Thanks to Frank Dorrian for this fantastic guest post on how to properly use mental illness in writing. There are many time I read a book, and as a I hold a degree in Psychology, think to myself about how the character does not fit the the psychological issues described.
Dark, or Grimdark, fantasy has gathered a fair amount of attention and respect over the last few years. Thanks to the success of series such as A Song of Ice and Fire by George Martin, and its offshoot TV show Game of Thrones, dark fantasy has come to find acceptance amongst many mainstream audiences that had previously shunned the fantasy genre.
Other Grimdark fantasy writers who have come to prominence in recent years, such as Mark Lawrence and Joe Abercrombie, have also contributed to the genre’s rise from obscurity into grime-covered brilliance.
Games such as the Dark Souls series have become increasingly popular too, bringing its dark Japanese take on western fantasy to an ever-increasing audience.
Part of dark/Grimdark fantasy’s appeal is the element of realism that runs through much of it – the dash of reality that shocks the reader, pulls on their emotions and leaves them asking for more, however traumatic.
When writing my novel, The Shadow of the High King, one of the routes towards Grimdark realism I chose was to implement mental illness amongst my characters. I have a background in mental health nursing, and I can tell you – the reality is far, far darker than anything Hollywood can throw at you. It makes for some seriously interesting, and dark, characters to write about.
While I have this experience to draw on when creating my characters, I’m aware most others probably don’t. Many people I’ve spoken to just starting out writing their own dark or Grimdark fantasy novels often struggle with making their characters convincing, and this same path is the one I always suggest.
With that in mind, I thought I’d compile a short list other fledgling writers looking to create realistic, disturbed, grim characters themselves can draw upon.
How to Successfully use Mental Illness to create Dark Characters
Reality is Grimmer Than Hollywood
Make it realistic – the mainstream media is full of misconceptions of what mental illnesses actually are, particular the more well-known forms of it like schizophrenia (it’s not ‘split-personality disorder’!) and bipolar affective disorder (it’s not mood swings!). The true darkness of these illnesses is far grimmer and more traumatic that anything a movie producer can portray, do your research on them and you’ll see – www.mind.org has a wealth of information for you to draw upon.
Shape the Past, the Present and the Future
Mental illness has an enormous impact upon people’s lives in reality, and you should let it have the same impact upon the characters in your story. When did it first appear? How do their symptoms manifest themselves? Do they have trigger factors that you could base scenes around? Perhaps they’re a veteran warrior struggling to cope in life with the symptoms of what we understand nowadays to be PTSD? You could base an entire story around such things.
Strengths and Weaknesses
A good one for building interesting characters. Do the symptoms of your character’s mental illness manifest themselves as paranoia, suspicion, or fear? Or do they emerge as uncontrollable, manic rage and erratic, dangerous behaviour that could scupper their carefully-laid plans and destroy friendships?
As hinted at above, what do the symptoms of their illness spell for those around your characters? In reality, mental illness is a destroyer of family, friendship, employment, and physical wellbeing, and there’s no reason you can’t turn this to advantage in your own story. After all, readers hate happiness and love crisis and confrontation – how does their behaviour impact on the world around them?
Psychological vs Psychiatric
Something people frequently confuse, there’s a massive difference between the two. The easiest way to explain it is that psychiatry refers to brain chemistry – mental illnesses like depression, schizophrenia, etc., where psychology deals with how people think and formulate their thoughts and feelings, and the disorders based around it are what are known as ‘personality disorders’, not mental illnesses. The two can exist together, though, and both have an impact upon each other. Personality disorders are also a fascinating subject that you can use to give your characters some much needed, troubled, realistic depth – as they tend to stem from traumatic childhoods and later lead to people struggling to cope with the stresses of life – such things could even serve as a prologue, or first chapter of your book.
Connect with Frank on his website, or on social media:
Grab a print copy of his book The Shadow of the High King on Amazon or pre order the ebook, which will be released on August 30.
Frank Dorrian was born in 1987 in Liverpool – his hometown, a post-industrial cityscape, served as poignant inspiration for his creative efforts. He would commence writing in earnest during his teenage years, composing stories to sate desires of both expression and introspection.
Today, Frank is a qualified mental health nurse. He works in the field with people suffering severe psychiatric and psychological disorders, and additionally offers private mind coaching sessions for those needing a refreshing take on life’s trials.
When not writing, Frank spends his spare time reading, playing computer games and attending a martial arts gym. He has previously competed as a fighter domestically in the UK and abroad in Thailand.
His first book, The Shadow of the High King, a dark fantasy novel, will be released 30th August 2016.
After making an initial inquiry, I was romanced by Westbow Press when it came time to publish One of the Few, and I almost went with them.
But in the end, I didn’t.
I called it off, and for one very good reason.
First let me say that I think working with Westbow would have been a very positive experience. Based on multiple phone conversations, including a conference call including three representatives at once, I believe the customer experience and final product would have been top-notch.
And to have the recognizable Westbow icon stamped on the spine—that was an enticing incentive to go with such a reputable organization.
In other words, I have the utmost respect for their people and their product.
It was the process that made me second-guess if it was the right decision for my book.
Like many assisted self-publishing arms of major publishing houses (Westbow is a division of Thomas Nelson and Zondervan), there were several packages ranging from $1,099 to $17,999.
But in my case, I had already done a lot of the work. The book had passed under dozens of eyes before getting a final professional edit. The cover was already chosen and professionally designed.
The entire book was written! It just needed interior design, publication, distribution, and marketing.
And marketing is now largely expected from the authors, even when using traditional publishers in many cases.
I raised nearly $8,000 during a pre-order crowd-publishing campaign on Publishizer.com.
In the end, it came down to one final decision:
Do I spend the money myself to self-publish, or give it to an assisted self-publishing house?
I consulted with one of my launch team members who served as a business advisor. He had a strong distaste for assisted self-publishing. And what he told me next shaped my ultimate decision to go full-monty on self-publishing:
“They stand to gain, but assume none of the risk.”
He was right. I had done most of the heavy lifting and made most of the decisions upon which my book would succeed or fail.
The last few steps could be easily accomplished using CreateSpace (design, publication, and distribution) and social media (marketing).
Granted, and $18,000-dollar package might unleash the kind of industry magic that skyrockets authors to fame.
But what if it didn’t?
I called Westbow that night and told them, “I’m sorry. It’s not you. It’s me.”
I self-published the paperback through CreateSpace, the hardcover through Ingram Spark (Lightning Source), the Kindle version through Kindle Direct Publishing, as well as an audiobook version (narrated by the author, or course) through ACX (Audible).
Has the book skyrocketed to success?
No. Not yet.
But I learned a lot about the book industry and about self publishing, and in my case, I think it was the right call.
And about the Westbow logo on the spine? It would have been nice.
But the logo on the spine of One of the Few now has even more meaning.
I named my publishing imprint after our son Boone Shepherd whom we lost in April of 2015.
His hand is holding a Shepherd’s staff, raised in final victory, leading the way.
Jason B. Ladd is an award-winning author and USMC veteran. He has flown the F/A-18 "Hornet" and the F-16 "Fighting Falcon" as an instructor pilot. He is also the creator of IndieListers.com, the web's largest online database of book promotion results. Learn more about him on his website, or follow him on his Facebook Page.
Thanks to Lisa Rapko for sharing her experience on writing and becoming a hybrid author. A hybrid author is both published with a press, and self-published. More and more authors are trying their own hand at the publishing process, while still keeping the stability of having a publishing house for some titles.
I didn't start out wanting to be a writer. In fact, I graduated from the University of Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1991 with a degree in Criminal Justice. Since then, I've worked very serious jobs in law enforcement and social work, with my main focus being my two children.
During my divorce in 2005, I found refuge in an anonymous online diary. I was very sarcastic with my entries and developed a very large following. I thought writing a sarcastic book about my experience as a military wife could be very theraputic, and it was. Still Breathing was published in 2007. I knew nothing about publishing, googled companies, and submitted my manuscript to the first company on the list. They responded shortly after. How lucky is that?
Publish America (now American Star Books) were a good experience for me. It didn't cost me anything. They made money off my book and I got a small percentage of the royalties. The only complaint I had was I think they charged my readers too much for the book. But then again, if it were my choice I would probably give them away just to have people read them. I published two more books with Publish America. Before She Was Babci which was a tribute to my grandmother, and Diary of the Dysfunctional.
My recent book, Kissing Frogs : A Modern-Day Fractured Fairy Tale, was by far the most fun to research and write. My greatest satisfaction from doing this book would be to make my readers laugh out loud. Although I wrote the "rules for on-line dating" in a funny way, I would also like for women to keep them in mind if they choose the on-line dating scene. Unfortunately, in my day job, I've seen several women become victims during an on-line encounter. I would never in any way blame the victim, however if a few simple precautionary rules were followed they just might have been able to avoid the assaults. As simple and as much fun as I want this reading experience to be, the social worker in me couldn't help putting in some safety tips.
Kissing Frogs centers on single mom, Ethel Funt's experience getting back into the dating scene via lovebycupid.com. She turns forty at the same time her son leaves for college. It captures her excitement, anxiety and laughable moments as she learns the rules of the pond have changed in the years since she dated and she must kiss many frogs before finding her prince.
I self-published Kissing Frogs via Amazon.com. This way I was able to make the paperback book available for just $8.99. It is also available in Kindle version.
Lisa Burdziejko graduated from the University of Scranton, Pennsylvania with a degree in Criminal Justice in 1991. She’s spent the last twenty-four years working in law enforcement and social work. Writing fiction became a guilty pleasure that resulted in the release of her first book, Still Breathing in 2007. The books Before She Was Babci and Diary of the Dysfunctional followed. Lisa acknowledges Kissing Frogs as the most fun to research and write. She claims her greatest satisfaction from writing this book would be to make readers laugh out loud.