April 17 – 23: “Mental illness in thrillers?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week ITW Members Lisa von Biela, Thomas Pluck and DiAnn Mills will discuss mental illness in thrillers. Is it always the antagonist? And, if not, are social ills always to blame?


Inspired by the likes of Stephen King and Rod Serling, Lisa began writing horror and sci-fi short stories near the turn of the century. Her first published story appeared in Greg F. Gifune’s small press ‘zine The Edge in 2002. She stayed with short fiction, honing her craft and seeing more of her work published, before finally embarking on her first novel, THE GENESIS CODE, released in 2013. After working in Information Technology for 25 years, Lisa dropped out of everything—including writing—to attend the University of Minnesota Law School. She graduated magna cum laude in 2009, and now practices law and writes in the Seattle area.


DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She creates action-packed, suspense-filled novels to thrill readers. Her titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists; won two Christy Awards; and been finalists for the RITA, Daphne Du Maurier, Inspirational Readers’ Choice, and Carol award contests. Library Journal presented her with a Best Books 2014: Genre Fiction award in the Christian Fiction category for Firewall. Connect with DiAnn here: www.diannmills.com


Thomas Pluck has slung hash, worked on the docks, trained in martial arts in Japan, and even swept the Guggenheim museum (but not as part of a clever heist). He hails from Nutley, New Jersey, home to criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, but has so far evaded capture. He is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, his first Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller, and Blade of Dishonor, an action adventure which BookPeople called “the Raiders of the Lost Ark of pulp paperbacks.”


  1. It certainly shouldn’t always be the antagonist. The stigma of mental illness is a difficult one to fight, and using illness as the primary motivator of a villain can be lazy. If there were as many violent psychopaths in real life as we have in fiction, we’d all be strung up in elaborate death rituals as clues by now. And making mental illness inevitably tragic, cured only by death, is the worst. People live with these diseases every day, whether it’s schizophrenia or PTSD.
    I enjoy reading protagonists who live with mental illness, whether it’s as common as anxiety, such as Julia Dahl’s Rebekah Roberts or Tony Soprano’s panic attacks, people who have to overcome irrational fears, or first responders with PTSD. I know plenty who fight these illnesses on a daily basis including myself, and stories have power. By destigmatizing it in fiction we help shape reality.

  2. This is an intriguing questions. Some plot lines can effectively use mental illness in thrillers, but my opinion is the story is stronger when that is omitted. What is more dangerous than an antagonist who is of sound mind, someone who is calculating, manipulative, and possibly charming? What a unique twist for the hero or heroine to suffer with mental illness. Now that increases the stakes. Who would believe their observations? Social ills are not to blame for crimes; some people simply choose greed and selfishness. When applied to story, too often mental illness becomes an excuse for behavior. In my opinion, if mental illness is essential to the story – shove it into the protagonist’s characteristics.

  3. I realize a lot of thrillers (Silence of the Lambs being an excellent example) rely on mental illness, but I notice none of mine do. They generally rely on “following the money,” greed as a terrific motivator for all sorts of nasty deeds. Perhaps some megalomania here and there, for good measure. But I’m hard pressed to come up with any characters in my thrillers where genuine mental illness is really present.

    For espionage-type thrillers, power is often the motivation, not so much mental illness.

    Thomas makes a good point, as to the stigmatizing effects of using mental illness, making such characters helpless to fight it (I enjoyed Tony Soprano’s character very much…wasn’t it ducks in the pool that set him off once?).

    And to Diann’s point–I agree, it’s far more bone-chilling to have a character who is deliberately, coldly planning his/her evil deeds!

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