Resources to Make Mental Illness, Personality Disorders, and Health Struggles Real in Your Characters

The doctor will see you now. . .
The doctor will see you now. . .

Regardless of your genre, it is likely that you will be dealing with the luxury and challenge of developing realistic characters who express all of the beauties and flaws of real people.  Although we are all arguably experts of mankind in some form, we are also often blinded by our own experiences and persuasions.

Luckily, today’s world is teeming with resources for writers who want to create realistically complex (and perhaps damaged) characters.  A degree in psychology isn’t necessary to empathize with and thus create a mental world ripe with the struggles and traumas so many human beings face.  A few references to check out for your next dark and brooding character:

  1. The American Psychiatric Association’s DSM V:  This is a diagnostic manual and, although it is of more practical use for clinicians given its format and intended use, it could also be the seed that helps you identify just what your character is struggling with.  If it’s a disorder (and unfortunately sometimes even if its not–we’ve gotten a lot wrong in the past as a field) then it’s in the DSM.  Don’t want to shell out the $$$ for a full copy all your own?  Then check out your local library, which should have a copy available.  You can always just buy the desk reference edition for your writer’s nest–it looks great next to Roget’s.
  2. Often our characters are struggling with physical or mental health issues that require medication and result in side effects that can be the impetus for an engaging story line. If you aren’t sure of the common medications for a particular condition, or the side effects of those meds, then the Mayo Clinic’s free online catalogue is a great resource for you.
  3. TED Talks offer opportunities to hear people with a variety of traumas and disorders share their insights and experiences.  A few of my favorites are:
  4. And just to add one more: Radiolab recently featured a show on Elements, including a discussion of lithium and bipolar disorder.  Their portrayal of a young woman’s oncoming manic episode helped me understand the state of mania better than I ever had before.

Read them in good health and great writing.

Can We Talk? It’s Time for Dialogue

Dialogue is the fabric of our stories. . .

I recently began a collaboration with a wonderful pro editor to look over my manuscript in hopes of improving it for submissions.  Her feedback was incredibly helpful and, if you are in querying hell right now and not seeing results, I definitely encourage you to seek out the insight of a pro editor.  There are so many talented editors who freelance through their own blogs or websites.  If you are looking for a big pool of editors to pick from (who are all talented and already vetted), check out the list of editors who participated in PitchtoPub.  So . . . much . . . talent!

So, what did my editor have to say about my manuscript?  Lots of tweaks and fresh ideas for making it even better, but one that really hit me once I started editing was the dialogue.  Oh my gosh, the dialogue.  I’d written most of the conversation scenes like my characters were competing for some High School Speech & Debate trophy–nothing about them was natural.  And then I hit my head to my desk wondering how I couldn’t have seen something so obvious, despite all of my wave of edits on my own?  That’s why you need an editor.

There I was, totally recognizing that my dialogue needed work.  Next step was figuring out how to fix it and, boy, that was an entirely different journey.  I like to think I am a fairly competent conversationalist–at least my friends and family seem to enjoy talking with me and once or twice I’ve even been called witty (not Jane Austen-level wit–think more garden variety pun-making).  But trying to translate that into my characters’ dialogue was evading me.  How do you take something most of us do so naturally and write it out such that it advances the story, evolves and fleshes out our characters, and is also just entertaining on its own?

Luckily, there is a treasure trove of help in our boundless online writing community.  A few suggestions to get started include:

1) Nanowrimo’s helpful worksheet

2) Have you seen this?!?  Writing tips from the masters in easy-to-digest lists (many of them mentioning dialogue tips).  I read P.D. James’ list and it made me love her even more.

3) Two books proved their weight in gold for me:  Your First Novel and Fiction Writer’s Workshop.

“Now get to it,” she said.