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How to fictionalise mental health difficulties in a sensitive manner

How can writers capture the reality of mental disturbance without perpetuating negative stereotypes such as ‘the madwoman in the attic’ in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre? How do we avoid the other extreme of presenting serious disorder as just another ‘bad hair day’?

I don’t think you’ll find the answer by swotting up on diagnoses and unpronounceable drugs. It’s much more a matter of honing your existing skills of empathy for your characters, however flawed.

Psychologists perceive mental health difficulties as arising through an interaction between pre-existing psychological and/or biological vulnerabilities and stress. We’re less concerned with classifying symptoms than with identifying what’s happened to a person both recently and in the past. What kinds of vulnerabilities do they carry from childhood and what pressures are they facing in the present to push them over the edge?

This isn’t a million miles away from how writers view our characters. Pre-existing vulnerability equates to backstory; stress is like the inciting incident which pushes the character off their normal track.

Psychologists also search for meaning in what are commonly labelled psychiatric symptoms. We don’t dismiss these as bizarre, but as the best the person can do in their particular circumstances. The mental health problem might be protecting them from something that feels worse. But there might be a better way; the clinical psychologist’s job is to focus on the individual’s unique experience to help them find it.

Again there are parallels with writing fiction. Our characters begin with flaws, blind spots and behaviours that prevent them from getting what they want. We need to delve below the surface to ensure readers are convinced by the character’s strengths and weaknesses. We need to show that, when they change, that makes sense too.

I’ll address this in more detail in an online workshop I’m running with Nottingham Writers’ Studio later this month. I want to empower participants to write about mental health difficulties and emotional stress in a non-stigmatising way. It would be great if some of the Ranchers could join me. Click here for more information.

Your invitation to the workshop

Meanwhile, if you would like to see how I address mental ill-health in my own fiction, my novella, Stolen Summers, about a young woman admitted to a psychiatric hospital after giving birth to an ‘illegitimate’ child, is available at only $.99 for a time-limited period. Go to

Do you explore mental health issues in your fiction writing? What have been your successes and challenges?

Anne Goodwin’s drive to understand what makes people tick led to a career in clinical psychology. That same curiosity now powers her fiction.

Anne writes about the darkness that haunts her and is wary of artificial light. She makes stuff up to tell the truth about adversity, creating characters to care about and stories to make you think. She explores identity, mental health and social justice with compassion, humour and hope.

An award-winning short-story writer, she has published three novels and a short story collection with small independent press, Inspired Quill. Her debut novel,Sugar and Snails, was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize.

Away from her desk, Anne guides book-loving walkers through the Derbyshire landscape that inspired Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

Subscribers to her newsletter can download a free e-book of award-winning short stories. Website


  1. restlessjo says:

    It’s a huge subject and a very interesting one. I’ll join in if I can 🤗💗

  2. It’s great to have you here on the Saloon stage again, Anne. (Sorry about the slot machine being played in the back room cowsino, we’ll try to keep it down.) That sounds like a crazy good workshop you’re hosting, I hope it goes swimmingly. And my next move is to get your Stolen Summers onto my kindle.

    • Anne Goodwin says:

      Yeah, I was warned about that background noise but I’d already scheduled and my brain wasn’t working well enough to realise I could reschedule. Thanks.

      • There’s always room at the Saloon. You just need to keep an eye on Mattie, she does enjoy it here. I have the novella in my kindle, got hooked right away and then lost the charge, but will be up and back to Ghyllside this evening!

  3. I think the writers with the most realistic views of mental health are the ones who have been afflicted with it themselves. I think that’s true of any life experiences. Some writers do a pretty good job of relating, but the ones who are truly empathetic are those who write based off of experience.

  4. Hi Anne, a lovely post. You have to try and get into the frame of mind of characters and that is difficult if you, as the writer, don’t suffer from mental health, or other, illnesses. You did a great job with Matilda Windsor.

  5. Norah says:

    I’m sure your talk will be fascinating, Anne. You write in this area with a great deal of expertise and share in a way that others can understand. I’m sorry I won’t be able to join in. Will your talk be recorded?

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