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Psychology Tips for Better Writing (Part 3: Illness and Special Abilities)

By Lauryn April @LaurynApril
This is my third post on character writing, putting my BA in Psychology to work. Well-developed characters are the key to a book readers can't put down. This post will focus on how to believably write characters who are suffering from an illness, and abilities authors often get wrong.
Psychology Tips for Better Writing (Part 3: Illness and Special Abilities)

5 tips to writing characters with illnesses or special abilities based on Psychology.

1. Be careful writing about character's with diseases if you are unfamiliar with them. Schizophrenia, for example, is a disorder writers often get wrong. Yes, people with Schizophrenia can have hallucinations. However, visual hallucinations, especially elaborate ones are super rare. Hallucinating sounds or smells are far more common, and people don't always hear voices. I had a professor once talk about a schizophrenic woman who hallucinated the smell of oranges. (At very least, if you're going to have a character with visual hallucinations, mention in your story how rare this is.) Multiple Personality Disorder is another one people often get wrong -- and no, it is not the same as Schizophrenia! So, if you're going to write about a character with a mental disorder, please take the time to do proper research. That said, writing is also about creating. If writers can make up fantastical creatures like vampires and werewolves then why not make up magical diseases? You can certainly do this, but be careful not to call a made up disorder by a real name. This can be harmful and offensive to people dealing with that disorder.
29 Books about Mental Health that Actually Nail It
6 Popular Movies that Got Mental Illness Wrong
2. Photographic memory is not a real thing. Not even when someone has experienced a trauma! Our memories fade with time, regardless of how important the memory was. You are more likely to remember an experience that you had a strong emotional response to, but the details of that memory will fade at the same rate of every other memory. (Ex: You're more likely to remember what you were doing on 9/11/01 than say 9/10/01. But that memory is no less susceptible to fading over time or being altered in your mind than any other memory you have.) So, unless your character has hyperthymesia it's unlikely they'll remember every little detail about a moment in their past. If your character is reminiscing on something, keep in mind that memory will lose detail over time and if they remember specifics, give them a reason for doing so. For example, if a character remembers that something happened at precisely 6 pm, maybe the reason they remember that is because they sat down to watch their favorite TV show that starts at 6 pm. Also, be careful with time travel. If you're going to write a science fiction novel where characters travel back in time it would be unrealistic to have them remember precise details about things that happened years ago.

3. Repressed memories and fake memories. Having a character recover a repressed memory is a common occurrence in books and movies. However, there isn't a whole lot of data to suggest whether or not repressed memories can actually be recovered. The theory stands that people repress memories due to a high level of stress or trauma being associated with that memory and later something in that person's life, therapy or otherwise, triggers the memory allowing it to return. People certainly forget things and memories can be altered, but the suggestion that trauma causes a person to "repress" a memory doesn't hold a lot of weight. People are actually more likely to remember something with an emotional component, like trauma, than they are to repress it. There isn't really any evidence to suggest that we can repress a memory and recall it later in the way Hollywood and novelists often suggest. What can occur, and rather easily, is that false memories can be created. The problem is that memory recovery techniques used to recall repressed memories are highly likely to give rise to false memories. There are many cases of sexual abuse memories being "recovered" that later turned out to be implanted memories.
False Memory Syndrome Foundation
How to Instill False Memories
False Memories of Sexual Abuse lead to Terrible Miscarriages of Justice
4. Stages of death and dying. Writing a character who's dealing with the death of a loved one, or a character who is dying himself can be a tricky endeavor. Grief is a complicated monster, and when written correctly can be a very powerful subject. The thing I think most writers get wrong is having their character get over their grief too quickly. Dealing with death and dying is a process defined by five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While each person may handle each stage in a different way, different order, and stay in each stage for a different length of time, it's most important as a writer that you show your character going through them. This is a serious 'show don't tell' moment if you want your readers to care. I think it's also important to note that once a character has reached the acceptance stage, that doesn't mean 'poof, they're better' and everything goes back to the way it was. Acceptance of death doesn't mean your character has "gotten over it." Processing death and dying will most likely change your character in some way. If you want a good example of grief in the movies, check out Good Will Hunting and avoid Manchester by the Sea.

5. Psychiatrists dating their patients is highly unethical. Ok, so this last fact is more about Psychology as a profession, but still, a useful thing to know if you decide to put your character in therapy. When studying to become a psychiatrist or a psychologist (and yes they are different) confidentiality and ethics are huge. I know this because I started working toward my Master in Psychology about a year ago. Any therapist risks losing their license by getting involved with a current or former client. The rule used to be therapists could not be romantically involved with a former patient until two years had passed. But, the 2016 ACA code of ethics now states they must wait 5 years. Personal relationships, romantic or friendships could be harmful to clients and therapists. So, if you have a character you plan to have hooking up with their shrink, you need to give said shrink a really really good reason to throw away their career and ethics for.
If you liked this post, check out...
Psychology Tips for Better Writing (Part 1: Believable Characters)
Psychology Tips for Better Writing (Part 2: Characters who do Bad Things)

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