Oct 22 2008
1. PLEASE DON’T USE ANY MENTAL DISORDERS YOU HAVE. It will probably be harder for you to determine what your readers will think about the character if you’re on the inside looking out. Using your own conditions may also raise severe authorial-distance problems. Personally, I’d lean towards a quick rejection on these submissions unless I was TOTALLY convinced that the author was writing something other than a glorified version of his life.
1.1. If you are dead-set on using a mental disorder you have, please pull out all the stops to differentiate the character from you. For example, maybe the character is really, really bad at some things you pride yourself on, has a different personality, makes mistakes you wouldn’t, makes choices you find unlikable/hard to sympathize with, etc. If the author is unwilling to differentiate himself from the character, sadly the story is probably a wish-fulfillment fantasy–dead on arrival in the publisher’s office.
2. Try to keep the character’s mental condition from overwhelming his other traits. Readers tend to prefer characters that are well-rounded and have several traits that interact in interesting ways. In contrast, a character that’s dominated by a trait like “crazy” is probably just a caricature that’s hard to like.
3. Please work especially hard to make a mentally ill character likable. Making the character sociable will really help readers sympathize with him. A character that’s, say, unusually concerned about his own mortality will seem much less cold if he’s friendly, empathetic and/or interacts with other characters normally. For example, Flowers for Algernon did an excellent job of softening a mentally damaged character by making him friendly.
4. Using a mentally ill character will seriously affect the tone and marketability of your work. That doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to sell your work (ahem, see Flowers for Algernon), but it’s something you will have to keep in mind. For example, if your main character has a mental disorder, you’d probably want to mention that in your synopsis and backcover blurb to make sure that you were reaching the right readers.