Can fiction really help with mental health?
It’s been a long time since I last wrote anything on here and a lot has happened in a year or so. I won’t bore anyone with the details but my life turned a bit upside down and blogging took a seat way at the back in my mind. So did writing in general. I’ll be honest, at times a history of depression and anxiety really gets in the way of my writing and reading. One of the worst parts of depression is that you don’t even want to do the things you love anymore. Even if they might help. That’s exactly what happens to me. Sometimes the words just won’t come.
Reading is the first step with writing. It’s helped me in the past and definitely did over the past year. I got lost back in fantasy and eventually it helped me write again. So I wanted to return with a post about struggles and where the fantasy genre fits in for me.
Here’s why I think fantasy fiction can boost your mental health, or any fiction for that matter.
I realised that one of the wonderful parts of fantasy fiction is the escapism. This is what drew me to it in the first place. It reminds me of a time when I was a sad kid getting lost in Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. It may sound cheesy but they helped me through stuff and I know they have with other people too. One of the reasons the likes of Harry Potter were so popular with kids like me was because…just imagine if it was all different. If really we were special, magical people and we could be whisked away to a fantastic place like Hogwarts. It left a little ache in my poor childish heart.
I believe all fiction is a great outlet and escape from the real world, but I feel this is particularly so with fantasy fiction. Sometimes you want something really different from the real world and to immerse in another where anything is possible.
Now people might say that ‘escaping’ from your problems isn’t a good thing but sometimes, don’t we all need to? As long as you’re not permanently living in a world that doesn’t exist, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to dive in a new world to relax.
I have distinctive memories about reading certain books and how they made me feel at the time. I think one of the reasons we write and try to emulate the stuff we love is because we’re trying to savour a memory. A memory of how those worlds made us feel. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could create something like that ourselves for someone else?
Deal with problems in a different context
Writing in this genre can be a way to process and deal with personal problems in a fictional setting. Sometimes it’s easier to see the bigger picture if the problems are happening to someone else: characters you can control. Creating control in a fictional setting can be appealing if your life doesn’t feel like it’s under your control.
Fiction also forces you to write from differing perspectives. In order to write good antagonists, you have to understand them. If this antagonist is based on something very real in your life, then writing about it could help you understand it and deal with it in a way non-writers may not be able to.
Metaphors in writing
While some readers may want a total escape from real life, it can be great to see our struggles written in the stories we read. There’s a sense of recognition, of not feeling alone. This isn’t just limited to gritty, real life novels, there’s nothing stopping fantasy fiction from exploring these areas.
Since I’ve already mentioned Harry Potter, I’ll just carry on. The dementors of Azkaban are JK Rowling’s personification for depression. And just look at them, what a great visual representation.
It’s a soulless creature that sucks the life, the happiness and the colour out of everything around it. Everything becomes cold and grey and hopeless. I thought it was a great example of depression, something JK Rowling has struggled with herself.
For me, it was important that this thing was personified as a creature. Sometimes we just sit here blaming ourselves, hating ourselves for what we’ve become, what we let happen to us.
But this isn’t us. This is something separate, poisonous that we have to fight. Too often I’ve thought that there’s no escape, because this is just me as a person. But it’s not. Depression is something that makes us feel less and less like ourselves until we feel like there’s nothing left. To fight it is to try and tear some of ourselves back bit by bit.
Another example of depression is in Kaladin’s character in The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson. Kaladin gives his depression a name: the wretch. While it’s not personified in the way that the Dementors are, it’s described more like an infection of darkness and hopelessness he has to fight. He fights it by focusing on a purpose, which is keeping people alive but that doesn’t get rid of it 100%. It’s still at the back of his mind threatening to take over.
In the second book, there’s a scene where Kaladin is stuck in a chasm arguing with another character, Shallan about entitlement and how they grew up very differently. Kaladin grew up as a second class citizen and Shallan is a high-born lady. Kaladin pretty much tells her she doesn’t know what real struggling is. She responds in a way that shows him that she has had struggles of her own, different but also very similar.
He’s hit with this realisation that she is so damaged too. In different ways, they’ve felt the same. And then she smiles. It hits him full in the face – how can she possibly smile?
This scene kills me! Sometimes we really have no idea what other people have felt and experienced. I’m finding the more I’m open about stuff like depression, the more I realise that it’s not just me. I’m not really alone. Thousands of others have felt like me. That’s why we need to talk about this stuff.
The moment of panic
Writing about stuff like this is always a bit risky I think, whether it’s a blog post or a story. You never quite know how someone’s going to react, whether they’ll care or dismiss it.
I did one of those hovering over the publish button things here, particularly because I’ve been away for a while and also because this is kind of personal. It may be a little soppy but this was my way of coming back to the blog.
It’d be great to hear if anyone feels the same way about fantasy writing or if you’ve struggled with writer’s block because of “the wretch” in your head. How has fantasy helped you? Do you believe fiction can boost your mental health?