Friday, October 21, 2016

Writing Characters with Depression: What You're Doing Wrong

The curtains are blue. It's raining outside. My character's heart feels heavy with an indescribable something that apparently isn't too indescribable because I'll spend about a page talking about it. Everything appears in dull greys and heavy blacks. There are violins playing sorrowfully in the background.

Get it? Do you get it, guys? What, you didn't catch on? My character has depression. I guess I was being too subtle.

That's a problem most writers have when writing about depression. They're too subtle. It's not as if they're whacking their readers over the head with a 10 pound sack of sad. They probably should give it a shot. Maybe that would help clear books up of all of the terribly written depressed characters.
You know what makes me depressed? A badly written character. So, today, I'm focusing on a particular type of character: A badly written character with depression. Because they're all over the place, and your depressed character just might be adding to the problem.

I'd give you advice, but you wouldn't listen. Nobody ever does.

Oh, who am I kidding? I'll give it anyway. Here we go:
Writing Characters with Depression: What You're Doing Wrong
1. You think depression just means sadness. I don't know your name, so I'm just going to call you Bob. So: Sit down, Bob. I'm not happy, Bob. Not. Happy. And I don't mean "not happy," as in depressed. I mean, "not happy" because you are writing a depressed character and didn't take the time to look up what that actually means. Depressed people have more emotions than just sad. Depression is a mixture of dozens of emotions, which is why it's so hard to deal with. Depression can mean sadness, yes, but it can mean apathy, it can mean hopelessness, anger, anxiety, loneliness, numbness, negativity, fatigue, loss of appetite, emptiness, shame, having a loud voice in your head that screams at you, "You are unworthy!" Like everything with character development, struggles with depression should be layered. So don't just slap on a "sad" label and move on. Dig deeper. Do better.

2. You're being too subtle. You need to paint it on thick. You're writing a depressed character, so why not make them super depressed all of the time? Depression is startlingly obvious and always recognizable, so reflect this in your books. It's very realistic and I'm sure it won't annoy your readers at all. It's not as if depression can be a subtle thing that lurks in the background. So why portray it as such? After all, that takes too much time and skill. So don't do it.

3. You think depressed characters need to be part of a depressing storyline. When people ask you how your books with depressed character are going, you shouldn't answer: "Well, they're just fine. You know, a little dark, a little gloomy. And, as always, hey, full of dead people." No. NO. A depressed character doesn't need to be in the middle of a storyline where people are dying left and right or where the whole world is burning. I mean, if that's the plot line of your story, that's fine. But depressed characters are not exclusive to dark storylines or hard lives.

4. All of your depressed characters are introverts. I've noticed this a lot in both books and film. Depression is almost always portrayed as a disease that extroverts are somehow immune to. Extroverts can be depressed, it just may be less obvious. After all, extroverts are out and about, having to wear a mask to cover up the fact that they have a dementor following them around. So, if you are tackling depression in your novel, don't be afraid to give it to an extroverted character. It's a problem that needs to be written about.

5. You are romanticizing suicide. Really? How long have you been training to be a prat? There are so many books out there that make depression look...alluring? Special. Pretty. It's not. Don't write a book that makes depression out to look like some poetic journey about becoming one with the darkness. And do NOT romanticize depressed characters who considering committing...or do commit...suicide. There are no words to describe how damaging this is.

6. You forget that depressed people have interests and personalities. No, sitting around and thinking about death does not count as an interest or personality. Depressed people like things just like anybody else: They like to bake, play the violin, go hunting, paint a picture, build a hot rod, read a novel. Some depressed people are logical, some are sarcastic, some are sweet, some are gruff. Flesh out your character as a person first, then give them depression. Not only is this more realistic, but it will keep your depressed character from falling into the shallow, nobody-likes-you character zone populated by Bella Swan.

7. Your writing style is overly flowery. When writing from a depressed point of view, many writers have the tendency to wax poetic. Stop being so dramatic. Find the style that you are good at and use it. Don't feel the need to contemplate the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.

8. You didn't read up on other depressed characters. Books are full of amazingly written characters suffering from depression. They come in all genres with all different personalities and manifestations. Some of my favorite: Frodo from Lord of the Rings (read this great post on the topic), Arima Kousei from Your Lie in April, Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh, Charlie Brown, Marvin from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Conor from A Monster Calls, Celia Foote from The Help, Gwystyl from The Prydain Chronicles. Read them. Study them. Learn from them.

9. You're using depression as an excuse. I get it. Depression is a very good excuse for a character who is constantly throwing a pity-party and being annoying. But it's not a good enough one. Everybody has problems. Get over it. Depression is not a free pass to allow your character to be mean, lazy, or generally annoying. Either show your character struggling to change or make it clear that their lack of change isn't healthy. Don't just excuse them with the, "Oh, depression" excuse. After all, their problems can't be as bad as Marvin's.
10. Your character isn't awesome enough. You know what we need more of? Depressed characters kicking butt. Do you have any idea how awesome depressed people are? They have to fight their own minds on a regular basis, but they still keep going. Enough of the depressed characters who get dragged around by their non-depressed friends. Let's have more depressed characters who drag themselves around. Depression tells them: "You are in Hell, little man. And I am the devil." And they look back and say, "You're not the devil. You're practice." And then proceed to beat the crap out of depression. What? I love me my Batman references. But seriously, people who fight depression are amazing. So let's have more characters who get up every day because they're not about to let depression get the better of them. That, my friends, is a type of strength that fiction can use more of.

Honestly, writing characters with depression isn't that difficult. And no, you don't have to have depression yourself in order to write on this topic. You just have to take the time to get to know your character and what their particular brand of depression is. It takes time, but any character worth writing takes time.

Do you have any tips for writing characters with depression? If you're writing a depressed character or have a favorite fictional depressed character, please tell me about them in the comment section below!

Related articles:
Writing Teenaged Characters: What You're Doing Wrong
Writing Strong Female Characters: What You're Doing Wrong
Writing Awesome Male Characters: What You're Doing Wrong

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23 comments:

  1. Very good points here. Love all the Marvin.
    I'd also like to add that depression doesn't always have a reason - ie, you don't need a big tragic backstory involving their entire village being burned down or something. Sometimes it just happens. And characters with depression can have positive emotions, too.

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    1. So true, Jennifer! It's especially important to remember that people with depression can have good days and positive emotions. They're not just a big ball of sadness. =) Thanks for the comment!

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  2. This is excellent! And I am impressed at the way you stayed your fabulous sarcastic self, and yet tastefully dealt with the topic of depression. That is not easy and you totally pulled it off. Love these tips!

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    1. I'm glad to hear that, Reigha! I was a bit wary when I first started writing it because I wanted to use my usual writing style while also not being tasteless. =D I'm so happy you enjoyed the tips!

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  3. Heather McAllister, AustraliaOctober 22, 2016 at 6:18 AM

    Generally a good article, Hannah, showing a reasonably good grasp of true depression and the range of emotions a GENUINELY depressed person may experience. However, "depression" is, I believe, a greatly over-used word applied to everything from feeling a bit down to full-blown clinical depression, the latter a condition that takes time and courage, determination and proper treatment to overcome, either fully or in part.

    However, it is highly unfortunate that mental illness is broadly labelled as depression and, as such, is totally misjudged, or even recognised, by the majority of people all around the world.

    Your contention, "Depression is startlingly obvious and always recognisable ........ it won't annoy your readers at all. It's not as if depression can be a subtle thing that lurks in the background"...
    is patently incorrect. As a reader it would certainly annoy me. Sufferers of both true depression and mental illness are some of the greatest actors around, a fact that is obvious by the number of people who, confronted by the suicide of someone dear and/or close to them, cry that that person had shown no indication at all of depression or worry.

    Of course, a book about a character who actually has a mental disorder would be a different sort of story altogether, PROVIDING that the writer understands the very real difference between the two conditions.

    I trust you won't take this as a criticism. It's just that I speak from experience as a woman afflicted with BiPolar, a disorder I had to actually tell people I had, some twelve years after I was diagnosed. Frankly, I think I deserve a gold Oscar!

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    1. Hi Heather! Thank you for the comment! I agree that depression is often completely misunderstood. I hope that if we have more characters in fiction that portray it accurately, it will help people in real life to recognize and deal with it.

      I agree that my comment on depression being "startlingly obvious" is incorrect. Everything I wrote in point #2 was 100% sarcastic. I do this in many of my posts to slap readers into thinking, "Hey, wait a minute!" It challenges people to take a deeper look at things, and, in this case, realize that depression is much more nuanced than it is generally thought to be.

      No worries about my taking it as a criticism. I always enjoy getting comments, especially from people who can offer more insight into the topic. You made some great points. Thank you for reading and commenting!

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  4. Great advice, and it doesn't just apply to writing about depression. Basically, 1) if you're writing about something you're not very familiar with, question your assumptions and do your research, and 2) make your characters individual people, not just types.

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    1. So true! Great point. Do your homework and keep it personal. =)

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  5. Everything I write is based off of experience, so I agree with this. I'm clinically depressed and I'm an introvert, and my best friend is an extrovert with depression. My first time writing I used these two point of views for both a male and a female character. And I really hate how everyone seems to think that depression is just thinking about death all the time. Everyone I know who is like me (most of whom I've met through my writing) have told me they can relate to either both my main characters or one of them. It's not gloom and doom all the time. Your character is allowed to smile or laugh every once in a while and it doesn't always have to be fake. Your character doesn't have to walk around wishing they could die all day every day. I myself come across these thoughts randomly. Like if I'm in the kitchen, every once in a while I picture myself cutting myself with a knife, but it would usually be a rush of a bunch of simultaneous emotions (I.e. anger, sadness, self-deprecation, hopelessness, anxiety,guilt, etc.) that could potentially have me picking up the knife. I digressed a bit, but anyways, great post.

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    1. I love your point about depression not always being gloom and doom. It's good that you are making that point through your characters. We need more of that.

      I also am fighting depression, so I'll keep you in my prayers as you fight yours. Keep up the good work!

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  6. This is all so true. People who are depressed feel so many emotions apart from sadness. People need to inform themselves more about depression.

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  7. Thank you for this post. You inspired me so much that I finally kicked my writer's block and I'm writing a story/novella/book... not sure yet! Whatever it turns out to be, Thank You! :D

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    1. I'm so happy to hear this! Keep on writing! You got this.

      Thank you for letting me know! Always makes my day to hear about fellow writers who are helped by my posts.

      Happy writing!

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  8. I love this post. It's very true. I dealt with depression for a few years, and still struggle every once in a while, but it's also helped me write depressed characters. A must-read for all writers writing depressed characters.

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    1. I'm sorry you had to deal with depression, but I agree that it really does help a writer learn how to portray a depressed character. I'm glad you enjoyed this post! Thanks or the comment!

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  9. This was an insightful, inspiring, delightfully sarcastic post, but the part that really got me was the Merlin reference.

    This is why I follow your blog.

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    1. Hurrah for Merlin! So glad that you are happy with your choice of following this blog. =D

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  10. I love this post! I'm writing a story about a girl with a major anxiety disorder/frequent panic attacks, and I was worried I was overwriting it. But I agree, subtlety isn't right for these mental illnesses; they effect every aspect of your life, especially if they're severe cases.

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    1. (I totally misread your sarcasm so let me amend this: Subtlety is good, but showing the effect that mental illness has on someone's outlook is also important. The book shouldn't revolve around their illness, but it should certainly show, in small ways, in the way they view things or go about life.)

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    2. Hi Cate! I think there are certainly times when subtlety doesn't necessarily need to be used. I mean, if you have a major anxiety disorder, subtlety probably doesn't fit. =) I think it's awesome that you're writing a character and showing how her disorder changes her life. That is so cool! I would love to read more stories that feature those types of characters. Keep up the amazing work!

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  11. Hello! I liked your article, and I agree a hundred percent, I want to write a story in which the girl has depression and anxiety disorder, there would be some romance, but it would start with friendship and he would want to help her to get through it, I will concentrate on the girl and her difficulties, her thoughts, her hard moments, and how she would win over depression, more then the romance thing, though they would have their moments.
    Please tell me if my story belongs to this category?

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    1. Hello! I'm so glad you liked the article. Thanks for the comment!

      I think your story sounds amazing. I love that you are focusing on her struggles, but also allowing her to have a friend/partner who is there for her. That could add a very interesting layer to the story, as I'm sure both herself and her boyfriend would have to learn how to communicate about what she's going through. Anyway, I love it and I think you're on the right track. Keep up the amazing work!

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  12. This is a wonderful post and a lot of this needed to be said. It's not fun or romantic to feel utterly trapped in your mind with a huge bully who continuously socks you even when you're already down.

    There's also the point about Depression not always being obvious. Even as someone with Depression who puts on a mask I've had my share of surprises with this one. I was in a treatment center that allows former clients to come back for weekly peer support groups and one day I was surprised to see a girl I had served jury duty with walk in. When I met her at jury duty, I noticed the quirky way she had done her make-up, it made her seem sunny and the kind of girl that was confident and took risks; wasn't afraid of what people felt of her. She was also very bubbly and energetic and nice in conversation. We even discussed the books we were reading while we were waiting. When I saw her walk into the treatment center she was a completely different person.

    I think it's important to remember that even if you experience it, looking at it in someone else can bring on a whole different perspective.

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