• Welcome to the Fantasy Writing Forums. Register Now to join us!

Having trouble tying in subplots with my epic fantasy adventure

The fantasy novel I'm writing at the moment takes place in a high fantasy world, and the rough outline for the plot that I have in my head involves a party of characters going on a world-spanning adventure, so I suppose it's what you'd call an "epic adventure". However, I have an underlying theme/subplot that I want to mix in, but I'm not sure how to do it without it feeling "jarring" to the readers, or feeling like it doesn't fit well with the rest of the story.

My major characters all deal with mental health issues at some point in the story. And my two main characters (The leaders of the party, so to speak) are a pair of young adult siblings who have a particularly traumatic backstory. Aside from that, the other characters in the party also have some sort of grief or trauma that they have to deal with/come to terms with at some point in the plot. I guess the whole idea is that you have this party of wanderers who are working together to save the world (like in most epic fantasy adventures), but they also happen to be helping each other deal with their mental health issues at the same time.

I want to place a big focus on the two siblings that act as my main characters. There's a younger brother and an older sister, though I'm writing the story through the younger brother's perspective (in first person, of course). He specifically deals with depression and self-worth issues. I've dealt with these kinds things myself in the past, so I'd like to think that I have a pretty good idea of what depression looks and feels like. Still, depression doesn't feel exactly the same for everyone, so I'm afraid of having my MC's experiences mirror my own too closely, since it could make him a little less relatable to people who either haven't experienced depression/mental health issues at all or experience them much differently that I have. At the same time, I also don't want my MC to sound too angsty or whiny, as I've heard that many writers end up creating whiny and annoying characters whenever they try to write novels aimed at teens or young adults.

Other than that, I suppose I'm just concerned that my mental health subplot/theme isn't going to fit well with a save-the-world type adventure. I'm still relatively new to the fantasy genre, and I haven't read many fantasy novels aside from the two Brandon Sanderson books that I'm reading right now, so I don't really know if this kind of theme is explored much in fantasy. I would imagine that most writers who want to write about niche real-world issues such as mental health would probably just write a story that takes place....well, in the REAL world. On top of that, not every high fantasy world is going to be as "modern" or "progressive" as ours (especially in medieval fantasy), so the study of psychology and awareness about mental health may simply not exist yet. The country that my two main characters hail from is definitely bit more modern than medieval, but their society/cultural values are still pretty "pre-psychiatry", if that makes sense. So yeah, no one's going to officially diagnose someone with depression or anxiety in this world, and I'm not really sure how to have my characters talk about these things in a way that feels natural, given their circumstances.

I'm also not sure how obvious I should make it that these characters have mental health issues. Again, if we look at my MC, my first instinct would be to focus on the self-worth issues that he has, with his internal monologues often consisting of him ruminating over his own mistakes and failures, beating himself up for it, setting too high of expectations for himself, etc. In my experience, these are definitely some unhealthy habits to have, and they can certainly lead to depression. But, again, not all of my readers are going to have experience with this kind of stuff, so they might simply dismiss him as an "angsty kid" or something. Is there some way i can better communicate the character to the audience? Am I being too subtle?

Anyway, sorry for dumping all these questions on you guys. Just wanted to get y'alls thoughts on some of these things. Reply to whatever questions you feel comfortable answering.

I'm not sure if I will be of much help, as I'm just pretty new to writing in general, but I write what I feel, and what needs to get out. I also had trouble adding subplots to my novel, but it's become easier after I got to know my world and my characters. I have a separate document with an "arc checklist" for every subplot that I'd like to include. As I write my story, I make it a goal to include the "arc points" in the general plot. Subplots is like a math formula to me. I plug certain "arc points" here and there to see if it fits. Sometimes, I'll have to change the "arc points" or look at them differently to get them to tell the story that I want to tell. I hope that makes sense! I try to not make subplots complicating. I think sprinkling a simple sentence/ dialogue/ action here (that reflects your character's dilemma) and there would be a good way to include and build up into a subplot. :)


toujours gai, archie
What if you set aside the concept of mental health issues entirely. You have a character who has depression, but depression manifests itself in many ways. Some of those leave a person debilitated, unable to leave the house, which doesn't work very well for spanning the world, so I'm guessing it isn't that. But what is it? That is, what specific challenges does this character face?

You don't say anything at all about the sister. What are her challenges?

IOW, maybe come at this from the point of view of the characters themselves rather than starting from a concept or category like "mental health issues."


^ Echoing some of the above comments, I think making mental health a integral part of the character personality, how they interact with others/themselves/the world, how they speak: to those they dont know or like and to those they are "comfortable" with.
Don't be so preoccupied with "pre-psychiatry" setting. You are allowed to design your world in ways that aid or hinder your story/plot.

Monologues could be tedious and maybe seeing the characters confront their triggers would have more of an impact on the ready.

I myself have been diagnosed with a MI about 8 years ago and also want some sort of mental illness subplot, or moreso as relatable elements of my project. Describe their anxiety when they have to go outside or talk to someone, when their asked about themselves. The two leaders have a sibling relationship so they should (or maybe not) know about what they deal with. They could have very unhealthy relationship with others but be close with eachother or vice versa. How do they deal with routine things? What is their mental hygiene like?

Remember MI isn't new it was just labeled as something different. Many cultures have many practices related to MI under the ideas of possession or brain deterioration.


Article Team
I think the most straightforward way of tying things in is to make the characters struggle with the mental health issues as they try to achieve their goals. Sometimes they over come the mental obstacles. Other times, they fail miserably because of them.

Now your world may not be exactly aware of these things, but if you intend to address them, maybe have a generic name for this thing people go through after they've gone through trauma or in this state. For example in the World Wars, one thing they called PTSD was Shellshock. In Ancient Greece depression was called melancholia. People knew it was a thing, but they didn't have the same understanding of it as we do now.

Having your character struggle while others misinterpret their actions/intentions as maybe whiny/lazy/etc. could be a very powerful teaching tool if done right. People struggle with depression in plain sight, but not everyone can see it for what it is. It can be misinterpreted as something else, and that can make speaking up about it even harder on the person. If you can put your reader in the eyes of the struggling person and can convey their frustration of people just not understanding, that can go along way.

Still, depression doesn't feel exactly the same for everyone, so I'm afraid of having my MC's experiences mirror my own too closely, since it could make him a little less relatable to people who either haven't experienced depression/mental health issues at all or experience them much differently that I have.

IMHO, distancing things from your own personal experience might not be the best idea. When you hear the old writing cliche "write what you know" this is the type of thing it's referring to. Draw from your own experiences and put them on the page. If you don't draw from yourself, where do you draw from? If you use generic descriptors, it's not going to feel real. It's going to feel like you cribbed off a wikipedia page. What you've experienced, that's real.

Yes, everyone experiences depression differently, but that doesn't matter. You're writing about your character's experience. Some may relater closer to that character than others and that's fine. it's like that with all stories and every character. it's like that old saying if you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one.
Sword Rain Alpha I offer for your consideration: There seems to be a finer point you need to distinguish for your own benefit... mental illness as a theme (internalized to the character and perhaps on an inter-character level), and mental illness as it directly relates to (impacting specific events or broader elements of) the plot ...to the point where is is a subplot..

You're plot and subplots can certainly have themes... but themes do not necessarily make plots, if that makes sense. Plots are about actionable things, things people do externally, rather than the thoughts they experience individually and internally. What do they choose to do (outwardly) with their thoughts and emotions? How will they act with and react to external forces, beyond themselves? That's when mental conditions become more of an actual sub-plot 'mechanism' rather than a ubiquitous theme.

If you write a character that is a walking personification of the DSM-V for clinical depression so readers "get it", fine. Otherwise, just write the character you want to write... The daily struggles, the turmoil, how it impacts people around them, write it all as you so wish. That's character, and possibly thematic.

The first example I can think of to better illustrate my point...is Miss Havisham from 'Great Expectations'. Both the reader and the characters know there is something deeply "off" about that woman, but it could be argued that the weirdness is just to externalize her internal demons and 'mental illness/ personality disorders' for other characters (and the readers) to see... in the end, only her methodical and pathological cruelty impacts "the plot" directly. The rest of her weirdness is just...thematic. It's creepy, and forces the surrounding characters to discuss and endure the/her weirdness; but the dilapidated mansion -both rotting and preserved in time- and her refusal to change out of her wedding gown "ultimately" have very little to do with the plot regarding Pip and Estella. After being jilted, Miss Havisham could have just as easily only worn a hideous golfing ensemble, or a scuba wetsuit, and pitched a tent to live fulltime in her backyard... and ultimately not have those "thematic details" make a huge difference to the overall plot.

Now, as a different hypothetical example: If a character is so depressed that suicidal ideations start becoming attempts, then maybe they... see an opportunity to leave a hiding spot, and draw the enemy out on themselves, hoping to be killed. Others then have to risk themselves to save this person, and because of their choices and mental condition, now the narrative- the plot- has shifted from the more peripheral themes (the internal struggles of the character) to an external, 'physical' struggle... The plot is now directly impacted because of the character's depression and suicide attempt in the middle of a battle, or whatever.

So, if part of your goal is to have theme-driven subplots rather than just thematic elements, how will this character's internal mental conditions externally impact the main plot?

Also, you have the benefit that modern readers can avail themselves to better understand modern psychological and neurological conditions, if they are so inclined and can likely 'read between the lines' of what you are writing. Give some readers the benefit of the doubt that they will understand the symptoms and feelings the character is describing/experiencing has this name in your story, that today, we call Depression. Your fantasy characters can call it something else entirely, but the symptoms will likely translate just fine to those readers sensitive and observant enough to pick up on such things. If you don't want to use the modern name or construct in your WIP, make up your own terminology and the sociological implications as you see fit.