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I have struggled with mental illness for my entire life. Writing has been an extremely helpful and important mode of self-expression for me, since I was little. But recently, I feel like my writing has reached a point where my stories are all iterations of each other, with similar characters, similar plot lines, and similar endings.

I think this is because the majority of my characters are mentally ill. MC will be full of anger and sadness, with low self-esteem and distorted self-image, just as I feel about myself. When I write storylines about these characters overcoming exaggerated struggles like defeating a supernatural force or surviving an apocalypse, it's analogous to the struggle against my illnesses that I face. And I think that's okay, except I do it for every single story. It's making me bored with my writing and discouraged with myself, because I feel like I can no longer write a character that is unique or layered.

How can I stop forcing my characters into my mold, and create differentiated storylines that don't focus around a mentally ill MC?

  • Have you heard this from others that have seen your writing, or is it just what you're feeling about what you've written? If you haven't shared your stories with people, consider doing so. – David Thornley Jan 4 at 23:15
  • @DavidThornley this is solely how I see my own work. – weakdna Jan 5 at 19:59
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It's okay to have a Blue Period. Picasso's lasted 4 years and was fueled by depression. He produced amazing paintings during this time and it was something he felt compelled to do.

It's making me bored with my writing and discouraged with myself, because I feel like I can no longer write a character that is unique or layered.

So now it's time to transition to other things. Having the insight to recognize that is a good thing (and more difficult than you might think).

Take a class. A creative writing class where you're forced to write in different styles, about people and places you normally would never choose, might be just the thing to gain practice writing in new ways.

Co-write a project with someone different from you. Collaboration means compromise. Even if you wanted to make all the characters the same way you have been doing it, you can't. A collaboration can be between two writers, an idea person and a writer, a writer and an artist, or any other combination of talents.

Write some non-fiction for or about people without mental illness. Everybody has emotional challenges and your extensive knowledge of mental illness will help you gain insights into people dealing with everyday life without disability. If you write some stuff geared to a broader audience, it will be good practice in shaping your concepts away from one narrow focus.

Meet people. I give this advice to everyone who asks how they can write a character that's done stuff they've never done, or that fits into a category they'll never be part of. That includes non-disabled people who want to write about mental illness. You can get a lot out of books but it's not enough. You need to encounter a wide variety of people.

In your case, the people you might need to get to know better are in the mainstream. I don't know what your life experiences are or who you hang out with, but my guess is that part of your trouble writing characters not like you is because you don't know (really know) people who aren't like you. This is normal and standard: we all tend to group with people like us.

To be a writer though, we must go out of our comfort zone and hear other people's stories. Not (just) read them. Not (just) view them on a screen. But meet the people and talk with them. Even if your social circle includes amazing diversity in other ways, it may be lacking in the way you need to breakout of your own personal Blue Period.

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    I love this advice for writer's rut. Don't just imagine alternative characters, go and meet some! Get new input. Write about something other people care about (non-fiction). Great stuff! – wetcircuit Jan 1 at 20:35
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the majority of my characters are mentally ill

Is that true, or is it really only true of your main characters, or even of your protagonists? There's nothing wrong with a certain trait or character type being present in many or even all your stories; but if you're worried your stories are too similar, you could change how such characters feature in the stories. In other words, you don't have to sacrifice this topic of interest to you; you can eat your cake and have it. And arguably, it'll lead to even better exploration of the topic through writing.

For example, if I challenged myself to write several stories featuring type-X characters, one could do so with the protagonist, one with their sibling, one with their partner, one with someone they get on with at work, one with someone they don't get on with at work, one with a neighbour, one with a dangerous enemy, one with a more sitcom-style enemy, one with a casual acquaintance, one with someone known to a casual acquaintance...

And that's just options with one type-X character. They differ in the consequences this has for the plot, characterisation, main character's feel and so on, and even the way you write scenes, since you might not have an omniscient narrator. But they're similar in that they each only do X once, which of course needn't be how you limit yourself. Maybe there are two Xs, and their differences pose some interesting questions. (What if one's a hero and the other's a villain?) Or maybe there are several, brought together by circumstances none of them intended, so they thereby learn about each other.

I'm sure at least a few such try-everything ideas won't work for you, or anyone who finds this question later. Maybe one doesn't fit well with the X at hand, or maybe during writing one idea you decide to pivot. That's fantastic! It'll give you new ideas to explore, which is fun however it turns out.

it's analogous to the struggle against my illnesses that I face... I feel like I can no longer write a character that is unique or layered.

Don't worry, you can. Firstly, changing where such illness appears within the story - maybe it's the next character over, or maybe the world itself is radically unlike the one in your last story (what happens to the mentally ill in a utopia, dystopia, alien world, ancient China or Stone Age?), or maybe next time you'll model a character after an aspect of you other than a mental illness (be it as well as, or instead of, addressing such illness).

You're right about the need for unique, layered characters. But you're a unique, layered character. Remember that you-could-do-these list above? Another could be made just as long about aspects of you - your experiences, or anything they've shaped - worth including in a character. Indeed, if you list 10 facts about you, there are 120 ways to choose 3 of them, so there are more options than you think!

One last point: there are lots of other ways every story you write can be something new. Imagine tomorrow your hard drive failed and you lost your longest effort, and decided to write it from scratch. It wouldn't come out the same. Would it be first-person, third-person-limited or third-person-omniscient? Maybe you'll decide to change what you did before. Maybe you'll experiment with countless other variables, whether your next story is brand new or a rewrite of an old one. You can try the epistolary format, non-chronological order, an unsympathetic lead, a mystery, a twist, a setting or genre unlike anything you've done before...

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Surely there's more to you than "mental illness guy"? Consider what other parts of yourself you could project onto a character. A hobby of yours can be your character's main occupation. A childhood dream you gave up on could be your character's reality. An abstract fear of yours can be something your character has to contend with in his day-to-day.

For example, when I was 7, I wanted to be an astronaut. The main character of a novel I'm currently working on becomes a soldier in the space corps. So, he got all my childhood excitement about space and ran with it, but instead of my childhood curiosity and urge to explore, he got landed with war as his reality (again, something I have touched in RL, but amplified). He's outgoing, which is something I wish I had (so this time I'm projecting on him my aspiration), and he starts with a naive idealism that I have lost.
A different character is not quite as outgoing - he enjoys being around people, but doesn't quite know how to make the first step, he's often awkward. He starts out doodling continually, which I do, and eventually goes on to study graphic design, which I had no interest in doing.

Next, surely there are other people in your life than yourself? Friends, teachers, as well as people you dislike? Consider casting a good friend as the main character. Their struggles would be different from your own, right?
And not just the main character: J.K. Rowling has based Umbridge on a person she knew: she took the real person's love for twee, took her own dislike for that person, added a plot-appropriate reason for the dislike, and voilà!

Once you start constructing characters from bits and pieces of yourself and of other people you know, you essentially arrive at characters who are unique in their own right. A famous example: Sherlock Holmes combines the deductive skills of a surgeon Arthur Conan Doyle once new, with Conan Doyle's own passion for justice. Sherlock Holmes is one of the most iconic figures in English literature. Dr. Watson, in the meantime, received Conan Doyle's medical education and writing career. However, while both share elements of the author's personality, surely you would not claim that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are iterations of each other?

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Create writing projects for yourself in which you deliberately refuse to write protagonists who have these issues.

Create a list of topics that you ordinarily wouldn't write about but that you have at least a faint creative interest in.

Create a list of the mental illness characteristics your protagonists usually have, then write the opposite qualities next to them. If he's an angry loner, make him happy and popular. If he's depressed and beset by self-doubt, make him a confident practical optimistic person.

Practice writing character responses which are the opposite of the usual responses. Force yourself to write every line, no matter how unnatural it seems, as if your character is peaceful, confident, and has an instinctive feeling that 'he'll think of something' or 'things'll work out.'

Practice writing Mary Sues. Write short pieces about a character who is all sweetness and light, who's great in every way and who everyone loves, but who is also humble, modest, fair, generous, etcetera ad nauseam. No matter how fake or stupid it seems, force yourself to write it as an intellectual exercise.

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This answer will have a lot of spoilers for the One Piece series. They are years old spoilers, but be warned. I will not be hiding the spoilers in Spoiler Tags.

Like with all things in writing, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. What I am using in my answer has helped me in my writing, but this answer (as well as all of the others) is not definitive. The important thing to remember is that every writer faces this issue at some point. It's better to realize this is an issue for you now as opposed to later on when your writing style has been the same for dozens of years like some professional authors. What matters is how you choose to grow from this experience, so take heart and don't be discouraged. (Can I Downvote myself for using "take heart" unironically?)

First, I know you don't like that you keep going back to a similar character type, but the best writers write about the things they know. It's far easier to write a good character who has struggles that you relate to as opposed to fabricating wholly new experiences for them. Sure, writing about supernatural battles isn't something you know from experience, but knowing how you would respond to the pressure and tension likely is (especially if the battle is a metaphor for something deeper that you have experienced).

Changing the character template you write is NOT necessary. I get it. It feels like you write the exact same character every single time. The people that you write in your stories don't feel as though they are unique because they all have the same design in that they have these issues. But this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Let me give an example...

Bob is a teenager who sets sail on the seven seas with a dream. We see him take on powerful enemies and strive to overcome his problems and weaknesses until, suddenly, we learn that he has a really dark past. We see that he's had a tragic history, but is still fighting towards a brighter tomorrow.

Bob is literally every single Strawhat Pirate in Oda Eiichiro's work One Piece. Despite this, Oda uses a very simple technique to differentiate each Strawhat despite using the same template for all of them: Finding motivation.

Luffy wants to be King of the Pirates because 1) it seems cool, 2) Shanks was a pirate and risked his life to save Luffy, and 3) Luffy made a promise.

Usopp wants to be a brave warrior of the sea because 1) he's a weakling and a coward, 2) he's lied about his exploits to the woman he loves and wants to tell her a true story, and 3) his father became a brave pirate so he wants to be just as great by following in his footsteps.

These are the two most similar Strawhat Pirates in that they are both goofball characters who rarely act seriously and their constant acts of stupidity create annoyances for their crewmates, but at the same time know when something is serious enough to be responsible. Despite being highly similar in personality in many respects, they are actually entirely different because they both have different motivations... but there's another aspect to motivation people forget exists: Sins and Virtues. (The previous motivations can be referred to as "Background".)

I am a HUGE proponent that when writing a character you should be able to answer two questions about them. "What sin do they struggle with?" and "What virtue do they extol?" All people have some sin and some virtue, even if you ignore the religious aspects of both. Even if you are working off of a character who has total amnesia, he will still have a tendency to act in certain ways despite their lack of background. Just a refresher on your Sins and Virtues for you...

The Seven Deadly Sins - Pride, Wrath, Envy, Greed, Lust, Sloth, Gluttony

The Seven Heavenly Virtues - Humility, Patience, Kindness, Charity, Chastity, Dilligence, Temperance

If we compare Usopp and Luffy, we can see where they differ in this respect. They may both be goofballs, but Luffy suffers from a Lust for adventure and strong opponents to fight with, alongside having great friends. (It's worth noting Lust is just a desire for pleasure/luxuries. What is a pleasure or luxury to one is not necessarily the same for another. In Luffy's case, he ironically lacks a lust for sexual pleasure, but has a strong desire for friends and adventure to the point he gets angry at Usopp for asking Silvers Raleigh where the One Piece actually is at.) Luffy is also one of the most Charitable characters in the entire world. Sure, he won't go out of his way to share his food or gold with somebody, but when he saw Nami crying after she was betrayed by Arlong, Luffy told her he'd take care of it. When Luffy saw how the fishmen were being treated by the World Government, he was made angry at their treatment and started working towards helping the fishmen. Whenever Luffy sees another pirate or a Marine mistreating their crewmates, Luffy gets angry over how that person could treat their friends like that and fights all out. Additionally, in this world where it is "kill or be killed", Luffy makes it a point to try to avoid killing people even when they have nearly killed him. Obviously, he doesn't avoid killing everybody who gets in his way, but he doesn't normally try to kill people either.

Usopp on the other hand suffers from Envy. He wants so badly to be like the great people around him. He wants to be like his father, like the giants, and most importantly like his crewmates. When he was fighting against one of Arlong's lackeys, we even see him trying to come up with a great story for how he fought his fight... all while he had played dead, waited for his opponent to walk away, he gets up, and starts rubbing ketchup on himself to look bloody and dirt to make it look like he got into a really rough scrape. One could say he's slothful, and I agree that's a second major motivation for him, especially with how much he lies, but I say he's more Envious because his desire to be like these great people he looks up to is far more powerful a factor for him than his desire not to do things, especially when we see he takes great pride in actively taking care of the Going Merry (their ship) and creating new tools to help him with fighting or even entertaining the others (Nami's Clima-Tact and Perfect Clima-Tact are great examples of this). As for Usopp's Virtue? Usopp is a man of Diligence. While you can argue that Luffy is too, there's a core difference in that Luffy is a person who can make things up as he goes along. Usopp takes a look at what he sees his strengths and weaknesses are and develops equipment to amplify his strengths and to lessen his weaknesses. He takes proactive steps towards those ends constantly while he's making new equipment for himself and the steps he takes in fixing the crew's ship shows just how diligent he is, especially considering how great a job he does cobbling together repairs despite not being a shipwright.

It's because of these major, but simple, differences in motivation that Usopp and Luffy are so different despite being the same on paper. Then don't get me started on the REST of the crew (potential new additions to the crew that have yet to be confirmed included).

So how can you make use of this? Quite simply, follow this guideline:

  1. Create your character template. (mentally ill, angry, sad, low on self-esteem, and possessing a distorted self-image)
  2. Decide what you want their background to be. (What major events have happened in their life?)
  3. Decide what their motivation is. (What sin motivates them, but virtue do they also embody despite that?)
  4. Write with the perspective of them always working within that framework.

If you want some extra room to work with and have gotten used to fleshing out characters with this layout, add an extra layer to their motivation. Right now, with their motivation being one of 7 sins and one of 7 virtues, this gives you up to 49 different characters to write, even if all other details about their lives are exactly the same. How a person who is greedy and patient acts will vary quite drastically from how someone who is slothful and patient OR from someone who is greedy but humble. You can even play around with contradictory motivations like a person who is proud yet humble (Lord Escanor from the manga/anime Seven Deadly Sins) or a person who is greedy yet charitable... but LAYERING your motivations will make it so you have more realistic characters with a wider range of reactions.

You may think their "Motivation: Sin" should be Wrath simply because "My character is the sad and angry type," but not everybody who is perpetually angry has to be a wrathful person. Wrath is violent and wishing to cause harm. While anger can be like that, there can also be righteous anger that wishes to tear down an injustice or sullen anger that is directed at someone, but doesn't go to the point of wishing harm.

No matter what, when you're writing characters, you'll find you gravitate towards one response or another when you can't have them act according to their motivation. Oftentimes this emotion they will emit is anger, but it doesn't have to be. This is a more complex level of writing and should generally only be done for LONGER works (like a serialized publication spanning volumes upon volumes), but it has a merit if you have the length available to make full use of it.

For a simpler version of this: When you are selecting a sin and/or virtue, select one or two of the other 6 motivations of that category and categorize the motivations in order of prominence. I'm going to assume I am writing a Greedy character.

Name: Greedy Boii

Primary Sin: Greed

Secondary Sin: Lust

Tertiary Sin: Pride

Virtue: Diligence

What this list says is as follows: Greedy Boii is a person who will act in accordance with his desire to accumulate possessions or wealth. If for some reason he is unable to get something he wants or if in the moment there isn't anything physical he wants or needs to be actively involved with to acquire, he will strive to get pleasure from the experiences around him instead. If there is nothing he has to do to get the things or enjoyment he wants OR if he is prevented from getting those things or feelings, he will strive for attention at any cost. When it comes to getting the things he wants, he'd be very diligent at working towards his desires until he succeeds, whatever his goals and desires may be.

This sounds pretty archetypal of the greedy character, right? But imagine if I changed his secondary sin to Sloth instead:

Greedy Boii is a person who will act in accordance with his desire to accumulate possessions or wealth. If for some reason he is unable to get something he wants or if in the moment there isn't anything physical he wants or needs to be actively involved with to acquire, he will strive to rest and relax instead. If for some reason he is unable to rest or if he is actively being prevented from getting the rest he craves, he will strive for attention at any cost. When it comes to getting the things he wants, he'd be very diligent at working towards his desires until he succeeds, whatever his goals and desires may be, but if there is ever an opportunity to rest, he will take that chance sometimes resulting in his plans being at risk of being compromised.

While they are still similar characters on the surface, they're only similar in that they both want physical possesions. GB1 wants wealth, women, and fame whereas GB2 is more like the kind of person who wants to live an opulent life of luxury, rest, and attention. It's the difference between a stereotypical rockstar and a stereotypical politician. Everything changes once you dig a little deeper into who they are/what they want. Additionally, whereas before you only had 49 character types, now you have 1470 character types. If you were in a position where you could expand this further, it would give you up to 25,401,600 different character possibilities. Combine these possibilities with their different backgrounds and now you have a near infinite number of possibilities even if they are all cut from a cookie-cutter history. Just take your time to think how the motivations would influence their lives and you should be fine.

Ultimately, all characters will feel similar to some degree. Unless you go out of your way to try creating as opposite of characters as possible, it's pretty much an inevitability. After creating a couple characters, though, that will stop being possible. It's better to think of how you can diversify your existing cast as opposed to try to make drastic differences. You write about what you do for a reason, so take your characters and make sure they follow their motivations. If you see them making a choice that goes against their motivations, such as if either of my Greedy Boiis were to start offering charity for the sake of charity, you know that you're not writing with them in mind and you can just rewrite that scene. If you ever want to make sure you are writing within motivation, organize the Sin(s) and Virtue(s) by order of prominence in the character and go from there. Even using GB1, a person who is more diligent than he is lustful would take an enjoyment from the experience has he waits for his plans to come to fruition. In GB2's case, a person who is more diligent than he is slothful would wait to rest only until after he has completed his goals, at which point he may be out for days or weeks until he has a new desire.

If it helps, create a flowchart to guide yourself. What are his motivations? Okay, because of it, "What will he spend his time doing?" "While he waits what will he do?" "If he can't succeed, how will he respond?" Keep the flowchart with answers linking from one outcome to the next nearby while you write, and you'll see you can keep your characters acting quite differently, just as how Nami from One Piece wants money and treasure, while Luffy wants fun and adventure. They're both after the One Piece, but for completely different reasons and motivations/feelings to satisfy.

I hope this helps!

  • Spent 3 hours writing this. Super tired. If it has issues, let me know. Will fix later. Night – Sora Tamashii Jan 2 at 8:00
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Two things:

  1. From a marketing and reader perspective, it is perfect if a writer has a preferred topic. That's part of their brand and will help sell their books.

  2. From a writing perspective, if you find that you are bored with what you write, write about other things that interest you.

    Many writers are somewhat narcissistic, and part of learning to write is learning to not be so preoccupied with themselves. Writing requires experience at life, and life is more than oneself.

    But in your case, if you cannot think of other things that interest you, then that may be part of the self-preoccupation that comes with your illness. Many persons suffering from psychological disorders are understandably preoccupied with their circumstances and their condition, and part of the therapeutic process is turning their perspective away from themselves towards things to do and the world and people around them.

    So if you find that your personal experience is limited to yourself and your illness, you may want to work on including more of the experiences of other people in your thinking and feeling, possible with the help of your therapist.

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