The Secret to Writing Depressed (but Not Hopeless) Characters

July 18, 2022

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of our series exploring the merits of Coral by Sara Ella. You can read the first installment here. Beware that this article and its companions will contain spoilers.


In the past, Christian publishers shied away from the topic of mental illness. And when a book did broach it, sometimes the advice dismissed the condition as unreal, perpetrated myths, or failed to provide the needed support and encouragement.


Thankfully, Christian publishers have become more open to addressing gritty issues, and several releases over the last couple decades have touched on mental illness—including Sara Ella’s Coral, the center of our 2022 summer book study. Depression is on the rise in our divisive culture, and readers crave authentic portrayals of individuals who struggle with it. But how should our faith influence our approach? Is the problem spiritual, or also biological and circumstantial? And what precautions can we take to ensure that we’re not misconstruing the symptoms and effects?


The Value of Representing Depression in Fiction

Some of you may be raising your eyebrows at this section’s header. Isn’t “representation” a secular concept? Shouldn’t Christian writers strive to excel at their craft and ignore concerns about inclusivity?


I understand why the language I’m using here could be off-putting—especially because of the mainstream’s proclivity to celebrate immoral lifestyles. Notwithstanding the abuses, however, representation ought to be treated as a biblical ideal.


God never tells the same story with the lives of the people who walk on this planet. And every person and path He designs has worth. If fiction is supposed to imitate reality, we need to draw from the whole human experience, not selective fragments of it.


The uncomfortable truth is that a single-minded focus on “writing good fiction” can lead to blind spots. A few years ago, I realized that most of the characters in my stories were male. I didn’t make that decision intentionally—I was gravitating to characters who were like me. When I began to contemplate whether a role better suited a man or a woman, more female characters populated my stories and deepened the meaning.


Too often, stories lack diversity because authors default to the contexts that are the most familiar to them. But when we push our imaginations outside our own bubbles, we’ll reflect God’s reality more comprehensively.


In writing about depression, we remind suffering readers that they’re not alone. And we help people who haven’t been diagnosed with a mental illness to understand the unwanted thoughts, feelings, and compulsions it arouses. Not every story calls for a depressed character. But more authors should evaluate whether the addition of such a perspective would enhance their plot and themes.


As I mentioned in my introduction, conveying the hardships of depression can be challenging, however. Coral answers the questions I posed through three principles:


Principle #1: Be Honest about the Darkness of Depression

Sometimes writers worry about sensationalizing the oppressive negativity that typifies depression. Sara Ella placed a trigger warning at the beginning of Coral for a reason: the protagonist self-sabotages relationships, tries to drown herself, and rejects counseling as pointless. But caution isn’t an excuse to color depression a cheerier shade, and the heart-wrenching paragraphs that riddle the novel are examples of how pervasive the disorder is.


“Her soul was bleeding.” (p. 1)


“How long did it take for Jake to brainwash [these girls] into thinking therapy helps and heals? And how long before she tries to do the same to me? Newsflash, Mrs. Jacobs. I’ve been around the psychoanalysis block before. There’s no such thing as ‘better.’ There is before. And there is after. The. End.” (p. 51)


“She unscrewed the cap and emptied a capsule into the palm of her hand. Her grandmother would check the count. So Coral dropped the pill into the sand and buried it beneath the grains. She hated the way it made her feel. The way it coated everything in sugar when deep down in her bones she knew it wasn’t real. The anxiety always came back.” (p. 194)


If you’ve never had depression, you’re probably wondering how you can sympathize enough to insert yourself inside your character’s stream of consciousness like the excerpts above. Copious research can prevent you from slipping into stereotypes, and if you’re able to interview an expert on the subject, such as a psychologist or therapist, that’s even better. However, you can also pull inspiration from moments when an obstacle seemed so insurmountable that you gave in to despair, or your grief over a loss kept you from functioning for days.


Although darkness can be intimidating to delve into (and should always be done with purpose and care), we risk weakening our faith if our bravest maneuver is to hide. That doesn’t mean we should parade misery across the page. But we can’t shed the light of Christ into the black wells that people fall into if we pretend that they don’t need rescuing.


Principle #2: Be Honest about the Sources of Depression

When identifying the cause of depression, your first assumption might be that it’s unrepentant sin or a chemical imbalance, both of which anticipate a simple solution. But as David Murray argues in Christians Get Depressed Too, “this personal dogmatism often reflects personal prejudices and experiences rather than the principles of God’s Word” (p. 12).


Depression can be the result of a number (or usually a combination) of factors. You need to be well-read before applying any to your character, because a “one-size-fits-all” is unlikely to be accurate. Murray outlines five categories to consider:


  • Stressful life events
  • Unhealthy thought patterns
  • A guilty conscience
  • Brain anomalies
  • The unexplained sovereignty of God

In Coral, life events pile on top of Brooke: she grows up in an abusive family, loses her older sister to suicide, and goes through a breakup. Unhealthy thought patterns plague her, including extremism (“It’s all my fault.” p. 118), false perceptions (“Merrick never loved me. He never will.” p. 245), and dangerous hypotheticals (“What would happen if I dove off the pier? Would anyone miss me? Would anyone care?” p. 217). Since depression runs in her family, we could also speculate that her brain can’t regulate her moods.


Notice the variety. Multiple triggers are more common than a single trigger, and the precise combination will differ for each victim. Maybe your character really is addicted to a specific sin or inherited a genetic irregularity from a parent. Just remember that depression is as complex as the people it impacts and can’t be restricted to one definition.


Principle #3: Be Honest about Life Surrounding Depression

Although depression has many forms, in Coral it manifests as a series of lies that repeat over and over until the victim believes the worst about herself and her life. Any troubles she’s facing become magnified. But allowing a whole story to be sucked into that vortex would distort the full picture. Joy and goodness won’t disappear—a depressed character is incapable of processing her situation rationally, and not all of her days will be dismal, whether she recognizes a blessing on sight or not.


Sara Ella makes a point of showing Brooke’s skill at writing, her love of the beach, and her desire to bring justice to her sister. These details round her out and keep her from becoming an avatar of depression. The split plot lines that shift between her and Merrick’s POV also give readers a reprieve from the slough.


No matter how much the Accuser whispers that the abyss is endless, it’s not true, and readers need that affirmation. When a depressed character has hobbies and quirks and ups and downs like anyone else, it corrects the impression that her identity is vested in her struggles instead of her legacy as an image-bearer.


Hope for Depressed Readers

Sometimes depression is temporary, and sometimes it’s lifelong. Victory may look like recovery, or it may look like learning more effective coping mechanisms. Because of depression’s unpredictability, we can’t expect readers to relate to generalizations. Stigmatizing or minimizing their pain only widens the gap between them and healing. First we need to gain their trust. Then we can assure them that, even in the bleakest circumstances, they can reach out and cling to the promise that Christ will wipe away all of their tears in heaven. And He’ll wrap them in His presence in the meantime.


Truth is a buoy that offers the drowning an escape. Are you anchoring it in your stories?


Return on Thursday when Gabrielle Pollack will help you avoid scarring readers with portrayals of trauma. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts. What difficult topics would you like to see represented more in Christian fiction?



  1. Aline

    What a great article! So thankful for these posts (and I order my copy of Coral because of it).
    I’m glad Christian literature has been more open to tackle “grittier” content. This has been my main struggle with my WIP, I want it to be God-honoring, but I don’t want to whitewash the realities of life. I’ve been a Christian my entire life and have been in the depths of despair countless times myself (sometimes because of my own wrong choices, sometimes because tragedies, and sometimes because of things out of my control). I don’t know how to write anything else but what I see as the reality of (Christian) life here on Earth: broken people in a broken world looking for redemption. But I feel like walking a thin line when writing about hard and dark themes (my MC has premarital sex and ends up pregnant and later on deals with postpartum depression. She does find God by the end of the story, but her life isn’t magically resolved because of it). I don’t want to water down the message, but I also don’t want to pretend it doesn’t happen.
    I haven’t been able to find the right balance just yet.

  2. Kristianne

    This is incredibly helpful and insightful! As someone who has gone through depression multiple times, I really appreciate books like Sara Ella’s that honestly yet hopefully portray mental illness. Thank you for addressing these important topics!

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Glad you found this article helpful, Kristianne! I’m certainly glad that Sara Ella is addressing these topics too. 🙂

  3. Sereena Liess

    Thank you for this very real and relatable article. As a Christian who struggles with depression and anxiety, I have received some well-meaning but unhelpful comments when I do venture to share my struggles, and I just really appreciate the compassionate, multi-faceted approach you took to the whole topic.

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks, Sereena. My heart goes out to those who struggle with depression and anxiety, and I’m grateful to God that he was able to use my words in this way.

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