This month we’ll take a closer look at another anxiety-related disorder: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Want to know how you can create a realistic character who suffers from this condition for your fiction story? Keep reading to find out!
Criteria & Symptoms
As the name suggests, OCD comes from a person exhibiting obsessions and/or compulsions in such a way as they begin to negatively impact their life. For our purposes, an obsession is defined as having recurring and persistent thoughts or urges that are intrusive and cause the person anxiety and distress. A compulsion is a repetitive behaviour in response to the obsession or it’s a behaviour in place to prevent or reduce the anxiety associated with a certain event or situation.
A person with OCD, even if they realize that their obsession or compulsion is not realistic, are not easily able to stop. As with any mental health disorder, a diagnosis is only made when these behaviours start interfering with daily life, are time consuming, or are detrimental to a persons work or social life. [source]
There are endless situations or ideas that can become an obsession or compulsion.
Some commons obsessions are:
- concern about germs or contamination
- attention to symmetry or perfection
- unwanted thoughts about sex or religion
- unwanted thoughts about harming self or others
Some common compulsions are:
- excessive hand washing or cleaning
- ordering and arranging objects
- repetitive checking
A person does not have to exhibit both obsessions and compulsions. A person can have obsessive thoughts about a taboo sexual act, but no corresponding compulsion. Or a person can compulsively count their steps while walking, but not have a correlating obsession.
And finally, like other anxiety-type disorders, OCD can be situation-specific or can be generalized. A persons compulsion may be triggered in a particular environment or situation, or it can be something that happens regardless of where the person is at.
For anyone looking to create a fictional character with OCD, there’s a ton of flexibility in the diagnosis criteria to do so. I’m sure you can think of someone in your life, or things you do yourself, that are a tad obsessive. Germ-a-phobe neighbor? Anal mother in law? The key to creating a believable character is to take these every day traits and exaggerate them to the point that the characters’ life I negatively impacted.
If you were to create a character who, in the beginning of the story, had a tendency towards some obsessive or compulsive quirks, you can easily show how those quirks develop into something worthy of a diagnosis. And keep in mind that most mental health disorders become apparent after some kind of stressor (either physical or mental) to the person.
Imagine you have a police detective with a personality quirk of having a hard time throwing things away. His messy car and desk is the running joke between him and his partner, and it’s maybe even come in handy in the past when he’s pulled out an obscure scrap of paper that he’d held on to that ended up breaking the case. But then the detective takes on a particularly stressful case, and his quirk starts taking on a life of it’s own. It quickly surpasses “quirk” and his unwillingness to let things go becomes an obsession.
How about a character who is in her final leg of pregnancy. She spends her free time preening over the nursery, washing all the little outfits in preparation for her baby and making sure everything is perfect. As she takes her first steps into motherhood, however, she becomes increasingly obsessed with the cleanliness of her home and even of her newborn baby. Making sure people wash their hands before holding her precious baby turns into a compulsion to disinfect and sterilize her home and everything her child comes into contact with.
Or for a character who begins the story with a pre-existing diagnosis, showing their skewed reality and the coping mechanisms they’ve developed to live their lives with this disorder would be fascinating to watch as the story unfolds. For example, a character meets the new employee at the office. They have a lot in common and the character and new employee make plans to grab a drink after work one day. We can give readers an opportunity to see, through the co-workers eyes, the rituals the character goes through during their outing. His particular seat on the bus. Tapping his foot against the door jamb before entering the pub. The specific way he lines up his glass on the coaster. All while chatting and going about the experience like anyone else would.
A final tool that may be of use to anyone interested in creating a character with OCD is a screening checklist from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. This tool helps people who suspect they may have OCD identify their symptoms, but it can also be helpful in the character-creation process.
I’ve included the sources for information used in this article and have updated my Resources page with links to some sites that talk more about OCD. As always, this is by no means a substitute for professional advice or clinical assessment.
If there is something I didn’t cover here about OCD that you’d like to know about, or if you’re interested in bouncing character ideas off me, leave a comment below or email me and I’ll do my best to address it!
Is anyone writing a character right now that has OCD? I’d love to hear about it! Leave me a comment below.