’t, which only deepens any existing stigma surrounding the condition.
On top of that, making sloppy mistakes when writing about mental and medical issues seriously undermines your street cred with your fellow writers. Because sloppy mistakes = sloppy writing.
So what’s the right way?
If you’re thinking about including a medical condition or mental health disorder in your novel, here are three tips to keep in mind:
1. Make it a meaningful part of the story.
There should always be a reason for the character to be dealing with this issue. It should be a meaningful part of the story, not just a background prop.
Consider the principle of Chekhov’s Gun. Anton Chekhov, the famous Russian writer – who was also, incidentally, a doctor – stated: “If in the first act, you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one, it should be fired. Otherwise, don’t hang it there.”
In other words, every element of your story should have meaning or draw the plot forward in some way. If it doesn’t, then your reader doesn’t need to know about it.
So if you choose to give a character a life-altering disorder, there had better be a reason for it. If there isn’t, your readers will feel as if you’ve ignored an important element of the story. And if your character’s disorder comes across as nothing more than a convenient prop, then you run the risk of offending those who actually struggle with that condition.
2. Do your research.
If you give your character a medical condition or mental health disorder, then do your research. Don’t just throw in a character who suffers from multiple personality disorder, thinking you know everything about the condition because you’ve seen Psycho.
Let me illustrate this point for you from a personal perspective:
My younger son is a type 1 diabetic. Most people think type 1 is just like type 2, but it’s actually an entirely different beast. And some writers know just enough about type 1 to know it’s a life-threatening disease – a Chekhov’s Gun that could go off at any moment – which makes it an appealing “flaw” for their character.
However, I have never – not once – seen a fictional work that portrayed type 1 diabetes accurately. It’s as if their writers were too lazy to actually pick up a book and learn about the disease and how it’s treated – or, better yet, seek the advice of someone who actually lives with it. Instead, they seem to glean all of their “knowledge” of type 1 diabetes and its treatment from other badly written TV shows.
The moment a character with type 1 diabetes is introduced in a novel or show, I cringe inside. Because, invariably, at some point in the story, he’ll have a dramatic low blood sugar episode only to be “saved” by a shot of insulin.
Um…NO…that would actually kill him.
But diabetes isn’t the only medical issue I see written badly, not by a long shot. I studied pre-med in college, so I have a fairly decent understanding of how the human body works, and I see writers getting even the simplest medical details wrong all the time. And when that happens, what do I do as the reader?
I close the book…or, at best, keep reading with one brow arched in disgust. Because what they’ve just told me is that they didn’t care enough to do the research necessary to get even the minor details right. Instead, they culled their information from other poorly-researched fictional sources or, even worse, simply invented whatever details they needed to fit their desired outcome.
Please…I beg you…do not do that. Yes, every medical and mental health case is different, so you have some leeway when it comes to the specific details of your character’s condition and/or treatment. But there are many factors that are consistent in all cases (treatments available, medical equipment and supplies needed, methods of diagnosis, etc.), and these are the details you must get right.
How do I do that?
You do research…and I know that’s an ugly word for some (myself included!), but there are a myriad of resources available to help with this step. Watch a documentary or two about your character’s condition. Read books, online articles, and blog posts about it. Join a forum for people who struggle with this condition and ask them questions, both about specific details of the condition and how it affects them in their day-to-day lives. (Just be sure to disclose that you’re asking as a writer and may use the information in your novel.) Taking the time to research the condition shows respect not only for the condition itself but also for those who struggle with it.
And here’s a little bonus: your research into your character’s medical or mental health issue may actually provide the very plot point that ties your whole story together. You just never know what treasures you’ll find when you do a little digging.
There’s no doubt about it: research is hard work (and, yes, it can be dead-boring). But, in the end, both your story and your reader will benefit from it. Oh, and your street cred…can’t forget the street cred!
3. Don’t make it the sole focus of the story.
While your character’s condition may be a driving force in the plot, it shouldn’t be the sole focus of the story. Yes, if your character is fighting cancer, that will obviously affect every aspect of his life.
But your readers don’t want a play-by-play of his medical care. That’s not interesting…that’s depressing. They want to see his whole life – his personality, his relationships, his outlook on the future – even if it’s only to show how cancer changes these things for him.
Is it really worth all this work?
As anyone who’s read the sample chapters from Kaleidoscope might guess, I would vote a resounding “yes.” Stories about characters who are dealing with mental or physical health issues really strike a chord with me…me and, oh, tens of millions of my fellow readers. Don’t believe me? Perhaps you remember a little book called The Fault in our Stars.
The decision to give your character a mental health disorder or medical condition has huge ramifications for your novel, so consider it carefully. If you choose to wander into that dark maze, then keep these three tips in mind as you’re planning your story. Then, for the love of all things holy, do your best to get it right!
Are any of your characters dealing with mental or physical issues, and how have they affected your plot? Let me know in the comments below!
Join me again next Wednesday for a new post! Until then, buckle up, buttercup, and let’s write!
In case you missed it: In my last post, I shared my picks for the top five books on the craft of writing. Head on over and check out these gems!