A week ago, I asked a simple question to a writer’s group I run: where have you seen anxiety disorders in fiction?
I had planned to finish this series by discussing anxiety disorders in fiction when it hit me: I haven’t seen a lot of books where characters have anxiety disorders just because they have anxiety disorders. It’s caused by trauma (which of course is still real), but it seems to mostly be plot fodder. So few characters experience a mental illness as a character trait without it being a plot. Maybe I’m just missing out, but I so frequently see books speaking out about mental illness, but I feel like we’re lacking in books that just include them without it being a main plot point.
According to NAMI, one in five adults struggles with some type of mental illness. Don’t you think more characters would struggle with this then?
I don’t know one person with a mental illness who wants it to define them. It’s a part of them, but not a defining characteristic or what makes or breaks their life. So why should fiction be different?
I want a heroine who fights crime by night but struggles with social anxiety. A hero who struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts but saves his friends. Someone with schizophrenia who solves a murder mystery.
But, let’s take a look at what we have. Let’s talk about topics that are discussed in both modern and classic literature.
We can look back to the days where men were considered to be masculine heroes and women often times prissy and less important. The Regency era. On of my favorites from this time was Pride and Prejudice. There are so many lovable characters, and to me, one of the most humorous is Mrs. Bennett, always talking about her poor nerves. I want a modern version of this, where someone does suffer from anxiety at times but, ultimately, it doesn’t affect the plot.
Then, we can look at the English Renaissance Era when Shakespeare wrote his plays. A number of his could be called out for having spoken about mental health, but I’m going to speak about my most recent read: Macbeth. In this play, insanity drives the plot. Not only in Macbeth’s life, but also Lady MacBeth’s. In this era and even in more recent eras, insanity seems to be a common plot driver, until we get to more modern literature.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins will always be something I will applaud for its accurate representation of mental health. Katniss not only struggles with depression but PTSD, but I don’t recall it ever straight-up saying that she struggled with it. The book never says “She developed PTSD.” It shows how she suffered without it turning into the plot.
We can find endless modern books that speak directly about mental health, such as Glass Girl by Laura Anderson Kurk or Paper Towns by John Green. Although both were books I thoroughly enjoyed, mental health issues were a huge tool in the plot. Despite a lack of books where mental health is mentioned but not a huge point, books like this are still entirely necessary. It does happen. It can ruin lives. It needs to be spoken about.
Crazy Dangerous by Andrew Klavan was a quick, sometimes disturbing read about a girl with schizophrenia. She ran the whole mystery plot.
I think a lot of books also under-represent less talked about mental illnesses such as OCD, bipolar, ADHD, and an endless amount of others, probably ones I have never even heard of.
Maybe this problem never will be solved and maybe I just haven’t read the right books, but it does make me wonder–what can I do to help change it?