Writing Health Conditions As Amplifiers

When discussing mental and physical health conditions as amplifiers, we feel the need to clarify that these conditions shouldn’t be temporary affectations, randomly assigned, sensationalized, or used as a device to suit the story’s purposes. In the real world, these conditions can represent a struggle for some, an accepted part of identity for others, or both. No matter what the condition is, however, one important fact is set in stone: people are people, not conditions. They are individuals with vibrancy and depth and should be treated as such.

Words have power, and the way we handle sensitive topics in our stories shapes how readers view those topics in the real world. When writing about mental or physical health conditions (or even identity for that matter), we have an obligation to research the facts and portray them accurately. And when we use a condition as an amplifier, we must do so respectfully to avoid harming the very people we’re writing about.

As an example of how a mental health condition may amplify emotion, consider Lisa, a character who has lived with agoraphobia most of her adult life. This anxiety disorder causes her to fear leaving her fourth-floor apartment. It doesn’t define Lisa; she’s happy and safe in her space, has necessities delivered, works from home, and uses chat rooms and online gaming for social interaction.

Life is good until she notices a small bug emerging from the wall outlet—and then a few more on her bedsheets. Realizing she’s looking at bedbugs, Lisa gets to work eradicating them. She orders traps and mattress cases. She tapes all the outlets closed, washes her clothes and bedding on the hottest setting, and puts her cushions and pillows on the balcony so the sun can kill the little buggers.

By the end of the week, Lisa is exhausted. She’s barely slept and has fallen behind on work, but it will all be worthwhile once the bugs are gone. Unfortunately, they refuse to be evicted. After all the scrubbing, cleaning, and vacuuming, she’s still finding them.

Now imagine Lisa’s landlord stopping by to let her know she’ll have to temporarily vacate the premises so the building can be fumigated. The idea of leaving her apartment, going down the elevator, and stepping into the street makes Lisa’s stomach fish-jump into her throat. No, absolutely not. She can’t do it. Her thoughts run a mile a minute, and she can’t pull in breaths fast enough. She tells the landlord in no uncertain terms that she won’t leave, and the treatment company will have to figure something out.

Aware of her condition, the landlord is sympathetic. Perhaps he reserves a hotel room for her across the street to minimize her exposure to the outdoors. He may gently show her the tenant agreement with her signature acknowledging that she must allow bonded workers into her apartment for necessary maintenance.

In a state of near-panic and denial, Lisa doesn’t see these well-meaning actions as anything but a threat. She feels cornered and overwhelmed, knowing she can’t leave but will be forced to do so. As pressure builds, she yells at her landlord, telling him that this is her apartment and he can’t make her go. She slams the door and collapses against it, shaking with no idea what to do.

In a situation like this, Lisa’s agoraphobia becomes the final straw that throws her ability to manage the bedbugs out the window. It's not her mental condition that stifles her; on the contrary, she's learned to live with that. The story itself isn't about agoraphobia—that's only one aspect of who Lisa is. It's only this predicament that amplifies the challenges associated with her condition, bringing it to the forefront in this scene.

Unfortunately, fiction is filled with hurtful stereotypes regarding health conditions and identity, and as writers of today, we must hold ourselves accountable and do better. Representation is important, and we want readers to be exposed to different lived experiences. To do this, we must research to understand the people we’re writing about. When characterization choices are made with purpose and handled respectfully, readers see a character’s true authenticity and will connect to them based on their strengths and individuality.

If you choose to write a character with a condition, give them depth beyond their diagnosis. Invest as much characterization into them as you do every cast member and unless the story is specifically about their mental or physical health journey, don’t put their condition front and center. Use these amplifiers with purpose and care. Above all else, remember that people are more than their health profile, and our characters should be too.