Daniel Weaver on Why Mentally Ill Characters Matter

Daniel Weaver is an internationally published author of several short stories in the horror, thriller, and dark fantasy genres.  His work has appeared in various publications, anthologies, podcasts, and blogs, including notable markets such as Danse Macabre, and Morpheus Tales.  Additionally, he has served in a variety of roles for various independent publishers, including submission editor, associate editor, and public relations manager.

He has recently finished his debut novel, an upmarket thriller that presents an intense character study of an abuse survivor nestled between familiar tropes of the horror genre, which he is presently in the process of securing publication for it.

Further information about his works can be found on his website.

“I think the whole ‘mental illness’ thing is really overdone,” a fellow writer told me last year as I discussed my current novel with them.

“Aren’t you afraid you’re going to be typecast?” the same writer asked last week, as I talked about my next one.

“I really like this piece,” an editor told me in my very first rejection, “but I don’t think our readers will connect with a character who has so many issues as yours.”

“Do you really think genre fiction is the right place to explore these themes?”  an interviewer asked me, before following up with an aside: “Maybe you should try something more literary next time.”

“Why is it so important to you that she’s mentally ill?”  asked one of my closest friends, and I found it hard to answer – how could I fit so many thoughts, so many feelings, so much experience into a simple and concise response?

You have probably never heard of me, so let me preface this with an introduction:  My name is Daniel Weaver, and I am mentally ill.  In my life, I’ve had a myriad of diagnoses and labels applied to me, ranging from the simple to the severe, in an attempt to explain and treat the differences in my brain function.  I’ve had these problems for as long as I can remember, and as I understand, I will have them until I die.

As a child, I knew I was different- as far as I could tell, my classmates weren’t hallucinating, disassociating, or breaking into panic attacks on a regular basis.  And as a child, I had a very intense obsession with horror, thrillers, and genre fiction as a whole.  I didn’t grow up in the days of creature features, where the monsters were from outer space or deep in some faraway jungle.  I grew up in the 90s, where the monsters were human, and they were, more often than not, mentally ill.

I grew up watching Vince Vaughn in the Psycho remake, but I know now I am not Norman Bates.

I grew up watching Ted Levine in Silence of the Lambs, but I know not I am not Jame Gumb.

I grew up watching Jack Nicholson in the Shining, but I know now I am not Jack Torrance.

The movies I watched and the books I read told me if someone even suggested you were hallucinating, you’d lost your mind.  They told me if you were mentally ill, you were “pure and simply evil.”  They told me that mental illness was an awful thing, and if you were anything less than ‘normal,’ well, you’d better learn to fake it, unless the others found out.

Now, I’m not saying it’s normal or appropriate for a six-year-old to be watching slasher films, but I think it’s more common for kids to gravitate towards genre fiction than they would to literary fiction.  I was fifteen the first time I read Once Upon a Cuckoo’s Nest, and I was nineteen when I first watched Girl, Interrupted, and though we rented Scream and Sling Blade on the same weekend in 1997, it wasn’t until I was twenty two that I finally saw the latter.  I went through the entirety of my childhood before I saw mentally unbalanced characters presented as people: characters worthy of love, and respect, and acknowledgement of their humanity.  For my entire childhood, media was telling me that mentally ill characters, characters that I saw so much of myself in, characters that I related to were automatically evil people who were incapable of possessing even the most basic humanity.  I spent my entire childhood feeling ostracized because of a chemical imbalance in my brain and a natural reaction to trauma.

And even now, close to a decade after that revelation, I still feel alone in this struggle.  Even though I’ve surrounded myself with others who suffer from the same disorders I do, who have survived the same traumas I have, I still feel alone in this struggle.  And in a large way, that is why I write characters the way that I do.

As I child, I was writing characters with these same experiences for a way to feel less alone, but now, as an adult, I’m writing them as a way to tell others that they too are not alone.  So many people spend their lives thinking that they are broken, and they are sick, and they are alone.  I write these characters as a way of telling them that they are constantly surrounded by people who feel the same way, who experience the same things, but who are too afraid to say “this is my reality.  This is who I am,” because society and popular media make us feel like we are somehow less than human for it.  But this is my reality.  This is who I am.

So, when you ask me why it’s so important for my characters to suffer from mental illness, it’s because I don’t want another kid growing up the way I did- spending more than half their life convinced that they are bad because of things that they had no control over.

When you ask me if the themes I write about would be better suited for literary fiction, well, maybe the answer is yes.  Maybe traditional publishing, with all their metrics, and their formulas, and their specificities won’t think it’s appropriate to put such “heavy themes” in genre fiction, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to separate kids from relatable, sympathetic, human characters because they happen to like King more than they do McCarthy.

And when you ask me if I’m afraid I’ll get typecast if I keep writing about mental illness… well, I’d be fine with that.  I’d rather a mediocre career where I can feel passionate and proud about the product that I deliver, where I can write with honesty and authenticity, than an lucrative one where the words on the paper don’t match the words inside of me.  I’d would feel more validated having one person come to me and say “I saw myself in this character.  This is a story that I needed to hear” than to have the critics of the world call my book a masterpiece.

And no, “the whole mental illness thing” will never be overdone, not as long as nearly 20% of the world’s population suffer from severe mental illness.  The doctors tell me that the disorders I have are permanent- that means that every day of my life, I will feel the way I feel, see and hear the things I see and hear, and while it can be controlled with medications and counseling, I will never be cured of these illnesses.  But all that means to me is that every day of my life, I will look for characters and I will create characters that I can relate to, that I can empathize with, that can make me feel a little less alone, and I know that I’m not the only one who needs that.

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One thought on “Daniel Weaver on Why Mentally Ill Characters Matter

  1. This is beautifully written and I completely agree with Daniel. Mental illness isn’t something that should be hidden or played down to appease the masses. It needs to be addressed and considered and contemplated. It needs to be recognized and acknowledged and dealt with. And, it needs to be accepted as a ‘human’ problem, not a ‘monster’ problem.

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