1. Shbooblie
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    Shbooblie Contributing Member

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    Writing from the viewpoint of a depressed character...without being a complete downer?!?

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Shbooblie, May 17, 2015.

    So my MC is writing about his past battles with depression in quite graphic detail (he talks about drug abuse and suicide attempts). I'm trying to write it in a way that is very matter of fact and with some humor as I don't want him to seem whiny and self indulgent. His motivation for writing his story is basically just for something to do, he's not necessarily writing for anyone else.
    I was just wondering if you thought making a severely depressed main character is a major boo-boo as from the onset people will see him as a big whiny moaner and turn people away from the story. Has anyone else on this forum written a main character with depression and if so how have you approached it?
     
    Last edited: Jun 17, 2015
  2. Woof
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    Woof Contributing Member

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    I read an excellent and very creative autobiographical book about depression called Sunbathing in the Rain by poet Gwyneth Lewis. It was written very humanly but without an ounce of self-pity, relatable. It might give you some ideas. She speaks of people, herself, and the relationship with depression in very natural terms; as though it is weather, storms, water: things that are wholly external to the self though they affect it. I found it effective and translatable.

    As long as it's not the only notable thing about the character, and an illness not a defining 'personality trait', I think you'll be fine.
     
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  3. Shbooblie
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    Shbooblie Contributing Member

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    Thanks Woof, that's really helpful, I'll be sure to check that book out, it sounds really interesting.
     
  4. BrianIff
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    BrianIff I'm so piano, a bad punctuator. Contributor

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    I don't know much about that in fiction, but I often see memoirs of the topic get high-profile publicity. If anything, I'd be prepared for higher interest due to depression's prevalence.
     
  5. jodie_nye9663
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    jodie_nye9663 Member

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    From what you've described it sounds like this story will read a little like a diary? Or a combination between a diary and an autobiography?

    If so, you could maybe introduce a comical, quirky sub-character. Perhaps a close friend, a sister, a supportive mental health nurse or even better a fellow patient, maybe from a support group.

    Someone your MC sort help or comfort from during the low times. Such a character could lighten the darkness a little. Your MC could portray his/her darkest moment and then relive comical moment/suggestion in an internal monologue style. Just a suggestion that might help bring the sadness with a pinch of salt.
     
  6. Shbooblie
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    Shbooblie Contributing Member

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    He went to a therapist who encouraged him to keep a diary to help him think of things he'd like to talk about in sessions so hes kind of flicking between his diary and the present so it is a diary/autobiography combination. The main story arc is that he meets someone who arguably has it worse off than him but she still manages to maintain a positive outlook on life and he learns to be more positive and move on with his own life. They kind of help each other out a lot, so once this happens the story gets a lot lighter and he starts feeling more normal. Thanks jodie_nye, your comments have been exactly what I was planning to include so that's very encouraging. I was just reading it back and to me it didn't sound whiny but I don't really know how it would read to someone who's just meeting the character with no context as to how he is this way.
     
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  7. m.j.kane
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    m.j.kane Member

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    It's difficult to write a good depressed character because people generally like proactive, strong-willed characters, and whiners are one of the biggest turn offs. So I can definitely see where your concern is coming from. I'd say a strong character voice is a must for such a character. If a character has strong voice, even if you break all the other rules in making them a sympathetic character, I think people will still be hooked. More specifically, to have a nice immediate POV with heavy emphasis on how the character sees and describes things in their own unique way. I also think a bit of humor would be a good thing. The easiest and safest form of humor is to poke fun at yourself (or in this case the character). Although humor is not essential if you can't see it in your character.
     
  8. Shbooblie
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    Shbooblie Contributing Member

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    He's definitely a funny guy so humor is something I can use. I'm trying to avoid 'woe is me' statements and just make him tell it how it is, like this is his dysfunctional life so he just has to get on with it. He's quite hard on himself and I'm hoping that extends to a lack of self-pity as well. I'm trying to write it like : dark, light, dark, light instead of solid doom and gloom all the way through, so it's not a total downer. It's just hard to know if i'm actually doing it right! Thanks though m.j.kane, that's really helpful to me :)
     
  9. RachHP
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    RachHP Contributing Member

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    If your MC is talking about his depression in the past tense, then I'd argue the delivery won't be coloured by it. If he's recovered from his worst bouts then his personality, not the depression, will be the greatest influence on how he's talking and that will determine whether your reader's hate him or not. As long as he isn't cloying then I can't see why he'd be dismissed as a 'whiner'.
    About the depression itself: I'd decide upfront whether your MC has an illness, or was reacting to a traumatic incidence. Clinical depression or any variation of the chronic illness kind doesn't need a "legitimate reason" to occur. It's just an illness that in many ways boils down to chemistry. If your MC experiences depression because their wife died or whatever, I'd say you're dealing more with the grief cycle and that (in my experience) is quite different.

    It might be worth researching CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy), that has a lot to do with taking negative thought patterns and reframing them/gaining perspective. If the therapist suggested he write a diary, that could be the type of treatment he's receiving.
     
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  10. Shbooblie
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    Shbooblie Contributing Member

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    Thanks RachHP. I'd say it was a grief thing, but he is trying to dismiss it as an illness and trying to dull it with anything he can try (drugs, alcohol, self harm etc). I worded it wrong in my first post. I didn't mean "legitimate" as in those who suffer from a chemical imbalance don't have a legitimate reason, I just meant that he's not an angsty teenager type character who is just depressed for the sake of it or looking for attention so apologies for my poor wording! I know a bit about CBT from my own experiences so I was definitely going to include that as part of his treatment.

    I'm trying to set the scene a bit with accounts of what kinds of things he got up to on his worst (and better) days so a lot of reference is made to his mood and how he used to perceive everything around him, it's hard to write this without being quite negative. It is retrospective so hes kind of looking through his diary with a bit of shame and a bit of dark humor so I'm hoping that will work to prevent any 'cloying'. As long as you guys think it's achievable (with the right techniques) then I will go for it! Thank you.
     
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  11. jodie_nye9663
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    jodie_nye9663 Member

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    What about traumatic stress disorder? You can get CBT for that and it would explain the grieve connection to his illness.

    I had CBT for obsessive compulsive dissorder, although it is a serious mental health illness it also has comical appeal. There are loads and loads of variations for OCD. A lot of people think its just cleaning but it can be obsessions with anything!
    This is why I suggested the quirky character, meeting others with more embarrassing forms of OCD helped me feel better, that sounds mean but its true.

    Stress and depression can make illnesses like OCD worse. They can also be side effects, so its a never ending cycle! A lot of people also think you either have OCD or you don't, but OCD can be the side effect (coping mechanism) for things such as grief, anxiety or depression ECT...

    The therapist could also set your character funny and strange home assignments. For example during CBT, my therapist once set me a homework to go into a public restaurant and use a USED knife and fork from a STRANGER.
    He also once set me a homework to remove all clocks from my home for a WEEK! No watch, no phone clock and no asking people for the time. I was like a junky trying to find the time. Of course I was able to cheat here and there, but for the most part I stuck to the rules (but only because all my friends and family were making sure I couldn't check the time).

    It's just an idea and although it would have to be written carefully, as to not offend people by making fun or making light of such conditions. It would bring humor.
     
    Last edited: May 18, 2015
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  12. Hubardo
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    Hubardo Contributing Member Contributor

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    These ted talks might give you ideas:



     
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  13. Shbooblie
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    Shbooblie Contributing Member

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    I suppose he could have a bit of PTSD, he's seen a lot of troubling things. The assignment idea is something I had thought about. I remember being told to challenge any negative thoughts and writing down reasons why they might not be true, I suppose the therapist could suggest something like that.

    Thanks for your suggestions jodie, I appreciate you telling me such personal details to help me out with my story :)

    And thanks for those videos Hubardo, I'm going to watch them before my next writing session (which I'll probably do when I should really be revising! whoops)

    There's one thing that is kind of a barrier between him getting appropriate treatment, he is only going for it to see how far he can get without discussing his one big secret so he ends up quitting therapy after a while. His depression is not the ultimate focus of the story just a part of it
     
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  14. Hubardo
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    Hubardo Contributing Member Contributor

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    Also bare in mind that many of the canonical writers we all revere were depressed or bipolar or whatever. That said, his journal can be interesting regardless. Virginia Woolf, Hemingway etc, there's a wiki page on depressed or mentally I'll writers I'm pretty sure.
     
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  15. Shbooblie
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    Shbooblie Contributing Member

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    That's a good point. I think I may have actually come across that Wikipedia page whilst doing some research on the subject.

    I'm just going to say there's more to him than he initially lets on so the story will turn out quite a bit different to other work I've read (I actually looked for a story similar to this one cause I wanted to read onet but couldn't find any so decided to try writing one instead!)
     
  16. aClem
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    aClem Active Member

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    I personally suffered from rather serious depression, and I not only hid it from most folks, but even impressed some folks with my sense of humor. I didn't necessarily laugh or smile a lot, but my ability to say funny things didn't disappear. And I would use as an even better example, Robin Williams. He was about as nice and funny and lovable as anybody, and he was depressed enough to kill himself.

    I think you can keep things from being TOO much of a downer if you limit the MC's internal dialog and focus on events and dialog. You don't have to avoid depression but you can avoid overdoing it by focusing on the character's "positive" traits, such as kindness, generosity, consideration, etc., assuming these are part of his/her makeup.
     
  17. Shbooblie
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    Shbooblie Contributing Member

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    Further to this question, (and because I don't want to make a new thread on this) do you think it would be likely that the therapist would only examine the parts of his diary that he want them to see or would they want to see all of it? If he said that a page was private would they insist on reading it or leave it alone?
     
  18. Rhys
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    Rhys Member

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    My brother has depression; their thoughts are just the same as most other people, except a little more pessimistic (and that can be a source of comedy if you write it properly). You should also keep in mind that most people with depression also suffer from other conditions like anxiety and agoraphobia and are not always good at speaking in public/to strangers.
     
  19. BrianIff
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    BrianIff I'm so piano, a bad punctuator. Contributor

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    They would respect that boundary, though they would at least ask if it was about harming themselves or others. They might ask if that portion is disturbing to the client.
     
    Last edited: Jun 15, 2015
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  20. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    I hate to break it to ya but depression is a pretty big downer :p

    Like someone else said, if he's speaking of it in past tense it'll be fine to treat it fairly lightly. Often people who've been depressed for a long time will have a pretty sardonic take on it even while they're in the depths - many many comedians have talking about their depression, using it for fodder in their comedy. Also keep in mind that depressed people will still have their highs and lows, can still have fun and laugh, it just might feel empty afterwards or the memory will fade. In the higher moments he might think about how silly and irrational his depressive thoughts are, put them into perspective.

    Allie Brosh's Adventures in Depression comics (one and two) might be a good read for both understanding a depressive brain and deriving comedy from it. If you want to you can PM me with more specific questions, I'm not super comfortable talking about it in the thread but I've dealt / am dealing with depression for pretty much all my life and ended up studying psychology as a sort of coping method, so I like to think I know my stuff :> Granted everyone's going to experience their illness a little differently, but I might be able to give you some insights or whatever.
     
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  21. No-Name Slob
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    No-Name Slob Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    The way I see it, you have two options: make him a hilarious Eeyore character by playing into the dark humor of it all, or make him an omniscient being, who lives in the sometimes depressing absolute truth.

    Nick Carraway was a pretty depressing character, but he was right. He highlighted the absurdity of privilege, without being a total downer.
     
  22. Shbooblie
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    Shbooblie Contributing Member

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    Thanks guys, you've all been so helpful and thanks @izzybot for being so candid. I'm definitely going for a sardonic take on it and he does approach it with a sort of dark humor. I've had some experience with depression myself (both personally and with loved ones) so I'm very much trying to draw on that as much as I can. Thanks for being so helpful with this.

    Those comics you suggested @izzybot are greatly helpful too.
     
  23. Dagolas
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    Dagolas Banned

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    Everyone's experienced depression.
     
  24. ladyphilosophy
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    ladyphilosophy Member

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    This is sort of off-topic, but I have to say this is the sort of thing which has always bugged me about people talking about depression and other mental illnesses - how we always view it as needing a "legitimate reason". Depression is an illness. One does not need a legitimate reason to be depressed. I say this because having suffered from depression I have in the past had people suggest to me that I somehow don't have a right to be. Depression doesn't have to be triggered by life events, it can simply be a chemical imbalance, and everyone's experience is different so people really need to learn to withhold judgement. The whole idea of "legitimacy" when it comes to mental illness is really just increasing the stigma against sufferers and isn't really helpful.

    As for writing about depression, I have grappled with similar issues. How to make the character's experience relateable and realistic without being too whiny and also keeping the reader's interest? It takes a lot of skill as a writer to achieve. The experience of depression tends to be one of stagnation and dullness so it is tricky to make that appealing to readers, but I believe it can be done. Stuff like showing rather than telling, using humour when appropriate, etc. Instead of telling the reader that your character feels miserable, try to show it through their behaviours and in their interaction with other characters. Be original and try to not make your writing feel too stagnant or repetitive - even though depression can often feel this way.

    I think most of all it's just practice. I understand the trials of attempting to balance realism with interestingness when it comes to writing about mental illness, because the experience of depression isn't really fun, and it is a real challenge to make that appeal to readers.
     
  25. Dagolas
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    Dagolas Banned

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    EVERYONE, literally everyone is going to claim they've been through depression.
     

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