Continuing the theme of Mental Health Awareness this month, I thought I would put together a little guide for you guys on how to realistically write a character with depression. Obviously, I’m writing this for you guys because as I mentioned in my post about my own mental health struggles, I have fought and am still currently fighting depression. This makes it a little easier to write characters with the mental illnesses I have, and really brings into play that experience card that all writers should keep in their back pockets. In short, I want to use my “powers” for good and not evil ;D
I’m gonna go ahead and say right now that I’m not a doctor. I am in no way trying to diagnose anyone (or any character, for that matter), and this post should not be taken as bible. I’m saying what I am in this post from experience, and from the knowledge I’ve gained about depression over the last few years. Obviously, people will be outside of these “tips”, and I’m not trying to speak on behalf of any major group or for everyone in the world that has depression. If you have any issues with what I say, please feel free to (respectfully) let me know in the comments, or email me here.
DEPRESSION DOES NOT ALWAYS MEAN SUICIDAL
This is one of the first things I think most people get wrong about depression. Yes, depression can be accompanied with suicidal thoughts and behavior, but that’s not guaranteed. Depression is characterized (generally, not including the more specific labels of major depression, seasonal depression, etc) as carrying at least five of these symptoms for more than two weeks:
- A depressed mood during most of the day, particularly in the morning
- Fatigue or loss of energy almost every day
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt almost every day
- Impaired concentration, indecisiveness
- Insomnia (an inability to sleep) or hypersomnia (excessive sleeping) almost every day
- Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in almost all activities nearly every day
- Recurring thoughts of death or suicide (not just fearing death)
- A sense of restlessness or being slowed down
- Significant weight loss or weight gain
As you can see, suicidal thoughts and behavior is only one of nine symptoms, so trying to boil it down to that is just silly.
MANY TIMES, IT’S A “COPING” SIDE EFFECT OF A DEEPER-ROOTED ISSUE
As I’ll mention in another point, a lot of the time, depression can act as a sort of mental band-aid for something you’re having trouble facing head-on. For me, depression acted as a cover for my grief over losing multiple family members, struggling with self-acceptance, and coping with a new life path. For others, it could be problems with money or with kids, but it really depends on the character. Figure out who your character is before you diagnose them, and then work around that.
BUT SOMETIMES IT’S JUST A GOOD ‘OL CHEMICAL IMBALANCE
As I mentioned above, sometimes it’s an event that causes the mood change. However, sometimes it’s just due to genetics, chemical imbalances, things that are totally out of our hands that we may or may not see coming. When I started my round of Accutane acne medication, it really sparked my mood chemicals out of control, and it was the ignitor that began the long road of depression ahead of me, even though the road was already paved with a ton of issues in my past. I’ve met many people that simply woke up one day and found they were no longer happy, for whatever reason. Look at postpartum depression, something which should be incredibly joyful can become something horribly upsetting, a lot of times with no rhyme or reason to it. Unfortunately, the world is a weird and sometimes cruel place, and we definitely aren’t always in control of what it does to us.
PLAY WITH HOW THEIR AGE IS INFLUENCED BY IT
Depression is very different for people of different ages. If you’re a child or teenager, you’re most likely still living with your parents or guardians, and you may have a support system living in your home (unless they’re actually a point of higher stress for you). You’re forced to stick to a regular school schedule, whether or not your depression is okay with that. You’re provided for, which makes it easier when you can’t find the energy to go to the store and buy groceries. Sometimes, your depression might not be taken seriously by authority figures (doctors, parents, teachers, etc) because you’re “just a teenager” or it’s “just a hormonal phase”. This can cause even more stress, making your symptoms worse.
However, if you’re an adult, depression takes a whole different tone. You’re independent, and therefore may not have anyone to immediately rely on to support you or motivate you to try and continue in daily tasks. People that live alone with depression may feel an even heightened level of isolation, and struggle even doing simple tasks like taking a shower or getting out of bed and going outside. They might not be financially independent enough to get professional help, but if they are, they may be overwhelmed by the information and services available for them.
The same can be said for any other age or walk of life. Everyone’s experiences are individual, which is why it’s so important to know your character well.
TRY NOT TO MAKE THEIR STORY ENTIRELY ABOUT THEIR DEPRESSION
I’d like for you to repeat after me: “Your character is not their mental illness.” As I mentioned earlier, before you even think of bringing a mental illness into the mix, you need to know your character beyond well. Know their behaviors, their quirks, their loves and hatreds, their frustrations and hopes and dreams, because those are the tools you’ll get to tweak and play with when you introduce the mental illness. Characters based entirely on an illness (usually characters known as “the one with depression” or “the girl with an eating disorder”) are usually very flat and very boring, not to mention kinda disrespectful to people who actually have that illness. They don’t like being represented completely by the one label of their illness, so why would you give a character the same problem?
DON’T PLAY THE “DAMSEL IN DISTRESS” VICTIM CARD
If I got a penny for every story, movie, book, or TV show that had a character (most likely a female) that was “saved” by their love interest from their mental illness, I would be a very rich woman and would probably be able to pay off all my student debt. The damsel in distress or victim trope is getting really old, and it’s pretty rude to think about, as well. People with depression should not feel like they need to rely on someone else to save them. The best characters that overcome depression and other mental illnesses are those that are able to do it by saving themselves. Make your characters strong, and give them the ability to fight for their own wellbeing.
KNOW YOUR CHARACTER INSIDE AND OUT
I’ve mentioned this a few times now, but before you plan on giving your character a mental illness, make sure that you know them inside and out. Your character is more than their depression, they’re more than their anxiety, so don’t invalidate them by not fully rounding them out. If your character used to love riding horses, that’s a great place to start with the realization that something is really wrong — they no longer have the energy or motivation to ride anymore. For me, my family took notice when I no longer sang around the house anymore, as music has always been a huge part of my life. Take those behavior and thought patterns and use them as building blocks to shift them as they fight their depression. Like we always hear when we take writing classes, you can break the writing or grammar rules, but you have to know what they are, first, in order to break them properly.
INTERVIEW SOMEONE THAT HAS EXPERIENCED IT
The best advice I can give you if you’re attempting to write a character with depression and you have no place to start is to interview someone. Find a close friend or family member (or a few different people) that trust you and ask them questions that you might ask your character, if they were real. What are their hopes and dreams? What is it that drives them out of bed in the morning? What would they say is the thing that stopped driving them out of bed? Do they have a plan for themselves in the next five years? Who would they consider to be their closest confidants? As I mention in my character inspiration post, finding a few different people to form a composite character from is great in a situation like this, where you don’t want one character to be based off of one specific person, or they might feel uncomfortable with being put in the spotlight.
If you guys ever need to chat to someone who has experienced a lot of these things or interview to find out more about their character, feel free to email or contact me on social media! I’d love to chat with you!