Mental Illness as a Plot Device and Other Bad Ideas

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Photo by Keane Amdahl follow him on Twitter @FoodStoned

My forehead throbbed. It felt like it had taken on weight, like I’d played a Klingon on an episode of Star Trek and fell asleep with the prosthetics on. My teeth had gone out of alignment. My bite was crooked. My jaw had shift to the left. It wouldn’t go back. It had locked itself into place.

My eyes wouldn’t focus. The lenses refused to align. The depth of field shift from the railings in the foreground to the light in the background. The bulb was too bright, especially when my vision split it into two. The room spun.

I tried to look down, but my head refused to take the command. My neck had gone stiff. I was in a robot’s stranglehold. Its metal fingers ran from my chin to my collar. Its claws dug deep into my deltoids. It pinched my nerves. The pain wrapped around my back. It pressed my shoulders against a harsh cold surface.

The room smelt of chlorine, of summers spent at the YMCA. I expected to see water reflected on the ceiling. I couldn’t help but wonder, what kind of pool kept the temperature this low?

Goose bumps ran down my arms. My feet recoiled beneath a blanket that was too short and too thin to do any good. A breeze ran up my thighs. It occurred to me that I wasn’t wearing any pants.

I raised my hands. My palms were scraped. My knuckles were black.

There was a bracelet where my watch should have been. Something like a sundial jut out from my inner elbow. It cast a shadow that seemed confused about its light source. Its silhouette shift back and forth. It pulsed with the throbbing in my forehead.

My mind had all the pieces it needed to put the setting together, but it couldn’t.

A thought formed. Then it veered off into another direction. The scent of chlorine told me that I was in the water, on a raft heading out to sea. The dual suns told me that I was marooned on another planet. The cold told me that I was in a storage locker, about to be served for dinner.

My eyes aligned long enough to see the cord streaming from the sundial, to recognize the object as something else. Then they lost it.

My senses competed for my attention. They all had urgent information for me. With each new thought, another was knocked out of place. I couldn’t get a fix on one long enough to recognize a pattern. The space had the architecture of a fever dream. It was like trying to see the world through a fun house mirror; when I moved an inch, everything changed.

Not only did I not know where I was. I wasn’t sure I was really there. I was awake, but my subconscious was still dreaming. It was like trying to think with a mind that wasn’t mine.

I blinked, to find my surroundings had shrunk. A beam of light moved down my body like I was a paper in a copy machine.

I blinked again, and the light turned into a sink. My hands were lost inside a plastic bag. I pulled out a shirt that was torn at the collar, then a pair of denim jeans that were sticky with blood. I glanced up at the mirror. There was something wrong with my reflection. There was a purple lump where my forehead should have been. My cheeks were lopsided. A welt ran down my jawline like a strap. My chin was no longer centered along the same line as my nose.

For a moment, I wondered why I was wearing a long dress with such a frilly collar. Had I fallen asleep auditioning for the role of Queen Elizabeth? Then it occurred to me; I was wearing a hospital gown, and my head was resting on a neck brace.

I blinked, and found myself wandering the halls. An I.V. Pole dragged behind me. I wobbled, and found myself leaning against the wall. Standing made me feel nauseous. Leaning made me feel nauseous. Being made me feel nauseous.

A nurse shouted, “Seriously, I am sick and tired of having to tell you to get back into bed.”

I asked, “Why am I here?”

She said, “I’ve told you thirteen times. I’m not going to tell you again.”

I asked, “What day is it?”

She sighed, a mother dealing with an unruly child, “It’s Tuesday.”

This did not compute. It was the weekend as far as I had known. Time had gone missing. Sunday lost the plot on its way to Tuesday.

I blinked, and lost even more time.

The Recovery

My memory of the emergency room is a montage with bad transitions. A series of jump cuts with no narrative.

Every doctor had a different version of the events that led me to the E.R. One said the police found me wandering in the middle of the street. Another said that I was fist fighting, my knuckles seemed to corroborate this theory.

They said the officer on the scene tried to question me, but I kept asking them how the conversation had started. I was an unreliable witness. The officer flashed a light into my eyes. He saw that one pupil was larger than the other. He called for an ambulance.

It wasn’t until the hospital allowed me to dig through my belongings that I noticed things were missing. My phone was gone, which was of no concern. It was the cheapest flip phone I could get without a contract. My backpack was missing. This was where I kept my laptop, and with it all of my writing. I panicked. They had to restrain me.

A week passed in what felt like a day.

A doctor walked me to the other side of the hospital to see if I could find my way back. They gave me tests, watched me struggle with simple arithmetic. They showed me words and asked me to play thesaurus. My mind kept giving me an ellipsis where the answers should be. If we were playing hangman, I’d have choked the poor bastard.

The information was in there, but when I tried to access it all I got was the spinning pinwheel of death. What good was a wordsmith who couldn’t remember words?

It wasn’t until I got through to my roommate that I learned what had happened. Turns out, I’d left my laptop on the coffee table. My roommate deduced that I had gone out for a walk. A witness said I was on the phone when four guys jumped me. They hit me in the back of the head. I went down right away. There was no time to throw a single punch. The blood on my knuckles was from the fall.

The witness said that one of my attackers pried the phone from my hand, while the others kicked and punched me. Then they ran off into a van. Their theft would net them a profit of seventy dollars. Split five ways, they’d each earned a cool fourteen bucks. The attack would cost me over three-thousand dollars in medical expenses. It would take over a year for the police reparations to show up in the mail.

I spent the next six months going to a language therapist. I wasn’t allowed to drink, while my brain took time to heal. That was just as well. I had no desire to go to bars. I didn’t want to be out that late anyway.

I had a newfound fear of the dark. My leg shook the moment the sun went down. My breathing quickened. I found myself looking over my shoulder, jumping at shadows, clinging to the pepper spray in my pocket.

My girlfriend didn’t know what to do with me. I clammed up whenever we were out. I could be Superman during the daylight, but I was Clark Kent every night. She left.

Other people laugh at their own brain farts. They know that the information they want will bubble up to the surface eventually. I still have my doubts. The pavement claimed a chunk of my intelligence. I’m not sure how much of it I will ever get back.

The Formula for Amnesia

The formula for amnesia on TV goes like this: a character gets bonked on the head. They get selective retrograde amnesia. They forget who they are, but possess enough of their faculties for their personality, language skills, and muscle memory to remain intact. Their trauma is never bad enough to cause anterograde amnesia. They are immediately able to form new memories. The last thing they remember is getting hit in the head.

On sitcoms, amnesia is a plot device to free a character from their inhibitions. It allows them to admit an attraction to characters they’d otherwise despise. It allows them to try on new professions. Amnesia takes a straight laced character and turns them into a comic foible. It’s presented as a liberating experience.

When they’re bopped on the head again, their memory comes back, as easy as flicking on a light switch. Their routine is back to normal in time for the next episode.

No one ever vomits, because the pressure in their head has become too much to bear.

On action dramas, the hero loses their memory only to be found by children on the outskirts of town. The amnesiac becomes a fish out of water. The lethal hero get’s to try their hand at being the gentle giant. It’s a quirky look at who they might have been if not for their social conditioning.

Later they find a locket and their entire lives come rushing back in a series of romantic images. Easy go, easy come. No harm, no foul.

Cop dramas love to make their characters suffer from short term memory loss. They wake up at a crime scene, covered in the victim’s blood. It’s up to their colleagues to trace their steps back. Pieces of evidence help jog their memory. The amnesiac feels the murder weapon, like a psychic getting a vision. They get red flashes of the crime taking place. They can never see the killer’s face, just his class ring. It takes a third act epiphany to jog their memory. A revelation they keep to themselves until they can confront the suspect.

In the parlor room scene, the amnesiac’s recollection returns with complete clarity. They’re able to reenact the entire event. Their memory has been enhanced by its absence, refined by their amnesia.

Next week, the detective is at their desk filling out paper work. Their attention span is intact. They’re not the slightest bit distracted by the open office environment.

I told you the story of my memory loss for one reason. To show you that amnesia doesn’t work that way. The memories that are lost do not return.

A traumatic brain injury stays with you. It effects your IQ. It triggers spontaneous migraines. It changes your personality, your impulse control, your initiative, your ability to manage your anger.

If you’re going to use amnesia in your story, don’t make it a plot device. Make it a character trait. Realize that it won’t go away after one episode. It will linger. The character might recover, but they’ll always wonder if something is missing.

Narratives are not Cures

This is the problem with using mental illness to further a plot. You have to simplify the condition too much. You trick your audience into believing that part of someone’s nature can be resolved with nurture. You make it seem like every disorder can be cured with a narrative.

When you give your protagonist a mental illness, you’re writing a check that’s tough to cash. Consider this, your story will hinge on a change. Can your hero realistically learn a lesson that will serve as a remedy? If it’s a neurological condition like schizophrenia, don’t count on it.

Perhaps they could learn to function with their symptoms, like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. The problem here is that sometimes the symptoms can feel dumbed down, made glaring for the audience, or worse, warped to fit the needs of the scene.

There’s a reason why One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest works. The hero doesn’t go through a change, at least not of his own volition, but our expectations of him change.

When you can’t change how your character is wired, change their living conditions. When you can’t change their behavior, have them change their world. Sling Blade is a good example of this. When you can’t change any of these things then you have to change our minds about them. You have to teach us a lesson.

Beware of Pop Psychology

Do your research, and by “research” I don’t mean read one article about a fringe theory and hinge your plot on it. It will be discredited by the time you submit your manuscript, debunked before your book goes to print, declared junk science before your movie goes into production.

As a writer, I was seduced by cutting-edge theories on deception detection. I read every book on spotting liars. I learned to look for universal micro-expressions. The theory was that if I asked you a question, and you looked up and to the left, you were lying. To look up in this direction is to access the right hemisphere of your brain, the part of the mind that handles creativity, fabrication. To look to your right would be to access the left hemisphere, to recall the actual event.

The problem is, people use spacial intelligence to remember things. We link events to  rooms. We see scenes within the backdrops where they took place. When we visualize our eyes shift back and forth, from creativity to recollection.

The lack of research didn’t prevent writers, like myself, from jumping on the left-brain right-brain band wagon. The theory was too quirky, too interesting not to be included in our screenplays. Real life mind reading was within our grasps. We took a hypothesis, still in its infancy, and treated it like a fact.

Think back to the science fiction films of the seventies. Do you remember how there was always a psychologist who swore that ESP was a legitimate science? It seems laughable now. We writers turned micro-expressions into the new ESP.

Here’s my rule with pop psychology: if it sounds too good to be true, make it a red herring. Trick the audience into believing it, then give them a smarter explanation.

Do Not Underestimate Your Audience

Your audience might not be made up of the superstars of the psychiatric community. They might not be qualified to diagnose your characters. They might not speak the language of psychopathology, but they just might recognize the symptoms. Every person is a student of the human animal. Just because they can’t articulate the conditions, doesn’t mean they can’t spot the behavioral patterns.

This is why mental illness makes for a terrible plot twist. If it turns out that your hero and your villain are the same person, consider heavy revisions. Dissociative identity disorder is so rare that some psychologists think it’s a myth. I’m willing to bet that there have been more cases of the disorder in film than have been recorded in the real world. Your audience knows how to spot this trope. They’ve been conditioned to watch for it. They’ll feel shortchanged if you use it.

People can recognize a caricature when they see one.

You have to be careful when you identify a character’s disorder. Your portrayal must be nuanced, not grandiose. Not only do you run the risk of losing the audience’s suspension of disbelief, you run the risk of offending them.

For the members of your audience who are not in the know, you run the risk of misinforming them. There’s no shortage of armchair detectives. There are plenty of couch potato profilers, people who learn everything they know about mental illness from episodes of CSI. If you put something out there, they’ll start to see it everywhere.

Do you want them to view their children through a pathology that you just made up? Do you want to demonize the quiet kids and isolate them further? Do you want to contribute to the mental illness witch hunt that’s already under way?

If your answer is “No,” then you have to do your research.

12 thoughts on “Mental Illness as a Plot Device and Other Bad Ideas”

  1. Very interesting! Makes me rethink one of the themes in my novel-in-progress… You make a great point that writers have a responsibility to do their research properly, especially when it comes to “diagnosing” their characters’ mental illnesses; it seems so obvious in retrospect but is something I had never seriously considered with my “bad” characters!

    1. I don’t want to discourage you from tackling the subject of mental illness. Just take a subtle approach.

      I’m fine with characters having mental illnesses, especially when it is part of the make up of who they are. I take issue with mental illness being used as a plot device, like the dual personality twist.

      It misinforms people and it’s a predictable trope the story could do without.

  2. Very interesting post. Unfortunately mental illness is often misunderstood and this then enters the realms of literature. I have a character with depression in my book, but as someone with bipolar, I knew something about the subject. I still did research and hope this pays off. We should, however, be encouraging more writers to tackle the subject with the caveat of the need for research as generally disability and illness are overlooked in literature or mishandled.

    1. I agree. More writers should be tackling the subject. More heroes ought have the ailments we usually assign to our villains. I’m still researching the best ways to do talk about these issues myself.

    1. Thank you so much for reading this long wordy piece. I can’t take credit for that analogy. It came from my screenwriting professor, but I’ve always loved it myself.

  3. Thank you! This is exactly why I stopped reading “The Bone Collector”–we were supposed to buy that the antagonist is so delusional that he’s unsure of what century it is, and yet is able to plan elaborate time delayed deathtraps?

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