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Robert Marion  

Crafting Mental Illness in Characters

Oh, this might be a touchy one. Talking about mental illness these days almost feels like bringing your own noose to your hanging. But let’s do it anyway.

I’ve recently read two books that both deal with mental illness in main characters. The first is The Expanse series, a wonder near-future sci-fi epic that starts feeling like Apollo 13 and ends feeling like Star Wars. The second is A Familiar Sight, a three-book murder mystery series. Very different books, and likewise, each one treats mental illness very differently.

Given that I’m a conservative Christian writer, it’s worth noting that both books are a product of their generation. Each one features very modern sensibilities and current-year political and/or ideological fodder. Empowerment of specific social or economic classes is at the forefront of both books. Gender and other expressive identities are in play in both stories.

This is an important point when comparing how mental illness is handled between these stories. Both authors employ progressive ideas in their work, but I believe one handles it far more ethically than the other. It’s the difference in how each other presents their characters that I want to talk about, and what that means to me.

Sociopath, not Psychopath

As soon as you’re introduced to the character of Dr. Gretchen White in A Familiar Sight, you are bombarded with a specific clinical label.

She is a sociopath.

Get used to hearing this phrase, because you will. As a reader, you’ll understand this character’s clinical diagnosis. This is because the author spends a vast amount of time telling you this.

Over and over again.

“Dr. Gretchen White,” Shaughnessy corrected with irritating emphasis. “Our resident sociopath.”

A Familiar Sight, Chapter 1 – by Brianna Labuskes

“I’m a non-violent sociopath,” Gretchen said. “Although you seem to be unable to grasp the fact that they (psychopath and sociopath) are not the same beast…”

A Familiar Sight, Chapter 3 – by Brianna Labuskes

Gretchen laughed, actually very much amused by the question. “One, I’m a sociopath, as I’ve already said…”

A Familiar Sight, Chapter 5 – by Brianna Labuskes

This happens almost the entire first book. A quick search through the Kindle version reveals 36 hits on the term sociopath. Many of these hits occur in dialogue. This means the author is consistently favoring telling you about the sociopathic character instead of showing you.

It would be unfair of me to say the author never shows this diagnosis in action. Dr. White is, indeed, a very quirky character. She’s apathetic and reckless at times and borderline obsessive at others. This is not a forgiving nor empathetic character, as might be expected by the diagnosis. She comes across as proud and loud most of the time while wearing her mental illness as a badge of honor.

However, the author makes it a blindingly obvious point that Dr. Gretchen White is defined by her label. The diagnosis becomes her character. It drives most of her interactions and goals. Her mental illness paints her relationships with other characters. This character is a sociopath, and the author does not want you to forget it. Because beyond that diagnosis, there really is very little to describe the character of Dr. White.

In fact, aside from that clinical diagnosis, she could simply be described as arrogant rich female.

Quiet Murder Machine

Next, we have Amos.

Due to the popularity of the series, I probably don’t need to say too much here. But for those living under a rock or who don’t like the science-fiction genre, suffice it to say Amos is not a man you want to meet. Ever.

Like Dr. Gretchen White, Amos Burton is fully aware of his mental illness. His behaviors seem to float somewhere in the middle of sociopathy and PTSD, having suffered through a very traumatic youth. The terrors and heartbreak visited upon him throughout the series don’t help much either.

There are times that Amos feels like a twenty-year-old Honda Civic with bad brakes barreling down an interstate at 150 miles an hour. His behavior suggests a man barely in control of himself at times while always projecting a very different image. Amos is a man who would smile at you while he debates which of four different ways would be most efficient to kill you.

This isn’t to say Amos is a bad guy. Quite the opposite. He’s fully aware of his broken nature and chooses to attach himself to those who can help correct it. As a man with a broken moral compass, he looks to others whom he trusts to point him in the right direction. He’s a fan favorite because he acknowledges his weaknesses and because of his journey to rise above them.

Overcoming Mental Illness

If I’m being fair, both book series portray their characters as striving to overcome their mental illness. Both are fully aware of their limitations and failings but still find ways to move beyond them. Dr. White is portrayed as someone successful in her career despite her limitations. Amos is shown as a family man, even if his definition of family is somewhat strained.

But one character is defined by her mental illness, while the other seeks to overcome it.

Make no mistake. Dr. Gretchen White’s character begins and ends with her chosen label. She is successful before the reader ever meets her. There is no hero’s journey to overcome her weakness. She is a sociopath, and it defines how her character is employed in the story. She is wealthy and successful before the reader ever meets her. She’s shown as sexually liberal and socially reckless and gets away with both.

What’s more, the entire first book is built upon that clinical diagnosis. Dr. White’s mental illness becomes a central plot point in the plot of the book and is ultimately celebrated by the character. And, by extension, the author herself.

And I find her character incredibly boring.

On the other hand, Amos understands that his sociopathy is a weakness. In both the books and the SyFi/Amazon series, the character constantly works to better himself while knowing how much of a monster he could become. How easily he could slip into that role. Amos is always the most deadly man in the room, but he smiles and shakes hands and is respectful… until you give him a reason not to be.

There’s a lot of parallels between these two characters. Both are sexually open, socially blunt, and operate from a position of financial security. Both are surrounded by characters who support them through hardship. But only one of these two characters seeks to improve themselves. Only one looks to overcome their mental illness, while the other wears it like a gold star.

Celebrating mental illness is dangerous. When bad habits are celebrated, celebrities become bad habits. In an era where mental illness has been decorated as identity, we risk treading into very dangerous waters. According to the World Health Organization, mental illness has seen a 13 percent rise in our younger generations over just the past decade.

As authors, we need to be careful about how we portray our characters. While I’m not against portraying characters with varying mental illnesses in our works, there is a right and wrong way to illustrate them. A diverse cast of characters includes those with different and unique struggles and backgrounds.

But when it comes to mental illness, we authors need to be cautious. Our works shape those who read them. Our characters represent our worlds to those who partake in them. Illness should never be the end goal. We should always look to better ourselves and move past what ails us, especially as writers helping shape our cultural viewpoints.

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