The foreword is also available as a downloadable PDF file on The Writer's Guide to Psychology website.
By international bestselling
suspense writer Jilliane Hoffman
Every writer—be it a novelist, journalist or screenwriter—has at one time or another attempted to create, explain or define in their work a complicated character who is afflicted with mental illness. We hear and see the slang medical terminology—“OCD”, “manic”, “schitzo”, “psycho”, “PTSD”—casually tossed about in conversations, literature, movies, and on TV everyday. Sometimes the words are used interchangeably; oftentimes they are used incorrectly, but their frequent overuse has led many writers to believe they understand a disease or affliction when they really don’t. Unfortunately, most writers aren’t psychiatrists and very few have earned a doctorate in psychology. Save for a few who might’ve spent some time in a psych ward or on a therapist’s couch, most writers have had no interaction with the schizophrenics, sociopaths, manic-depressives (a/k/a bi-polarites), borderlines, post-traumatically-stressed-out, or otherwise mentally ill characters we yearn to write about. Without a clinical background or field experience, most writers have thus relied on the same old misinformed stereotypes we’ve heard or seen through the years to create characters that are inaccurate, or in some cases, actually atypical of an individual suffering from a particular psychological disorder.
I’d love to say, “If you need a psych degree to truly understand the nuances of a particular mental illness, then but for psychiatrists and those with a doctorate on their walls, who’s the wiser if you rely on outdated or misinformed stereotypes?” but it doesn’t work that way. All writers worth their salt know that once a reader or a filmgoer catches on that an author or screenwriter hasn’t done their homework, they lose credibility with that audience. From there, it’s all downhill. But it’s not just the misuse of slang terminology that immediately identifies you, the writer, as a person who didn’t do his or her character research. It can be the situations you put your character in, how you make your character speak, what she looks like, how she dresses, what career choices she’s made, and the type of men she dates. While mental illness is unique in how it may affect an individual, each diagnosis has certain defining symptoms that will shape a character’s thought processes and how that character interacts with others.
I pen legal thrillers, and so the characters that I try to create, define or explain are usually diabolical psychopathic killers. As a former Miami prosecutor, I have some real life experience to help guide me in the killer department, but I’m no Sigmund Freud or Jennifer Melfi when it comes to understanding why my nasty characters do what they do. When it came time to tackle a different psychological disorder in my third thriller, Plea of Insanity, I actually had to read whole treatises on schizophrenia just so I could create an accurate depiction of a schizophrenic character. Of course, before digesting such exciting reads as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-Version IV (DSM-IV) and Surviving Schizophrenia, I first scoured the shelves of bookstores and libraries alike in search of an easy to understand guide to Psych 101. Unfortunately for me, there was nothing.
I wish Carolyn Kaufman had written The Writer’s Guide to Psychology a few years ago. She not only defines the most complicated of mental illnesses in an easy-to understand manner, but she actually thinks like a writer, offering her invaluable insight as a seasoned clinician in character development. She debunks the myths and dismantles the stereotypes, gives an insider’s view as to what really happens when a client lies down on that proverbial therapy couch (that is most likely a therapy chair nowadays), and in the end even helps you medicate your crazed character properly. She draws upon the past mistakes of other writers to provide readers with cautionary tales of what not to do and lauds the ones who hit a Hannibal Lector homerun in an effort to better illustrate how a writer can get it right.
And that’s what it really comes down to in the end—getting it right. Because even in works of fiction, the reader and the audience expect nothing less.