Friday, August 19, 2011

Mental Health Issues in Fictional Characters

I wanted to bring up this topic since it seems to be a bit on the controversial side. The heroine in my second book, Destiny United, suffers from an anxiety disorder that gives her frequent panic attacks.

I eavesdropped on a conversation between a writer friend and an agent at a writer’s conference about this very topic. This writer’s story was a historical romance novel about a man just home from war who suffers from PTSD. The agent told her that publishers don’t want stories about people with “issues”. Because women read romance for escape, they aren’t interested in reading about heavy themes like PTSD.

Although the advice didn’t change much about my choice in creating an anxiety disorder in Erin, I did keep it in mind while writing.

First some background. Both heroines in my first two books were raised in foster care. The reason I chose this route is because: a) I wanted my heroines to have obstacles to overcome, b) having been a foster parent and adopting two children from foster care, it is a passion of mine, and c) I needed mysterious pasts to go with the storyline.

I have a son with special needs and multiple close family members who have mental health challenges. This is a topic very dear to my heart.

That being said, romance readers do not want to read about characters with heavy issues, according to this agent. I haven’t actually polled people on this so I can’t confirm it as a fact, but I’m guessing she’s right to some extent. This is her career after all.

Though anxiety disorders, or any disability/mental health condition, is not a light matter, I had to keep it light in my book. Again, giving readers a sense of realism along with the escapism they crave. If you didn’t already know, it’s a tough balance. So, yes, Erin has panic attacks. She depends on boyfriends to get through her daily life. She can’t go to mall, restaurant, or movie theater without self-medicating. It is relevant to the story but really only an active part for the first third.

Marcelo, being the hero, forces her away from her sheltered, fear-trapped life and coaches her through her anxiety so she can live again. Here’s an exchange from the end of the book where she explains it nicely:

“You’ve come a long way from the scared little girl I met in Albany. I only had to drag you kicking and screaming from your safe little world to get here.”

“No,” she snorted. “You took my safe little world, tore it up, stomped on it then burned it to ashes.”

He shrugged and stalked towards her. “I challenged you.”

“You taunted me.”

“I pushed you.”

Beyond what I thought I could handle. You thrust my fears in front of my face where I couldn’t ignore them. You forced me to take a good, hard look at what was holding me prisoner and decide if I wanted to die there alone.

Erin's particular disorder was a result of trauma endured as a teenager, not a chemical imbalance. It came from fear and there are different degrees of fear. Her fears were encouraged by purposefully sheltering herself where she thought she was safe and secure. It involved staying in a static state where she was rarely challenged to grow as a person.

She was "healed" not because mental illnesses are easy to "get over", but because it stemmed from a place that could change. Brain chemistry, as an adult, can not change without the help of medication. But conscious fear can.

Did Erin's “healing” happen much more quickly than it would in real life? Well, yeah. I have to keep the story moving and give readers a HEA. Is healing as easy as someone telling funny jokes and concentrating on breathing? Of course not. Is there such thing as vampires, fae, werewolves, and witches?

You see where I’m going with this?

It’s fiction. I strive for my books to mimic real life themes; trust, forgiveness, love, while also giving you a sexy hero who only cares about your pleasure in bed and says romantic things your husband would never think of.

Isn’t that the point?

What I look for in a book (of any genre) is 1) entertainment, 2) humor, 3) depth and emotional connection

What about you? Does a character with “issues” ruin a book for you? Are there any books that deal with mental health challenges or disabilities well in your opinion? What are the 3 things you look for in a good book?


  1. I like when a character isn't "perfect". Everyone has issues. Some are nature and some are nurture. Erin had a rough childhood and that created the adult that she is and manifested in an anxiety disorder. I don't think that is unreasonable or unusual or inappropriate at all. I think its just another level to that character and another obstacle that is getting in the way of her happiness. And, she needed something to come into her life that was more important than her fears. Maybe that isn't how anxiety disorders work for everyone but thats how it works or Erin. You created her and you get to decide how she works. ;-) I can appreciate that as a reader. Whether its written the way I would do it is irrelevant. What matters is what you think about how she is "broken" and how she can be "fixed". As a reader I would never attempt to tell an author that she is writing someone "wrong". She is exactly right because you created her. Love the books and can't wait for more!

  2. I think in order for a reader to connect with a character, the character must be flawed. I don't see anything wrong with writing about people with "issues," because God knows we all have them, or if we're in denial, we know someone who does ;)

    Yes, women do read romance to escape real life. But I don't think they can relate to perfection either.