Thursday, July 26, 2012

On mentally ill fictional characters

There is something very interesting in writing, reading and watching mentally ill fictional characters. It stems from a need to understand, a confusion over what each of us believes is similar and different in perspectives and actions and a desire to see the particular illness done justice rather than being a point of ridicule. It is also interesting to see the sorts of characters, built of experiences and knowledge not always accessible to the audience, that are formed by a person having a mental illness. This is especially so when it is a main character who has a mental illness.

Mentally ill characters can become great loves of ours for their ability to break through communication barriers; their different views on life, especially when they are simpler yet more to the point than what we're thinking as audience members; and their abilities to cope with a world that just doesn't make as much sense to them as it seemingly should. Now that last point is interesting in and of itself as almost no one has made any sense of the world and life without some degree of delusion involved. Which means mentally ill characters can become the darlings of our hearts for the fact that we can sympathise with their viewpoint.

Yet at the same time mentally ill characters can terrify an audience, induce great discomfort and uncertainty about both their actions and our reactions as well as make us question just how stable we all are: a worrying question. Usually, to bring about such reactions the mentally ill character is written with an emphasis on chaotic, delusional and violent characteristics. In this way horror stories, thrillers and slashers are created. Self-fulfilling doomsday prophesies, anarchism and serial killing are common features to stories where the mentally ill character is used as a focal point of fear. These stories are both disingenuous and utterly truthful, depending on how faithfully the writer or producer has replicated an illness. No matter how much those sympathetic to people with mental illness (myself included) would like to say that violence and chaos don't result from such illnesses we have to actually face the truth. Terrible things can and do happen as a result of one or more people having an illness that goes unrecognised, untreated or mismanaged. Yet to colour all those who have a mental illness as dangerous, violent and chaotic is very much a disingenuous act and the results ridiculous.

These two main sides of our relationship; fascination and fear, with those who have a mental illness (even if we are mentally ill ourselves) are the ones most often shown in fiction. Confusion, disbelief, tenuous connections, fear, distress, uncertainty, sympathy and pity are often the result, whether liked or not but everyone involved. In this way, mentally ill characters are actually quite evocative and powerful, meaning they are a good choice for those capable of writing them with enough realism.

Sometimes though, a mentally ill character is written or created where there was little to no intention of doing so in the beginning. Such characters often fall on the scale of mania to depression as many of those writing can understand a variance in energy levels and the depressed view of the world that comes along with incessant failure or perceived failure. There are also some who fall into the sociopathic or psychopathic moulds simply for the writer's understanding of feeling numb, desensitised or immune to certain events. The
problem with these representations though, is that many of them are incomplete as they weren't written with an eye to a complete diagnosis but rather a quirky character. These characters can lead audience members to misunderstand a mental illness or fail to make the connection that there is one there (leading people to believe such behaviour is normal when some treatment might otherwise be desirable). Alternatively, if there is some recognition and understanding these characters can portray a form of gentle acceptance that is much needed and wanted by many members of the audience.

With all this said, the best mentally ill characters are not the best for the responses they garner from the audience so much as their faithfulness to the ordeals and viewpoints of real world mentally ill people, suffering or no. Our responses are usually a result of this faithfulness as we are afforded a glimpse into the lives of those with different viewpoints and experiences of life, a glimpse that allows us to understand. For developing our understanding these characters stay with us for a long time as epiphany markers. That's if we haven't had such an epiphany already. If we have, then such characters serve to remind or support us in our views, making it doubly important that writers be faithful in the first place.

Now, to list some of the best mentally ill characters in fiction. Some of these you may not have recognised so far while some are likely dear to you. Still, all have allowed you to peer into the worlds of those who have mental illness from afar, a boon to those surrounded by those with mental illnesses and also to those who've never encountered anyone with a mental illness and are confused or frightened by it all. These characters are some of the best for showing us such worlds without deriding them or trying to make too much sense of them, no matter whether they're delightful, stressful or horrifying worlds.


Don Quixote

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (depending on the interpretation)

Narrator aka Tyler from Fight Club (very much a modern interpretation of the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde personality division)
Christopher John Francis Boone from Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time

Norman Bates from Psycho

John Nash from A Beautiful Mind

Raymond from Rain Man

Forrest from Forrest Gump

Monk from Monk

Luther from Luther (one you may not recognise as such but actually rather a good representation of manic depression).

Alice from Luther (disturbingly psychotic and clever. Also, obsessive. She's almost too many things but she is a brilliant character to watch).

Karin from Through A Glass Darkly

Evelyn Draper from Play Misty For Me

Arnie and Gilbert from What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Both have mental illnesses.

Susanna and Lisa from Girl, Interrupted

Donnie from Donnie Darko

John Cleaver from I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells

Hannibal Lecter from The Silence Of The Lambs

Annie Wilkes from Misery

Randle McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Of note:
There are various interpretations of Sherlock Holmes, which have him as a sociopath, compulsive drug abuser and/or manic-depressive. At times you're not sure if he has an illness at all and at other times you can't see him without one.

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