Writing Characters With Mental Health Issues

08/02/19 | By Nigel Jay Cooper
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Here on the JHP blog we share posts from out top JHP authors from across the imprints. Today is a post from Nigel Jay Cooper, author of Beat The Rain and The Pursuit Of Ordinary.

When it comes to physical health, a scratch on the knee isn’t the same as an amputated leg. A common cold isn’t the same as bacterial meningitis. Likewise, most people living with some form of atypical mental health aren’t stalkers and psychotic murderers.

Mental health is a challenging subject to address in fiction. It’s a very personal thing and the term has a history of it being used as an easy shorthand for ‘psycho’. The traditional mentally deranged antagonist is a well-trodden trope that often does nothing to explore what it’s like to live with mental illness.

As a writer, I’ve always been fascinated by shades in between. ‘Normality’ – and I use the term as loosely as it deserves – and ‘Psycho killer’ aren’t the only points on the spectrum. In fact, I suspect most of us don’t register anywhere near either pole.

Looking back, I’ve always been subconsciously fascinated by where the line is: when do everyday levels of stress, anxiety and grief trip over into something else? When does hope become delusion? When does sadness become depression? When does depression become suicidal tendency?

My first novel threw two characters together in loss and grief. While their shared pain first seemed to help heal each other, it quickly began to drive them apart and this became the crux of the novel. Was their downward spiral inexorable? Could they turn things around? Did they even realise they needed help they couldn’t give each other?

From the outset, I knew both lead characters would, at times, suffer their own mental health struggles. Yet I was equally determined these would remain undiagnosed and unacknowledged, not just by medical professions but by the characters themselves. Why? Because this was their reality and, I suspect, a reality for a lot of people.

Modern life is hard and mental health isn’t a one-size-fits-all scenario. It’s personal. It’s pendulous. The mind is a powerful thing, pulsating, evolving and changing.

By the time I came to write my second novel, I wanted to take things further. I knew my main character, Dan, had lived with various forms of mental health diagnoses since childhood. I knew that after witnessing a fatal road traffic accident he would become convinced he’d been possessed by the spirit of the man he saw die. I knew he was going to seek out the man’s wife, Natalie, to convince her of this.

If I’d approached this from the more traditional route of a potentially mentally disturbed man arriving on a widow’s doorstep, it would have been all the setup I required to follow the ‘psycho killer’ narrative. But I felt I owed Dan – and Joe, the voice in his head – more than that. I wanted to convey what it felt like for them. The confusion, the certainty, the knowledge that everyone thought they were insane when they knew they weren’t.

Of course, once I’d decided to take this on, I was terrified. Writing a character like Dan/Joe was very different to anything I’d done before. I wanted to do their experience justice. It was important to me not to offer any upbeat or glib solutions. For many, atypical mental health is a continuing part of their lives, not something quickly solved as an easy plot device.

I didn’t want Dan’s mental health to be ‘fixed’ by the end of the novel. I didn’t want it wrapped up in brown paper, secured with a beautiful crimson bow. For a lot of people, there isn’t a finite end in sight. I wanted to show Dan’s journey, not his destination.

I was also interested in the fact that not everyone is diagnosed. If they are, they aren’t necessarily correctly diagnosed. Not all medications work. Medical treatment is often an iterative process, where-by finding the right solution for an individual takes time or combinations of treatments. What works for one may not work for another.

In short, mental health is a personal journey.

I would argue that neither of my novels are about people with mental health problems. They are about everyday people living their lives. The characters are recognisable because most people at some point in their lives have suffered mental health problems whether they admit it or not. Not to the level of Dan, perhaps. Sometimes a scratched knee heals quickly and you barely notice it was there at all. Other times, it gets infected.

Nigel Jay Cooper is a writer and author, born in London, England. He now lives in Brighton (via Nottingham) with his partner, their two children and greying ginger dog. His debut novel Beat the Rain was a Roundfire bestseller and a semi-finalist in the Best Debut Author category of the Goodreads Choice Awards 2016. His second novel The Pursuit of Ordinary, is a finalist for The People's Book Prize for Fiction 2018.

'An author with a truly compelling insight into the human condition.' - Siobhan Kennedy, C4 News.

Beat The Rain book cover

Pursuit Of Ordinary Book Cover

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