As some of you may know, I have written two nonfiction books, Bipolar Me and Bipolar Us.
Now I’m working on a different kind of writing project – a mystery novel. I had written about two-thirds to three-quarters of it when life happened and I had to put it away for a few years. Now I am back to working on it, and one of the changes I decided to make was to have my main character, a journalist, be bipolar.
It would be too easy and too cheap for me to make the murderer bipolar, and less interesting, I think, than having the person who unmasks the killer struggling with a mental disorder while she does so. The world has had enough of psychologically damaged or deranged killers – especially serial killers. Such a novel would do nothing to lessen the stigma surrounding mental illness – would, in fact, increase it. Too many people already believe that most people with mental problems are dangerous.
One of the people who beta-tested my first four chapters described my main character as “ditzy,” which wasn’t what I had intended. Now, I think maybe she was on to something. Perhaps Maggie seems ditzy because bipolar puts her out of sync with the neurotypical world. Perhaps her reactions are not “standard.”
I don’t want the book to be about her bipolar disorder. It’s still a mystery novel, with a crime to solve, interviews with suspects, dangerous situations, and all that. I just want to have a bipolar person playing an active, positive role.
But how to introduce the concept of bipolar? Should I just have Maggie say early on, “I have bipolar disorder”? (It’s written in first person.) Should she explain what that means to another character?
I think I’d rather have bipolar disorder as subtext, dropping hints that Maggie may have certain traits like imposter syndrome, hypersexuality, and depression; that she takes meds for the condition; that she functions well most of the time, but sometimes an event will send her off the rails. There might even be a chapter where the action stops for a few pages while we see Maggie trying to fight off the depression that is threatening to stall her quest for the answer.
I don’t know of too many bipolar protagonists in fiction, and even fewer in mystery fiction. The only one that comes to mind is Bo Bradley, in one of Abigail Padgett’s series of novels. (I wrote about her and her character once: https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-nE.) In my interview with Padgett, she said, “the experience of people who live with real, clinical mood disorders is still fraught, dangerous and revelatory….But the general public, including me, cannot ever actually ‘get’ what a manic or depressive or psychotic episode feels like.”
That may be true, but people experience many things in fiction – spaceflight, mountain climbing, murder – that they never do in real life. One of the marks of a really good writer is to transport the reader into the story so that it seems real, so that the reader understands what it is to fly that starship and meet that alien, climb that mountain or die trying, or kill that person who threatens you.
Perhaps, if I plan, write, draft, tweak, and edit carefully, I can show the experience of trying to do work – important, difficult work – while fighting the effects of bipolar disorder. It’s a different sort of writing than my nonfiction books.
It’s still a long way off. First, of course, I have to finish writing the damn thing. Then I have to sell the idea to an agent, who will then try to sell it to a publisher. Or I could go the indie route, which would be quicker, but not as satisfying.