Being bipolar myself, I have a natural interest in reading stories about mental illness in fiction and nonfiction. My mental illness shelf on Goodreads is one of my most populated. So today I want to talk a little bit about some of these bipolar characters in fiction. Who are they? How is their illness expressed? And where are their female counterparts?
One of the frequent tropes I see, especially in romance-driven fiction, is the bipolar male dream boy. I just finished Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places and it left me devastated for Theodore, the teen male lead with bipolar disorder.
I get very protective about people like me, people who struggle with mental illness, so whenever I read about or see them in pain, it hurts. It feels personal, like it’s happening to me. I imagine this is somewhat akin to twin-sense or when twins can feel pain in the other twin. So Niven’s novel really upset me so, so bad. Yet I think the presentation of bipolar disorder was actually fairly appropriate. She could have made him into the “Manic-Pixie-Dream-Boy” a la Augustus Waters, but she didn’t. Theo’s illness was never romanticized or made out to be something the female lead, Violet, was attracted to. Also, he wasn’t an artist. Thank you! Not all who are bipolar are intense, passionate artists like the main character in Megan Chance’s The Portrait.
Admittedly, I haven’t finished The Portrait yet, but from what I can tell in the first few pages it might bear a resemblance to one of my all-time favorite novels, Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm. And by that I mean looking at mental illness through a historical lens, seeing how it was treated in days of yore (meaning, inevitably, that it was treated with cruelty), and seeing how love can conquer demons. The readers at Heroes and Heartbreakers have given it glowing reviews, as have Goodreads readers. It’s high up on my TBR list.
A New Adult romance that features a male bipolar hero is A. Meredith Walters’ Find You in the Dark series. I started reading this last week, and I gotta say, I just don’t get it. I did appreciate that Clay, the hero, has bipolar and borderline, because that’s a double whammy and a really shitty combination (believe me, I know), but so far he seems so vanilla bland in other respects.
And there you go. That’s one of the problems I have with the moody male. He’s got to be interesting outside his moods, or else he’s just a vessel for someone who is attracted to drama. Drama that, in real life, is potentially fatal, extremely expensive, and absolutely debilitating. It’s really not that sexy, either! Rarely do I ever feel like I’m putting the “Hot” in “Hot Mess” when I am going through a tough time. Clay does not really have any interests or exist outside of his behavior, and yes, maybe it’s because he’s young and hasn’t developed many hobbies or whatnot, but come on. Believe it or not, people have personality outside of a personality disorder.
In Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, I was pleasantly surprised to find a bipolar character, that of Cath and Wren’s father. Their father is an advertising executive and has bipolar disorder, but instead of being treated as a totally out of control character, he’s treated like someone who has a chronic illness.
He’s not always healthy, and he’s not always sick, usually it’s somewhere between the two. One of the things I really appreciated about this depiction of bipolar disorder was that it showed someone who achieved personal success and was a father of two smart and lovely daughters. Cath and Wren might have put their lives on hold at some point in the story in order to care for their dad, but he was always shown as someone who was able to pull it together and function when it mattered most. I loved that it was about the strength of the family unit and that it showed his behavior and symptoms without seeming alarmist. He was treated humanely and fairly.
But what about male bipolar characters written by men?
Matthew Quick is a damn good writer, one that I admire and respect (plus a quasi-Philly-local!). When I read his novel, The Silver Linings Playbook, a few years ago, I initially didn’t love it, but then in retrospect I totally did. I think what helped was seeing actual dream boy (and again another quasi-Philly-local!!) Bradley Cooper give an amazing performance in the film adaptation opposite Jennifer Lawrence. I was all about it because Cooper seemed to fully inhabit the bipolar character. When Pat wasn’t taking his medication, Cooper breathed a kind of low-simmering frantic energy into Pat’s eyes and body so he just had this buzzing sensation that you knew wasn’t going to end well.
And again, I appreciated the depiction of the family unit, which was vastly different between the book and movie. In the book the relationship between Pat and his father is much more strained, but on screen they had a magically better relationship with even hints of the father having OCD. Anyway, in the movie at least I loved seeing the family work together as they helped Pat, a newly diagnosed sufferer of a chronic illness. Again, as with All the Bright Places, this novel did not have the female lead, Tiffany, attracted to Pat because of his tortured hero persona. No, they bond over taking medication (she seems to have some kind of anxiety/depression/possibly BPD) and living a life that is outside the “normal,” pretty, and perfect romance conventions. She is good for him because she is a little damaged and wounded herself but she pushes him to be well.
And yes, it gets points for being filmed 10 miles away from my house and being chock full of Philly references!
Last, I remember a few years ago when Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot came out. I was so stoked to read it as it had many things I enjoy reading about: a campus novel, English major-ness, love, etc. But ultimately it fell flat. The bipolar male character, Leonard, suffers from bipolar disorder, and it destroys his life and the life of the heroine, Madeleine. Leonard is completely incapacitated by the illness and drags Madeleine down with him so that the love triangle shifts from Madeleine, Leonard, and their friend Mitchell to being about Madeleine, Leonard, and Leonard’s bipolar disorder.
Some of the things were spot-on, the spending and the pressure to keep talking, insomnia, and so on, but ultimately Leonard devolved into the tragic manic tortured dream boy who ruins Madeleine’s life. Furthermore, it is widely accepted that Eugenides based this character on David Foster Wallace, which just really irks me. Why? Because by doing that Eugenides has romanticized what is already a romanticized writer, one who killed himself in the end. Is that supposed to be a tribute? Showing how Leonard was self destructive to himself and his girlfriend’s life? I mean, what are we supposed to get out that? Grr.
So you may be wondering, where are the women? And that’s a question I ask to many readers and writers, where are the female bipolars? Sure on screen we’ve got a shit-show of an example in Carrie Mathison on Homeland, but what about in fiction? I have scoured the internet and am having trouble finding examples of bipolar heroines in romance literature (much less any kind of romance, be it literary, New Adult, YA, etc). This bothers me because it seems indicative of a larger problem I have found in life. Insanity/hysteria/depression/bipolar/whatever was once thought of as a very “female” illness, and yet now we are captivated by male characters with bipolar. Where are the romantic protagonists who will stand up for a female bipolar heroine?
These are the kinds of questions I wonder about as I have started to write again, started to write a novel that will feature a bipolar heroine and tell her story with respect and dignity.