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Characters With Depression: Portraying Mental Illness in Fiction

Before we get started, if this article is helpful or interesting to you, please share it on your social media accounts. This topic is very important to me, and I want to be able to spread the word about this issue in the writing community.

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So, you’re writing about a character who struggles with depression.

Maybe you based this character off of your own battle with mental illness, or maybe you created this character to spread awareness.

Either way, you need to know how to write this type of character correctly.

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Many writers think that an easy way to spread awareness about [any mental illness] is to create a character with [said mental illness] and put them in a story. If the characters can get better, that will encourage the readers to get better. Right?

Depression, just like any other mental illness, is a heavy topic and it deserves to be treated as such. It should not be used to preach a specific message, and it definitely should not be used in order to create a more “diverse” cast of characters.

In one of my first novels, written back when I was 15, one of the main characters was depressed. But since I hadn’t experienced true depression for myself, I portrayed the character’s struggles very, very badly.

I know better now.

So how do you accurately write about depression? Let’s get into it.

Showing Symptoms

If you haven’t been majorly depressed before, that’s okay. You don’t have to experience everything you write about.

Many writers (especially young writers) like to go through a checklist of symptoms and include as many of them in the story as possible. However, there are a couple of issues with this approach.

  • First of all, different people have different symptoms. (More on that in a moment.)
  • Second, people are more than just a bunch of symptoms.
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If you’re going to show a character struggling with depression, remember to weave in the subtle clues, while still showing their humanity. This illness does not define the whole character.

Here are some ways to make your characters more human:

  • They need to have a strong role in the story and a good reason to be there. (This should apply to all of your characters anyway.) Why are they in the story? What makes them important to the plot? Give them more ways to take control of their story, so they have a true reason for being there.
  • Give them happy moments as well as sad ones. Even if the character is apathetic about something, the reader can still enjoy a brief moment of happiness.
  • Small hints work better than large ones. A depressed character might be very slow to return texts, phone calls, or letters. They might wear a hat, so they can hide the fact that they haven’t brushed their hair in four days.
    • Don’t feel like you need to explain these quirks. Readers are smarter than you think, and they will most likely figure it out on their own.

Of course, depression affects everyone differently. Just like real people, you should strive to make each of your characters realistic and unique. This brings me to my next point…

4 Common Displays of Depression

There are many ways depression can manifest itself, but these are a few variations I’ve seen in real life.

  1. Unmotivated/”Lazy”
    • This person might not look sad on the outside, at least not in front of others. Their room is a wreck, their work is suffering, and they feel upset because they lack motivation to do things. Chores and personal hygiene are pushed aside, as this person struggles to figure out how to feel energized again.
  2. Grumpy
    • This person lashes out when they feel down. Often seen in older men, this form of depression looks like a grouchy personality. They snap at everything, and others tend to avoid them, which just makes their depression worse.
  3. Crashes in Private
    • This person looks okay on the outside, and as far as you know, things are going fine. This person takes care of everyone else, but when the party’s over, they lock their bedroom door and cry themselves to sleep. They might be afraid of telling other people what’s happening, and their depression might go completely unnoticed.
  4. Major Depression
    • This person needs a lot of medical help, not just therapy, to overcome their brain chemistry. They may refuse to get out of bed in the mornings, and they experience a lot of irrational thinking and/or suicidal thoughts. They might have been in and out of hospitals, especially if they are a minor or have attempted to harm themselves.

This type of depression is probably the hardest to portray in a story. It’s also a favorite of beginning writers who write about depression before they’re ready to tackle it.

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Your character might experience one of these displays, or maybe a mix-and-match of all four.

Every person is different, and it’s perfectly fine if your character is just mildly depressed. I would love to see more stories with characters who are depressed, but never attempt self harm or suicide.

A lot of depressed characters are over-sensationalized. It’s important to show characters with major depression, but we also need to see characters who aren’t consumed by it.

We need to show readers that it’s okay to seek help before things get dangerous.

Hidden Guilt

Another part of depression that is commonly forgotten about is the constant guilt.

  • Guilt about feeling sad. (“I should be strong enough to handle this, why am I sad?”)
  • Guilt about lashing out. (“I didn’t mean to say that, but I don’t know how to take it back!”)
  • Guilt about neglecting relationships. (“They must think I’m such a bad friend.”)
  • Guilt about irrational thinking or suicidal thoughts. (“I can’t tell them about this, it will hurt them too much.”)

A large part of learning how to write about depression is learning about guilt. I don’t have time to cover this here, but I recommend doing some research on guilt and how it affects people.

However, Depressed People Can Still Smile

Even in the most trying of times, everybody has something that makes them smile.

A family member cracking jokes, a beautiful sunset, or a funny video on YouTube can all make people grin. The happiness might be temporary, but that’s okay. It succeeded in making someone smile, even for a moment.

What makes your character smile? Everybody has something. Write down five things that can always put a smile on your character’s face.

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Once you have a list of five things that will make your character smile, take a moment and think about a situation that would make them laugh out loud. It might be a chuckle, or it might be a rib-splitting, rolling on the floor kind of laugh.

This could be an embarrassing story about their little brother, a funny conversation with friends, or their favorite knock-knock joke.

Got it? Now figure out how to incorporate at least one smile and one laugh into your story.

Sometimes, people with depression believe that they don’t need help, because they can still feel emotions. An easy way to challenge that belief is by letting your characters experience emotions other than sadness.

One Last Thing: Recovery

Okay, so we’ve talked about the different ways in which depression can affect your character. Now it’s time to discuss recovery.

Depression is often treated with a combination of therapy and medication. A lot of times, depression that is based on the circumstances of a situation (i.e. grieving a family member’s death) responds well to therapy.

If the depression lasts longer than 6 months, and seems independent from outside circumstances, most doctors will diagnose the person with major depressive disorder. This is when medication comes into play.

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Personally, I would love to see more characters who struggle with treatment, but continue to persevere anyway.

Your character’s life won’t suddenly become sunshine and roses as soon as they see a therapist. The change should be gradual. If your character is taking medication, give it at least two months before they start feeling “normal” again.

This is the point where many people stop taking medication because “it isn’t working.” I still struggle with this in my own life, and I’d love to see more characters experience this and keep pushing through.

When they start to feel some improvements, let them celebrate that moment!

Treatment is important, and even if you don’t include it in your story directly, if there is hope for your characters who are depressed, you can encourage your readers to take action in their own lives.

Just make sure that you don’t hit readers over the head with it. πŸ˜‰

Today’s topic was a heavy one, but it’s important to talk about.

As writers, we have a lot of power to influence other people’s lives. We shouldn’t shy away from the tough topics, but we need to learn how to write about these things with respect and accuracy.

I hope this article is helpful to you! If you’d like to help me spread this message, please share a link to this blog post on your social media, and help me spread the word.

More Resources

Here are a few resources that I’ve found to be very helpful while writing about depression. If I missed any, please let me know in the comments!

“I’m not dead.” by Dave Brown (Boyinaband). This is an amazing song to listen to if you’re creating characters who struggle with depression. He talks about his personal struggles and his own life, but the lyrics are so relatable, it’s definitely worth listening to. (Language warning, he says “f***” one time, at 0:49.)

“How to Treat Mentally Ill Characters When Writing a Novel.” Great article published by Writer’s Digest.

“Recognizing ‘Unusual’ Signs of Depression.” This is an interesting article about age and depression. Definitely useful if your character is over 40.

(And of course, if you need actual help for yourself or a loved one, help is always available. Get connected with a licensed therapist, and visit your doctor if possible. The suicide hotline is 800-273-8255 if you need to talk.)

Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back with a new blog post next week!

4 replies on “Characters With Depression: Portraying Mental Illness in Fiction”

This is an excellent post! Honestly writing characters who are different from ourselves is a huge struggle, but that doesn’t mean we should shy away from it, it means we need to thoughtfully think through our portrayals. Having characters with mental health struggles is an important step in raising awareness, but making sure that the characters are people first and foremost and that their struggles are portrayed realistically is so important. Thanks for writing this!

Liked by 1 person

I’m so thankful you’ve written about this topic! I think it’s SO important that we portray such things accurately and with grace and kindness, and I appreciate the extent to which you’ve covered all the different angles in this post. Awesome job!

Liked by 1 person

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