The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across the keyboard.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Diversity: Writing Characters with Mental Health Issues with Olivia Vetrano

Mental Health Awareness Ribbon
Mental Health Awareness Ribbon
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Writers have an enormous role to play. We entertain, but we also educate. 

In the book Wired for Story, we learn that psychological tests show that humans are predisposed to live through others’ stories in order to grow and learn. Let me give you an example. I do not go to the woods to have picnics with bears. If I saw a bear while I was eating my sandwich, I would leave my food, make a great deal of noise, hold my body as big as I could, and back my way out of the situation. While I’ve never met a bear, I've learned through stories that they are dangerous. I’ve heard of others who have encountered bears where things have not gone well. Hearing their stories and knowing what could happen if I invited a bear to my picnic may be lifesaving information. 

When our brains are being told a story, the brain rewards us by sending all kinds of happy hormones into our bodies. We read for pleasure – but biologically we developed the feel-good pleasure hormones so we want stories and thus learn to stay alive. Pretty heady stuff, huh? 

And this is  a major reason that here on ThrillWriting that I preach (probably to the choir) that it is really important to get our facts straight. People are biologically predisposed to learn from our stories. They’re learning not just the caliber of bullets or the hand position on a bow and arrow, but also how to analyze situations, how to interpret interactions, and how to respond in our real every day existence. 

Today, I have invited Olivia Vetrano to chat with us. 
LINK to Olivia's Amazon Author Page

Olivia writes with such poignancy that she physically shook my world with her book Neverland. And without giving away the plot, I will tell you that there is a medical issue therein, and I had to for peace-of-mind’s sake go and research the outcomes of the medical issue, so I knew the chances for the heroine's survival. But more about her book in a moment.

We have been working on a new research tab on "inclusivity", and Olivia is here to talk about mental health and how it is portrayed in writing and how that writing influences our society. Olivia is both a writer and someone who experiences issues with her mental health.

Fiona - 
Can you start the discussion? What do yous see as mistakes in the plot framework  that include mental health as an issue or character quality?

Olivia -
You are absolutely right in that while writers are certainly here to entertain, they must also act as educators; which is a terrifying responsibility. It led me to write what I was familiar with, what I had already lived. I figured there was no way to mess that up. 

I realized, there were other people trying to tell me my own story, and they were telling it wrong. There are many aspects of society, not just books, that try to set the stage for how mental health issues should be perceived. 

When I was finally ready to take the pen and write my own narrative, I found my platform tainted, skewed and half occupied. I grew up hearing and reading things about how a person acting in a way you didn't want made them "crazy" or "unstable". And how those were perfectly justifiable excuses to leave them behind. 

Over the years I had subconsciously built up the idea that in order to be loved, in order to make people stay, you couldn't be "crazy". Authors have vivid imaginations and with that comes the ability to be open minded. So I don't think that any kind of writer should put such a versatile topic into such tight boundaries. 

Mental health issues don't fit neatly inside the lines. They tear through the do not cross tape, and if authors are willing to move with them, they might find a story truly worth telling.

Fiona -
Let's start with the biggest myth - I'm not sure what to call it -injustice maybe. 

Someone with a metal health illness could get over it if they tried hard enough - powered through it. That's like asking a person with cancer to think there way out of that diagnosis. 

You mentioned that a narrative is already in place and it doesn't reflect your truth. What other misconceptions or responses do you see that try to identify/interpret you in ways that you wish wasn't part of our communal understanding.

Olivia -
There aren't enough adjectives to describe how I feel when I hear the way too common argument that most mental health issues are just the person's inability to cope with daily life. 

First and foremost, it hurts. A lot. But it's also incredibly embarrassing. It's like saying, some people are hit by buses and survive, but you can't handle being sad. Which is a pathetic concept. Pathetic; there's another good descriptor. There's also shame, frustration, and the uncontrollable urge to placate everyone by pretending it's all in your head (no pun intended). 

There are things I have been diagnosed with that I had an entirely different perception of before being given the actual definition by a mental health professional. I think that's because writers, and others, want certain disorders to be understood in a way that best fits THEIR story. A character has a short temper and keeps changing her mind? Let's call her bi-polar. Another character throws a fit when people don't clean up after themselves? Let's say she has OCD. And what all these misidentifications have in common is that they are all negative. 

Some of the people I have met that actually have these disorders are some of the most incredible, loving, wonderful human beings I have ever had the honor of knowing. But so many books and stories turn them into demons and encourage the readers to root for their demise, or at the very least, for the protagonist to escape them. In many instances, a character with mental illness is the Loch Ness monster of the literary world. Something you can't see with your own eyes, but is clearly the villain.

Fiona - 
When a character is given a diagnosis by a writer, besides researching the parameters of that diagnosis, what ways could an author research the ins and outs and daily impact of a diagnosis so they can portray their characters in a life like 3D way and not in a damaged cookie cutter kind of way? Do you know of resources? Your blog for example.

Olivia - 
The first thing a writer needs to realize is that no two people are going to have the same experience with a mental health disorder. While there is certainly a vast common ground between people with the same disorder, what each individual does on that ground is where writers are going to find their story. 

Blogs are definitely a good place to start (and that's not just me shamelessly self-advertising). Any form of testimony from a person who's been through a mental health disorder or is currently living with one is like research gold. Writers should also go into the research process accepting of the fact that they might not understand what they learn. One of the most comforting things I ever heard from a friend was "I don't understand what you're going through, but I want to try".

What should we writers understand that I didn't ask you?

Olivia - 
I'm insanely grateful to be part of a generation that is working so hard to erase the stigma attached to mental illness. But erasing that stigma means addressing it. And I think that's half the battle.

Mental illness is far from black and white, and there are no comfortable grey questions. I'm not sure what I would have liked to have been asked, but I do know what I'd like to say: Be flexible. Be open. Be understanding. There are so many people out there fighting invisible enemies until they're bruised and broken just to feel like a real person. There are so many people who don't feel valid; don't feel human. If writers give them the room to define themselves, they may be surprised to discover characters worthy of the leading role.

I love this interview - I think it will touch writers' hearts and make them more aware. Thank you.

This is my review of Neverland:
Read It Now LINK

It has been a long time since I have read a novel that physically affected me. Two days after I finished NEVERLAND, I can still feel the story painting over my skin. As I read Vetrano's last few words, I found myself physically shaking. I was right there in that last poignant moment of the story. As a mother, I had lived through a similar experience, and Vetrano's words brought all of those sensations vividly back to me nine years later when I thought they had been buried. After finishing this novel, I needed a long walk and some bourbon.

This book is a rose that takes time to unfold, so be patient. As it spreads its petals, the fragrance and beauty become so heady that you get to go to that magic place where reality isn't, and you just get to experience - and in this case what you get to experience is desperate hope. I found myself crossing my fingers and holding my breath. This is one of those novels that you want all of your friends to read too, so you can share the experience

Thank you Olivia.

Keep up with Olivia here:
Keep up with Olivia here:

Keep up with Olivia here:
Twitter: @oliviavetrano
instagram: @oliviarosevetrano

BLOG - The Disordered Dreamer

As always, a big thank you ThrillWriters and readers for stopping by. Thank you, too, for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.


  1. Mental illness is a huge part of my writing. I hope that together we can help erase the stigma.

  2. Discussing one of his most popular characters, Walter Mosley said, "Mouse is not evil. Mouse is mentally ill." In that moment, he changed how I regarded depiction of mental illness in my own writing. Mental illness is not a trope of villains--or otherwise unexplainable behavior (means "lazy writing"). Thanks for sharing this interview. It helps to keep to keep things in focus.