Mental health in fantasy fiction – where to draw the lines and how to do the colouring in?

A #HoldOnToTheLight post

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The best fantasy is always rooted in reality and often it’s exploring harsh reality. A hundred years ago, a young officer invalided home from World War One began writing the poems and myths that would lead on to The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien wrote from his own experiences amid predominately male colleagues, struggling against brutal forces threatening to end the way of life that he cherished. His work reflects that – among other things. In the decades that have followed, the best fantasy fiction has continued such exploration and has expanded to encompass so much more.

Successive writers have considered the challenges faced by those marginalised through prejudice towards gender or race, and by those struggling with physical infirmity without sympathy or support – alongside eternal battles between Dark and Light and other classic themes. Where these stories are most readable and most memorable, their authors have avoided the pitfalls of worthy moralizing by making these challenges intrinsic to the narrative they’re creating. Nowadays increasing numbers of diverse voices across SF&F draw on their personal experience to give such stories ever more realistic depth and complexity.

So what about mental health? Because that’s part of our reality. Not just for writers by the way, or artists or musicians or anyone else creative. This idea that we must ‘suffer for our art’ or that there’s some mystical inspiration to be found in depression or anything else is one of the biggest myths out there. Along with all the authors I know, I’m at my most creative and inspired when I’m relaxed and content with my life. Just like everyone else.

Challenges to everybody’s peace of mind are constant and recurrent and surely that’s going to be same for fully rounded characters in fantasy fiction? How does a writer tackle this? By drawing on our own experience? This is where it gets tricky and not just because there’s still such stigma attached to admitting to depression or some other mental health condition, not least for fear that will be wholly and only how people will define you ever afterwards.

I’ve had two significant episodes of clinical depression in my life, requiring medication, therapy and support from qualified professionals. Thankfully that’s decades behind me now but from a writerly point of view, drawing on that experience would be problematic. Not for fear of giving away too much about myself, but because I clearly remember how being depressed is so horribly tedious. It’s dull, it’s monotonous, it’s never-ending (or so it seems at the time). It’s such wretchedly hard work to just get through a day and the only reward is another unutterably wearisome day exactly like it. All those metaphors about being weighed down with burdens, about struggling through a morass? Bunyan’s Slough of Despond? They’re classics because they’re so true.

None of which will make for fun reading, certainly in a major point of view character. Spending an entire morning summoning up the mental fortitude to leave the house to buy a pint of milk isn’t really the stuff of high heroics and thrilling adventure. So how do we square this circle of accurately reflecting life in all its aspects, good and bad, without writing a dismal story that sinks under waves of gloom?

Well, there’s including a significant character in the overall ensemble who’s got through depression and come out the other side. I have travelled that road twice after all, thanks to the help I received. That enabled me to identify the causes of my depression, both those specific to, and different for, each episode and the more deep-rooted, underlying issues common to both. More than that, I learned to spot early warning signs; to realise when I might be going down those same paths again. The mental wellness toolkit I’ve assembled as a result has enabled me to steer clear of the worst ever since.

That’s all well and good from a writing point of view and could potentially make for an interesting character arc, as long as it was unobtrusively integrated into the story. Done badly, it could be clumsy tokenism. It would also be horribly easy for writing that character to tip over into seemingly saying ‘See? If you can just pull yourself together, everything will be fine!’ Hearing that advice, however honestly well-meant, is one of the few things that can goad a depressed person to exhausted fury. That’s just not how it works. I remember that vividly too.

So what do we do, as writers? Give up, because it’s too difficult? But isn’t being a writer all about tackling the difficult stuff through fiction, in order to make sense of real life’s challenges? And representation matters, as we see proved time and time again, as SF&F moves however slowly and imperfectly towards a more genuine reflection of modern life, with all our variations of gender, race and physical capability. Don’t those facing the unseen challenges of mental health issues deserve to see their reality reflected too?

So let’s take a second look at those ways in which SF&F has developed beyond the “great deeds of great white men” point of view. Let’s look at successful examples of representation in fiction for women, for people of colour and so many more. These are invariably the characters for whom those issues are merely one facet of their lives and personalities. Yes, these things inform their choices, their relationships and thus, influence their role in a story, but these characters are never solely or wholly defined by that one overarching trait. Just like, y’know, real people.

So let’s write characters experiencing ups and downs in their mental health as honestly as we can. Let’s have them alongside people with chronic physical conditions, or recurrently disastrous love-lives, or dealing with something else entirely, not as tick-box tokens but as part of the gamut of believable people playing their part in our stories. Let’s write these characters with friends and support that can help them with their struggles, because that’s how things happen in real life. Let’s not sugar-coat their difficulties or underplay those challenges, because that’s real life as well. Progress towards mental wellness is so often very hard-won, and with setbacks along the way. Let’s never forget to do our due diligence and research, where we’re writing outside our own experience.

Then just maybe someone trying to understand the plight of a friend with depression will gain some helpful understanding. Maybe someone in the midst of those throes will see a glimmer of unforeseen light in that particular reflection of the darkness they know so well.

Is this the answer? Well, it’s one answer. I’m working my way through such questions and this is where I’ve got to thus far. No, it’s not easy to find constructive ways forward but I intend to keep trying, as well staying open to other people’s comments and suggestions. Because I know that’s what will make me a better writer.

About the campaign:

#HoldOnToTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.

Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Hope for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA) and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

To find out more about #HoldOnToTheLight, find a list of participating authors and blog posts, or reach a media contact, go to http://www.HoldOnToTheLight.com and join us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/WeHoldOnToTheLight

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