Obsessions: 8 things an author must know about obsessions when writing a character with OCD

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 to diagnose or provide actual advice for actual people with actual OCD. If you are in need of help or find the blog triggering please contact the Crisis Text Line for more support: Text HOME to 741741. Please stay safe.

As a reminder, the “O” in OCD stands for obsessive. The “C” stands for compulsive. Obsessions are ugly, ugly thoughts or images that plague a person’s mind.  Compulsions are the urge to do something. Characters can have obsessions only, compulsions only, or, if your characters is like most people with OCD, they will 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.

In previous posts, I reviewed the number one most important thing to know when writing OCD as well as the 8 things you should know in order to write a character with OCD (under no circumstances do #3.)

This post is going to focus on the 8 most important thing to know about obsessions.

1. Obsessions can be images…

..and they’re VERY upsetting.

What are some of the worst images you can think of? Your mom dead on the floor? A stabbed baby? Driving off a bridge to your own death? These are the kind of images that will get stuck in the mind of a character with OCD.

Here are some common ones…

A character “sees” over and over again an image of a knife leaping out of his hand, tumbling through the air, and impaling his husband. Or even worse, he sees himself stabbing him with a knife on purpose.

A character grapples with a picture of themselves driving and reaching the very top of a bridge, then spinning the steering wheel and plunging the car into a watery grave.

A character with OCD might imagine themselves shoving the white-haired octogenarian with a walker into traffic.

A new mom character with OCD might be gripped by images of herself slamming a heavy car door on her precious fragile baby.

OK, here is one of my more ridiculous obsessions…

The Pacific Crest Trail is a hiking trail that stretches from California to Canada and just so happens to be not that far from my house. I break into a cold sweat at the thought of stepping foot on the Pacific Crest Trail. Why?  Because what if I just decided to start walking? An image of me walking, walking, walking all the way to Canada grips my mind…and I don’t want to.

One of my not so funny intrusive images? I was that new mom who couldn’t stop seeing my baby slammed in a car door.

2. Obsessions can be thoughts…

…and, you guessed it, they’re VERY upsetting.

Your character with OCD might have incredibly anxiety producing thoughts about feeling dirty. Your character might feel unclean or contaminated by touching something dirty, seeing something dirty (like a grimy plate or naughty sex), or just thinking about something horrible (like a child dying by a bee sting).

Your character could have thoughts about a family member getting hurt or themselves getting hurt.

Let’s go back to the naughty sex thing. Some characters with OCD will think about sex—extremely violent sex.

If you’re contemplating writing a character who is struggling with this type of thing, please take a moment to ask yourself why. Are you writing this character because you want to add sex and violence to your story to spice it up? For the love of everything: Don’t do it.

Violent sexual thoughts are not satisfying to a character with OCD. These thoughts are deeply intrusive and distressing. Under NO circumstances will your character be turned on by this type of thing. No. No. No.

As long as we’re on the subject, violent sexual thoughts in OCD do not represent a suppressed longing for S&M. And an appropriate character arc is NOT that they escape their repressive personality, feel the freedom of sexual creativity, and dig into the whips, chains, and leather.  If you want to write about S&M or erotic fiction, sure, pick someone who is repressed, but that’s NOT the same thing as OCD.

3. Obsessions can be worries about the future.

For example, your character with OCD might not be able to bear tossing the instruction manual for the electric toothbrush–maybe they’ll need it later. Or, maybe that fascinating article will be super important at work, so they’ll add it to the five-foot-tall stack of saved newspapers. And who knows, their college textbooks might be relevant again. And what about that Altoids box? There has got to be a use for it.

You can see where I’m going with this, right? Your character with OCD might have OCD related hoarding. (This is different than Hoarding Disorder, by the way.) Imagine an apartment with skyscrapers of books and magazines. Drawers full of instruction manuals, receipts, and clothing tags.

And don’t forget the guest bedroom. Your character’s secret shame might be that it’s full of roll upon roll of paper towels and toilet paper because…you never know, things run out. Or maybe zombie apocalypse?

4. Your character could have one or two obsessions or twenty-two…or none.

If you’re writing a character with OCD, there are thousands of different obsessions that they could experience. It’s perfectly reasonable for a character to have just one or two obsessions. It’s also reasonable for them to have many or none. So, think carefully about obsessions and how they might drive your character’s motivation.

5. Characters know that their obsessions are ridiculous.

One thing to keep in mind when planning how a character’s obsessive thinking might drive the plot is that people with OCD know that their obsessions are ridiculous. For example, I’m not actually going to walk all the way to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail…I know this, but just thinking about the PCT still makes my heart pound.

A character with OCD who is bombarded by images or thoughts of doing something terrible, knows (or suspects at least) that they won’t do the terrible thing. For example, the man who sees himself stabbing his husband knows he’s not going to do it…but the image is really, really upsetting.

By the way, this is different from a character who has psychosis. A psychotic character might see horrible images but won’t be upset by them. In psychosis, a character might feel driven to stab his husband for the good of mankind or to save his husband’s soul or because of God’s will.

6. Obsessions do not make a character dangerous.

This and the sex thing are the biggies to avoid. It’s sooo tempting to add drama to a story with sex and murder but if you’re going to write about OCD, it’s important to do it right.

For example, this can’t be their story:

All Blake wants to do is run his immensely successful financial firm and date the cute interior designer decorating the office, but he has a dark secret that drives him to do the unmentionable. Will he be able to control his urges before it’s curtains…for her?

Basically, if you can replace “character with OCD” with “vampire” or “serial killer”, then you’re doing it wrong and need to re-think the plot and character.

I can’t stress this enough: OCD doesn’t drive people to cheat or murder or beat on their loved ones.

7. Your character will avoid, avoid, avoid anything linked to their obsession.

Because horrible thoughts and images are so awful and intense, your character is going to avoid anything that triggers them. A character who sees himself stabbing his wife might ban knives from the house. A new mom character having intrusive images of her baby in the car door might refuse to go near cars or garages or parking lots. The character harassed by images of pushing white haired octogenarians into the street won’t walk to dinner. A character plagued by thoughts of driving off a bridge might get fired for not finishing their delivery route to Coronado.

And you, as a good author, are not going to let your characters avoid their triggers. Just as your character appears to be succeeding in hunting down the killer or getting rescued off the island or about to win the race, you’re going to make your character come face to face with the horrible, terrible monsters in their brain.

Yes, if I was a character in a book, an author would make me track down a killer who, at the last minute, has fled on foot up the Pacific Crest Trail. Ack…that forced a cold shiver down my back.

8. Your character will neutralize the obsession.

What do I mean by neutralize? Well, when your character has an obsessive thought they will have two reactions.

The first reaction is gut wrenching anxiety.

The second is to “do” something–something which will ultimately ease their stomach knots. Your character might cross themselves. Or knock on wood. They could feel compelled to chew the inside of their cheek three times. Or repeat the alphabet backwards again and again. Your character is going to do this until things feel right or safe–this could take seconds or minutes or longer. And this, fabulous writers, brings us to the “C” of OCD–Compulsions.

See the next post on compulsions and how to write them right!

By the way, a good novel to read depicting “obsessive only” OCD is Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone.

Does your character have an obsession? I’d love to hear about it. Or, if you’re wondering if your character’s obsession is realistic, comment down below and I’ll let you know.

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