Nuts and Bolts: 8 Things You Must Know to Write a Character with OCD— Please don’t do #3!

Hi! This is just a reminder that although I’m a psychiatrist, this blog is intended to help an author respectfully create a realistic a character with OCD. This is not advice for actual people with actual OCD.

So, you have a character with OCD and you’re trying to figure out how to write them in a realistic and accurate way. You’ve come to the right place!

The most important thing is to treat that character with respect. Check out my previous blog The Number One Rule When Writing a Character with OCD for how to do that.

The next most important thing is to know what you’re talking about. Which, if you don’t have OCD (and quite frankly, because of the thousands of ways it can manifest, even if you do have OCD), can be hard to do.

The internet is packed full of DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) descriptions of OCD. OCD bullet points litter the webpages of various OCD newsletters and treatment centers. If you or one of your family members has OCD, then the listed symptoms are instantly recognizable. But, if you’re an author not familiar with OCD, then they might leave you scratching your head and wondering, “But what does OCD actually look like in the real world?”

And we authors have really weird questions like:

Can I use OCD to drive my character to kill people? (No.)

Or

Can OCD make my character cheat on his boyfriend? (No.)

Or

My character has OCD, but I don’t want her to be a genius. Is that possible? (Yes.)

Or

 My character gets OCD from witnessing a murder. Can that happen? (No…and yes.)

So, authors, who are trying their very best at respectfully creating realistic characters, are left watching episodes of Monk to see if things are possible. (By the way, yes, Monk has OCD but he has a ton of other stuff too: Major Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Complicated Bereavement, and Specific Phobias. So, he may not be the best model for your OCD character.)

Before we get to the 8 points, let’s dive into the basics…

It’s vital to know that the “O” in OCD stands for obsessive. The “C” stands for compulsive.  Obsessions are usually ugly, ugly thoughts or images that jump into a person’s mind.  Compulsions are the urge to do something. Some people have obsessions only, other people have compulsions only, but most have both. When authors write OCD, they tend to focus on the compulsions and forget all about the obsessions. But it’s completely possible to have a character with severe OCD who doesn’t wash their hands a lot, or check their stove constantly, or adjust all the apples in the grocery store display.

By the way, OCD exists on a continuum and can range from mild to severe. Does your character have a job and go out with friends and have OCD? Completely fine. Does your character rarely leave the house and have a hard time getting showered or dressed? That’s possible, too. The key to OCD is that a character must spend an hour a day obsessing or pursuing compulsions or, at the very least, their symptoms cause them a huge amount of distress.

One other thing to note is that your character with OCD will be painfully aware that their obsessions and compulsions are ridiculous. They know that tapping their foot three times every time a person says the word snow does nothing, but they do it anyway.  They know that holding their breath until the light changes doesn’t ensure that their book will be published, but still….

To help authors really get a feel for how to portray a character with OCD in an accurate and respectful way, I’m going to tackle OCD in multiple posts: Obsessions, compulsions, how OCD can drive motivation, and realistic character arcs.

Without further ado, here are 8 points about OCD that will absolutely affect your character:

1. Your character with OCD doesn’t require a sky-high IQ.

Characters with OCD are often painted as misunderstood geniuses who solve crime through their amazing attention to detail. Or maybe their attention to detail was what led them to write beautiful novels. The reality is, though, that characters with OCD have just the normal amount of gray matter like you and me.

2. Debilitating OCD symptoms are not always debilitating.

OCD is cyclical. A character in a good mood might be able to dismiss an obsessive thought without too much difficulty or even refuse a compulsion for a few weeks (especially if the character is getting treatment) and then, out of the blue, for the next few weeks she might be paralyzed by thinking she hit a person with her car or that she might push someone off a bridge.

Why does the severity of OCD change? Lots of reasons: hormones, illness, being tired. But the number one reason why your character’s OCD symptoms are going to flare is because you are a very good author and you’ve been very mean to your character by writing them into an impossible super high stakes problem. Pretty much guaranteed that as your character gets squeezed in the vise grip of doom, their symptoms are going to erupt out of control.

3. OCD doesn’t make a character dangerous

If you need your character to do something violent, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you’ve picked the wrong disorder. Violence comes from the inability to control one’s impulses (either because of an impulse control disorder or drugs/alcohol), feeling threatened, feeling wronged, or being a psychopath..not OCD. So, if you’re writing about a character who murders people who don’t put their soup cans facing out in the cupboard because it’s his mission to make the world organized—that’s not OCD.

Can a character be a jerk AND have OCD? Sure. As they say in Texas, dogs can have ticks and fleas. Do you remember the movie, Sleeping with the Enemy with Julia Roberts? (It was also a book by the same name). I saw it way before I became a psychiatrist, so I can’t remember if the evil husband had OCD or OCPD (Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder), regardless, he was a big, big jerk who beat on his wife and plotted to kill her and that has nothing to do with the obsessive compulsivity that he also happened to have.

4. Characters with OCD do not have to be tidy.

A character with OCD could wash his hands a lot—to the point of chapping and bleeding, but he might be completely unconcerned about the three weeks of dirty laundry piled on the floor.  Or the mold encrusted takeout in the fridge. Or the cat fur all over the couch.

5. OCD doesn’t make a character afraid of heights, snakes, clowns, spiders, or enclosed spaces.

These types of fears are called specific phobias—and they’re a different diagnosis. Your character could have OCD and a specific phobia, too (Fleas and ticks, remember), but you should keep in mind that you’re wandering off the path (and you’ll have to research specific phobias, too).

6. Your character didn’t have a single blood test or brain scan before getting the OCD diagnosis.

That’s right. No fancy imaging needed—just an interview with a mental health professional (therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist). By the way, only psychiatrists prescribe medication, so if your character is taking something, then that’s the way to go.

7. Your character did NOT get OCD from witnessing a murder or being the sole survivor of a plane crash.

Have you been agonizing over a painfully traumatic backstory for your character to explain their OCD?  Well, rest easy. Your character has OCD because of their genes.

So, if you recall, I said no and yes to this question above. What’s the yes? Well, OCD gets worse when characters are placed in stressful situations. It’s quite possible that a character had quiet symptoms of OCD that weren’t too bothersome, that got cranked up in the aftermath of a traumatic event. If your character suddenly has OCD after witnessing a murder, then, at some point, if they really stop to think about it, they’ll probably realize that they already had some obsessions or compulsions before the murder, too.

8. OCD can be invisible.

And finally, some people with OCD can hide it so well that nobody suspects that they even have it! If a character has obsessions only, then they’ll be plagued by horrible thoughts and scary images—and their family and friends might not have any idea. Or maybe your character has cultivated invisible compulsions like tapping their tongue inside their mouth instead of rapping their knuckles on the desk.

There you go…8 super important points.


People (and characters) are not defined by their diagnoses.


One last thing, you might notice that I always say “character with OCD” rather than “OCD character.” Why? Two reasons, actually. The first is because people (and characters) are not defined by their diagnoses. A character is so much more than their OCD. So, don’t forget, a character with OCD can love the sound of crickets on a warm summer night. They can hate pumpkin spice lattes. They might ride motorcycles that roar down highways and work in tattoo parlors. Don’t forget to make your character a real person that a reader can love and relate to.

The second reason? That’s to come in a later post.

Please be on the lookout for the next post on how to write realistic obsessions for your character with OCD. A few weeks after that, I’ll tackle compulsions. And in the future? The nitty-gritty of character arcs and motivations for your amazing character with OCD.

Good luck writing your fabulous character! Be respectful. And if you have a question about OCD, I’m happy to answer it in the comments.

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