Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Writing YA Characters with Emotional and Mental Disorders

You want to write an adolescent character with OCD? Or how about PTSD? Bipolar disorder, anyone? ADHD? Asperger’s Disorder?

First, keep in mind that many characters are quirky or strange but do NOT have diagnosable mental illnesses. That’s not what I’m talking about in this post. I’m talking about writing characters who, officially diagnosed or not, have a definite disorder. And if you’re interested in writing such a character …

Well, that would make sense. After all, about 20% of children and adolescents in the United States have an emotional or mental disorder.

So let’s just say that you’ve come up with an awesome premise that includes a young character with some mental or emotional disorder.

Here’s what I humbly suggest:

1. Go for individuality. If someone tells me a kid is autistic, that only gives me a tiny bit of information. It doesn’t mean I know who’s going to walk into my office. That’s because not every person with that diagnosis has the same symptoms or behaves in the exact same way. Far from it. Just because you know one person with bipolar disorder doesn’t mean you understand all people with bipolar disorder, right? One teenager may have been struggling with issues since early childhood. For another, symptoms might seem to come out of nowhere (some mental illnesses tend to emerge in late adolescence or early adulthood). Because children and adolescents with emotional and mental disorders are an incredibly diverse bunch, maybe don’t go for the obvious stereotype.

To avoid that, you can:

2. Go for depth. No matter what the diagnosis, each person IS A PERSON, right? You know, with likes, dislikes, fears, quirks, preferences, strengths, and talents? It’s the details that make them 3-D: mannerisms, speech patterns, passions, confusions, pet peeves. A good character, regardless of a diagnosis, will have all of these. And without them, all you’ve got is cardboard. Boring.

But at the same time, you might want to:

3. Go for reality. If you’re really writing a person with a disorder, there has to be impairment. Seriously—it’s not a disorder unless some aspect of daily functioning is problematic as a result. That’s what makes it A DISORDER. If you’re going to create a character who has a mental illness, he/she should struggle with it. Mental illness is not pretty, or delicate, or elegant, or convenient, or attractive. Mental and emotional disorders bring enormous costs—in lost opportunities and broken relationships, stumbles and tragedies, not to mention incredible suffering. I'm totally not saying it has to be all-painful-all-the-time, because people live and cope and thrive despite having these disorders every day. I'm just saying DON'T TRIVIALIZE IT. Use individuality to make your character sympathetic. Use talents and quirks to make the character attractive. Use strengths and resilience to help the character triumph. But don’t gloss over the illness.

To keep from doing that, perhaps you should:

4. Go for accuracy. What are the basic diagnostic criteria? Do you understand them? Do you know what they actually mean, how they actually look? Do you know much about the disorder itself? Like, for example, do you know symptoms of autism have to emerge in early childhood—they DON’T just come out of nowhere when a kid is older? If you’re in the research stage for your book, I suggest you start here or here. (I also suggest you be careful of the internet, because, man, there’s a lot of wild, unfounded information out there.) But don't just read the facts. Read a few personal stories. And of course, if you know someone with that diagnosis who's willing to give you a perspective, listen and take a lot of notes, because that will give you a lot more depth and warmth--and intensity, especially if you are talking to or writing about a teen.

Oh, and if you happen to have the diagnosis yourself, I STILL suggest you get other perspectives and information so you don't base the character solely on yourself. Writing a character who is a thinly veiled version of you can be a trap--what's it going to feel like if one of your betas says your MC is unsympathetic? It's gonna feel personal, yeah? So be careful with that (and that goes for every character, not just ones with mental illnesses). Anyway, I think you need both the personal angle AND the factual information if you're going to write a character with a mental illness. You know, so you don’t call a psychopath psychotic, or the other way around?

And even if you're spot-on in your portrayal of symptoms and all that, you can still:

5. Go for perspective. Just because your character has a mental illness, that doesn’t mean you have an issue book (unless you want to). It doesn’t mean that your book is about mental illness. Your book is about a character (and probably more than one), right? The mental illness does not define that character. It’s just one of the many, many things about the character that makes him/her someone we want to root for (unless it’s the villain, but we’ll save that for another post).

I'd love to hear if you're writing a character who happens to have a mental illness, and how you've approached that!


  1. You what I'm thinking, don't you? AGG. Sigh.


  2. Wow! I've never written about kids with disorders, but if I do, or write for about an adult with a disorder, I'll think long and hard before I just make up my own symptoms for them. This is a great post! And Justine, I'm thick - what is AGG?

  3. yes! excellent advice!!!
    i have one project where it's supposed to be ambiguous whether the mc is psychotic or if the magic is real. so, i'm really trying to research right now... but i've been using wikipedia- which i know can be not-so reliable. so thanks a million for the links to the reliable sources!! :)

  4. Hopping over from Justine's. Congrats on the agent!

    My son is autistic and one of these days he's going to have a starring role in one of my stories. I agree with all your advice above. He is quirky & fun, but there are certain things that will put him into an instant tailspin--things the rest of us ignore.

  5. I have Asperger's and likely ADHD, and have struggled with depression in the past. I'm also very interested in ablism and the likes. All of that makes me super picky about how these kinds of things are portrayed, both in fiction and non-fiction, and I almost always have to grit my teeth and click away when I see them discussed online.

    That, however, wasn't the case here. Thank you for that!

    I'm tired of seeing autism reduced to "really smart person who rocks back and forth a lot", tired of seeing people dismissed as "crazy" without anyone trying to understand them, tired of all the narratives about disabilities taking the turn of "oh, they're so ~*brave*~ and ~*inspirational*~!"... and I think that if people take your advice to heart, we'll see a lot less of that.

  6. What a great post. This is very timly to my current WIP. Although my MC doesn't have any exact diagnosis she knows of, the reader is well aware that something isn't right. Great points on not letting it be the sole focus of the character/book.

  7. Brilliant post. My son has Asperger's syndrome and ADHD, so I can definitely understand what you're saying here. His fourth grade teacher told me she had a panic attack when she heard she had a student with AS and started reading about the condition. My son turned out to be nothing like she was expecting.

    Some people assume mental disorders are black and white. They aren't. If you think they are, your characters are going to come off as stereotypes.

  8. Great post Sarah. I could have really used you when I was writing my first YA novel, Arrived. Wonderful differentiations!

  9. This is such a great post. And I agree with everything you've said.

    My MC is currently suffering from depression and trauma.
    I've been through the first, but surprisingly, she happened to me before my own depression did :O

  10. Hey everyone,
    I'm so touched by your comments! That so many of your lives have been affected in some way by mental illness is no surprise (see above re: 20%!!), but it means a lot that you think I was on the right track here, so I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment! Thanks!

  11. This is awesome! I love all the points you raise - I feel like sometimes people put people with mental disorders in their books but then only define them by this and forget to make them a real person to.

    Great post. So glad I found your blog through Justine!

  12. Having majored in psychology, and being someone who enjoys YA fiction, I am really intrigued by the perspective you bring to this blog. Now following! :)

  13. This morning I've been doing a bit of research on Reactive Attachment Disorder for a story and accidentally stumbled upon this post (and your site).

    I didn't set out to write a story about a developmentally challenged character... it just kind of happened that way as the characters started interacting with one another and new pieces of the past and plot fell into place. Now that my first draft is done, I'm about to start all the heavy research necessary to fill out the character's actions/reactions and make sure it's as close to reality as I can.

    Anyways, great site :) I'm looking forward to wandering back and browsing your archives when I'm not in *research-mode*


  14. I've been writing about characters with mental illnesses almost the whole time I've been writing in my life. I write what I know, and (much to my dismay) I have to live with most of the things I write about, such as depression, self harm, EDs....
    I find that writing from experience is the best way to write anything, though when it comes to mental disorders it really sucks. If you can't write from experience, probably the second best way to write about a mental disorder is to find someone diagnosed with it who's willing to talk about it. Nothing can be more valuable than someone's view on their own illness, as opposed to a cold fact sheet and a "symptom list".