Character Motivation Thesaurus Entry: Coming To Grips With Mental Illness

What does your character want? This is an important question to answer because it determines what your protagonist hopes to achieve by the story’s end. If the goal, or outer motivation, is written well, readers will identify fairly quickly what the overall story goal’s going to be and they’ll know what to root for. But how do you know what outer motivation to choose?

If you read enough books, you’ll see the same goals being used for different characters in new scenarios. Through this thesaurus, we’d like to explore these common outer motivations so you can see your options and what those goals might look like on a deeper level.

Courtesy: Pixabay

Character’s Goal (Outer Motivation): Coming to grips with mental illness

Forms This Might Take: Coming to grips with one’s mental illness diagnosis can be a long and painful process. Many times, the illness cannot be fully overcome. But it can be managed in such a way that the character can achieve certain goals. Some of the crippling illnesses a character might have to gain control over are

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Phobias
  • Eating disorders
  • Addictions
  • Impulse control disorders (kleptomania, pyromania, etc.)
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Depression
  • OCD
  • Tourette’s Syndrome
  • Autism-spectrum disorders
  • Dissociative identity disorder (formerly called Split Personality Disorder)
  • Schizophrenia

Human Need Driving the Goal (Inner Motivation): Mental illness can impact a person’s life and their basic needs in so many ways. It can hurt relationships, making it difficult for the person to find love and belonging. The accompanying roadblocks and limitations can make it hard for the person to achieve long-sought-after dreams and feel fully actualized. But one of the most devastating effects can be on the person’s self-esteem. For purposes of clarity, this entry will focus on overcoming mental illness as a means to the character filling the missing need of self-esteem and recognition.

How the Character May Prepare for This Goal

  • Studying the illness to better educate oneself
  • Seeking therapy
  • Creating a schedule for medications and sticking to it
  • Being honest with one’s doctor (about missed medication doses, side-effects, new developments, etc.)
  • Trying new therapies and possible cures
  • Reprioritizing one’s life to decrease stress
  • Focusing on positivity rather than negativity
  • Actively pursuing hope and shunning despair
  • Tracking one’s progress (via a journal, daily checklist, blog, etc.) to identify what’s working and what’s not
  • Avoiding the triggers one knows will set one off
  • Leaning on the supportive people in one’s life
  • Embracing one’s faith
  • Letting go of impossible goals and pursuing doable ones
  • Ending toxic relationships that are holding one back
  • Finding the wise people in one’s sphere and seeking their advice
  • Relying on others temporarily so one can eventually become self-sufficient (moving back home with one’s parents, taking on a roommate, entering a treatment live-in treatment program, etc.)
  • Getting involved in a support group
  • Taking better care of one’s health (getting plenty of sleep, adopting healthy eating habits, etc.)
  • Seeing things in the long-term rather than the short-term and making decisions accordingly (e.g., going to a party though one would rather stay home because one realizes getting out and socializing is a good idea)
  • Turning one’s attention to include others instead of being focused only on oneself
  • Celebrating the small victories

Possible Sacrifices or Costs Associated With This Goal

  • Giving up one’s free-spiritedness or individuality in favor of a more traditional lifestyle
  • Having to live with side effects from medication (fuzziness, lack of drive, sexual dysfunction, etc.)
  • Having to depend more on others; decreased independence
  • Giving up delusions or perceptions that one enjoyed having (imaginary friends, increased creativity, etc.)
  • Losing “friends” who shared one’s lifestyle and don’t care to follow the patient into health and well-being

Roadblocks Which Could Prevent This Goal from Being Achieved

  • Denial; refusing or being unwilling to see the need for change
  • One’s own mind working as an enemy, convincing one that things are fine as they are
  • Unhealthy influencers who encourage one not to change
  • Low self-esteem that causes self-doubt and negative thought patterns, making success difficult
  • Medications and treatments that work but have unpleasant side effects
  • Having to use a trial-by-error method to achieve results, and becoming frustrated with the process
  • Not having the money for treatment
  • Being isolated (due to one’s past actions or the discrimination of others) and not having a support system in place
  • Other mental or physical problems that could mask one’s mental health issue, making treatment difficult
  • Recurring set-backs that thwart one’s attempts to get better

Talents & Skills That Will Help the Character Achieve This Goal:

Possible Fallout For the Protagonist if This Goal Is Not Met:

  • Broken relationships due to one burning bridges with others
  • Never being able to achieve self-fulfillment due to one chasing impossible dreams
  • Being unable to fulfill realistic dreams and goals because of one’s mental illness
  • Continued esteem issues arising from one’s inability to cope with or overcome the illness
  • Being victimized by those who would take advantage of someone’s compromised mental state (bullies, scam artists, toxic friends, violent criminals, etc.)
  • Losing one’s job
  • Growing old and having no financial security due to one’s inability to be responsible with money
  • Homelessness and isolation
  • Health issues arising from living a prolonged unsafe lifestyle
  • A premature death

Clichés to Avoid: 

  • True love as the cure for one’s mental illness
  • A story about a protagonist that ends up being a figment of the mentally ill person’s imagination (Shutter Island)

Click here for a list of our current entries for this thesaurus, along with a master post containing information on the individual fields.

About BECCA PUGLISI

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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3 Responses to Character Motivation Thesaurus Entry: Coming To Grips With Mental Illness

  1. “It’s really important also not to fall into the trope of Love As A Cure for Mental Illness”

    This is a great point; I’ll add it to the list of clichés to avoid!

  2. Aunt Scripty says:

    It’s really important also not to fall into the trope of Love As A Cure for Mental Illness. While supportive relationships can improve symptoms and provide support, in the end, love does not cure depression, or post-traumatic stress, or a phobia.

    Hell, it’s important not to fall into the trope of Curing Long Term Mental Illness.

    Someone with Bipolar Disorder or schizophrenia is not “cured” by finding the right medication, though they may have improvement in their daily life. They’re still schizophrenic. The goal shouldn’t be “normalcy”, though this may be a lesson your character needs to learn. The goal should be “better than yesterday,” in a lot of cases, but it may take time for your character to come to terms with that as a goal.

    There are a lot of good resources for writing these characters well, but first and foremost I’d recommend my good friend ScriptShrink on Tumblr: http://scriptshrink.tumblr.com , who’s an excellent resource for those looking to write characters with mental illness.

    And overall, please, pretty please, research the disorder you’re considering giving your character FIRST. Read stories from patients with that disease–it’s as easy as a Google search.

    Write these characters with respect, because real people live in the real world with these conditions, and we owe it to them as writers to respect their lives and the hardships they’ve faced.

    xoxo, Aunt Scripty

    • 100% agree–most mental illnesses will never be overcome, they are lifelong, just as having a missing limb or having other illness is. But overcoming a wound in fiction means either moving past it or subduing it so that it doesn’t control one to a unhealthy degree, and that’s our drive here–to show writers general ideas on how to help the character put supports in place so they can learn to cope with their illness rather than have it control them and limit their happiness more than necessary with a condition. And thank you for that link. Definitely researching the disorder is so very important, because all disorders just can’t be covered adequately in one simple post like this. Our post here (like all our entries for every topic we write) is merely a jumping off point for writers. 🙂

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