Writing A Character with a Mental Health Condition

7th July 2017
5 min read
12th October 2020
Being Miss Nobody book cover

The idea for my book came to me in a day dream. I’d wanted to write a book for young teens for a long time, but it was then – gazing out of a window – when inspiration struck. I pictured a dark-haired girl, sitting in a classroom, ignored by everyone around her, no one even knowing her name, with all these words inside her head, but unable to say any of them. I began writing Being Miss Nobody that day.

The dark-haired girl became my main character, Rosalind, and the reason for her silence? A condition called selective mutism (SM), a severe anxiety disorder which makes it impossible for her to speak outside of her family home.

It was extremely important for me to write Rosalind’s condition in an authentic way. It’s easy to get carried away in a fictional world, but I wanted to root her SM in reality. To do that I needed to listen to real voices.

In this digital age, there is a vast amount of information about mental health online. Mental health charities are a good place to start. They have fact sheets, Q&As, and information about treatments and symptoms. The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ website has detailed information about types of conditions, their symptoms, treatments and common patterns of behaviour. All these things are crucial for getting a general understanding of a mental health condition.

However, this information is usually collated from the outside. From experts, specialists, observers - outsiders to the condition itself. If we want our characters to feel authentic, we need to go further than that.

Reading first person accounts, written by people with lived experience of the mental health condition you’re writing, is essential. Read as many as you can. Each person’s story is unique, and their experience of the condition will be as unique as they are. Remember, you are writing someone’s life, albeit fictional. And every character has their own individual story to tell.

Another thing I found helpful in developing a genuine understanding of SM, was looking at art work created by people with the condition. Images have the power to express what words can’t. Seeing the complexities of SM expressed in a picture gave me a level of emotional understanding I would never have got from a psychiatrist’s report or medical diagnosis. To write a mental health condition, you have to start from the inside and work your way out.

I've lost count of the number of times I've cringed (or worse) when I've read fiction dealing with mental health conditions. I recently stopped reading a book because the character read like a list of symptoms you’d find on Wikipedia.

It’s easy to get it wrong. To play to stereotypes. To come from a place of condescension or, even worse, condemnation. To see the condition instead of the human. A technique I used was to imagine I could magically take away Rosalind’s SM. Was she still a fully-formed character without it? And did she still have a story to tell? The answer of course should be yes.

To describe Rosalind’s anxiety with authenticity, I lived it and breathed it myself. I've been Rosalind staring at her shoes. I've been Rosalind reddening with fear. I've been her watching the raindrops on the window, wishing with all my might to disappear. Similar to any character, mental health condition or not - they have to come to life in your imagination for them to come to life on the page.

Although writing an authentic character with a mental health condition can be challenging, but when you get it right, it can be enormously powerful. Mental health in fiction is growing in popularity, and I've read many books which write it accurately and beautifully. I've also read some that left me feeling rather bleak. As if having a fictional mental health condition automatically means you won’t survive past The End.

I come from a place where a diagnosis isn't a death sentence. Where a character can have a mental health condition and be funny, warm, sweet, kind, and a little bit awesome actually.

The important thing to remember is this: write the character first, and the condition second. They are intricately linked, but they are not the same. Along with the difficulties they face, give them warmth, humour, kindness, love. And give them hope. Because, if there’s anything that strikes me about real people who live with real mental health conditions, it’s our capacity to experience the fullness and rawness of what it is to be human. And survive.

Tamsin Winter has a BA honours in English literature and creative writing, and has taught English at secondary level for many years. Her debut novel Being Miss Nobody is a contemporary story aimed at young teens, and is told through the eyes of an eleven-year-old girl called Rosalind who can’t speak. The novel, chosen by the charity Rethink Mental Illness as one of their book club books, explores themes of anxiety, bullying, friendship and the double-edged power of social media told in a fresh, funny and moving voice. Follow Tamsin on Twitter, Instagram & Facebook and visit her website here.

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