Sanity is in the eye of the beholder in many ways, but mental problems can be a useful plot device in fantasy writing. If you have a character who is insane or in danger of becoming so, then suddenly you have a whole range of different options because it can often be difficult to predict what someone will do next if their mind isn’t quite their own. If you look at your own life, do you or any of your friends or relatives suffer from a mental illness – be it mild or severe? Or have they ever been on the edge? The number of different mental illnesses and conditions are wide and varied, and have a broad range of symptoms and treatments. Putting a little bit of research into a specific condition can help you to understand the problems someone faces if they are suffering from it and be better able to describe it in your stories. For example:
- Those with bi-polar (or manic depression) can have wild mood swings, delusional aspirations, be suicidal and perform self-harm.
- Those with an obsessive compulsive disorder tend to be anxious and perform tasks repetitively without need.
- People with schizophrenia have difficulty recognising what is real, including their own identity.
- Autism inhibits social interaction and speech, and often perform tasks repetitively.
However as many fantasy stories are set in a more primitive time, although you may use the symptoms of a real-life mental problem, you would expect that the cure for the condition and how people react to it will be very different from today.
Firstly, there was little recognition of a mental problem as being an actual illness in the past. In the middle ages in Europe it was expected that your soul would normally act as God intended, therefore if it didn’t then something evil must have happened. This was normally attributed to the devil, witchcraft, possession, etc. Stone age people had a similar theory, based on evil spirits getting trapped in the head. Ancient Egyptians didn’t see any difference between mental and physical illness as they saw the heart and mind as being one, but they did believe that illnesses were caused by the wrath of a God, or if a woman was experiencing mental problems then her uterus must be roving about her body. Ancient Greeks and Romans had a better handle on identifying mental illnesses as an actual illness, as the brightest minds of the day rationalised it as being attributable to a lack of equilibrium or some kind of malfunction.
Treatment of mental problems in the past ranged from comical to cruel. Stone age people drilled holes into people’s heads to let the evil spirits out. In the middle ages treatments revolved around exorcising the evil that was in the soul, usually starting with gentle things like shaving a cross on your scalp or going to mass, then they would try insulting the evil out of you, and if that didn’t work they would resort to torture to make the evil evacuate the poor person’s head. The ancient Egyptians used religious treatments such as incantations, or if the uterus was wondering about they’d try fumigating it to make sure it arrived back where it should be. Of course, in fairly recent times people have been locked away for life, had a lobotomy or treated with electrocution, so barbarous treatments aren’t the preserve of just the distant past.
Lastly, if you are going to incorporate mental illness into your story you need to look at how people react to it. In the past mental illness was looked at in a completely different way than today. Some mad-people were considered to be prophetic saints, others were considered to be something demonic that needed to be purged of its evil or driven away. How people reacted did tend to correlate with the person who made the diagnosis. For example, in the middle ages the local priest would have been considered as the font of all knowledge for such things – but his reaction and treatment would have depended on his personal leanings, be they gentle or harsh.
If you take all of these aspects of mental illness and tie this into fantasy, they can provide you with a variety of situations for your mentally ill character to work through as part of your plot. For example, in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series the lead character gradually went insane over the course of the series as he tried desperately to find a way to rid himself of his mental problems. This created various things for him to do as the series progressed: have conversations with the madman in his head; try to find out why he had the problem; find a cure; try not to kill his friends off; save the world; etc. It also meant that the character was unpredictable and could fly off on a whim, leaving other characters to be developed in his absence.
However, because this is fantasy you can use what you know of real mental illnesses as the basis for your character’s mental problem, but the reasons behind it don’t have to be ‘normal’. Turn all those middle age fears into a reality, make the evil that consumes someone very real and how it surfaces in the victim magical or bizarre, it could even provide them with powers they didn’t have to start with – remember all that head-spinning and wall climbing in “The Exorcism”? Then it’s time to try to find a way to help them, or if they are the bad guy, destroy them. It could even make those who love or hate the character insane while trying to do so – just try not to drive your readers mad in the mean time.