I’m trying to create a character who magically switches between personalities, a la Jekyll/Hyde, but I know those characters can create negative stigma around real mental illnesses like DID in the name of making a new “twist” on the idea. How can I avoid this stigma while still keeping the design inventive? And how do I distinguish for readers between such a character and someone who actually has DID or something similar?
Thank you for your question! This is a great example of the complexity involved in navigating the relationship between fictional disabilities and real disabilities.
Because fictional disabilities aren’t trying to be a representation of a real disability, storytellers have more flexibility when they craft their details. However, fictional disabilities are still representations of disability, so it is important to do the research and consulting needed to avoid harmful patterns, like villainous disability and stereotypes about mental illness. It is also important to ground fictional disabilities in at least one disabled experience, like a symptom or common experience, so that they represent real experiences of disability, rather than false ideas.
In addition, any time a fictional disability has a major trait that resembles a real disability (or a stereotype about that real disability), it will remind people of the real disability. This means that the representation of the fictional disability will affect how people think about the real disability it is associated with. The only way to break this association is to make the fictional disability so different from the real disability that it no longer reminds people of it.
Because a core concept of most Jekyll/Hyde characters is that they are someone with “dual personalities,” they have a strong association with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). There is no way to separate a Jekyll/Hyde character from this association without changing this core concept. That means that if you want to get away from this association, you will need to change the “dual personalities” core concept.
One way to do this is to go back to the original work and look for other interpretations and themes to use in creating a new version of it. Based on a cursory reading of the Wikipedia article for Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the original version of this story is less about dual personalities and more about the Victorian dichotomy between the outward appearance of respectability and all of the vices that were happening in private. Whether or not this is correct, the idea that Jekyll uses his transformations to indulge in his vices “without fear of detection” is a useful starting point for creating a reinterpretation. For example, a character that undergoes a purely physical transformation might act reprehensibly because they are able to avoid the consequences of their actions. Because their mind is unaltered by their transformation, this would be a big move away from associations with DID.
It is important to know that the association between a fictional disability and a real disability doesn’t have to be broken in order for the fictional disability to be respectful. As long as the fictional disability isn’t recreating stereotypes, spreading misinformation, or sending a negative message about disability, it is fine. In fact, fictional disabilities can become metaphorical representations that illustrate important experiences of real disabilities (keep in mind that this is best done by people who are expressing their lived experiences).
The first step in making a fictional disability into a respectful representation is researching the real disability it is associated with. When researching, be sure to google both stereotypes and myths about that disability, as both searches can yield important results. If you don’t have personal experience with this real disability, I also strongly suggest hiring a consultant with that lived experience.
Use the results of this research to avoid recreating myths, stereotypes, and misinformation in the fictional disability. For example, one of the most pervasive and damaging myths about DID is that people with DID are violent or have alters that do extreme harm. Many Jekyll/Hyde type characters perpetuate this stereotype, depicting the Hyde character as evil, destructive, and violent. Changing this pattern is essential for moving away from this harmful stereotype.
However, if neither of these two routes appeals to you, then I recommend delving into what it is about the Jekyll/Hyde character that appeals to you. Is it loss of control? A magical transformation? Exploring corruption? A dramatized internal conflict? The relationship between two entities sharing a body? Once you know what appeals to you, use it as a starting point for creating something different.
Finally, regardless of which of these three paths you follow, there is definitely room to create something fresh and new. Because the ableist patterns have been followed so much, just avoiding them is a good first step in creating something novel.
I hope that this helps!
Good luck with your writing project,
— Fay from Writing Alchemy