It’s rare that I get all the way to the end of a book before discovering I hate it. It happens (I’m looking at you, Veronica Roth) but usually I can tell if it’s not going to work out in the first couple of chapters. And that’s fine. I don’t mind walking away if all I’ve given is a quarter-hour of my time. But when a book disappoints with its ending, leaving me with the sense that I’ve wasted a good three hours, I get cranky. And that’s starting to happen more than I like these days.
I’m finding that there are far too many books relying on the old trope of “s/he did it because s/he’s nuts!” as an easy solution to the story. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. First off, because it’s weak. It’s the easiest way out, out of countless easy ways. Readers deserve better. We deserve something original, something that will make us think, leave us questioning what we thought we knew. You can’t achieve that if your entire plot rests on some caricature of mental illness.
And that’s my second reason. Why does it seem like every villain does what they do because they’re batshit crazy? And not even a specific type of mental illness. I’m talking generic looneytunes. Where’s the motivation? Where’s the complexity, the subtle character nuances that really get the reader deep inside their head?
Because here’s the thing: mental illness does not a villain make. There’s this huge stigma surrounding it. If you sit down next to a stranger and tell them you have cancer, you get sympathy and compassion. Probably also some half-baked medical advice. If you tell that same stranger you have a mental illness, they shift themselves a little further away. They shelter their children from you. They have important things to check on their phone.
The reality is, one out of four people will suffer from some form of mental illness in their lifetime. That puts you at 25% odds, whether you like it or not. If not you, maybe one of your kids, or your partner. Some of your friends and family members are mentally ill. And I’m guessing they don’t go around attacking people on the street or stuffing them into trunks of cars.
The trope of using mental illness as a crutch in fiction to explain negative actions isn’t going to go away as long as we keep fearing those who are mentally ill. We need to talk about it, openly, the same way we talk about our diabetes, our heart disease, our oddly-shaped mole that keeps growing. It should be just as acceptable to say “I can’t make it into work today, I’m going through a period of depression,” as it is to say “I can’t make it into work today, I have the flu.”
I address mental illness head-on in my fiction, and I plan to always do so. But you’ll never see me ending a novel with the bad guy being carted off to the psychiatric hospital. No, the characters in my fiction that have mental health issues are protagonists. That’s right. They’re the good guys. My current main character has a severe form of aphephobia, the fear of touch. Maybe in my next book one of the players will have an anxiety disorder, or bulimia, or PTSD. And maybe the people who read it will come away with a little bit of a better understanding of how a mental disorder is only an aspect of a person – it does not define him.