I’ve read your article on addressing ableism in sanity systems, and I’ve been wondering how to write about horrible things that do cause radical alterations in people. I come from the land of the SCP Foundation Wiki and they have anomalies that hijack and alter the mind. From that article I read, it’s awful to use the usual trope of characters “losing sanity” from exposure to horrid things and beyond, but I’ll admit to not being so sure of the alternatives proposed, especially “Use magical story elements to create fantastical and mind-altering effects” or “erode their convictions, ethics, or core beliefs.”
Thanks for the question! Writing about horrible things that affect people’s minds without falling back on ableist concepts like “sanity” and “insanity” can be difficult.
“Insanity” is an outdated and stigmatizing concept that started as a generic category for all types of mental illness and divergence that resulted in behavior that was considered “abnormal.” This history gives “insanity” a generic quality that allows it to be used in a lot of different ways, but this genericness is also part of the problem. In addition to being stigmatizing, “insanity” is a bunch of separate things that are being treated as if they are connected or interchangeable, which in no way matches reality. Because “insanity” is so broad, there is not a single thing that can replace “insanity” in all stories. Instead, there are a bunch of different things that we replace it with depending on the circumstance and what we are trying to do.
Eroding a character’s convictions, ethics, or beliefs is all about depicting the way that the terrible events of the story affect the character over time. The first step in using this alternative is choosing one conviction, value, or core beliefs for each main character. In a horror setting, altruistic, optimistic, and rational beliefs like “Always help a person in need,” “Everything happens for a reason,” “People get what they deserve,” and “There is a rational explanation for everything,” will be particularly easy to erode.
Next, decide how this belief helps the character cope with difficult situations. For example, does it keep the character calm, help them focus, or aid them in thinking logically? Knowing how this belief helps the character is useful for guiding their behavior when that belief is being eroded.
Once this has been decided, put each character in situations that challenge their belief. For example, if a character’s belief is “Always help a person in need,” then putting them in a situation where helping someone in need would be incredibly dangerous directly challenges that belief. Another example is challenging a character that believes in rationality by having them encounter increasingly inexplicable and irrational things.
As the character grapples with each challenge to their belief, their belief erodes and they start to lose whatever type of stability their beliefs helped them have. Perhaps they start doing irrational things in order to maintain their belief. Or maybe who they are changes as their core belief is forced to change, causing a radical change in their behavior. If desired, this can lead to a crisis point where the character’s belief suddenly crumbles and they have to find a way to cope without it.
In contrast, using magical story elements to create fantastical and mind-altering effects is a way to portray situations that warp reality, or that externally alter a character’s perception of reality, while avoiding the ableist concept of “insanity.” For example, instead of a horrifying monster that causes everyone around it to “go mad” and attack each other, the monster could instead create disturbing hallucinations that cause everyone around it to attack each other. Here the ableist concept of “insanity” is being replaced with a supernatural mind-altering effect.
In this situation, “insanity” is being used as an intermediary between the cause, the horrifying monster, and its desired effect: people attacking each other. This means that we can replace “insanity” with any other fantastical story element that can create the same effect. In the above example, “disturbing hallucinations” were used, but other story elements, like magically-induced anger, mind control, or supernaturally-caused violent possessiveness, could have been used.
This process of examining how “insanity” is being used and replacing it with a different story element that has the same effect is broadly applicable. To demonstrate this, I’m going to work through another example. Because corruption is a common theme in cosmic horror, let’s use the example of a magical book that makes its user “lose sanity” each time they use it, resulting in increasing irrational behavior. Focusing in on the desired effect of this “lost sanity” we can select a different story element that can produce the desired irrational behavior. The book could whisper lies into its user’s mind. Each time they use it, those lies get harder to resist. Eventually the user starts to believe some of the lies, resulting in increasingly irrational behavior.
There are a lot of other options too. Maybe each time the character uses the corrupting book, its magic changes them a little. They could lose a happy memory, suddenly hate a food they used to love, or start having different aesthetic tastes. Or perhaps the book messes with their emotional stability, causing them to get irrationally angry about small things. Or the book could cause changes that prevent them from relaxing. Calming music could now sound discordant to them, or there could be shadows constantly flitting at the edge of their vision. The character’s inability to relax leads to stress which then results in irrational behavior.
I hope that this demonstrates that there are many options for replacing “insanity.” It is all about delving into how “insanity” is being used in each story and replacing it with something specific that fits the story’s scenario. Not only does this remove ableism from the story, it also helps us create more vivid and interesting stories by pushing us to be specific about what is happening.
Hopefully that this answers your question. Good luck with your storytelling project!
— Fay from Writing Alchemy