We’ve all been there. Isolated, confused, bored, discouraged. Depression is a common hurdle we as humans face. Yet, there is little more satisfying than conquering that malaise. The spirit of victory fills our souls, driving us to new horizons; for as we sink to the depths of hell, we can only rise to the heights of the stars.
That said, a character enduring depression garners zealous interest and support from the reader. The misery of the character is relatable, gripping, and strengthens the story—if written well.
What is Depression?
According to the Emotional Thesaurus, depression is a state of withdrawal, sorrow, and reduced vitality. An individual may look gaunt, sunken, weary, or psychologically imbalanced. Eating or social misbehavior are common, as are feelings of pessimism. Other symptoms include:
- lethargy, saggy posture, unkempt appearance, frequent crying
- a vacant stare, no energy or motivation, an aged face, insomnia
- nightmares, disease, poor concentration, shallow breathing
- panic attacks, chest pain, numbness, sluggish speech, thoughts of suicide
Life becomes a chore, a swamp to wade through. A depressed person sees little joy or purpose in living. While depression is a normal, and even healthy response to severe loss or daunting challenges in life, if it lingers, it can fester upon the soul as any wound can. Modern terminology coins this clinical depression.
Writing Depression Into Characters
While depression is horrible in real-life, it serves as an excellent tool in writing. Depression provides tension, character development, and trials for the protagonist to overcome. Many known protagonists like Frodo, Harry Potter, Eragon, Batman, and Jon Snow suffered this ailment. It’s also seen in many prominent figures in history: Jesus, Gandhi, Buddha, and several others. Once one’s inner demons are vanquished, the true hero emerges. See my post on the Hero’s Journey for more on this.
When describing your protagonist’s depression, have the reader feel the visceral sorrow, anger, and loneliness that is crushing upon the hero. Depression needn’t be sudden, it is often slow and gradual, like a disease that smolders upon the soul. Drive the hero to the brink, the “all is lost” point. Drill surprise and suspense into your reader, and they will all-too-eagerly read on.
Depression can also nurture grudges between other characters and breed new tension. It will challenge the hero’s morals. It will pull them closer to the antagonist’s ways; attempting to kill the hero’s spirit in the righteous sense.
Coping Mechanisms for the Hero
Some heroes will, instead of dealing with depression, mask it with peculiar techniques. They may try to block it out entirely, using a costume, armor, new personalities, new home, or a new profession. They are hiding from what they know still festers in their hearts. Eventually, the issue rises to the surface, forcing the protagonist to evolve or suffer.
If the latter, heroes go through a much longer ordeal, witnessing the Inner Hell over and over through their own thoughts and actions. Or that of others reflected back at them. This Hell can be a persistent, helpful tool for the plot and character arc. It allows for deep, inner exposition, the kinds you wouldn’t ordinarily find.
As writers, our job is to weave together that inner journey for our protagonists. To help them grow. Let me repeat myself: there’s nothing more satisfying to a reader than watching a sympathetic underdog rise from the dregs of hellish depression.
Uses of Depression
- drives the plot and character development
- provides tension and challenge
- enables rich exposition
- relatable to readers
Case Study—Pepper Slyhart
I enjoy tearing my protagonists down, ripping apart their hearts, and leaving their souls in shreds. Then I resurrect them in newfound glory. My own protagonist, Pepper Slyhart, makes an excellent example of this. As a half-dragon, despised by society, Pepper deals with a lot of shit from her countrymen. She is spat on, ridiculed, threatened, and attacked. It’s little wonder she has depressive episodes.
In the early parts of Blade of Dragons, Pepper is your token underdog, a farm girl with little hope in life. She looks up to her father, a role model. It takes a terror event and the words of a wiseman to encourage her to undergo the journey, as most heroes are reluctant to take.
Later, Pepper suffers horrible nightmares, the kind that can kill you in the waking world. She also experiences some setbacks in her quest. Depressed, alone, she engages in deep self-analysis of herself, her values, and why she still pushes forward. Scenes like these remind the reader of a character’s direction using depression as the fulcrum. It humanizes Pepper, despite the magical abilities she may have. Despite the fact she’s a half-dragon.
Confused and alone, Pepper is driven to the brink of madness by the Dragonsoul, threatening to take over her body. To defeat the spirit of the hero.
To date, Pepper has been my most dramatic protagonist to write. They say that each character is a piece of the author, and if so, she is a facet of my own inner demons. One day I intend to defeat them and fortify my spirit, as Pepper will succeed against hers.
Peace be with you, and thanks for reading.
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Aspectä rey’lief, fair reader.
—Ed R. White
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