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Creating Characters with Mental Health Conditions

Writers & Artists chat with author Sarah Harris about her latest book, The Definition of Us and how she approached her research process when writing about characters with mental health conditions.

1. For those who don’t know, could you tell us a little bit about your upcoming YA novel The Definition of Us?

Four teenagers meet in a mental health diagnostic and therapy centre. When their therapist goes missing they set out on a road trip to track him down, discovering themselves and each other along the way… 

When I started this book it was my intention to create a modern day parody of the Wizard of Oz. Like the characters in this classic story my own characters feel defined by what they believe is wrong with them. They’re focussed on their problems and failings and are looking outwards for a solution. I wanted to take them on a journey that would empower them to believe they can help themselves, and show them they are so much more than their diagnosis.

2. How did you approach creating characters with mental health conditions?

People’s experience of mental health conditions are very personal and so I wanted to be clear I wasn’t speaking for every person with depression, every eating disorder, all anxiety, or everyone on the autistic spectrum. My characters experiences are as unique as they are. People with depression can still laugh and function. People with anxiety can still be brave. Autism does not render a person emotionless or without self-awareness. Eating disorders are not just about young girls wanting to be thin. It was important to me that I didn’t box my characters in with these labels. By keeping them unique it made me more able to show them also as regular, functioning people, which is how I feel mental health problems need to be seen in order to reduce the stigma and encourage people to talk about how they are feeling.  

3. How was the research process for you?

I didn’t research the subjects so much as pool my experiences. I had an anxiety disorder as a teenager which for years left me feeling like I wasn’t normal and that I would always be controlled by it. Like my character, Jasper, I was also an optimistic person and felt like I was riding on a tide of excess adrenaline. I slowly learned how to train myself to think differently and take back some control of how I was feeling. There are still some scenarios that I wouldn’t put myself in but that’s okay and I would never define myself as an anxious person now. I wanted to share that experience and show that there is hope.

Years later as my own children were growing up my son had problems at school and after a long and difficult process he was finally diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. He spent quite a lot of time out of school and at one point spent twelve weeks in a diagnostic and therapy centre as a day patient. Parents were expected to attend and there were programmes of activities for all of us. While I was there I met children with a whole variety of issues and often very negative behaviours. What struck me was how easy it was to see their behaviours and learn their diagnosis before getting to know them properly. It was only after spending time with them that I started to learn more about the interests and qualities that made them unique. They were all interesting and complex young people with so much to give. It taught me to try and look past labels and behaviours and see them as just an aspect of who they are. It was this realisation which prompted me to start writing The Definition of Us.     

4. Believable dialogue is important in fiction, especially in YA fiction and all the more so when you have characters who might be reluctant to say what’s on their mind. How did you go about writing dialogue for each of your characters?

I really enjoy writing dialogue and find that once your character has a voice they really come alive. For dialogue to be believable I think you have to stay true and consistent to your characters’ personalities. Wilf was the most fun to write because he’s guarded and puts on a macho front, teasing people and using fighting talk which hides his vulnerability. Andrew is matter-of-fact, analytical and honest, as is often the case with an autistic spectrum disorder. I didn’t want his dialogue to be emotionless, however and it was his unflinching honesty which made that possible. Jasper and Florence hide their anxiety and depression and so their conversations are more ordinary and everyday, focussing on the trivial in order to avoid talking about how they feel. With them it was what they weren’t saying which was important.   

5. Do you have a writing routine? If so, what does a typical writing day look like for you?

I am terrible at routine, especially when it comes to writing. I’ve read many times about writers who write every day, get up first thing and must hit a word count before they can switch off and do something else. I wish I was that disciplined. Instead I can go for months not writing then write every day for long stretches and do and think of almost nothing else. I have a very varied day job which takes up a lot of time and fitting around it and switching off is always difficult. I tend to write more in the winter months when my day job is quieter and the weather keeps me indoors. Even if I’m not writing however I never stop thinking about writing, plotting, thinking up characters and making notes. 

6. How was the process of finding an agent for you? Do you have any tips for writers who are about to embark upon the submission process?

I had a very unconventional experience. When I wrote my first book, twenty years ago, I sent it out to about half-a-dozen agents which I’d picked out of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. One of them asked for the full manuscript and kept it for about six months. Finally I received a letter from her saying she was going to have to pass on it as she felt it needed more conflict. Instead she gave me the contact number of a freelance editor she thought might be able to help. I sent the book to her and got a call a few days later saying she loved it, felt it was ready to submit, and asked if she could pass it on to an editor from an independent publisher, Piatkus she was going to lunch with that day. Of course I said yes! The editor was equally enthusiastic and offered me a book deal a few weeks later. This meant I was published without an agent. 

When Piatkus was bought by Little, Brown they republished my books as ebooks. The contract for this had a clause which said I had to offer them first refusal on any new works. I sent them The Definition of Us as soon as it was done and they loved it. I then approached an agent who gave me some fantastic advice and so I signed with her agency just before I resigned with Piatkus.

7. If you could offer one piece of advice to your unpublished self, what would it be?

I would tell myself to keep at it and not lose heart with bad days and rejections. The negative experiences are all part of the process and help you to learn and improve. Writing is not sitting at a desk, tapping away for hours and hours in a lofty garret with a dog at your feet and someone cooking your dinner. It’s often staring into space, deleting scenes and drifting through wordless days of self-doubt. Embrace it all and remember that when it’s going well, when the writing flows, or someone tells you they love it, everything you’ve been through falls into place and feels worthwhile. 

Sarah Harris is a British author writing YA and commercial fiction. Previously published as Sarah Ball, she had three novels published by Piatkus Books; Nine Months, Marry Me and Written in the Stars. Sarah lives in Cambridge and has two children.  Her latest YA novel The Definition of Us is published July 12th 2018. You can follow Sarah on Twitter or like her Facebook page.