Portrayals of Mental Health In Genre Fiction

Portrayals of people with mental illnesses have come a long way. From variety to accuracy to ending stereotypes.

In the titular panel at WorldCon2019, Alasdair Stuart, Penny Jones, Dr. Glyn Morgan, and Devin Madson, discussed who gets it right… and who gets it wrong.

Why Are There More Portrayals of Mental Illness In Genre Fiction Today?

  1. People are more comfortable discussing it
  2. Nearly everyone will suffer at some point in their lives, even if it’s just temporary stress
  3. People are being rewarded for opening the discussion
  4. The audience is welcoming

What Informed Older Portrayals of Mental Illness?

  1. Mental illness as a reaction to trauma was accepted — it had an external reason.
    • Rod Serling of the original Twilight Zone’s work was often based on his WW2 experience, characters named after friends he’d lost
  2. Murderers and manic pixies were given mental illness as reasons people could do horrific things

Who Got It Wrong?

Some illnesses are hard to make palatable, like schizophrenia. Some are misused or misrepresented like psychopaths. And some, start off strong, but then stumble and disappoint us.

  1. Sheldon from The Big Bang — seems like an autistic stereotype, but the writers claim it’s not, so claim they’re not negatively portraying autism.
  2. Drax from the Guardians of the Galaxy — set him up in the first movie as a great autistic/Aspergers portrayal, but then turned him into mere comic relief.
  3. Fat Thor — Fans debate if he was a punchline or still worthy
  4. ‘Magical lab technician’ – CSI/House/etc – using their illness as a plot device

Who Got It Right?

  1. City in the Middle of the Nights – Charlie Jane Anders – PTSD
  2. The Calculating Stars – Mary Robinette Kowal – Anxiety
  3. City of Lies – Sam Hawke – OCD
  4. Station Blue – (Audio Drama) – Bipolar
  5. The Far Meridian – (Audio Drama)
  6. Bright Sessions – (Audio Drama) – Empathy
  7. Gone – (Audio Drama) – Running low on meds
  8. Sleeping Beauties – Stephen King
  9. Hereditary – Psychosis
  10. American Horror Story
  11. Vast Horizon – PTSD
  12. Brooklyn 99
  13. The Crow Garden
  14. Final Approach
  15. Shutter Island
  16. Planetfall – Emma Neuman
  17. Emma Donahue

What Do People Want To See More Of?

  1. More.
  2. Aspergers
  3. Better portrayals of early treatment — before things hit crisis level
  4. Trauma — is resolved too easily (unless it’s a character quirk)
  5. Relapse NOT seen as a failure, just as a thing that happens and has to be taken care of.
  6. Postpartum depression

Mental Illnesses As A Sign Of Their Time

Some illnesses are triggered by environmental factors. Some are diagnosed based on limited information. The panel discussed how mental illnesses used to be designated and what might the future hold for humanity?

  1. Different diagnoses — we used to think epilepsy was a mental illness. Now we can treat it. As we learn more about the root causes, hopefully, we can help more people live better lives.
  2. Isolation

What about you?

Where do you see genre fiction getting mental illness right? Where do you see them messing up big time?

What do you want to see more of?

And what do you think the future will hold?


In the Background: Class in YA Fiction

In the real world, the social class we come from can have far-reaching consequences into our lives: from the jobs we hold, to the things that worry us, to our long-lasting health. Getting class, and its consequences right, can be tricky to do.

In the titular panel at WorldCon2019, Marieke Nÿkamp, Avery Delany, Caroline Hooton, and Victoria Lee discussed the ways their class upbringing compared to their current social class, and the implications inherent in that.

How The Classes Differ

Most of us are not rich. But the differences between working class and middle class can be easily missed if you’re not paying attention.

When the working class is even seen by those outside it, it’s typically through a political lens: either the lazy bums, looking for a handout. Or the poor, unfortunate who needs charity.

Working class

  • Social mobility is rare
  • You don’t always know where your next meal is coming from
  • Your parents are more likely to need help with bills than be able to help you out in case of emergency (groceries, sudden bills, job loss, ER visits)
  • One bad week is the difference between a rented home and life on the streets
  • Accents and expected behaviors are different — and failure to adhere can cause people to discount you
  • Attendance at events that can help your career can easily be beyond your financial means
  • Health conditions, because of inadequate health care, not enough time to rest, and/or physically demanding jobs
  • Transport is either public, rides from friends, or a car that isn’t in great shape
  • Don’t always have hot water. Or electricity.
  • Accent and speech patterns are looked down on, and seen as something to hide when not home
  • Diverse

Middle Class

  • Social mobility — down or up (at least as far as upper-middle class) is normal.
  • When things are bad, you eat cheap non-nutritious meals
  • If something goes wrong, your parents can usually help. (Car repairs, rent, bail, or at least a bag of groceries)
  • Far more homogeneous

How Is Class Represented in YA?

Often, we’ll see either the aristocracy, the middle-class, or the temporarily poor. Almost always the main characters are able-bodied and cis-gendered (their gender matches what they were declared at birth).

The ending or resolution almost always involves elevating the main character out of the working class. Implying strongly that the character growth and work deserves an “improvement”. That the working class is not something to be proud of, to strive for.

And? After one or two snafus, the ‘uplifted’ character seems to fit in seamlessly. Not finishing their meals because they’re ‘stuffed’.

If there is a diverse character, they’re usually not intersectional. They’re not disabled AND working class AND a person of color. They have one token diverse trait.

Who Is Writing? And For Whom?

Books in general and YA in specific is written by those with the time and energy to do so. Books are sold by those who have the money and energy to promote their works. Leading to very few working class authors.

Publishers look at past sales and, if they don’t see any, they assume there isn’t a market and don’t buy working class author’s works. After the success of The Hate U Give, there’s been an upswing in more working class books. But, they’re seeing them as a niche, as an issues driven book. And publishers typically only acquire one book per niche per publishing cycle.

What agents and editors see as a neutral environment, in an industry run on unpaid internships and publishing companies that are a net loss, labor of love, isn’t. People without a social net don’t even have a chance.

Many of the guest speakers from working class backgrounds, only made it to WorldCon thanks to grants and school funding. Others were denied Visas, so couldn’t even be here for the discussion. Money talks, and without it, you’re left on the outside, not even able to look in.

Worldwide, there are millions of people without access to education, much less to libraries. Think of all the stories we’re missing, because those people never had the chance to share?

How Can You Help Working Class or Diverse Writers?

How can you help mitigate the class segregation inherent in the publishing industry?

  • Share their work
  • Promote their work
  • Leave room at the table for them
  • Buy their work
  • Borrow from the library
  • Review them on Amazon
  • Contribute to their Patreon
  • Donate money to con scholarships
  • Read more diverse works
  • Host a writing workshop for them
  • More paid internships — especially remote ones
    • New York and London are expensive and challenging, even for people with money and connections.

What YA stories have you read that explored class? What did they get right? And what did they get wrong?

Do you have any other suggestions on how to help encourage diverse writers?

YA Futures

YA is big and has been since the late 90s. But the future today doesn’t look like it did even 10 or 20 years ago. What does YA science fiction readers want today?

At the titular panel at WorldCon2019, I had the opportunity to listen to the top professionals in the field discuss what they see coming. On the panel were Charlie Jane Anders, James Smythe, Eric Picholle, Fonda Lee, and Kristina Perez.

3 Things That Don’t Fit In the YA Science Fiction of Today

  1. A sense of inevitable progress
    The golden-age of science-fiction brought us flying cars and space cities. From the Jetsons to Star Trek, optimism for a better world was writ large in our stories.

    These days, we’re making our dreams a little more down to earth.
  2. Angst
    The 90s and 00s taught us that angst and cynicism were ‘grown up’ and ‘mature’. Spoiler: they not. And teenage angst when written by adults, far too often turns into teenage melodrama.
  3. Space
    With the advent of the space race, sf writers assumed our future was out amongst the stars. These days, we’re looking at our own planet and resources.

    Space, right now, is a hard-sell in YA.

10 Things In YA Science-Fiction Today

  1. Social issues
    You don’t have to evaluate them, but they should be in there.

    Related? Teens don’t need as much hand-holding or explanations when dealing with LGBTQ+ themes, versus adult readers.
  2. Near future
    Where we might be in 20 years, not 100 or a 1,000.
  3. Taking the brakes off
    With YA, you can turn emotions up to 11. As a writer, you can delve into your own neuroses and baggage and trauma on the page.
  4. Hope
    The reign of dystopia is changing. The future looks bleak and people are looking for hope.
  5. AI
    Even if we’re not there yet, we’re getting really close to being able to fake true artificial intelligence. I would say some robots are pretty close to dog-level intelligence at this point.

    And then? There’s always “the singularity”, when the first artificial intelligence becomes self-aware.
  6. Genetic Manipulation/Trans-humanism
    The science is there. It’s time to explore the moral and ethical quandaries inherent.
  7. Fun Adventures
    Doing stuff with friends to fix things, save someone or something, or just wild hijinks!
  8. Hackers
    Hackers are more and more becoming the heroes of the story.
  9. Online Friendships
    Friends aren’t always local these days. Plenty of friendships have started or moved online as distance becomes less of a constraint.
  10. Mixed media
    With text conversations and real world descriptions, mixed media storytelling is getting bigger.

Clearly, as we don’t actually have any time-travel machines, these are all guesses and YA trends change faster than any other genre.

Let me know what you think is coming for YA. Did the panelists get it right?


As always, thanks for reading and I’ll be back again soon with more writing tips and writerly musings.

Writing Motivation For Doomsday Cults

Doomsday cults have been around for a long time, probably since the dawn of civilization. Writers and readers alike have found them endlessly fascinating. But, what motivates someone to start a doomsday cult? And why do people join?

In the titular panel, Gail Z. Martin, Lisa Hawkridge, Tom Doyle, and Darrell Schweitzer discuss real world cults and how to apply them to your writing.

Who Starts Doomsday Cults?

No two doomsday cults are the same, but many leaders share similar traits.

  1. A charismatic leader
  2. A need for control
  3. A professed conviction that something is wrong in society
  4. The ability to turn anything into a sign that they were right

Why Do People Join Doomsday Cults?

For those who have never been involved in a cult, it can seem fascinating and curious, but humans aren’t that complicated.

  1. Typically, people feel drawn to doomsday cults when they are in a transitory period in their lives
    • Leaving home
    • Ending a relationship
    • Death of an immediate family member
    • Job loss
    • etc
  2. Often people who have suffered personal trauma are vulnerable, especially to someone who says they have the answers
  3. They want to believe, and feel that by joining, they will be able to avoid death. Or have a clean death. Or be rewarded in the afterlife.
  4. People enjoy feeling smarter/better/more pious than everyone else.
  5. The peace of not having to make a decision can be addictive.
  6. And some were simply born into cults.

The 5 Stages Of A Doomsday Cult

  1. Recruiting and preaching. Doomsday is often about 30 years out, because it’s not too immediate, but a generation is soon enough to feel like you should care.
  2. Members are encouraged to give away their worldly belongings, and donate their money and services to the “good of the cult.”
  3. Isolate the members from normal society and other opinions.
  4. People start to see cracks in the leader’s story, but because of the sunk-cost fallacy, often don’t want to admit to themselves, (or others), that they were duped.
  5. Doomsday arrives.

What Happens After Doomsday?

When doomsday arrives and nothing happens, the leaders and the followers are left with few options.

  1. The leaders can make something happen
    • Jonesville – Revolutionary suicide – they drank the “kool aid”
    • Aum Shinrikyo – the leaders secretly set off the sarin attacks in Tokyo, causing the ‘end times chaos’ that the faithful expected.
  2. The followers may turn to violence
    • Turn on the leaders – riot, etc
  3. The leaders may double-down
    • Claim this was ‘a test of our faith’
    • Declare they miscalculated, and move the date out a few years
  4. The followers can outlive the leader
    • Either it slowly falls apart into nothing OR
    • It becomes a religion (7th Day Adventists, some say the Mormons, others say Christianity)

A lot to think about, but somehow simpler than it feels it should be.

Note, most doomsday cults take something from reality, some tiny grain of truth, and preach it through the looking glass. Understanding what factors go into real world doomsday cults can help you create people and worlds that contain them. And remember, when writing your own doomsday cult, you need something that is believable, truth can be stranger than fiction.


Anything the panel ran out of time to mention? Anything I got wrong?

Let me know how YOU’VE incorporated doomsday cults in your writing. And your favorite fictional cult you’ve read!

And stay tuned as I share more writing tips from the over-24-hours-of-programming I hit at Balticon53.

5 Writing Tips for Making Fantasy Feel ‘Real’

If you ask a group of writers how they approach a part of their writing process, you’re going to get as many answers as there are writers–and sometimes more.

Today I’m reviewing a discussion by a group of writers on how to make fantasy feel real.

No matter if you prefer:

  • to write a story based on reality — with just enough fantastic elements to make your story work
  • to create your world from the ground up
  • to mix it up a bit

and no matter if:

  • you’re a pantser with no magic system
  • a world builder who adds the characters later
  • a white rabbit chaser til the end of the plot, when you look back and realize everything happens in ‘white rooms’ (before you edit…)
  • or your approach changes from world to world

these tips for writing fantasy worlds should work to help you draw your readers in, without invoking their sense of disbelief!


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Top 5 Writing Tips For Making Fantasy Feel Real

  1. Keep it internally consistent
    • The effort used to invoke the magic and the scope of the magic should match from spell to spell, no matter the scale.
  2. Look at economics
    • If magic gives someone an ability, someone else will come up with a way to:
      • counter it
      • sell it
      • steal it
  3. Make sure your character’s motivations make sense
    • Both for them,
    • AND for the world they live in
      • Different norms and cultural expectations exist in different times, places, social classes, and worlds
  4. Avoid Anachronisms
    • You don’t want to mentally throw people out of your story
      • Check the weaponry in that time AND place
      • Stew takes four hours to cook
      • EVEN if you’re right, if most people don’t think that happened in your technological period or location, they’ll be pulled out of the story
      • NOTE: Ignore this tip for diversity. People in the dominant culture tend to paint everything in their history with a brush to match themselves. The real world isn’t usually that segmented.
  5. If you can’t be true to a period, write around the edges
    • There are always the fringes of society, where the ‘norms’ break down
    • If your character doesn’t fit in, there’s usually SOMEWHERE they can go
      • If they’re willing to pay the price

***

How much are you willing to give to enthrall your readers with your world?

 

These notes are from the Balticon 52 panel, “Making Fantasy Feel Realistic”. The panelists were Leah Cypress, Lisa Hawkridge, Brenda Clough, and Jean Marie Ward.

Do you have any favorite tips for making fantasy seem real that I missed? Feel free to comment!

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