Writing Mental Illness

Questioner: At this point, so far out from Oathbringer, what are the best and hardest things about having spent a lot of time writing about mental illnesses?

Brandon Sanderson: One of the reasons why I approached Stormlight the way I did is, during the intervening years, during those seven years, I got to know very deeply some people who we would call non-psychonormative, I think is a good way to say it.

And I began to see that the various different ways we perceive ourselves and the various different ways we perceive our own mental processes influence a lot of how we act and who we are. And I also noticed, speaking to them, that a lot of my friends were a little… and there’s no problem if you like these, but they’re a little tired of every book that represented their mental illness in a story was all about the mental illness. That the book was only just how to cope with mental illness, which are great stories.

But they’re like, if you look at the statistics, psychonormative is Not the norm. In fact, it seems to be this mythical person that doesn’t exist, in that the way that all of us think is different, and in some of us it can be really impairing for our lives. And in some of us, the same thing that’s impairing to our lives defines who we are. You guys want a really good book about this, Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon is a fantastic look at this.
But this all became really interesting to me.

When I was looking at my characters, one of the things I noticed, for instance, I kind of used the pop science version of autism in Elantris. The more I actually got to know people with autism, the more I saw that the Rain Man version was a very extreme representation of something that is something a lot of people deal with, the way they see the world, and I started thinking, “You know, if I’m gonna create real characters in my books, this is something I need to be looking at.” And it wasn’t that I set out to say, “I’m going to write a book about lots of people with mental illnesses. I said, “I’m going to write a book about a lot of people who are like the people I know. And some of them think in different ways than others.”

And in some of them, that’s a thing that they don’t want to think that way. And it can be really impairing. But it’s not that the story… the Stormlight Archive is not about mental illness. The Stormlight Archive is about a lot of people that I wanted to try to make as real as I could, and that I also wanted to approach some things that haven’t been approached, I thought, in fantasy fiction.

What are some of the advantages? Well, I think the story has been very eye-opening to me. It’s hard to talk about advantages and disadvantages in light of this.

What are the “disadvantages?” I…am walking through a minefield, and I have blown my foot off multiple times. And I think this is part of that whole failure thing as a writer. If I hadn’t perhaps done it poorly in some of my books, I wouldn’t have had the chance to talk to people who are like, “I really appreciate the book and what you’re trying. Here’s how, if you ever did this again, you might approach making it feel more realistic.” And that make me a better person, not just a better writer, and so in some ways that disadvantage is the advantage. But that is the thing.

I have blown my foot off on several landmines. And I will probably continue to do so.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.