Everyone loves a good redemption story. It is one of the aspects that I believe helped make the original Star Wars trilogy so endearing: Watching Darth Vader rise from darkness to save his son. Redemption is also a hopeful message. Not only does it assure us that anyone can become the good guy, it gives a feeling of control. If these characters are so in charge of their destiny, than maybe we can be too.
Today’s post looks at some ways to write a successful redemption arc. This is by no means a definitive “how-to.” Writing is variable and unique – pretty much every rule can be broken by someone who knows what they’re doing to achieve a powerful effect.
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.
Depression blinds Bojack to everything good in his life, instead telling him that it either:
Is a lie.
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:
Takes medication (even though it makes her heavier).
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).
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.
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?