Characters with Mental Illness
I write a lot about tough stuff. Even in my lighter work, I frequently have characters who are dealing with mental illness, addictions, or other physical maladies. It takes a lot of research and being able to put myself into someone else’s head and be able to successfully immerse the reader into the world of someone suffering from a disorder that they don’t have. Especially if I don’t have it either.
For this article, I thought I would go through the books participating in Mystery Thriller Week and briefly discuss the characters’ mental health challenges and how—or why—I tackled those issues.
Abe, the protagonist in Looking Over Your Shoulder, deals with late-onset paranoid schizophrenia, as well as other disorders that are often comorbid, such as OCD and bipolar disorder. But like most people with a psychiatric disorder, Abe doesn’t live in an institution, he is a contributing member of society. He is married and has three lovely children. He has his own business and one friend in particular who has stood by him and helped him out when he has had problems. His disorder is mostly controlled by medication.
But as Abe becomes the target of an investigation into a jewel heist, things go off the rails. The stress of the investigation causes worsening symptoms, he goes off of his meds, and he tries to muffle his symptoms with alcohol. As he tries to identify the inside man in the jewel heist to take the heat off of himself, he becomes increasingly paranoid and delusional about the thieves targeting him and his family.
In writing Looking Over Your Shoulder, I wanted to push back against the idea that sufferers of schizophrenia don’t have families or jobs and need to be institutionalized. Here is a strong, capable man who finds himself in the midst of a situation that would have challenged anyone, and who finds his way through it with the help of his wife and children despite his neurology. Abe and some of the challenges that he and his family face in Looking Over Your Shoulder are based on people I know or know of.
The protagonist in Deviation is teenage Henry, a kid who has already suffered a lot from his mother’s deep depressions and abusive partners. He does his best to help to keep the pressure off of his mother, taking care of his baby brother and things around the house when he isn’t at school. But with his past and the genetic lottery, he will also have to deal with his own mental health issues and addiction, and he doesn’t have the same family and outside support as Abe in Looking Over Your Shoulder. And that means he is on his own. I don’t want to give any spoilers here, but with Deviation, I wanted to present a broken character that readers would sympathize with in spite of his poor choices. Unfortunately, there are a lot of Henrys in the world who don’t have the supports they desperately need to keep them on the right track.
Nathan, the young protagonist in Those Who Believe, suffers from a physical disability. He and his mother are on the run, trying to keep one step ahead of religious persecution. Without giving anything away, one of the main characters suffers from an undiagnosed psychiatric condition which leads to all kinds of problems for Nathan and his mother. Like many of my stories, this one was inspired by a news article about a boy like Nathan and it was my way of processing and commenting on what happened to him.
While I can’t tell you Cynthia’s secret, or that of the main character, Carmina, I can tell you a little about the people surrounding her. With a father suffering from second-generation psychological trauma and a mother who is a brilliant artist with a neurodivergence never diagnosed (because her parents did not want her to be ‘labeled,’) no one would have thought Carmina was prepared for life on the street. But when she finds herself homeless, she comes to rely on a brain-injured teen and must eventually put her trust in Agent Neil Crowther, the very man who arrested her parents and has been trying to track Carmina down. She comes to discover that she has a lot in common with the man, who himself is still trying to overcome the physical and emotional effects of having been shot. Lots of neurodivergence in this book, and they are all strong, talented people.
Pursued by the Past is a suspense/thriller that explores the psychological effects of stalking. While the identity of Vanna’s stalker isn’t a mystery for long, there are a lot of legal issues involved in being able to stop, arrest, or prosecute a stalker, which means that cases like Vanna’s can go on for not just months, but years. The ongoing stresses and traumas cause significant damage. The unusual circumstances of Vanna’s stalker were taken from an actual case, and the stages the stalker goes through and that Vanna herself goes through were the subject of much research.
This story follows the lives of seven different dangerous dogs and what happens to them as they are adopted out to unsuspecting families. If you pay attention, you’ll see a number of physical or neurological differences in the families that adopt them. The main character, Frank, who is trying to track down the dogs, is dealing with PTSD flashbacks and of course has difficulty in getting anyone to believe that there is something wrong with the dogs. Again, the ‘damaged’ character is strong and capable, not weak or villainous. PTSD occurs frequently among first responders like Frank. They are true heroes.
In the Tick of Time focuses more on physical illness than mental, but Matt, a Department of Health investigator, is suffering from significant brain trauma after an attack several months previous. His PTSD and sleep deprivation symptoms do cause him significant difficulties. Several others in the story, including the villain, suffer psychological effects due to tick-borne diseases. I have a friend who suffers from the sleep disorder that Matt does. It is another of those invisible illnesses that the mainstream really doesn’t understand the impact of. Having friends with the illnesses I am writing about always simplifies the research and helps to spark new ideas!
Although Gabriel wakes up in the psych ward, he is suffering from physical, not mental, illness. But Renata, the girl who will become his best friend and who shares his mitochondrial disease, has severe paranoia and is obsessed with conspiracy theories. All of that makes it much harder for Gabriel to know when to believe what she says and when it is just her mental illness. Renata was a really fun character to write. Her personality and symptoms are based on a clinical description of a toddler with her physical and mental challenges together with my musings over what that child would be like when she became a teenager.
Thank you, Sherrie, for inviting me to share a little bit about how mental illness issues are woven through my stories, and in particular, the ones featured in Mystery Thriller Week.
You can find me at http://pdworkman.com, where you can find sample chapters and purchase links for each of my books. I am on most social media as pdworkmanauthor.