The number one rule when writing a character with OCD

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is really, really important to me. Why? Because, not only do I treat hundreds of wonderful people struggling with OCD, but little-known fact…I have OCD, too.

It feels strange to write that sentence. Weirdly vulnerable. I don’t talk about having OCD…ever. It’s just something that I live with on a daily basis and some days I got it crushed and, other days, it does the crushing.

By the way, a person is not OCD, they have OCD. What’s the difference? Quite a lot actually. But that’s in another post to come later….

I’m so happy that you’re reading this because it means that OCD done right is important to you, too. As a psychiatrist, I’m always thrilled when I see an accurate depiction of OCD in books and movies, but let’s be clear, there’s something even more important than that: when a character with OCD is treated with respect. People with OCD (or any mental disorder, for that matter) ALWAYS deserve respect…and, all too often, it’s lacking.

People with OCD (or any mental disorder, for that matter) ALWAYS deserve respect.

Mental disorders have a long, long history of being mocked. The mocking of OCD, in particular, still seems to be socially appropriate. It’s not too uncommon to hear people say, “Oh, that’s my OCD acting up” or jokey OCD quizzes on social media (which I enjoy taking, by the way. But, oh, that one orange M&M hanging out with the pile of green M&Ms makes my fingers itch).

So why is it still okay to make fun of OCD?  I truly don’t think people are inherently mean or even that they’re trying to make fun of people with OCD, they’re just ignorant. Lots of people have OCD traits (sub-threshold symptoms without meeting diagnostic criteria) without actually having the disorder so they feel like they know what it’s like…and, in their experience, it’s not that bad. Some people even think it’s cool to have OCD. Or they dismiss OCD as quirky behavior—and who doesn’t like to poke friendly fun at quirky behavior? But, the reality is that OCD is not quirky behavior.

I hear you, you’re completely on-board with wanting to be respectful to people with OCD, but what if you’re writing a comedy? It can be so hard to find the line between respectful humor and disrespect. After all, people with OCD are often compelled to do a lot of ridiculous things. I say that lightheartedly, but make no mistake, obsessions and compulsions by their nature cause grief and despair. However, folks with OCD tend to have a sense of humor. Why? Because humor is a natural and healthy coping strategy…but that doesn’t make OCD a laughing matter.

So, if it sounds daunting to write a character with OCD, that’s a good sign. It means you’re being thoughtful.  Let me reassure you, it’s perfectly okay to have a character with OCD who is funny. It’s even okay for them to end up in some funny situations because of their OCD. (Because, of course, people without OCD can be funny and can also end up in funny situations because of their actions!)

So, what’s respectful and what’s not? If your character with OCD is a main character, then follow the rules that apply to all main characters: your character should be caught in an external plot, they should also have an internal plot—which may or may not be about their OCD (personally, I get a bit tired of seeing characters with OCD having internal plots solely about overcoming their symptoms), they also have hopes and dreams, secrets, hobbies, and favorite foods.

But what if your character with OCD is a side character?  The first step is to think about why you made that choice. Was it for comedic effect? Then re-think it. It’s a mistake to create a character with OCD to exist solely as the punchline.

Did you include a secondary character with OCD to bring a diverse and rich cast of characters to your book? If so, then fantastic! Did you create a character with OCD because you would like other people to read about OCD and maybe feel a little less alone in the world when they recognize themselves? Then, yay you! You are my hero.

So, how do you write a secondary character with OCD? Well, just like any meaningful secondary character, they also need to have a fully fleshed out personality with strengths and weaknesses, hopes and dreams. Take, for example, two very famous secondary characters: Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. Readers loved them just as much (if not more!) than Harry Potter. Why? Because they were written as real people. Ron and Hermione were Harry’s friends, they moved the plot, they had important discussions with him, and we identified with their feelings. I know I hoped for Ron to do well in Quidditch. I loved Hermione’s fun at the Yule Ball.

Sadly, authors have a tendency to make secondary characters with OCD be one-dimensional scaredy cats. Don’t do it!  Tough, leather-clad, tattoo-sporting motorcycle dudes can have OCD, too.

The key is to realize that any character with OCD is more than their OCD…just like in real life. For example, I have OCD hang ups about odd numbers, the Pacific Crest Trail (really), hand sanitizer, cross walks, cracks, curling irons, forks, my tongue (don’t ask), and symmetry.  But there’s plenty to me that’s not about OCD. For example, my dream is to write books for children that touch their hearts and imaginations. I’m passionate about helping doctors survive their hardest days. I get misty eyed at videos showing returning veterans being greeted by ecstatic pups. I play Dungeons &Dragons and Magic The Gathering every week—but only because it makes my son so happy. The scent of campfire smoke in a sweatshirt is the best smell in the world. I’ve eaten grass (I was a kid and it was a dare.) Glazed old-fashioned donuts are my kryptonite…I also happen to have OCD.

So, the number one rule about writing characters with OCD: Show them respect.

The number two rule? Knowing what you’re talking about. Please see next week’s post for the nuts and bolts of writing a character with OCD.

What’s your experience with reading and writing characters with OCD? Know a book or movie that does it well? I’d love to know! Please leave a comment!

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