Portraying Mental States in Literature

For those of you who’ve read my first novel, 22 Scars, it should be no secret that many of my characters are, for lack of a better term, pretty messed up. From chronic depression to alcohol abuse and violent anger, the personalities present in my work range from the dark to the demented.

Except not really. When I started work on 22 Scars, my intention was to shed light on the feelings, sensations and thoughts of someone suffering from crippling depression. Even the title, referencing the main character’s self-harm, is really just a symptom of that terrible, abyssal void that rips your heart out and leaves bitter disgust in its place. And I think, to an extent, I was successful. Very few reviews suggested that the depression was poorly portrayed, and indeed most praise the realism of the depiction.

However, I think that I was able to describe Amy’s feelings – which for the most part is done through her actions rather than her thoughts – because I know them intimately myself. Her depression is, quite literally, my own. And of course, while no two people experience depression in quite the same way, it was clearly able to resonate with people.

The other characters – from Beth’s alcoholic father to Amy’s disaffected mother – were based more on my own invention, and I don’t know if I portrayed them quite so well. I didn’t have any defining illnesses for them in mind, or any real background, except the sexualized abuse of Amy’s father as a child and the vague references to a violent upbringing for her mother.

In my new novel, The Broken, I intend to up the ante, so to speak. There are a number of characters, but the primary focus is on Malcolm, lead singer of a band accused of inciting a murder/suicide through their music, and Drew, a depressed teen boy at odds with his sexuality who only finds solace in music. This is new territory for me, because whilst I had a LGBT character in 22 Scars, the focus was never on her, and it was really only mentioned in passing.

In The Broken, however, I need to find a way to treat depression sensitively, with the added challenge of someone who is attracted to the same sex and coming to terms with this against societal norms. Drew is not depressed in the same way Amy from 22 Scars is, and I’m starting to think a lot of his misery is situational – his parents are distant, conservative and strict, and he’s experiencing a great deal of cognitive dissonance between what he’s told to believe, and what he feels.

The character that is more directly based off my own experiences, then, becomes Malcolm, who definitely suffers from bipolar type 1 (although I suffer from type 2, there are similarities). This is the driving factor behind the focal point of the novel, which is (spoilers) an affair between Malcolm and Drew. Malcolm is not strictly gay, but the manic phases of his unmedicated bipolar disorder lead him to seek sex almost as a kind of risk – the adrenaline of risk is a thrill that he craves.

Then there’s the supporting cast – Heather, Eddie, Ash, Drew’s parents … all of which have backgrounds and difficulties of their own. My goal in The Broken, over 22 Scars, is to make every character as believable as possible. I intend to portray (whether I’m successful or not is a different matter) every character with faults that stem from real-world issues – whether it be upbringing or mental illness – and every behavior will have a reason.

This will probably mean a lot of research, character profiles and work that doesn’t end up in the novel – at least, not if I’m successful – but my hope is that after people have read it, they’ll be able to identify exactly why each person acts they way they do.

We’ll see how it goes!

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