Thursday, April 21, 2016

Are We Allowed To Criticize Characters With A Mental Illness?


Hey all, I'm going to be discussing something that has been on my mind again. I really have no idea if this is controversial, but it definitely makes sense to be featuring this as a Fine Line post.

The Fine Line post is a feature I share with Holly @ The Fox's Hideaway, Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight, and Amber @ YA Indulgences. It touches upon topics that are either controversial or hard to talk about. For that reason, I will try to remain as neutral as possible. These posts are not aimed to cause offense or target anyone. And more importantly, the reason for these posts is to see what YOUR thoughts are on the topic at hand. Because I am interested in discussion.

Also, please don't be afraid to comment or discuss your thoughts. There's no right or wrong answer to anything I've discussed, and of course you do not have to agree with me on anything. The only thing I do ask is that you don't mention any names or the such. And if you do have a problem with anything I've said, feel free to DM me. Though just remember that I am allowed to state my own thoughts.

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I recently read two books, The Way I Used To Be (which isn't mental illness but we'll get to that) and When We Collided. Both featured extremely frustrating characters, which is what made them hard to read, and ultimately review.

And here is where this discussion comes in. (Before I get into it all, I would like to thank my wonderful support group in the gchat/Google Hangouts/whatever it's called nowadays, since we talked a lot about this topic. And of course, I would like to thank Amber, Holly, and Shannon for reading this and discussing it with me. Shannon rec'd me Asking For It, which now I want to read ASAP since it deals with this exact topic.)

So. It's hard to deny that there aren't a lot of books featuring characters with mental illnesses. And this is actually a good thing! It's great in that more readers can connect with the characters. More readers can become educated about mental illness, whether it's about schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, depression, etc. Books such as Paperweight, Challenger Deep, and Made You Up are incredibly powerful narratives that opened my eyes to these topics. 

So, here is where I am unsure of where I stand. It's no surprise that sometimes I get frustrated with these characters. And that's to be expected. With When We Collided, it was so hard to read through the character's decision. And same with The Way I Used To Be, which isn't necessarily about mental illness, but also deals with such a hard topic such as rape. And I get it, that's the plot. That's how a person is in that type of situation. 

But because of this huge trend in mental illness, there's really a couple of questions I have to ask myself.

The first is something that always troubles me when I review a book featuring a character with mental illness. Can I criticize the actions of the characters? Am I allowed to do that, as someone who has not been raped, or doesn't have said mental illness? In The Way I Used To Be, our main character, Eden, spent her entire high school career struggling with the fact that she had been raped. It was horrible to read. I felt frustrated, and as someone who had not been raped, I was quick to think "Why doesn't she just SAY IT". But what could I say? I have never been in her shoes. And I'm sure other readers who, unfortunately have been, understand Eden perfectly.

For me, the same occurred with Vivi in When We Collided. I didn't agree with many of her thoughts, or her actions. But I couldn't tell apart her personality from her bipolar disorder. Were they the actions of Vivi, or the actions of an illness? 

It's a struggle because I feel like as a reviewer, I don't know whether I should criticize the character. Would it make me an asshole if I did? But then I feel equally wrong if I don't express my true feelings about it.

And along those lines, could authors be using mental illness as a way to avoid criticism? I mean, I don't think I'm the only one that struggles with criticizing characters with mental illness. If it were a different situation, I would likely criticize without second thought. Well, anyways, what do you think? I don't know if I have an opinion on this matter yet.

So in the end, I try to just follow my feelings (I say try because I'm still struggling). For The Way I Used To Be, I ended up rating it a little higher than I should've, just because I wanted others to know it was informative. But I think the important thing is that I can still say it was an eye-opening read, while criticizing the character. I just feel wrong not saying my thoughts. 


How do you feel about this? Do you also have a hard time reviewing books featuring mental illnesses?