Wednesday, 26 July 2017

CanCon 2016: Characters + Mental Health

Can*Con 2016, the Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts & Literature took place from September 9-11th in Ottawa, Ontario. I’m finally doing the writeup 11 months later... well, that’s how long it took me to get to it in 2015 too. I also blogged about 2014 and about 2013, if you’re a completist.

These posts are recaps, with very little colour commentary on my part. Some are near word-for-word recaps, others are a summary. This is the former, as I more or less transcribe using my secretary skills. Quotes are close to exact, but edited for flow, and errors are my own.

The 10am panel on “Character Arc and Mental Health” included a handout for Crisis Mental Health Services numbers in the area. (Might find it useful if there’s a trigger, or we can pass it along to someone, so let me know if you want details.) On the panel were Lynne MacLean (moderator), Fanny Darling, Ada Hoffmann, Susan Forest and Hayden Trenholm. After acknowledging the land is the unceded ground of the Algonquin People, the structure was given as a 30 min panel discussion, then opening to the audience.

First question being, “What brings you to this panel?
Hayden: He is a publisher and writer of SF for about 30 years. He’s always been sensitive and aware of issues surrounding mental health critically in the workplace, developing accommodation policies early in his career. He was also about 70 ft away from the shooter of Nathan Cirillo at the war memorial in 2014. PTSD. Enhanced his understanding.
Susan: She has about 20 short stories published. Was a teacher for a number of years, and for five years worked with emotionally disturbed children living in a campus setting. Most of them either abused or with conduct disorder, having autism, multiple personalities, tourettes, or a number of those. Also alcoholism in her family and children with Attention Deficit. Be aware of invisible things people don’t see, people who say “you don’t need help, you’re smart” or “you’re lazy”.
Ada: Has Asperger Syndrome and has dealt with mental issues running in her family. Won’t get carried away talking about the former except by request. Makes a point of trying to write stories with characters who have autism, and there’s AustisticBookParty on the web, who gets it wrong and right and why.
Fanny: A long history of depression runs to the family, and she’s the mother of an evil genius-level intelligent non-binary child with anxiety. High performing, so people want her to “just calm down”, that’s Fanny’s personal in.
Ada: Because people can always calm down, you just have to say it.
Fanny: “I don’t know who gets more frustrated, her or me.” Has a character misdiagnosed with biomorphic body disorder as a way of dealing. With YA writing, she’s noticed that there’s a disparity - women get eating disorders and overly emotional, boys get autism and save the world.

Lynne said that moves nicely into: What are the tropes and stereotypes about mental health?
Susan: One of you talked about the evil mad person who takes over, I was reading a story that relates to that. It’s great, if you want a horror story with mass murder, but if you just use one note of “they’re crazy!” we have no further insight into the psychology.
Ada: It’s an outside idea that people who are dangerous are therefore violent. In fact, they’re more likely to be the victims of violence, not the other way. It’s only with drugs or alcohol that you get the increased risk.
Hayden: The idea that mental illness is sociopathic is a stereotype. Statistically, sometime this weekend you will meet someone, as 1 in 200 are diagnosed on that spectrum. They’re not necessarily evil geniuses. Perhaps driven, a higher percentage are found in CEOs, but they’re fully functional. That’s an example where, in fiction, we tend to portray things as one way or another. Really they’re not necessarily the same cases, maybe the same spectrum. Also in fiction, we tend to try to turn a challenge into something special, the character has helpful qualities. But the reality is mental health issues, much like physical ones, are limitations. Barriers that can be overcome, yes, but portraying [the issue] as a gift from gods is doing a disservice.
Ada: Psychopaths is probably a [stereotypical] thing, but the way they’re diagnosed can be a problem. A woman being difficult can be a “borderline personality disorder”, which is not very helpful to the person. We try to do the best we can around the barriers, but lots feel the language of “overcoming” is not very accurate. Neurodivergence, it’s not necessarily curable. Overcoming implies training ourselves out of it, when it’s not that, it’s that they figure out how to work within it and still be successful. Sometimes different from what a doctor perceives too.

Lynne wondered about character arc and the journey, what’s the difference?
Ada: Strongly believe that we need characters where it’s about them, but also where they’re normal people. And their thing might influence how they do something, but the story’s not about it.
Susan: Agreed.
Hayden: Every character needs to have a desire, it’s about how characters fulfil desires, and how it is for that character. Honest writing won’t impose an external or secondary set of values, but make that legitimate in their own right. “One can say I’ve had a PTSD experience, now I can write about it.” Except not really, still requires thought and research. The way the writing profession treats mental illness has a lot to be desired, we’ve only recently moved beyond homosexuality being a mental illness.
Susan: On you can talk about PTSD having experienced the idea; speaking as a parent with three children who have learning disabilities - they’re all different! One experiences emotionally, the other has no trouble there but can’t get up or hold a job, and the third is highly successful in his profession because he can tell other people to create schedules. It’s like, if someone said to me, “You’re a Canadian, what films do Canadians like?” Well, I can’t represent all Canadians.
Ada: I agree with that, but by the same token, someone with the experience of being, and not just doing the research, does give you an extra edge. Research is always valuable ... there’s more I was going to say, I forgot.

Lynne: In discussions before the panel, Hayden you wanted to look at intentional versus subconscious, want to elaborate here? (pauses) You can say no.
Hayden: It’s really an individual thing, how you approach that. Sometimes, I’ll think this character is interesting because they have some issue or different view. Sometimes, a story will thrust a character forward for me. It’s a combination of both. When I advise people when teaching writing, remember this is not about you, this is about the character you’re writing about. You have to express their desires as honestly as you can. You have to separate those elements of character from your own personality. A consistent world view is needed within that character, be as honest and engaged as you can. The arc will take care of itself once you have an understanding of desire and the tools available.

Lynne: Can anyone think of writers or books that have handled it poorly or well?
Ada: I’m the reviewer here, so I can provide many examples, but they’re mostly from the autism side. Several recommendations: Corinne Duyvis’ “On the Edge of Gone”, an apocalypse book, with limited room in shelters. Rose Lemberg, “Birdverse” stories, well developed autistic characters is a larger setting. Mitha Khan, a couple short stories in “Strange Horizons”, very political. Not every story needs to be political. Will give the floor up to others before bad examples.
Fanny: A book “More Happy Than Not” and “why don’t have I have the authors’ name”. [Possibly Adam Silvera] Has the idea of a “cure” of depression and taking sad memories away. Good, dealing with whether you need to get fixed. Also will take a controversial stance on “Thirteen Reasons Why” (Jay Asher), with suicide tapes getting delivered to people who caused the suicide.
Ada: Especially if those people have their own mental issues.
Fanny: “I didn’t think it was powerful but rather somewhat dangerous.”
Susan: “Strangers Among Us” anthology - rats there go my notes (types) - there were some other stories from the book. Susan doesn’t know about schizophrenia for instance, but a wonderful story is “What you see (when the lights are out)” by Gemma Files. Don’t know if it’s accurate but it was convincing. Amanda Sun’s “What Harm”, the entire story is what harm can someone do, he ends up very powerful. Also a number of stories that may not be about mental illness specifically but: James A Gardner, “The dog and the sleepwalker”, who are different because everyone else is augmented and can talk to each other mentally. So the loneliness of being different. And a game called “Depression Quest”, has anyone played it? It’s a try to get through your day interactive story. Some options you click on, you can’t do.
Ada: They’re crossed out. And the later in the day it is, the more things are crossed out.
Susan: It gives you the experience.

Ada: A good story about a psychopath who isn’t killed is called “Never the Same”, a short story on the internet by Nathan Bame [?? I haven’t been able to verify spelling].
Hayden: And “American Psycho” (Bret Ellis), which is one of the most disturbing books you’ll ever read, if you can get through it. It’s written in first person. Portrays a person who is climbing the corporate ladder, a psychopath who sees people as debits or credits to him, and that’s all they are. The essence of what a sociopath is. There’s also one called “I, Sociopath” (Ian Edwards?) a woman lawyer who admits she has ruined people’s lives and careers for the fun of it.
Ada: The other question to ask in general is, is the book being written first hand, with a sympathetic experience, or for shock value.
Hayden: In the case of “American Psycho” most think the writer is a psychopath. The book was made into a movie, accurate or not accurate, I don’t know, I don’t know him. Two other books that go back to the beginnings of SF: “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley, how you create a completely normal, happy society, through use of drugs. American Medical Association gone mad, we classify people as not contributing or not normal, therefore there’s an obligation to normalize them.
Ada: If it’s about medicalization, then only some people would be getting it?
Hayden: Where Huxley was coming from is that human behaviour can be transformed, and political was also coming out of Fournier Theory, thinking he would save all, which hasn’t happened. The other one classing people who disagree and who are not willing to change their views as “mentally disturbed” was [Orwell’s] “1984”.
Ada: I don’t recall that part.
Hayden: It’s through the whole book, the main character.
Ada: ‘Thought Crime’ isn’t a disability.
Hayden: It’s about controlling mental states and removing people who are dissident from power. Approaching people who have problems as, 'we have to deal with them', is not the best. It’s a normative judgement on values, which is a dangerous theme. An element, which is a political component of the way we deal with people not in the mainstream.
Susan: Talking of an entire society gone mad, “Songbud” (??) takes place in Northern Korea, there are sub-characters who steal airplanes and lead, everyone else in the society is mad.
Ada: Mad as in mental illness, or mad as in this is ridiculous, so call it mad. The latter is a problem [damaging], don’t do that.
Hayden: As “1984”, based on a political decision.
Ada: We want to avoid keeping on doing that.
Hayden: The point of science fiction is to show the consequence of the problem. We have an American political candidate [in Trump] who keeps dismissing people as losers, dissonants, and people who need to be changed.

Lynne: I think it’s time for questions from audience.
(Someone asked about some of the intersectionalities. Depression + Anxiety too, how much of that is because of being on a spectrum.)
Susan: I’ve done a lot of research on ADD, there’s a 60% overlap with learning disabilities. Incarceration, failed marriages, does one cause the other? Maybe, don’t think that’s established, but high correlation.
Fanny: I feel it would help if, in YA, we stop making them all hero stories too. “Oh, look at the brave trans person.” Why not a normal character, happy ending. I want the stories that give hope, but it can be unrealistic to the person reading it. You don’t have to make them all these brave, trailblazing heroes.
Ada: A related issue to the question is people thinking it’s just a thing you have, and we’ll try to take it away. Some of the best treatments for autism, it’s forcibly training the person to not look autistic. When you’re subjected to this, because of how it’s being done, you end up with depression or anxiety or PTSD - because “you must not act in these ways that are normal for you”, so you end up causing other issues.

(Question, in terms of writing fiction, how realistic or desirable is it to have a character acknowledge their own issue, versus having it include behaviour?)
Ada: You mean in stories about finding out?
(Clarification, more on having the issue, don’t know how to handle it.)
Susan: That’s a great idea, go write that story.
Hayden: Not all characters need to be self aware. It adds a deepness to the character. A character who constantly fights with alcoholism, their way of dealing with it may be have a bottle of bourbon everywhere he can, to “get through the day without opening one of those bottles”. There’s limitations to solve problems; even when not drinking, he’s thinking about it, it stands in his way. Whether characters are fully aware, it’s going on, and people will even do that with physical disabilities. Hayden notes he can no longer squat, from aging, “I forget that limitation all the time”. You go with it, you move forward, people are always in a conversation with themselves all the time. People have probably said “am I normal?”, whether it was high school, or last week. Would your characters have that conversation? Am I being stupid or imagining things? Characters have to understand at some level.
Susan: One of the hallmarks of alcoholism is denial. So you could write two different stories, one where a person is aware and one where they’re not.

(Question, from earlier, about psychopaths in boardrooms. Also seen in high schools? Because teenage girls will register on spectrum if you go through the test, do you think there’s a way to address this phenomenon while still being respectful?)
Susan: To rephrase a bit, you’re saying it’s a normal stage of development. That’s a cool idea.
(Audience member agrees, it is a phase. Child psych literature.)
Fanny: They’ve made hay out of that in so many teenage movies, the old trope is the mean girl who controls everything else.
(Audience member, so how do you deal with them growing up and remaining that way, versus other people.)
Fanny: Write it!
Lynne: It would be interesting to see them diverge.

(Question, pitfalls of writers using mental health issues to deepen a character, and how they can avoid that.)
Fanny: Making it a quirk, right.
(Clarifies, or a plot device.)
Susan: If I can jump in here, it’s dealing with a situation that’s very common through all of writing. “Some disagree with me I’m sure”, but we are voice appropriators, otherwise “I can only write about a 63 yr old white woman in Calgary”. So whenever we appropriate voice - men write female characters and vice versa - we have a responsibility to do that respectfully. There’s a wonderful article (can’t recall author), a black science fiction writer from the States who said, “imagine a future in space with no black people”, that’s what it looks like. So do your research, “don’t leave us out”. In the history of advertising, there was a revolution in the 1940s (or whenever) when they realized there’s a market for black people. But at the same time, beyond research, hope you can get a beta reader for that legitimacy.
Ada: On topic of plot devices, say “does this character just exist to be useful to the non disabled people”. It happens surprisingly often. If a character has their own things, and it’s not a desire to be cured, then you’re on your way.
Hayden: It’s incumbent when you’re writing outside your experience, you need to talk to people and discover what their experiences are. Not just mental issues, but people from other cultures as well. (He mentions a Sikh character and returning to a temple.) You can’t learn by reading, I went to a bunch of them, they said depends on what branch. In some branches, you can’t, in others “welcome back”, so Hayden had to discover a legitimate path for this character. It was a turning point in the character’s life and values, returning to traditions, he had to make that authentic. To write authentic and honestly, ask yourself, is this what the character wants, or is this what I want. “I need the character to do this”, means you’re going down the wrong road. In novels you often have 20 characters you’re juggling, and it’s hard, this person only appears in 4 chapters, but you’ll get caught. (Mentions a story of when he was signing books one day.)

Lynne: What has been your greatest challenge in terms of writing or editing or publishing?
Fanny: A problem was, it turns out my character is NOT mentally ill, then she’s very angry at people who let her believe that she was. It’s trying to be respectful to the process of treating an illness that it turns out she doesn’t have. Idea of, am I crazy or am I not, didn’t want it to be, “oh good I’m not crazy”, it’s still a process of making that real.
Ada: Something I’ve noticed in autistic characters. From your own experience you might think it’s easier, but two things that can happen, that don’t happen the other way. You start second guessing yourself. You’re so close to the issue, so involved, you’re reviewing, and you think we need more of this and this and politics, and then with your own experience you wonder “what if I’m not the type of autistic person who needs to do this”. It’s the second guessing you’re taught to do when you’re marginalized. The flip side of that is, sometimes you have no problem, you know exactly how this works, yet think “nobody but me is going to understand this”. And sometimes they don’t. You send it to editors and they ask to explain it more, and you try. They’re not used to thinking on that wavelength, they still don’t get it.
Hayden: I think that’s a true generalization for all writers, struggling to transcend our own experience. We as individuals develop a shorthand for our own thoughts, to try and remove yourself, embody someone who’s not us. “For years people were convinced I kept bottles of bourbon around my house.”
Ada: That other person who’s not me is always somehow an able bodied white man.
Susan: Writing is a communication, how do you get your ideas across. Ask, is this the primary focus of the story, or an element that informs the story but is not central. Years ago, “Writers to the Sea” was an Irish play that she directed. “I decided I wanted all my actors from Calgary to use Irish accents.” Got an Irish university professor to give a session on that, and the prof watched the rehearsal and said, you got a good “stage Irish accent”. And it was convincing to the audience, but it wasn’t about access, it was about other themes. As another anecdote, a woman wanted a child integrated into other classrooms, to have her kid next to the one who’s going to be a doctor. For them to see and experience what isn’t normally seen in classrooms now. There’s nothing wrong with diversifying your cast, even if it’s not the prime focus of the story, because it shows a more complete world.
Ada: I don’t disagree at all, did I say something [related]?
Susan: About a character only there to inform the audience?
Ada: No, not to informing them difference exists, it’s only if they’re there for other characters, and once they solve the problem we never see them again.
Lynne: There’s time for one more question.

(Question, getting a narrow divergent situation past an editor, to the readers who can relate, it seems an unsolvable problem?)
Ada: Some editors are more clueful than others. If you can’t find one, there is also self publishing.
Susan: There are calls for stories with more diverse characters.
Ada: There is more of that. Problem is I’ll write that, send it to the diversity call and they say “I don’t get it, that’s weird”. They can’t live up to what they say. But it is still a good sign they do it.
Hayden: (something I missed, due to the door) Not every story is for every editor. If you bring something new, ultimately you will get published - but rejected way more often.
Ada: Not saying every story should be, saying if your goal is two write a story that will resonate, and there aren’t editors taking that type, it’s an extra hurdle.
Lynne: Going to call it here.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to comment if you have particular thoughts on mental health or something else.

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