How to Write Madness

Madness Character Writing

Okay…since I’m watching the ending of Game of Thrones (season 8) every weekend, I naturally have a lot of thoughts on it. Without getting into too much – I don’t like it. Kudos to you if you do, but I personally feel like there is a lot lacking in Game of Thrones – and really that there has been a lot lacking for a while – now it’s just all coming to a head.

One of the aspects I miss the most: character writing. Concluding character arcs is very difficult, especially if it’s over the course of multiple novels or several years of television. Even when you’re on point, there are certain character developments that require extra time and care to make sure they’re done well. Mental illness is one such issue. When executed poorly, creating mental illness in a character can be seen as lazy – a contrivance for plot rather than a natural character evolution. In the worst cases, it can be really offensive to those out there who are actually suffering.

Mental illness is one of the most challenging characters arcs to create well. So – how do you do it?

Don’t call it Madness (if you can help it)

Right off the bat, if you want to write about mental illness – you should start with research. Even if the piece you’re writing is set in a time when nobody understands anything about mental health, you yourself must have a grasp of what you’re tackling. This clarity reflects a general rule of writing: Specific writing tends to be more effective. Case in point:

Learning of his father’s death made Ted sad.”

and

Learning of his father’s death devastated Ted in a way like nothing else had.”

Both sentences are saying the same thing. The latter simply goes into more detail and uses more focused language.

Mental illness, however, is a topic that goes above simply “good writing.” It is a very real issue that many struggle with – some without even being able to put words to it. As writers, I feel like we have a job to help where we can. This doesn’t mean you have to get a P.H.D. before writing about a character with mental illness, but you should do your best to treat it like what it is: a medical condition, one that we still do not understand very well.

Mental Illness Character Writing
Saying someone is mentally ill is like saying they’re sick in the sense that it is really, really vague and needs further explanation.

So, if I want to write a character who is suicidal – a good place to start would be by examining the signs of depression. If my character grows more apathetic, if they stop sleeping (or sleep all the time), if they grow increasingly irritable – these are all hallmarks of depression, a condition that may lead to suicide.  Just to clarify, not every depressed person is suicidal, but most suicidal people have some form of depression.

“Madness” is simply to general a word to convey any real meaning. Let’s go back to Game of Thrones: We’re told Daenerys is having an episode (we don’t actually see it). She is certainly in a place where she might not be her best self. She’s outside her comfort zone. She’s lost several friends, and she recently realized that she has been sleeping with her nephew – who also turns out to have a better claim on the throne than she does.

Okay – all of that is stressful. Very stressful. Does stress lead to madness? Well, the real is answer is maybe – over time – it could be a factor. Is it going to cause madness all by itself in a week? That’s doubtful.

Thorin Dragon Sickness Mental Illness
Even The Hobbit better defined its mental illness, having Thorin become obsessed with treasure to the point of sacrificing everything else to keep it

So, Daenerys’ fall to madness can’t be explained away by the stress of what’s happening to her, at least not very well. She simply hasn’t been in this situation long enough. And for the audience (viewers in this case), we haven’t seen any real signs of significant mental illness. We’ve seen her distraught, yes, but most distraught people aren’t mad – especially when there is every reason to be sad.

So, what happened?

Avoid the Abrupt “Snap”

Game of Thrones isn’t the first piece of writing to use a “snap.” No, I’m not talking about Thanos. A snap in this case refers to a character suddenly going from sanity to…not. Years ago, I wrote about it in Iron Man – one minute the villain, Obadiah Stane, was a conniving, morally bankrupt businessman – the next he was in a giant metal suit swinging motorcycles around on the freeway. The reason? Insanity of course! He snapped! He went crazy!

That’s believable, right? It in no way happened because Iron Man wanted to end with a cool robot-on-robot fight scene…right?

Spider-Man Green Goblin Mental Illness
In Spider-Man, Norman’s descent into madness is guided by a new “alter ego” who appears internally at first before manifesting externally to the world as the Green Goblin.

The fall has to be believable and, in this case, that’s more than foreshadowing. For instance, while we know Daenerys is a the daughter of the “Mad King” – that’s not good enough to completely explain away her sudden insanity. It’s not enough. The show writers seem to have known this, because they added in another element: a lust for power.

Daenerys has been shown to be ambitious since season one, constantly finding ways to elevate her position and give herself more control. It’s…it’s actually an admirable quality. And while this virtue can become a vice if taken too far – such as her being willing to do anything for power…it’s not madness. Plenty of ambitious people can be monsters, but they’re usually also sociopaths (behave with a lack of conscience, demonstrate numerous anti-social behaviors). Daenerys doesn’t really have those tendencies.

To stay on Game of Thrones, Joffrey was a sociopath. He caused pain without feeling remorse – and the show made a real effort to, well, show that to the audience. It made his disorder real and specific, allowing us to still understand his motivations, even if they weren’t rational. Ditto with Ramsey Bolton.

Joffrey Mental Illness Crossbow
Joffrey’s object of power was a crossbow, which allowed him to inflict pain from far away (no danger to himself).

Daenerys also killed people – she could be very brutal at times. While this could be used to explain psychopathic behavior…she’s in a war. The vast majority of the time – the people she killed also wished her harm. The point is, it’s too ordinary to stand out in the audience’s mind as foreshadowing. Daenerys is never cruel, she doesn’t drag out death or torture – she just kills her enemies when she can. It’s the mundane madness of war.

When writing a character, you have to really sell the “snap” if you’re going to do it. Let’s look at a writing example that does it right: The Shining. A horror masterpiece (first by Stephen King then by Stanley Kubrick), The Shining takes a character with a history of substance abuse and puts him into an isolated space with very few other people.

Jack Torrance is essentially alone in a giant building, far from home and ordinary life. His only companions are his wife and child – with whom he already has a strained (and at times abusive) relationship. Add to that the darkness and bitter cold of winter, as well as the knowledge that the roads and virtually unpassable, and you have a recipe for a mental health disaster.

The ghosts are really just superfluous when you think about it.

Jack Torrance mental illness
Jack Torrance’s insanity builds and builds, like a kettle boiling over. As the audience, we see it all happening.

When Jack snaps, it’s not unexpected. The foreshadowing is there but more than that, the reader/viewer has been with him every step in his continuing descent. His turn to complete insanity is just the culmination of a series of horrifying events.

So, while Daenerys had some elements of foreshadowing, the audience was denied watching the journey. She doesn’t so much step down into madness as she does fall down the stairs. When the fall comes, it is tremendous and whole – and feels more like the plot moving along than real character growth.

Remember: There is No Cure

When writing mental illness, please keep this in mind: There is no cure. This isn’t a scratch or a broken arm. Even with all the healing and knowing all the steps, people who struggle with mental illness keep struggling. The best cure we have right now are tools to help manage this struggle – whether it’s relaxation techniques like yoga, daily positive affirmation, or medically-prescribed drugs: The struggle is real and it is ongoing.

If you have a character battling mental illness and you want them to win, just know that the victory cannot be total. There is no “Boy, I used to have anxiety but now I don’t – that’s super!” I may be venting a pet peeve here (but it’s my blog so I’ll do what I want) but I really can’t stand when books/movies/shows treat mental illness like a temporary thing.

While some conditions can be temporary, they are usually the extreme scenarios. For instance, while a character may not always suffer from panic attacks, the anxiety will likely still be there. They can just now manage it to the point that they avoid the extreme moments of sheer panic.

So yeah, while illness is in the name, this is not a disease that can be cured. It is a condition that can at best be managed, at worst, allowed to overrun all other parts of the personality.

When characters go mad, it often feels like it is for the sake of conflict. A “mad” person often acts recklessly, forcing the action ahead. In the case of Game of Thrones, this is what it felt like happened. I personally was expecting/hoping for Daenerys to end the series as a villain. After all, it’s hard to break the wheel when you’re so much of the wheel you might as well have the word “Michelin” burned into your forehead.

Daenerys madness
While horrific, she is still burning people who were going to try and kill her.

However, a lack of transition killed it. We were more told than shown Daenerys’ deteriorating mental state so that, when she turned, her decision to go from murdering slave owners and enemy armies to slaughtering unarmed people came completely out of nowhere. Her “madness” is generic (and possibly genetic?).

 

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