Broken Characters and Mental Illness

Good Fiction Needs Broken Characters: A Personal Essay on Mental Illness

Good fiction needs broken characters.

It’s a powerful rule. Like all other rules, people who know what they’re doing can happily ignore it. But generally, I think it’s a rule worth respecting. Because broken characters remind us that we’re not alone.

Broken characters do stupid things. They drive conflict – the heart and engine of any narrative – because their messy emotions get in the way of the nonexistent Reasonable Person. We love them because none of us are perfect. They remind us that we’re not alone when we want to hate someone rather than be a saint, or when we want to scream into the wind rather than meditate.

And we are them.

Broken characters drive story. I’ve done my fair share of yelling at oblivious characters who decide to walk into the haunted house and dismiss the rustling sound as a cat. Some may indeed be too stupid to live. Some do end up dying. But I’ve realised as I’ve grown older and more anxious that we have to respect that instinct, wherever it came from, to step out of our comfort zones and start a story. To start change. From my comfortable couch with my hot cup of tea, I can criticise as much as I want. But broken characters always try. They strive. Some fail. But some succeed. And in doing so, they show us how to risk it all to find love, overcome our fears to slay the dragon, or mediate between parties and win peace after a thousand years of intergalactic war. They help us to face the evil kings ruling over our own minds, to recognise the sly counsellors, and to trust the wretched thieves with skills we need. And in real life, they help us face the truth. That none of us are perfect.

It has come to my attention recently that I’m more broken than I realise.

I am many stereotypes jammed into an overachieving Chinese-Australian woman. I thought I was getting better as I got older. More rational. I studied psychology. I read and reread Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (still awesome and highly recommended). On top of this, I am a lawyer, which means I’ve spent several years learning to think about all the things that could go wrong in a given situation. This has, unsurprisingly, greatly encouraged my turn toward pessimism. I am not ashamed of that. It’s a useful skill that more people should learn. It’s only when we know the dangers that we can actively plan to avoid them. Rationally, I’m in the best position I have ever been.

My squishy emotions are not cooperating.

On the outside, my life is going great. On the inside… not so much. I’ve apparently been grinding my teeth in my sleep for months, which I didn’t realise until my jaw locked shut. It remains locked after months of physiotherapy, an expensive splint, and constant recommendations to “Not talk too much” and “Maybe try breathing or mindfulness.” I’m looking at surgery in two and a half weeks. Each time I got bounced from medical specialist to medical specialist, they have asked me what I do. When I tell them I’m a lawyer, they sigh or make a little “oh” sound. The next person who tells me to try breathing deeply when I have an anxiety attack may or may not get punched in the jaw.

I am sick.

Two or three times a month, the black dog comes and stays for a day or two. Sometimes the monster in my chest lashes out, squeezing my lungs and stomach and making me feel like I’m going to die. Paralysing me. Making me drown in anxiety until I giggle from the pain of it. And then because I’m trying to be normal and control it, I try those fucking deep breathing exercises and end up swallowing everything down until it turns to ashes and poison in my gut.

This is not rock bottom, not by any means. I have seen something close to rock bottom, and I’m glad I’m not there at the moment. But when I’m in that place of mental illness, of not being ok, it is still an erosion. I have built myself cliffs of cool, scientifically-backed logic and cognitive patterns, and they keep getting worn away by the howling wind. I am more broken than I should be. Than I thought I was. And the perfectionist in me is furious. So is the rationalist. These emotions make no sense. I tell myself I am an idiot. I am a failure.

That is when I remember that I’m not alone. We are not alone. The World Health Organisation has estimated that 1 in 4 people worldwide will at some point be affected by mental or neurological disorders. That is an absolutely staggering number. It means that when we think that nobody can possibly know what we’re facing, or that we’re sick and weird and abnormal and nobody would ever understand, that in reality, someone in your family is going through something similar. Someone who shops at the same grocery store. Someone at your school. Someone at your work. There are so many people struggling with mental illness, and we have many communities of support out there if we look for them. There are hotlines and internet forums. There are government programs and not-for-profit organisations. They are there if you need them, and I encourage you to try. They all have their problems. They are all imperfect. Many suffer from a critical lack of funding. But there are so many of them that the chances of you finding someone who can help you are good.

And there is something else that I know will always help me. Stories are no substitute for professional help, but they are something that can make the day to day living with mental illness more bearable. When I open a book or start a film, I know that my heroes and many good characters in fiction are right there beside me, living imperfect lives and scrabbling desperately to stay afloat. They have money issues. They have their alcohol addictions. They have their torn and tattered families and their bitter mothers haunting the spare room. They live with their ghosts. They feed them. They hide tears under forced smiles. They are generally more comfortable knifing people than talking to them. They love and they lose, again and again.

So to those of us who are also broken, broken characters tell us that it’s ok. That maybe this is a sign of a journey that we need to take. And if we’re careful, if we gather our allies and seek out the words of wisdom and don’t stand too close to a cliff while baiting a villain or believe that things will only ever get worse, then maybe we can make it.

Good fiction needs broken characters. So if you are broken, if you too look at yourself in the mirror and see the cracks forming… then you’re in good company. And all of us still have a compelling, rich, and fulfilling story ahead.

Leave a Comment