September 12, 2011

Psychtember Interview with Dr. Carolyn Kaufman: Part 2

I'm very pleased to have Dr. Carolyn Kaufman back on the blog today for the second part of her interview! She's the author of the excellent The Writer's Guide to Psychology, and she stopped by last week for Part 1. (If you haven't read that post yet, definitely check it out!) 

First, a bit about her: 
Carolyn Kaufman is a clinical psychologist, an Associate Professor of Psychology, and a writing coach.  Her book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior is a fun, easy-to-understand guide that helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. She blogs about writing for the Blog and Psychology Today. You can also learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology or follow her on Facebook or Google+
Note: These interviews are a combination of my own questions and a few submitted by anonymous others.

- What is your process for creating a character with mental illness? 

I like creating characters with psychological problems, because a lot of real people have psychological problems, and I think real problems bring veracity to a story. Off the top of my head, I’ve had several characters with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder…the villain in that story was really sadistic!), a character with social anxiety disorder, and a character who was suicidally depressed.

Some tips for creating a character with a psychological problem:

1.     Pick one psychological problem, not multiple problems.  Comorbid disorders (two or more disorders that impact one another) always complicate the clinical picture, and if your character has multiple disorders, you’re going to have more trouble portraying any of them accurately.  Even with my psychologist background, I only choose one disorder at a time for a character, because more than that is too much to juggle well.

2.     Research the disorder using reliable sources, and double-check the things you think you know.  For example, many people mistakenly think schizophrenia and multiple personalities are the same thing (as noted above, they’re totally different, and the official name for multiple personalities is now “dissociative identity disorder”).

 There are general message boards online for writers to ask questions about areas they’re researching, and I’m sure they’re great with objective information, but they can be minefields when it comes to psychology.  Everybody thinks they understand psychology (especially if they’ve had problems of their own), and so a lot of urban legends get tossed around.  You’re better off visiting some medical or psychiatric websites that describe the disorder, maybe visiting some message boards where people who have the disorder talk about it amongst themselves, reading a self-help book or two on the disorder, getting a copy of The Writer’s Guide to Psychology (sorry, couldn’t resist! []), or even writing an email to one of the psychologists online who work with writers.  I do that via my Archetype Writing website (there’s a Q&A form at, but I know there are others out there, too. For example, if you’re writing about a disorder in a younger child, Sarah E. Fine, a practicing child psychologist, is a great resource, and she welcomes questions on her blog, The Strangest Situation (

3.     Remember that someone who’s dealing with a psychological disorder is dealing with it across settings – at school, at work, at home, and with friends.  The disorder shouldn’t randomly appear and disappear when it’s convenient for the story.  In many ways, the disorder can be likened to the character’s shadow – it’s always there, though perhaps more noticeable some times than others, and it darkens the character’s life.

- When telling a story with a mentally ill character, how do you make sure you're accurately portraying the disorder without overloading the reader with psychology facts? 

The trick, I think, is to show the disorder in the character’s life, rather than telling the reader about it.  While stories can help readers understand mental illness, a storyteller’s job is first and foremost to tell a good story!  If you really feel compelled to educate readers on a disorder – maybe because you’ve dealt with it yourself -- you can always provide some “back matter” for the book or story that recommends a good book or website with more information.

In my story that has two characters with PTSD, nobody even calls the disorder PTSD, because it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world without fancy diagnostic manuals. Everybody calls it “war sickness.”  So don’t feel like you’re obligated to name and describe the disorder. Just show how it impacts your character’s life (and the lives of those around her).

- In your experience, does the stigma associated with mental illness extend to reading books involving these disorders? If so, how would you suggest members of the book community (writers, librarians, booksellers, etc.) try to combat this?

I’m not aware of a stigma against reading books about people who have psychological problems; in fact, I think people are fascinated by mental illness and may sometimes even go out of their way to read about characters who have it.

I think what’s harder is not treating people who have psychological problems like train wrecks with no feelings.  There’s a myth that people with psychological problems—whether we’re talking about something like schizophrenia or something more common like ADHD--don’t realize that others are looking at them, whispering about them, and judging them.  Believe me, most of them know, and it’s hurtful.

What I find upsetting is when a psychological problem is handled by an author who has clearly never given a single thought as to how difficult it is to live with the burden of a disorder.  These types of authors tend to use psychological problems in a gimmicky way; they trot out mentally ill characters as if they were “freaks” in a carnival.  Nobody would treat someone with cancer that way in a book; they shouldn’t do it with psychological disorders.

With regards to members of the book community, I do think it’s cool when authors who deal with serious psychological issues point readers in the direction of more information, whether that information is on a website or in a well-written self-help book.  I know that librarians and booksellers often have strict rules about what can be placed where, but if a book really takes on a serious psychological issue, it would be great to display one or two other books on dealing with those problems in real life.

Thanks so much, Carolyn, for providing some great insights into writing about mental health issues!

Readers, have any of these discussion topics sparked some more questions? If so, ask away in the comments, and Carolyn will stop by to answer them! :) 


  1. I've read a fair number of YA books involving characters that have mental health or developmental psychology issues. One aspect that's always annoyed me slightly is that many of these issues are treated in an extremely negative manner - the syndrome or disorder is seen as overwhelmingly destructive to their life/ability to function. Yet I know that many mental health issues may have positive aspects as well (e.g. people with bipolar tendencies may be extremely creative during their "manic" phase, those with Asperger's syndrome often have heightened abilities in mathematics or sciences, etc.).

    One YA book I quite enjoyed recently, in contrast, was "Mindblind" - about a teenage boy with Asperger's. The approach was far more even-handed (than, say, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time); this wasn't a boy with a tragic disorder that isolated him and set him apart, just a "normal" teenage boy who has friends, plays in a band, is applying to university...and happens to have Asperger's as well! Sure, some aspects of his story are a bit sad. But some are positive (like his amazing abilities in math and computer programming.) And some are laugh-out-loud hilarious!

    Anyway, can you recommend any similar books that take a more neutral or lighter approach to psychological/mental health issues among teenagers, yet are still clinically accurate?

  2. Hi Platypus,

    I've run into the same thing you have -- I find it very difficult to find books, either YA or for adults that don't present mental health issues in a light that is ultimately more tragic than anything else.

    I think it can be hard for writers to balance the problems psychological issues introduce with the adaptations those same issues can create. (That is, some evolutionary theories argue that disorders like bipolar may have had some evolutionary advantage thanks to the increased creative fluency you noted.) Thanks to the negative way the media often portrays psychological problems, I think too few writers realize that psychological problems are not just an easy go-to when you need a tragic element for your story.

    I recently read The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson, which has been on the bestseller lists, about a burn survivor who falls in love with a sculptor. The sculptor is, according to the author, schizophrenic, but really reads more as bipolar. Though the book was extremely engaging, the author made other mistakes in his portrayal of the illness and its treatment, and in the end the fact that she had the disorder just looked tragic. *Sigh*

    I don't have any books that I can recommend off the top of my head, but I can make some suggestions that might help you find some on your own. The trick is usually to find an author who has some personal experience with disorders, whether as a clinician, a parent, or themselves as teens. Sarah Fine, of The Strangest Situation (, who also posted here on Tapestry Sept 7th (, might be someone else to ask about book recommendations...or Danya may well have some as we go forward in Psychtember!

    Sorry I couldn't be more helpful!


I love comments, so post away!

Related Posts with Thumbnails