7 Tips for How to Write a Depressed Character Authentically
If you want to learn how to write a depressed character, you’re already off to a good start. You’re here, trying to understand more about what it means to live with mental illness.
See, depression is an easily misunderstood experience. The topic is common in the books, movies, and TV shows we consume, but depressed characters are often caricatures. They’re sometimes even treated as punchlines or living obstacles.
But when depression is written with care, curiosity, and a good amount of research, something magical happens.
We get engaging characters who contradict the assumptions and stigmas that run rampant in our society. As human beings, we gain deeper insight into an experience that almost definitely affects someone we love, whether we’re aware of it or not.
And people who live with depression in real life discover a sense of connection and a feeling of visibility.
Learning how to authentically write a depressed character is well worth it. It will require a little extra time and effort, but you’ll be equipped to write a meaningful novel as a result.
So don’t shy away. Commit to doing this right, starting with these seven tips.
1. Do Your Research
The most important aspect of how to write a depressed character is research. Like, even more research than you’re doing by reading this article. One guide written by one writer with her own individual understanding of depression isn’t enough.
You see, this particular category of mental illness is vast. There are several different types of depression, as well as a wide range of symptoms and treatment options. Every person who lives with depression experiences and manages the condition in their own way.
In order to create a three-dimensional character with depression, you need a three-dimensional understanding of what they’re experiencing. Fortunately, that insight has never been more accessible than it is now.
Mental health advocates have done incredible work to break down taboos surrounding topics like depression. In addition to finding countless books and articles on the subject, you can also:
- Listen to podcasts that discuss depression
- Follow social media accounts that talk about living with depression
- Watch documentaries about depression
And of course, you can speak to experts on the topic, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
I suggest collecting all your research in one location, whether it’s a physical notebook or a file on your computer. My personal go-to is Dabble Story Notes so I can keep everything right at hand while I draft my novel.
Now, with so much information out there on such a wide-ranging subject, it can be hard to know where to even begin. Here are some suggestions.
Types of Depression
Some of the most commonly known types of depression include:
- Major depression
- Persistent depressive disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Postpartum depression
- Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD)
- Psychotic depression
- Seasonal Affective disorder (SAD)
As you can imagine, the experiences associated with each of these types can vary wildly. So, if you want to know how to write a depressed character, you have to clarify what you mean by “depressed.”
Once you determine what type of depression your character is living with, get more familiar with that specific type, starting with:
What Depression Looks Like
This is a tricky one. Depression doesn’t look exactly the same from person to person, not even within the same category of depression.
Your character’s mental illness could manifest as:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Loss of interest in hobbies
- Low self-esteem
- Mood swings
- Poor appetite
- Social isolation
- Suicidal thoughts
Or about a million other things.
Also consider whether your character might have high-functioning depression. People with high-functioning depression don’t “look depressed” to others. They go out with friends, strike up conversations with strangers, and show up for work with a smile.
But privately, they experience symptoms of depression such as anxiety, low self-esteem, profound sadness, insomnia, and more.
However your character’s depression manifests, the key is to not guess what depression looks like or paint your character with one weepy brush. Every mental illness is complex, just as your character should be.
Treatment for Depression
Would your character pursue treatment for their depression? Get to know what options would be available to them for their specific condition and severity, including psychotherapy, medications, and medical procedures.
I recommend this research because treatment is often part of living with depression. How might treatment affect your character’s habits or routine? Do they experience any side effects from medication?
It’s also a way to make sure your depressed character is more than a sob story. Pursuing (or rejecting) treatment is a way to demonstrate your character’s agency in the situation. Depression is not simply happening to them. They’re actively living with it.
Living With Depression
Get to know what it’s actually like to live with the specific condition and symptoms your character has. Seek out personal essays, memoirs, podcasts, interviews, and conversations with people who are open to discussing their experiences.
Remember that “living with depression” doesn’t just refer to the bad stuff. Yes, you want to know how depression might negatively affect your character’s professional and personal lives. You want to understand what depression feels like.
But it’s just as important to learn about self-care tactics. Go beyond the standard WebMD tips (Take a walk! Practice gratitude!) and get to know how real people navigate the tough times.
What is their support system like? Do they listen to ASMR to soothe anxiety? Do they watch comedians who tell jokes about their own depression?
Get an authentic picture of life with depression.
Finally, take intersectionality into account as you investigate how to write a depressed character.
Intersectionality refers to the way multiple identities intersect to create a specific and unique experience. I know. That’s vague and abstract. To explain it using concrete examples:
Depression carries a different stigma in different cultures. In nearly every culture, men are socialized to feel shame about mental health issues. Low-income earners often have fewer treatment options.
People of color have a tougher time finding a therapist who shares their ethnic background and understands the mental health repercussions of racism. Women may have a hard time giving weight to their own emotions in a society where their feelings are tossed off as “crazy.”
Gender, sexuality, physical ability, race, immigrant status, economic class, regional culture, religion, history of abuse… all these things influence the way we relate to mental health. To write a depressed character authentically, take their full identity into account as you research their condition.
This brings me—at long last—to tip number two.
2. Ask Experts How to Write a Depressed Character
By experts, I do mean professionals like psychologists, therapists, and mental health advocates. But I’m also talking about people who are experts in depression because they’ve lived it.
See if you can connect with someone who’s already open about their experiences with depression. This might be an acquaintance who you know would be comfortable discussing it with you or someone who’s vocal about the topic on more public platforms. Maybe someone you follow on social media or heard on a podcast.
Sitting across from a real human being gives you the opportunity to ask story-specific questions and gain nuanced insight.
Just avoid asking someone to “talk depression” with you if you’ve never known them to talk depression with anyone. Honor their privacy and stick with the interviewees who are already sharing their stories.
3. Think Differently About Depression and Story Structure
The reason some depictions of depression miss the mark is because the experience of depression gets shoved into storytelling templates.
The character overcomes their depression in the end. Or their sweetheart’s love frees them from the chains of sadness. Or their depression is simply the effect of their Ghost and all they need to do is reject the Lie and embrace the Truth.
But in real life?
Depression isn't something you “solve.” It doesn’t have a nice, tidy arc. There’s no gradually rising tension followed by the battle that vanquishes depression once and for all. For many people, it’s an ongoing wave of highs and lows.
Depression cannot be fixed by true love. Also—and this is really important—depression cannot be cured through personal growth and brave decisions. It just doesn’t work that way.
Avoid crafting a storyline that claims otherwise. People who live with depression battle these assumptions constantly; no need to pile on.
As you look into how to write a depressed character, your challenge is to explore the less obvious ways to make depression part of the story. Ask yourself (and your interviewees) what victory looks like when your big obstacle is a fact of life and not a dragon to be slayed.
Perhaps more importantly, remember that you can write a depressed character whose story isn’t exclusively about depression. Just as people with physical disabilities have more going on than their disability, your depressed character can also pursue a crush, run for president, or orchestrate a heist.
4. Be Respectful
Don’t let mental illness flatten your character into a cliché or a living plot device. Avoid common pitfalls like:
Making depression tragically beautiful. You know what I’m talking about—the tear-streaked heroine who was abandoned by her father, doesn’t know she’s pretty, and just needs someone to help her see her true value.
Treating depressed characters like they’re a major drag. If you’ve ever known someone living with depression (you have, by the way), you know it’s not an “all gloom all the time” situation.
Many people with depression have days where they can’t get out of bed. They’re overwhelmed with self-loathing and the feeling that nothing matters. But they also crack jokes, offer a listening ear to those they love, play with their dog, and plan vacations.
Writing a depressed character solely to serve another character’s arc. Let me be clear: it’s fine for your character’s depression to play a role in someone else’s journey. In fact, it’s unrealistic to pretend that any of us can manage our own challenges without affecting those around us.
The problem comes when you write a one-dimensional character whose depression only exists to give another character an obstacle or opportunity for growth.
People who live with a mental illness are not obstacles. They’re ever-evolving human beings with goals, needs, and fears. Make that understanding part of how you write a depressed character.
5. Take the Journey With Them
The journey of depression may not fit neatly into the Hero’s Journey, but it is still a journey. As individuals navigate their depression, they may experience periods of denial and avoidance, as well as acceptance, discovery, and growth.
You know… the same things you want your characters to do.
So don’t get caught up in the image of depression as an unchanging pit of sadness. Consider questions like:
- What coping mechanisms might this character explore as they navigate depression?
- How does their experience with mental illness shape their relationship with themselves and others?
- How does this experience give them new strengths in addition to new wounds?
- Does your depressed character ever have to advocate for themselves? What does that look like?
- What advice would they give about living with depression? Would their go-to advice change between the beginning and end of your novel?
Let’s be honest. Identifying the journey isn’t just good advice for how to write a depressed character. It’s good advice for writing any character.
6. Be Considerate
You may not be setting out to influence culture by writing your novel. Nevertheless, when your book is out there, it inevitably becomes part of a wider discussion about depression. Especially because you’re sitting on a bestseller. (Right?)
So here are a few tips for making sure you do more good than harm.
Use respectful language. I don’t have to tell you words are powerful. It’s as true in our reality as it is in our books, and language can often perpetuate prejudice and misinformation. Make sure you’re aware of the preferred terminology when talking about depression. You can start here.
But what about in dialogue? What if a character would be more likely to use an offensive phrase?
Ultimately, it’s your call. But I’d encourage you to consider why it’s necessary. Is it helping the story? Invite input from a sensitivity reader. (We’ll get to that in a minute.)
Be aware of triggers. Consider how readers who have depression experience your story or characterization. This is especially important if you plan to depict suicide or suicidal ideation. This guide is a clear and simple introduction to portraying suicide responsibly.
Work with a sensitivity reader. This is probably the most important tip in this entire article. Before you start querying agents or clicking “publish,” share a draft with a sensitivity reader.
A sensitivity reader will identify anything that might be needlessly hurtful or triggering. They’ll also call out clichés and stereotypes, offering insight so you can write a more authentic character.
7. Don’t Shy Away
I know this may sound absurd after talking about all the ways the depiction of a depressed character could go wrong.
But rest assured, as you learn more about this condition and find the right people to help you navigate it, you’ll become more comfortable with the topic. So don’t be afraid.
Don’t be afraid to be honest about the challenges of depression. Don’t be afraid to be real about pervasive thoughts, relationship challenges, and intense internal roadblocks.
Most importantly, don’t be afraid to write a depressed character in the first place. When you know how to write a depressed character authentically, you don’t have to worry that your character will make your story “too sad.”
Instead, you’ll have the tools to show the full journey of depression—all the disappointments, devastation, victories, and growth. You’ll be equipped to offer the kind of story real-life depression survivors deserve.
And that’s huge.
So stick with it. Keep pushing yourself to understand. Bookmark this article if it will help.
Then Google again.
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