You don’t need to read this essay. It’s not essential for making you a better character writer because the best (and perhaps only) advice you’ll ever need is: “Keep writing and don’t stop no matter how many assholes tell you that you’re not good enough.” The truth is, nobody is good enough to be an author — until they are. And it happens suddenly and for reasons no one truly understands.
So, no, you don’t need to read this article. I just want to write it because I want to talk about characters with mental disorders and how I think they should be slotted into a novel.
With all that in your mind, let’s start with some background. I’ve been diagnosed with minor social anxiety. I don’t know when I became socially anxious. Maybe it was something which was always there, or perhaps it sneaked into my brain because of restrictive parenting. There’s even a chance it crept its way into my mind after I came back from Japan and went through severe depression due to my company’s bankruptcy. Or, we could go the whole fifty-seven yards and say I wasn’t exposed to enough social interactions during my formative years and so didn’t learn the necessary skills at the appropriate time.
Like all good mental orders though, it doesn’t matter. I have it. It’s been with me since I was 14 years of age and I’ve been actively working within its confines since I grasped the condition with both hands in 2006. Do I like it? Do I enjoy being socially anxious? No.
There are lots of things people do, everyday, which comes naturally to them that I struggle with. Maybe it’s a chat on Skype with their fiancee, a quick discussion with a close colleague on the phone or inviting their friends over for lunch. None of these are easy for me. None happen instantly.
Firstly, I imagine the conversation I’m going to have in my head. I run through it several times and most of the scenarios conjured end with my friend disliking me more or annoyed that I bothered them. In almost every case, I imagine that I’ve asked them to give up being with someone interesting, and instead to hang around me. (Which they secretly despise me for.) After I’ve let these thoughts wash over me, I remind myself that they’re my friend and they do honestly like me. I practice my deep breathing exercises and talk about agency. How they are choosing to spend time with me and would say if they hated my guts.
Then I pick up the phone. I still think they’re going to hate me as I push the buttons, but I’m determined. I’m determined to be polite, nice and not waste their time. When I’m talking with them, I run through my topics and listen intently to their responses. I try to end the conversation quickly, but this strategy doesn’t work all the time. My worst case scenario is that they actually want to chat.
When I realise this, my heart starts to beat quicker and I can feel my body become damp from sweat. My brain begins processing two things: the actual conversation and another dark, absurd dialogue occurring only in my mind. This fantasy chat always ends with cuss words and the loss of a friend. Phones are slamming, I’m being laughed at and humiliated. For some reason, I’m lying under a blanket crying in a dark room and alone. They always end with me alone.
I start to feel light-headed at this point, which is bad because it means my conscious processing ability is shutting off. Have you ever lost the use of your arm? It’s gone numb and you can’t do everything you want with it? All those tiny, intricate actions you rely on to get you through the day are now mostly inaccessible? Imagine that happening to your brain. Imagine all the skills and abilities you have for talking with people disappearing as you stand there. You’re feeling it happen and you know you need to go get out… to get off this devil box. To leave or bad things will happen. Horrible things.
More sweat, I smile a lot, take longer to answer as I’m trying to sort through what they’ve said and what I think they’re saying. Sometimes there’s silence, which makes me even more nervous because I feel as if I’ve failed them. And not just them, but the entire human race so I apologize, profusely, for hurting them in some way. When this happens, they look at me funny (or made an odd noise on the other side of the phone) and wonder what’s wrong with me. Now I feel even worse. I’ve failed them, again. I’m being the worst thing ever: a burden. The dark vortex looms.
Then I take another deep breath, and focus on previous conversations where they’ve said we’re friends and how they enjoy my company, and try to calm down. I try to imagine they’re not mocking me or hating me secretly, that they want to be my friend and if I just be nice… things will be fine. Except my brain is still shutting itself down, I can feel it. I’m about to say something sarcastic because I have to get away from them, now. If I don’t… I’ll panic and yell. Or scream. I don’t know but people will see me being crazy and that’ll be the end.
Essentially, it’s like being on a first date with a person you’re attracted to. Except, you’re on a first date forever. And you can’t change it. You can’t snap your fingers and make it go away because it doesn’t go away. It builds and builds until you’ve got to get the f out of dodge before someone hurts you, or you hurt someone.
That’s mild social anxiety. During my worst days of it, I couldn’t even focus on two tasks at once. My heart would race and I would do things, really odd activities, which seemed perfectly logical at the time. I was tired and it was my break; so I slept at my desk. Yes, bad. But I didn’t know. I couldn’t know. I just had to escape all of their prying eyes.
You know what the biggest issue was? Nobody knew. Or if they did, kind of, they didn’t understand. Why couldn’t I pick up the phone and dial the pizza guy? It’s easy. (And it is!) Why did I act weird in groups of people? (Because my brain had shut down) Why couldn’t I talk to my best friend? Didn’t I want to?
They didn’t know because 90% of the time I could do everything they could. I went to school, university and work. I made polite conversation. I called the right people. Hell, I was the guy who wrote a novel at 16.5 and graduated at 19.5. Wasn’t I the human who moved to Japan and lived over there for a year and a half without any friends? How could there be something wrong with me?
It’s that 10% (or 20%) when the pressure had built for too long, when the stresses just kept building and building that I couldn’t handle. So I had to craft coping strategies. I had to choose the right places / events to go to, spend my energy on the people who mattered the most, make an effort with my colleagues. But most importantly, even when I felt worthless, I had to be brave enough to open my mouth and talk to them. I needed to remind myself that they liked me, that I couldn’t screw up years of friendship by saying some stupid shit and that they were choosing to be here, right now, with me.
As I was talking to them, sweat would roll down my body because this dark voice, this imaginary life, would be whispering to me at the exact same time I was trying to be brave.
So… what’s my personal demons got to do with character building? Well, your heroine, villain and other assorted humans weren’t born yesterday. You’ve probably done the right thing: Given them a tragic flaw or a weakness. Hell, maybe you’ve even given them two because you’re a gifted writer. In comedy, this “quirky” behaviour throws the scene into chaos. In fiction, when they encounter something they can’t handle, it messes up the expected plot line.
Except you’ve got it wrong. They weren’t normal until two seconds ago and then they suddenly changed into a crazy person. This isn’t their first time in the ring with their illness or condition, it’s their thousandth and just like me, they’ve got coping strategies. They know what’s going to happen if they go to a specific place or hang out with certain crowds. They know their limitations and they’ve made a series of small (and big) decisions regarding how best to move forward.
Sometimes it’s, “You either accept me as I am, or you leave me the f alone.” That’s one extreme. On the other side, there’s, “I want to be invisible and be nothing.” That’s the other. And that’s the side I err on. In the middle there’s a bevy of contradictions.
What’s important though is that their behaviour drives the plot. They don’t react to the plot, they are the plot. When I read characters who have mental illnesses in traditional narratives, they usually overcome their own inhibitions to do something heroic or to change their lives. That’s bullshit. They already are heroes. They already are changing their lives by just going to work and chatting around the water cooler. Things that you think are as easy as breathing, like talking with friends, is a marathon to them. You have no idea what their lives are like, how deep the abyss goes.
I want to repeat that once more: Being normal is heroic. Going to work takes five times as much energy for us as it does for you. So stop thinking we’ll overcome our issues or do something which you would consider “heroic” or “awesome”. We won’t because we can’t. I can’t.
If you’d told me, when I was eighteen, that I could meet my perfect partner and live happily, I would’ve been super excited. If you told me I had to call her… on a phone. I would’ve chickened out. If you’d said, her dad was going to call me that night and talk to me for two minutes, I would’ve panicked and hidden under the blankets.
So next time you’re writing a character who has a social anxiety disorder (or any mental disorder), think of me. Think about how my life’s actions have been controlled by my irrational fear. Yes, to you it looks like I’m wasting my life by doing what everybody else does, but I’m not. My (relative) inaction is action. It’s a mental action that requires bravery and I only have a limited supply of that resource. And you know what? Our outcomes may be different, but we both care about the same thing: survival.