Analysis

Thoughts on Novels About Depression (TM)

I’m starting to wonder if it’s possible to write a good book about depression.

Or, at least, a good, non-literary novel. Novels need narratives. They need stories of personal growth, of obstacles overcome, a character who is faced with problems at the beginning and has learned how to tackle them by the end.

And let’s be honest. Depression is boring. Not the concept of it, perhaps, but the day-to-day reality of it. The inability to get out of bed, the intense effort required to walk down the street, the sadness and numbness and apathy that just is. Everything that someone does while struggling with depression is a monumental achievement, a trek across Mount Doom or a fight against a dragon, but unless it’s handled by an incredibly talented writer, it looks like stillness in a novel. It doesn’t offer much of a narrative arc.

Forcing depression into a typical growth narrative means that a book is almost certain to run into trouble while trying to be “inspiring” or “uplifting.” It’s hard to write an uplifting story about someone who manages to drag themselves out of bed and get a bit of work done before crashing again, even though that is the realistic success story. So we end up with tropes like “they find love, and that helps them get out of their depression.” Or “they finally gain the inner strength to stop being so depressed.” Or, perhaps worst of all, “they throw away their pills in a symbolic gesture and determine that they’re going to get better by themselves.”

Sometimes these narratives are overt. Sometimes they’re more subtle, quiet implications lurking in the background of the novel. But the moment an author decides that their novel will be about recovery from depression, they have to contort a disease into a narrative structure, and problems creep in.

Of course, even most contemporary novels have an element of fantasy to them. Novels are never quite as messy and unstructured and unpredictable as actual life. But this fantastical approach to “dealing with depression” is harmful to readers, giving false impressions of how the disease should work and how people should recover from it. Depression is eased by getting help, by medication and going to therapy. By trying incredibly hard to do the smallest things. Finally doing the dishes. Successfully walking across campus to class. Not dying. Keeping going. Speaking. Continuing to exist.

Not the things that award winning novels are made of. Not the way that people want to see things.

That doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t write about characters with depression. But depression is not the whole story. It’s one part of a character, and it can’t be the main focus of their narrative arc without the book either being very literary or forcing a ill-fitting structure on something that is neither so dramatic nor so simple. So let’s have depressed characters living stories of their own. Solving mysteries and overthrowing governments and fighting monsters and falling in love. Let it play a part in a character’s life. But let’s not have more novels that are about depression. They’re pretty much a doomed venture from the start.

6 thoughts on “Thoughts on Novels About Depression (TM)”

  1. Hi Rhiannon!

    Have you read Louise O’Neill’s “Asking For It”? It deals with depression as a consequence of the main character, Emma, being raped. In my opinion it’s a very powerful and horrifyingly realistic story. I can warmly recommend it.

    1. This is actually the kind of novel that first came to mind for me as well. I think you could have a realistic novel about depression if the main character is still facing an external threat that forces him or her to make choices, hence moving the plot forward without any artificially simple solutions to the depression. This is certainly the case in Asking for It.

      1. I’ve read her first book, Only Ever Yours, and thought it was compelling, but I haven’t picked that one up yet. It’s on my list for when I’m in the right mindset for that sort of book.

  2. This is something I’ve thought about. I wanted to write one of my heroes (I write new adult and erotic romance) as having survived a suicide attempt but I couldn’t figure out a way to do it without implying that love healed his pain. I write damaged characters but they tend to be suffering emotional scars more often than they are mentally ill. A lot of their arcs are learning to trust someone with their hang ups. It’s not the most commercial, necessarily, but it’s meaningful to me.

    1. It’s tricky, and as the author, it’s so hard to figure out if you’ve done it right, since *you* know what you intended to say. Definitely something I struggle with as well.

    2. As a suggestion, you could actually have the character think about what effect the love has had on their emotions and put this in as an internal monologue. I guess this depends on whether you are doing first person narrative but you could work this into a dialogue too. Like, “I feel better in some ways but I’m not foolish enough to think that gray cloud of depression is gone. I feel it under the surface waiting to claw it’s way out, especially at times when I’m having the best conversations with her/him.” That’s just an example of something maybe the character could be thinking about. Conversely, you could just show the character reacting in a standard depressed manner some time later but juxtapose this with an everyday moment in the relationship. For example, they are having dinner but their lover notices the character isn’t eating. (I used this as an example from my own depression, but it may different for your character.)

What do you think?