Designing Principle #1: A Character’s Mental State

Character Mental State

My first category exploring the concept of a designing principle is a character’s mental state.

A lot of novels today are written in the first person and the reader is allowed inside a character’s mind. If you’re writing in first person consider the mental state of your character. Is there a design that could mimic their experience?

In the film Memento the protagonist, Leonard, has short term memory loss. Every ten minutes he forgets what has happened and must reorient himself. Writer/director Christopher Nolan uses the designing principal of telling the story backwards in order to put the viewer in the same mental state as the character. He’s constantly disorienting the viewer and forcing them to put the pieces back together, just as Leonard must do with his own life.

In the novel Liar, the protagonist tells multiple versions of her story, starting out believable and moving to the outlandish. Sometimes she goes back and retells a scene completely differently than before. As a reader it’s hard to know what is true. The story moves forward and then back and then forward again. But what can you expect from a compulsive liar who’s always changing her story?

In Beneath a Meth Moon and How to Tell a True War Story, both protagonists are coming to terms with past trauma. In Meth Moon it’s a struggle with drug addiction, in How to Tell a True War Story it’s post-traumatic stress disorder. Both are told in a fractured narrative with vignettes and a non-linear construction. Both reflect how memory is faulty and vague.

In How to Tell a True War Story the narrative is structured in a spiral, going deeper and deeper into a particular time in the narrators life, repeating events, and  introducing new information at each return to the event. In Beneath a Meth Moon the structure is a wheel, where the story revolves around a central theme: the cause of Laurel’s drug addiction.  Or the narrative could be a fractured collage where the reader has to connect the dots in search of understanding, mimicking the same quest and mental state of the protagonist.

Have you considered your character’s mental state and how their unique struggle through the world might influence your story’s design?

Up Next: Designing Princple #2 – Setting and Environment