The novel is overall very distressing and supposed to elicit emotion from the readers, it's practically dependent on it. A few of the characters in my novel will contain depressed and suicidal thoughts. I want to be able to explain and show that without continuously saying they wished they were dead. The characters live in an apocalyptic-type area, meaning there aren't many doctors and such around. How do I deal with the characters illnesses in the novel to ensure it's realistic? I don't want to be too harsh on the characters as people reading may be triggered by some events, but I also need it to be fairly emotional and for readers to feel a connection with them.

This question is a little all over the place, I was in a rush.

  • 3
    If your work manages to trigger a few people, I would say your work is a success. Not only did it manage to stir some emotion inside the reader, they also managed to get up to the point where they formed an opinion about it. Sep 3, 2018 at 7:51
  • @TotumusMaximus I don't completely agree with that. Just mentioning or picturing mental illnesses can trigger somebody. I'm not looking to really trigger people, rather elicit emotions from them towards the character, not particularly the actions. It might create some emotions, but not the ones I'm attempting to draw.
    – Kyl
    Sep 3, 2018 at 8:01
  • It is beyond your control though. All you can do is foreshadow the probable emotion and ease the reader into it so the actions make sense. Sep 3, 2018 at 8:26
  • Similar to a question I've asked before, if not a duplicate writing.stackexchange.com/questions/30943/…
    – sudowoodo
    Sep 3, 2018 at 11:49

5 Answers 5


If you succeed in eliciting strong emotions in your readers, you've done good. If you make your readers cry, bite their nails to the quick, put the book down in fear only to pick it up five minutes later - that's a success. Don't be afraid of strong emotions. Neil Gaiman, in the introduction to his short story collection Trigger Warning, writes

There are things that upset us. That's not quite what we're talking about here, though. I'm thinking rather about those images or words or ideas that drop like trapdoors beneath us, throwing us out of our safe, sane world into a place much more dark and less welcoming. Our hearts skip a ratatat drumbeat in our chests, and we fight for breath. Blood retreats from our faces and fingers, leaving us pale and gasping and shocked.
There are still things that profoundly upset me when I encounter them, whether it's on the Web or the word or in the world. They never get easier, never stop my heart from trip-trapping, never let me escape, this time, unscathed. But they teach me things, and they open my eyes, and if they hurt, they hurt in ways that make me think and grow and change.

So, don't hesitate to provide your readers an opportunity to learn and grow.

So how do you do that, when your subject is mental illness? Don't tone it down, don't soften it so it's not too shocking. Explore it, touch the places where it hurts. At the same time, don't turn pain into a spectacle. Your goal is not providing the reader some visceral thrills.

Know your subject, study as much as you can. A person suffering from depression and contemplating suicide isn't necessarily constantly sad and apathetic. A person might be aware of the problem, and actively trying to find something to live for. Or some worthy goal to die for; I disagree with @Amadeus about letting your depressed character die "for something". I feel it gives the impression that this character's life is somehow cheaper, because "he wanted to die anyway". That's not a good message.

"I wish I were dead" is, like you say, too "in your face", too obvious. In fact, it is something that a person who actually contemplates suicide is less likely to say: at one stage, it gives a concrete, frightening shape to half-formed thoughts; at a later stage, there's the fear of being discovered before the plans can be realised. A more likely statement would be along the lines of "why bother", "what's the point" - statements that reflect despair of any possibility for future change.

Or, alternatively, there might be an increased attempt to fill the void - spending time with family and friends, doing fun stuff, planning fun stuff for the future, avoidance of being alone - actively trying to escape despair's claws.

Depression is diverse. If you want to do a realistic depiction, study it. Talk to people, talk to a psychologist, find actual stories on the internet. Here are some useful notes, to start you off on your study (tv tropes warning) Don't hesitate to be hard on the character - follow the setup you make to its logical conclusion, whatever it is. Otherwise, you're not being honest, you're shying away from the subject.

One common trope you want to avoid is having one profound conversation or rousing speech completely turns your character's outlook around, cures his depression, etc. That doesn't happen, and the perpetuation of this trope creates unrealistic expectations in real life.

Also, do no forget there are situations when the average sane person would consider death as preferable to the alternatives. In such cases, suicidal thoughts are not a sign of a disorder at all. An example would be a POW tortured for information, and afraid of the consequences of being broken. Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and holocaust survivor says

Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.

It follows that the less why you give your character, the more reasonable their despair becomes.


My answer for this is my answer to any question about portraying an illness or trauma: talk to people who are suffering from it.

People with depression and/or suicidal ideation may not always be willing to discuss it, but if they are, they can help you write your characters in a way that's both realistic and won't be upsetting to them. For an example of what not to do, I know a lot of people who were quite upset by the graphic suicide scene in 13 Reasons Why.


To piggyback on the answers above, there's one simple addition that will help you:

An actual trigger warning.

This is, quite literally, what trigger warnings are for. So that people who've experienced specific traumas can approach those traumas with time and consideration, gradually, and purposefully, exposing themself to the subject matter in a way that allows them to deal with the issue, instead of having it simply sprung on them in a way that might not be helpful.

There's a strange misconception that trigger warnings are about cocooning weak people from a harsh world. Nothing could be further from the truth. A trigger warning is about helping people who've already overcome some kind of struggle, to become even more resilient.

A trigger warning is like a splint. When someone breaks your leg, another person coming along and telling you to walk off a broken leg isn't really helpful. Someone calling you weak for not particularly wanting to walk on a broken leg is not helpful. Someone, metaphorically, kicking the crutch out from under you, when you're not expecting it, is also not helpful.

A trigger warning is an invitation. It's going up to the person with a broken leg and saying: "Hey, I'd like to help you with your injury. Do you mind if we cut the cast? Do you want to try a few stairs? If you aren't ready, it's cool, you can always stop the exercise and try again later. I actually respect you enough to bother asking."

It's as simple as a sentence that reads something like: The author would like [their] readers to know that this work of fiction explores issues that include of depression and suicide."

That's it. You could even go further and add a nice note, following up the above with "To anyone who's struggled with those challenges, I dedicate this book to..."

This isn't a hurdle. It's obviously something you care about, and expressing that to the readers deepens your investment in the act of creation and helps build their admiration and trust.

On top of that, as people have already commented: ask people who've experienced depression. This character is like any other character. If your character were a biologist, you'd have to research that. You'd need to know what sort of people are drawn to that, what sort of skills they need, what sort of baseline philosophies of the world does that attract or induce, what sort of tasks they habitually do, how that impacts their personal life and professional development.

If you want specific advice? Depression works differently for different people. Some people are high functioning and manage to drag themselves out of bed, even though their body and mind are screaming at them, constantly, that there's some aching, omnipresent, pain. They smile. They work. They fuck. And the entire time there's a great, gnawing emptiness that makes them want to do, literally anything, to end the pain of simply existing

There are people who cannot get out of bed. They lose their jobs and friends. They try to correct the pain with anything that boosts dopamine: drugs, sex, escapism, whatever. Their life slowly crumbles.

And there's a groaning mass of people in the middle, who function...barely. Who hold down a job but have perfomance issues, or feel it spike when there's a specific trigger.

There are people (ahem) who are so detached from their own internal emotional landscape that they don't even see the world collapsing around them. They don't know why things are getting worse. They don't know why people are angry at them. They don't know that they are self-sabotaging. They just get less and less functional, and only actually realize that they are depressed when they finally break.

To understand the myriad faces of depression requires the exact same work as understanding any facet of any character. You don't necessarily need to ask people who've experienced that, or are experiencing that, really personal questions, but you do need to invest the same research you'd need to for any other character. That's when your character will breathe. That's when you'll understand who the trigger warning is helpful for, and who it isn't. That's when that nice foreword becomes something real, and heartfelt, and a genuine connection with a people who can empathize with your MC because they see themselves in him/her/them.

As with most writing issues, you're thinking about it too hard. Warn the reader. Research. Pour your heart and skill into the art, and watch the work become alive.


My advice is to provide rough therapy in the book. Accompany your suicidal character with a counterweight character. This does not have to be somebody that loves them, nor does it have to be a main character.

The circumstances in this post-apocalyptic world are up to you, engineer them so that somebody depends upon your character, or the group depends upon your character.

Your character does not have to EVER say they are suicidal. Let your counterweight do that. My approach would be that the counterweight is not Pollyanna. He tells the character "I know what you are thinking," accepts his depression. But then is straight with him, and answers his internal question of "why go on" directly: We need you to save these kids. And while you have lost everything you had, and so have I, that is something to cry about, but it isn't something to sacrifice these other kids for. And that is what you will do if you off yourself.

Of course this is not going to lift the depression of your character instantly, realistically they would likely respond "It isn't that easy, go screw yourself, leave me alone," but as the author you can let this idea germinate in their mind. Make an equivalence with the child they lost with an orphan the group has adopted. Your suicidal character still has suicidal thoughts, but they get turned away by this idea of responsibility: What's the point? Other people and children, that's the point, that has always been the point of living.

Now I am not saying in real life all depression is so easily cured! I am saying if your character has lost purpose, it is plausible they can gain a new purpose, especially in a post-apocalyptic setting where every day presents plenty of work and opportunities for heroism that really matter to others, and in particular, to children. As the author you get to decide the character arc, so you can make this work.

Then, as for anybody that identifies with this character, you haven't shown them that suicide ends your character's problems, but that he found new purpose in helping others. Even if he dies, let him die with meaning, sacrificing his life to save a child, perhaps.


If you're to successfully elicit emotion via a story, then unfortunately, you're going to wind up 'triggering' a few people one way or another. There are people in this world who get 'triggered' by the mere mention of suicide, or a novel not catering to their entitlement and 'representing' them (because obviously, every story is required to be a reader-insert escapist novel).

Ranting aside, don't worry about triggering people. However, you needn't repeat too much that a man is suicidally depressed about the destruction of society as a whole. All you'd need is a few remarks here and there, maybe something like 'this isn't life, this is merely existing' or 'why wake up when all that awaits you is a nightmare you can't wake up from?', et cetera, et cetera.

  • I assumed it'd be fairly difficult to avoid provoking people with sensitive subjects like such. The character was basically going through a rough patch in their life and was basically suicidal but afraid of ending their own life. I don't think it'll really provoke anybody especially because this story will probably never see the light of day anyway. Thanks for the advice, it's really appreciated!
    – Kyl
    Sep 3, 2018 at 7:06

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