Mental Health Monday: You Can’t Judge A Character By His Diagnosis

In inpatient work, the constant stream of patients being admitted and discharged creates a hectic pace that’s both exhilarating and overwhelming.

Before meeting a new patient, we review the chart (to get some idea of what’s been going on) and we also get report from the nurse to see how the patient has been on the unit.

It’s really remarkable how different people look “on paper” as compared to what they’re like “in real life.”

We’ve had extremely violent patients present as charismatic and engaging. We’ve had tiny, quiet, seemingly meek patients admitted for out of control behavior. We’ve had suicidal patients arrive with giant smiles on their faces. And we’ve had psychotic patients insist they are not mentally ill and that we’re the ones causing all the trouble (that tends to be a popular one).

It’s part of a writer’s job to create clear, distinct characters so readers can understand the characters’ motivations and become invested in the characters’ lives.

How do we describe characters? Through their thoughts, actions, morals, values, beliefs, friends, homes, jobs, and hobbies. And don’t we want our characters to be a perfect mixture of symbolism and consistency?


But if a character is too “smooth” they may just turn “vanilla.” (And by vanilla, I mean boring.)

So, like people “in real life,” we need to make sure our characters aren’t always what’s expected. They need to have quirks. They need to have conflicts. They need to have multi-faceted personalities to make them more “alive.”

Ok, I guess I’m done rambling for today. What do you guys think makes for a good (read interesting) character?

Be sure to check out Lydia’s Medical Monday and Sarah’s The Strangest Situation.

Remember, these posts are for writing purposes ONLY, and are NOT to be construed as medical advice or treatment.

18 comments on “Mental Health Monday: You Can’t Judge A Character By His Diagnosis

  1. I like this very much…
    A diagnosis isn’t the whole of a person. Sometimes it isn’t even a decently large part of a person. Too many people look at it like that. (I used to be one of them… *blame is on me*)

  2. Oh yes, and I also nominated you for the TMI award xD

  3. Sheri Larsen says:

    Writer character is my favorite part of the creation process. I am a huge fan of character quirks, and those quirks don’t have to be in your face. Sometimes the subtleties is were the ‘real’ is at.

  4. Ciara Knight says:

    Well said, Laura. I totally agree.

  5. Mike Offutt says:

    I hardly think that vanilla as a flavor is boring. I love vanilla creme brulee (as an example). But yes…aside from that metaphor, I agree.

  6. The dualities in your patients is fascinating. They are exactly what our characters need to be!

    I love vanilla, too, Mike. But too much of a wonderful thing gets wearisome. And the more wonderful it is (as in those too-good-to-be-true characters), the sooner I get tired of it. I remember a big name author who wrote an almost-superhero character who solved every problem, never got hurt, etc. – I hated the book, and avoid that author now.

  7. Linda Gray says:

    Great insight, Laura, thanks! Hannibal Lecter–who could forget him? Talk about complicated. Heros, too, though, like the wife in Double Jeopardy who’s husband fakes his own death and sets her up for it, then steals their son. She has to draw on her darkest side to get her son back–awesome. I hope this comment gets through. Gravatar is playing games with me 😦

  8. Karen Lange says:

    Yes, I agree, no vanilla characters! Easier said than done sometimes, but a necessary goal, for sure.

    Happy Monday! 🙂

  9. Leigh Moore says:

    It’s crazy how people can look one way and be something totally different. I guess we all learn how to *act* when we’re kids. And some are better experts at hiding bad behavior.

    As for character quirks, I never know what it’s going to be, but I do try to give them something distinguishing. Great post, Laura! :o) ❤

  10. I try to give my characters secrets. They can be things that never come out in the story (only I know them) or big reveals that show up at tense turning points. I think secrets, whether revealed or not, help me present the characters better.

  11. To me flawed characters are much more interesting and realistic than perfect ones. There in lies the key to making them sympathetic in my opinion.

  12. Catherine Johnson says:

    Great post Laura!

  13. One of my critique buddies read a book with a serial killer who never hurt women or children and actually went out of his way to help a woman right after (or was it before) killing someone. Unexpected.

    This is, however, something we need to be careful with. It has to feel natural, not forced or convenient for writer.

  14. I love it when characters do the unexpected. It’s not unexpected for them. It’s unexpected for our standard expectations. But it has be set up so that the reader doesn’t end up saying, “WTF!” when the character does the unexpected.

  15. Donna Hole says:

    Its hard to keep the character a little unpredictable without stepping out of character. A tough borderline.

    I try to have my other characters notice him acting “as if” everything is ok, but with subtle signs of a manic mood change that the diagnosed character is either unaware of, or is overcompensating for.

    Its harder to create flexible characters in my fantasy writings though.

    This was a great analogy Laura.


  16. aparnanairphotography says:

    I think a character needs to be relatable. She (doesn’t even need to be a “she” actually!) doesn’t need to be exactly like me, but I need to be able to reach her and to relate to her at some level.

  17. Lydia K says:

    Absolutely–perfect characters are boring!

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