The protagonist and narrator of the novel I’m writing suffers from depression. It’s about the only thing I have in common with her, and yet somehow one of the hardest parts to write. And I don’t mean emotionally. There may be some scenes to come that hit close to home or leave me feeling a little exposed, but this would almost be a blessing given the situation I’m currently in, which is this: I don’t know how to write her as recognisably depressed without her depression becoming a parody.
Because whatever I intend her to be, meaning happens at the reader’s end and not mine. Most of the time we’re told that we can’t know what another person is or isn’t going through, and never to make assumptions just because a person’s behaviour doesn’t read in your mind as depressed. But I can’t ask my reader to suspend any scepticism and just try to understand; it’s my job to make them. I’m inviting people into her mind, all of it, and if they don’t believe in her depression, I’ve failed.
I have several options here. I could semi-autobiography this thing and write all the quirks of her mental health like it’s my own, but this isn’t as easy or convenient as it sounds. As I said, we have nothing else in common. Her depression doesn’t come from the same place as mine. The things that test her limits aren’t the ones that test mine. It would take a serious and undesirable rewrite to make this work.
Or, I could ham it up with a lot of in depth description of her state of mind. This doesn’t appeal either, as this is how I risk her sounding like a stereotype – or even a caricature – of a depressed person (not to mention the fact that this isn’t what the novel’s about; my character’s mental illness is a fact of her life, not the driving force of her story). But writing someone else’s mental illness kind of feels like just that.
I’d like to think I’ve written some suitably rounded and believable characters in the past, but there’s so much more responsibility this time. Depression is so misunderstood by so many people, and it’s not like I’m trying to write a manual for your insensitive second cousin, but his understanding of this one person and her singular struggle is kind of essential. But when I can’t even understand someone else’s mental illness when it reads on the bottle as the same as mine, how is he supposed to?
Because, in reality, depression is just a messy and bizarre smorgasbord of unknowns. Boxing it up neatly with a diagnosis lets us assign treatment based on a set of visible and measurable symptoms. It’s not just helpful to call something depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder, it’s necessary if those suffering with mental illness are to have any sort of outside intervention. But the fact is, we can never really know what goes on inside another person’s mind. How do you compare one person’s depression to another?
My mum says this thing about autism: that if you know one person with autism, you know just one person with autism, and it’s the same deal with depression. The diagnosis doesn’t account for everything else the individual’s mind is made of; like the things that comfort and antagonise them; the memories and habits informing how they experience the now; and the connections and assumptions they don’t even realise they’re making. Depression or no depression, we all have these things in common, and at the same time, all we really have in common is that each of us has a completely unique and personal perspective.
This is what makes creating characters so fun, but they all have to come from something inside the writer, so my challenge is to write her in a way that’s respectful of the fact depression is all kinds of things, and most of them I can’t even imagine.
I guess I won’t know if I’ve succeeded until somebody reads it. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and it ain’t gonna be cooked any time soon if all I do is whine about it, so BYE x