How to Write Depression

A lot of good shows have ended this year – well, The Good Place and Bojack Horseman ended this year, and I want to focus on the latter. Bojack Horseman really impressed the heck out of me. Over its six seasons, it grew from a zany, crass, Archer-ish animated comedy to a deep, dark, touching piece of art. The show became a reflection on consequence and power abuse, and it also painted an incredibly realistic portrait of depression.

Depression can be difficult to write about and many people get it wrong. The error can come from a lack of knowledge or just a desire to adhere to a traditional upbeat narrative. So let’s dive into writing about depression with Bojack Horseman as our guide to getting it right (warning: mild spoilers ahead).

It’s a Constant Struggle

Before I go any further, let me just say that I have never really suffered from depression (apart from a short stint in high school). I consider myself lucky that way. That said, I am no stranger to its close buddy in suffering, anxiety. Most people have both – I just lucked out with one. Weird, right?

Anyway, back to the first lesson: When writing depression, it cannot be a plot device. What I mean is, when writing, don’t use depression just to compel the plot. For example, let’s say I want to put Character A in the hospital so they can meet Character B. I can’t just write “Character A felt depressed and attempted suicide, landing them squarely in the hospital.” Apart from being a crappy sentence, it is incredibly loaded with unanswered questions. If I never returned to talking about Character A’s depression, my reader will feel cheated. They will know I just brought it up so I could move the story along.

Depression is not a physical trait. It’s much more complex – it is a part of a character’s inner being. As such, it cannot be turned off and on whenever convenient. It must always be. Just having a character turn depressed without prior warning or setup would be like having a nice person turn heinously villainous (looking at you, Frozen).

If your character is depressed, it must inform their being. A character who only gets sad when there is a clear reason (death, loss, etc.) is not depressed, just upset.

Happy Characters can be Depressed

Let’s continue that thought: Depression is not just sadness. Sure, Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh is an example of a depressed character and he is almost always gloomy, but Eeyore is not the model of depression, just an example of a form it can take. In Bojack Horseman, there is no logical reason for him to be as miserable as he is. He is a rich celebrity with friends and an active career. There is a lot to feel good about – but he can’t see it.

Marge Simpson Depression
Marge Simpson can be seen as a depressed character, especially after reading this poem titled: “Does Marge have Friends?”

Depression blinds Bojack to everything good in his life, instead telling him that it either:

  1. Is a lie.
  2. Is doomed to destruction (through something he will do).

Depression is more than sadness. It is a feeling of personal worthlessness or despair that exists regardless of external stimuli. Sure, Bojack can dress up for the cameras and put on a smile, but inside he is never really happy. His sickness is always pulling him down and, for most if not all of the show, he is never really sure how best to fight against it.

So, while depressed characters can look like Eeyore, they don’t have to. Bojack Horseman is an example of a depressed character as is Diane, his best friend. Both are hard-working, successful people who still struggle with their inner demons on a daily basis. Diane is a lot more upbeat than Bojack (overall), but even she is often tugged down into despair – mostly through blaming herself.

There is No “Cure”

I’m no fan of Iron Man 3. I made that clear in my review. Why am I bringing it up now? Because Iron Man 3 commits one of my most hated lazy writing moves. It brings up a severe mental illness only to immediately cure it within seconds. For much of the film, Tony Stark is suffering from panic attacks and panic disorder. It frequently sends him into a spiral wherein he is rendered an inactive mass as he struggles to regain his breath and his composure.

Que act III where he discovers a lesson about himself and suddenly viola! No more panic attacks. Bull. Shit.

Mental illnesses can be cured, yes, but not quickly. Often times, curing a mental illness means learning to live with it and manage it rather than anything else. There is no “Eureka!” moment. Tony Stark recovering so abruptly from his panic disorder is akin to someone going up to a person suffering from depression and asking “have you tried being happier?”

It doesn’t work.

You can write about your character recovering from depression – but that in itself is a journey. Let’s go back to talking about Diane. While Bojack may not be out of his spiral, Diane appears to overcome her worst problems with depression by the end of the series. How does she do this? She:

  1. Takes medication (even though it makes her heavier).
  2. Abandons her belief that accomplishing a goal will make her happy.

Bojack and Diane are very similar. Each one has selected a fantasy that, once fulfilled, will magically fix their problems. For Bojack, it is starring in Secretariat.  For Diane, it is writing her memoir. Bojack gets his wish, while Diane doesn’t. He stars in the film. She stops writing her memoir and opts instead to write a fun children’s series about a girl detective. Why? Because doing the latter actually made her happy. Diane stopped dwelling in her grief. She stopped trying to make sense of it and she moved on (with help from her partner and her doctors).

Diane Bojack Horseman Depression
Since it ended, I’ve seen a lot of people talking about Bojack’s depression but not nearly enough talking about Diane’s. Hers is a triumphant story of overcoming a mental illness and should not be ignored.

So, at least at a glance, it appears she is “cured” by the end of the series. Does this mean she no longer has depression? No, but it means she has taken control of it. She is in a much better place because she now allows herself to be happy rather than following her more destructive instincts.

Depression Comes from Somewhere, Even if It Doesn’t

Okay, my last point: Depression may not really come from anything. Current medical science tells us it is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain – meaning there could be no real cause. A person in a healthy, functional home can develop depression.

That said, for many people, depression has its roots in cold hard reality. Let’s go back to Bojack. His trouble started with his parents – who were abusive, neglectful, and a handful of other terrible adjectives. As such, Bojack was told he was worthless at a young age and never really got over that. Likewise, Diane came from a similar background. Her father was also not great.

My point is, your character will likely have a cause for their depression, even if said event/person is not the real cause at all. They will believe it. Bojack believes his family messed him up (hard to argue that he’s wrong).

In the end, however, depressed characters are more likely to blame themselves than any external force. They see themselves as flawed, weak, and broken. If bad things happen – it is only because they deserve them.

Keep this in mind when you’re writing depression in your stories. It is a complex monster that should be treated with the intricacy it deserves. If you want your character to have an illness they can all of a sudden recover from – give them a cold. Fighting depression is an exhausting struggle and sadly not one that everyone wins.

Don’t take shortcuts. It is a human fight and thus worth writing about.

Why Writers Should Watch Bad Movies

Writers watch bad movies

While it may sound strange to say, there is a whole part of our culture who enjoy watching bad movies. I should know: I’m one of them. Heck, I even go so far as to make it a social activity. Bad movie nights are a regular event in my household. So, the obvious question is: Why do I (and many others) do it?

Continue reading Why Writers Should Watch Bad Movies

What Writers can Learn from Netflix’s Godzilla Trilogy

Godzilla anime trilogy

When you’re a writer, every and any piece of writing can serve as a lesson for how to write (or in this case not write) a story. We often think of books as natural learning tools – after all, a common message for writers is that every writer must do two things: write a lot and read a lot. That said, lessons come from every form of storytelling, including comics and screenplays.

The Godzilla franchise is the longest running major motion picture series in existence. With a current 34 movies released (one more due out in May), Godzilla has firmly resonated with international audiences for decades. That’s a success story that any storyteller should note. Recently, the king of the monsters went animated for the first time in his film history.

The results…pretty mixed. Reviews and fans are divided on what to think of Polygon Pictures’ anime trilogy. It’s widely available on Netflix so if you haven’t seen it, you can give it a watch. I personally can’t  really recommend it for entertainment purposes.

For writing instruction, however, well – this new Godzilla series provides some cautionary tales of what can go wrong during scripting.

The Importance of Building a Protagonist

Every story revolves around some kind of a protagonist. They don’t need to be a hero – they don’t even need to be good – they are simply our point of view character. The entirety of the story is laid out through their perspective (bias). The best protagonists resonate with the audience.

We feel their struggles, experience their doubt, and want them to succeed. Think of Charlie Brown – we want him to do well and be happy, even when we know he won’t. He’s endearing to us as readers.

In the Netflix Godzilla anime trilogy, we get Haruo:

Godzilla Haruo

In case you’re wondering, he’s as charming as his disposition suggests. I put it forth that Haruo is not a strong protagonist. He struggles sure – he is up against Godzilla, one would hope there is a challenge. Haruo, however, is not sympathetic – but I get the impression they want him to be.

Right away, we’re introduced to a young Haruo as he loses his parents to Godzilla. Shortly thereafter, Haruo also loses his grandfather. That’s a lot of loss. No wonder he scowls all the time.

The problem with Haruo, in my opinion, is that he feels artificial. In each film, he can be characterized via one emotion. In the first film, it’s determination. Haruo is driven to kill Godzilla, so much so that we never see him reflect on anything else. Yeah there’s brief flashes to his life before (and we’re told how much Haruo hates living in defeat), but we don’t really see his struggle. This is in part because the whole crew seemingly loves him – everyone supports Haruo, even the people who don’t.

Despite opening the film by being incarcerated, Haruo is always at the center of the action and often in a position of power. Without seeing his struggle – besides cliche “my parents are dead!” moments – Haruo does not seem to have reason for his mad passion.

Let this be a lesson: It is okay to have zealot protagonists, but the danger here is they may be unreliable/unsympathetic and feel one dimensional. To get the audience firmly behind them, we have to see exactly where they came from/what lead them to this path. If we don’t, then they may be better off as a side character.

Ahab is fascinating in Moby Dick, but part of that is because he is seen through Ishmael’s eyes.

Bad Character Writing can be Sexist

I make no assumptions about the writers/directors of these movies. I am not calling them (as people) sexist. Their writing, however…geezy creezy.

Female characters are few and far between in this trilogy. There is an obligatory female soldier, the two Mothra priestesses, and…that’s it. Three movies, three female characters – and two of them are interchangeable twins.

It’s more than this, though, that raises the “sexism” flag. When writing a character, you must always keep in mind agency. What is agency? How the character pushes or changes the plot.

For instance, in the second movie – the female soldier (Yuko), falls into a trap and must be rescued. She has no agency in this scene, merely serving to establish a scenario for Haruo to be the hero. Despite being a trained soldier, she squeals and does very little in the way of self-preservation.

Oh, she is also romantically interested in Haruo…as are the priestesses. Yep, evidently he’s just a lady killer. Must be all that talk about how Godzilla must die – really compelling stuff.

Haruo Yuko Godzilla
There’s a lot of chemistry here. Look at how their scowls match.

To be fair, all the characterization in these films is pretty weak (remember when I said Haruo gets one emotion per movie?) but the danger comes when doing female characters. Sexism is real and has a long sad history and, if you’re not careful as a writer, you can add to it.

I don’t know if the writers of these movies were aware of just how token their female representation was, or just how many stereotypes it played into, but nevertheless – here we are.

How to Manage Audience/Reader Expectations

One of the biggest reasons that many Godzilla fans dislike these anime movies is the lack of, well, Godzilla. The Big G is more of a presence in the films than an actual character. While he has a fair amount of screen time, most of it is spent with him just standing around or walking very slowly.

Since the films take place on a forest-covered future Earth, there’s no real destruction either. It removes the stakes as Godzilla trudges on. Yeah, he’s probably stepping on trees but…who cares?

In addition, Godzilla films are known for their monster fights and the anime film teased all of Godzilla’s biggest rivals (Ghidorah, Mothra, and Mechagodzilla) returning in prominent roles. And Godzilla fights…exactly one of them, if this can be called a fight:

Godzilla Ghidorah Planet Eater
To be clear, an actual video of this footage would not feature much more in the way of movement.

I for one am okay when Godzilla films subvert expectations (there are 34 movies, after all). That said, I understand the audience frustration when – after teasing Mechagodzilla for a film – we only get a generic futuristic battle city that we’re told was once Mechagodzilla (really).

It also reduces the threat of Godzilla to portray him as a colossally slow, rarely active threat. I know he’s giant but the Earth is a big place – couldn’t they just avoid him?

The trilogy was sold as a story about a world ruled by Godzilla, a “planet of monsters.” It felt like a truly barren (read as boring) world.

The Dangers of Exploring High Concepts

So what does the Godzilla trilogy do with its three films since it isn’t developing characters or showcasing monster brawls? IDEAS!

Get ready for three long philosophical outpourings, some of it lecture, some of it debate. And, to be fair, some of it works. I especially enjoyed the climax of the second film, where the question becomes “Is it worth it to give up your humanity to destroy a monster?” The plot implies that, by crossing this line, Haruo will become the very thing he has sworn to destroy. It’s interesting and it feels specific enough in the context to be an intelligent espousal on common Godzilla themes.

Godzilla philosophy anime
One of the alien races decides to turn itself into machines to defeat Godzilla.

However, this film trilogy shoots for the stars more than once, and – more ofen than not – ends up missing entirely. Unfortunately, the biggest disaster comes at the end when the film tries to imply that all forms of human ingenuity and technological curiosity are evil and will only end with the creation of a monster.

Yep – all inventions lead to war. That seems to be the closing lesson. If it sounds like general, broad-based garbage, it is because it is. What’s sad is this lesson has been done in films – and done correctly. The original Planet of the Apes is famous for how well it handles man’s self-made destruction.

The film directly creates ties between nuclear war and the apes ascension. The Godzilla trilogy tries to do this as well, only Godzilla does not appear until well after the first usage of nuclear weapons. He comes in the 21st century for…reasons? It is very unclear and therefore creates a number of causes. Is it war? Climate change? Pollution?

Something awakens Godzilla and the final film tries to tell us it was the atom bomb…but he woke up sixty years too late. Of course, if he had risen directly post WWII, well then they never could have done all the space stuff. I mean they could have but it would all have had to look retro and stylized – you know – visually interesting.

When tackling high thought concepts, everything needs to be air-tight. Get specific, get down into the details. Don’t just have characters talk about war and peace like they want to be Tolstoy.

Overall, the Godzilla anime trilogy on Netflix is an interesting failure. There are some things I enjoy very much but the films trade too much for too little. I personally would have preferred more developed characters and a more living world to all the lecturing and science-babble that takes place in the films. The dueling alien philosophies were interesting but ultimately felt overbearing and plot controlling – mostly because they were the main focus rather than being a charming side addition to world lore.

Of course, the wonderful thing about art is its all subjective! If you don’t agree with me, that’s cool. I just hope you take the lessons I suggested with you on your writing – they will most definitely help.