10 Pro Tips To Write A Mentally Ill Character

Writing Psychological Character

A mental health disorder refers to a wide range of mental health conditions. These may be disorders that affect your mood, thinking or behavior. Examples of mental illnesses are depression, anxiety, BPD, schizophrenia, and eating disorders.

Mental illnesses are very common. Nearly one in five US adults lives with a mental illness. But accurately creating a character with a mental illness is something that people usually shy away from because it can be challenging to portray a mental illness character. I want to talk about how you can create a character with a mental illness and accurately portray them in your story.

How to write a mentally ill character?

Mental injury means exposure to trauma, and mental illness are symptoms that show up uniquely for each person that gets in the way of their life. So this can mean their work life, home life, and relationships (romantic and platonic). These symptoms can range from healthy to distressing, and it’s unique depending on the individual.

How can writers represent mental illness in their fiction in a respectful manner? At first, authors need to evaluate their motivation. Why are they depicting a character this way? Why do they include it, and what’s their motivation behind it? You have to be honest with yourself and your readers as to why you’re depicting mental health in this way.

What do you want to come of it, and how do you think people will respond, even though there will be a vast audience for people potentially reading this work? It includes people with family members who have a specific disorder or illness. Something that can help make intention clear is following the dead writer rule, which is a little morbid. Let’s discuss the 10 tips for writing a mentally ill character.

1. Define your character

The first thing to think about when you are creating a character with a mental illness or disorder is to think about why you are creating these characters. What effect is their mental illness going to have on your story?

Using that mental illness in a way that defines them. So they might say a character has autism or Asperger’s, and they use it as a way to title the character. It is romanticizing the mental illness or disorder, which is what you want to be careful to avoid in your story.

2. Show the reasons

Is your character more relatable to the readers? Is it to add an internal conflict to this character? Consider how this mental illness will affect them as a character and why it is so important to have this character with a mental illness.

In your story, why are you creating this character? Is it to put a bigger message in your story about people with these mental conditions? Is it to make people more aware of these conditions? You all need to consider these things when creating a character with a mental illness or condition.

  • You should write down any reasons you have this character with the mental illness and how it might affect the story.

For example, a person with no mental illness might be able to go out and talk to people fine and have a conversation finely. But a person with anxiety might struggle to go out and hold a conversation with someone because it makes them feel so anxious.

So this would affect your character a lot, and these are things you need to keep in mind. If you’re going to give a character a mental illness, you also have to consider the effect that would have on the story and its effect on the character.

3. Don’t let the mental illness completely define them as a character

In many cases, a writer makes the whole story about the character having depression, which is not what you want. You don’t want to romanticize the mental illness because having a mental illness is horrible. No one wants to experience this. So you don’t want to portray it in that way. You want to portray it realistically.

Instead of creating a character with depression and making the whole book focused on their depression, think any other story and make the character have that condition. Mental illness is not your character. Your character is still a character, but the mental illness or condition is still something they have to live with.

  • When you are creating this character, take away the mental illness and look at this character without them and think about their life.

In this way, you’re focusing on creating a good character first before adding a mental illness to them. Also, it can make them more realistic characters as well. So, make sure that you are not only using that mental illness to define your story.

4. Presents the whole condition of the character

My secret tip for creating a character with a mental illness is to decide on the severity of that mental illness or disorder. With any illness or disorder, there will be different levels of severity.

Some people might have anxiety. But it might be a minor form of anxiety, which they sometimes feel, but it doesn’t majorly affect them. Whereas some people might have severe cases of anxiety, and it affects how they go about their day-to-day life.

  • When you create a character with a mental illness, you need to consider how severe their illness is and how much this condition will affect them.

You need to research the different levels of this illness to ensure that you are portraying it correctly.

5. Learn about the mental illness properly

Do research the mental illness from real people. You can go to medical websites about the illness and research there. However, I find it’s easier to get the details from real people in many cases. So going onto Reddit or forums about that particular mental illness might help you get an accurate and realistic portrayal of what it’s like experiencing. A medical site will tell you more about the symptoms of having that.

  • If you go and talk to a real person with it or have a look on Reddit or a forum, you’ll get a more accurate portrayal of what that mental illness is.

As a result, it will help you display it more accurately in your character. When doing this research, write it down and put it together with research if any points stand out to you or things you might want to incorporate into your character’s condition. Also, make sure it is accurate to the mental condition.

6. Show the effects

Think about how mental illness affects your character. There are many things we take for granted in our daily lives for people with a mental illness. For example, a character with ADHD might have trouble focusing on things for long periods, or a character with schizophrenia may have trouble with auditory or visual hallucinations.

The effects depend on the severity of your character’s mental illness, but you need to write down how this mental illness affects your character. Overall, it helps you write your story with this character in it with a mental illness.

  • Don’t base the whole story around your character’s mental illness.

Mental illness is a condition that they have to live with or go through. So you have to consider how this will affect the character and what they do in the story. Also, consider what conflicts will create for them as they work towards the end goals of the story.

7. Observer your character’s difference

Not everyone who has the same mental illness or disorder will be the same. Everyone experiences things very differently. For example, someone with depression might have a very different experience with their depression than someone diagnosed with depression. I’ve known many people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, and they’re all very different from each other. That’s because they’re all different people.

So consider this with your story. You can collect research from other people and research from various forms. But overall, consider how your chosen mental illness affects your character, and it doesn’t have to be complete to the book. It is how the character is supposed to deal with it. In this way, you create a more accurate and realistic portrayal of someone with a mental illness.

8. Don’t label your character

You do not have to explicitly mention your character’s mental illness or disorder in your story. It is where many people run into problems because they put a label on their character. For example, this character has autism, which can cause a few tricky problems. The first problem is that it may cause your character to become more of a stereotype of someone with that mental illness, which is not what you want.

The second thing is that it may cause people not to be able to relate to them as much. Putting your character under a particular label may make your character only relatable to a specific group of people. Whereas if you give your character the traits of someone with a disorder, more people will be able to relate to them even if they do not have the disorder.

So if you explicitly say what your character’s mental illness or disorder is, you are only making your character relatable to a smaller amount of people. Whereas if you don’t say your character’s mental illness, you can still accurately portray a character with a mental illness without explicitly defining that character into any label. Also, it helps your character to be able to be more relatable to a larger amount of people.

9. Clear your misconceptions

Are there some stereotypes or misconceptions that writers should avoid perpetuating? Many writers jump out by using the illness as a plot twist. In reality, many mentally ill people have already been victims or are survivors of different things. Also, they’re around ten times more likely to be a victim of a crime than to be the perpetrator of that crime.  

So keep in mind that people with mental illness can be a part of a vulnerable population. People often glamorize mental illness, which is overly dramatized. So keep in mind that many disorders appear subtly.

10. Don’t sensationalize illnesses

Mental illnesses are not character traits. You need to have people with goals and ambitions. They’re not a two-dimensional person. You have to show how that person lives and get to know them. Then the symptoms of whatever mental illness that you’re researching will fall into place.

When does writing about mental illness cross the line from being necessary to being gratuitous and exploitative? What are some popular resources writers can implement when writing about mental illness? Think about these questions and make your story fresh.

Last words

If you want to use mental illness as a gimmick, try to find a different plot point. People with mental illness are human beings. They are not a fun thing for you to explain why a character is a bad guy or make a character cute cinnamon roll. You don’t have to remind the reader that your character is mentally ill at every single turn.

Many mentally ill people function very well, and you won’t even know that they have a mental illness until it is triggered. So the research that you did for the first step will help you know how people react in certain situations and when that mental illness flares up or is triggered. Also, you have to keep in mind where your character is and when the story takes place.

If you have suggestions or questions, let me know in the comment section. I am waiting for your response.


Read books to learn more:

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10 Books About Psychopaths

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7 Books Like American Psycho

7 Mental Health Books Like Maybe You Should Talk To Someone

5 Psychology Books About Hallucinations

10 Psycho Thriller Books Like The Last Mrs. Parrish


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Pauline Jackson

I like to talk about popular books. My book review inspires you to read and save time. Also, I summarize the book and give you the best lessons or ideas that can change your life. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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