The Relatability & Challenges of Mentally Ill Heroes

Heroes throughout fiction are meant to exemplify the greatest aspects of readers. They show what a person can or could truly be, even when put through the worst of circumstances. While there are plenty of heroes who are bright and shining symbols of goodness and hope, they are often far less interesting than their dark and flawed counterparts. But what’s better than a dark hero? A crazy hero – a person who is certifiably insane, or at least should be to do the feats they do on a daily basis.

Whether a hero is defined as mentally ill within his or her story or really should be interpreted that way based on his or her actions, these mentally ill protagonists are just plain interesting. There are far too many insane villains to ever count, but the insane hero is a smaller and much more interesting breed. Rather than descend into some archetypal form of evil, they fight for good, or at least their own interpretation of the concept. These strange collision of morality and lunacy create something unique and unforgettable in films, television shows, and novels.

Of course, there are so many forms of mental illness and so many different types of narratives that the best creators can put their own exciting spin on these strange and unpredictable protagonists. Then again, maybe every protagonist has some degree of mental illness to make them do the things they do.

Insanity Versus Motivation

Every protagonist has to have a reason to be involved in a story. Whether they are causing the story to move forward or reacting to the story’s self-perpetuating progression, there is something that focuses the main character and puts him or her into action. Their reasons can be simple or complex. Either way, they relate to the core of a character. But the crazy ones are different because they don’t quite conform to relatable ideals that audiences would want for their own life stories.

Mental illness in real life doesn’t fall into neatly formed character traits. Ideas like having rage issues or trauma don’t result in most people hitting the streets to fight crime. Real people with these challenges sit next to you in the office or make up a large portion of your family. However, characters in stories that are forced to deal with real issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or clinical depression, are far more interesting than clean cut protagonists whose only obstacles are exterior. A protagonist that chooses the path of the greater good despite his or her interior obstacles is compelling and is actually very inspirational. People have issues in the real world. We can’t all be perfected beings who are consistently prepared for the challenges that face us.

On the other hand, not every great story must be a hero overcoming evil. The stories of people struggling to live healthy everyday lives and better themselves are far more true to real life and grounded in real world circumstances. Trying to be a better person and overcome interior challenges is motivation enough because it’s often mental health challenges that affect our ability to embrace life and make a difference in the lives of others. Unlike simple narratives, however, the journey to overcome trauma and disorders never ends.

Fiction’s Most Insane Protagonists

The concept of a crazy lead character has been thoroughly explored over the centuries, but the best ones stick with readers and make them come back for more. Whatever medium their stories are told in, the insane heroes are unique reflections of what so many of us struggle with to one degree or another.

The Hulk – A history of family abuse, dissociative identity disorder (DID), and some major rage issues. The Hulk is easily the hero with the most issues on the surface. Even when Bruce Banner’s green alter ego is altruistic, he’s still the product of major mental health issues.

The Narrator – A seemingly normal man who loses everything and spirals into a world of anarchy and therapeutic violence, you don’t even get to know his name. For most of Fight Club, it’s clear that The Narrator has a lot of issues, then (spoiler) you find out that best friend and idol Tyler Durden is his split personality/hallucination. It’s going to take more than a bullet to the mouth to solve his problems.

Hank Pym – You would think that someone whose most notable power was to shrink would have an inferiority complex, but Pym is quite the opposite. Throw in dissociative identity disorder and a history of spousal abuse and you’ve got quite the ill hero.

James Bond – Agent 007 clearly has a death wish. After all, 00 agents have a notably short life span. He’s an alcoholic, a thrill seeker, and probably a nymphomaniac. Thankfully, those short comings are put to good use for Queen and Country, except when he quits. Which happens a lot. Most likely tied to the death of his parents during his childhood.

Deadpool – Unkillable assassin, Wade Wilson had issues before he submitted to experimentation by the Weapon X program. But the toll of the experiments he underwent and the horrors he both witnessed and committed broke him. A slanted view on reality, hallucinations, and a wicked sense of humor are all used by The Merc with a Mouth to shield the pain he hides beneath it all.

Rorschach – This street level hero from Watchmen shows that exposure to the worst humanity has to offer will slowly break you down. However, Rorschach had issues from the start, with his mother’s prostitution leading to major abuse at a young age. Maybe it’s why he became a hero in the first place – trying to right some wrong he could never overcome.

Abed Nadir – A young man who can’t tell reality from television who just so happens to be a television character. On TV, it’s adorable. In real life, he’s on the autistic scale and his problems would quickly escalate to further difficulties, such as an inability to leave the Dreamatorium or connect with other people. But it works on Community!

Hamlet – The tragic Shakespearean hero may fake his madness to get the answers that he needs, but he may actually be mentally ill. After all, he sees ghosts, talks to skulls, and has an insatiable thirst for vengeance that is tempered by depression. Maybe he was bipolar? It could work.

Batman – How else would you explain a man who witnessed his parents die at a young age and swear an eternal oath on crime other than mentally ill? Depending on artistic interpretation, Bruce Wayne is either a mentally broken man who can barely keep it together outside his costume or a mighty man imposing sheer force of will to channel trauma into strength.

Moon Knight – Mark Spector makes Batman look like Archie. Parading around as the hero Moon Knight in a stark white costume at night, he clearly doesn’t have a sense of self preservation. But he also cycles through identities, hallucinates visions of an Egyptian god, and even cut his arch enemy’s face off one time. So awesome.

Mario – This guy is a plumber who runs around a “Mushroom Kingdom” jumping on the heads of dinosaurs and plants to save a princess. He’s clearly hallucinating the entire experience. Whether he’s on drugs or it’s all in his head as he hops around a padded white room, it’s clear that the entire Super Mario Bros. series is the product of a madman’s psyche.

Wrapping Your Head Around a Crazy Hero

The difficulty of creating an insane protagonist is that, by nature, he or she will buck the nature of story arc and character progression. Real life is much more complex than a three-act story. Grappling with mental illness is a journey that has progression in stops and starts, regression, and no real sense of closure, only a day-by-day work in progress.

Take the characters of Silver Linings Playbook for example. Pat Solatano deals with bipolar disorder while Tiffany Maxwell is coping with borderline personality disorder. It’s a far more realistic look at two people with serious mental health issues who are fighting to live healthy and productive lives. While the story features ideas of falling in love and finding purpose, it doesn’t leave these two cured and completely healthy.

Rather, they find the ability to love one another in a healthy manner and find progress in the journey toward mental health. It’s a happy ending in a real, relatable, and inspirational manner. This is far more realistic than a superhero who faces death and danger on a daily basis, yet never seems to have residual effects, such as PTSD or any aggravation of already existing mental health issues.

What does it mean to portray mental health issues in fiction? It’s far more complex than it may seem at first glance. There are plenty of fun and exciting ways to bring a different type of character to the screen or page. Whether the issues on display are meant to shock, relate, inspire, or subvert expectations, the best creators know how to do something unique and real.


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