The 3 different plots for novels 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.

So, you’ve done the heavy lifting required to write a book with a character with OCD.

You’ve researched the disorder. You know about obsessions and compulsions. You’ve studied the treatment. Hopefully you’ve chatted to a bunch of folks with OCD. You’re committed to writing a moving, poignant, brilliant novel that treats OCD in a respectful way…now, how to go about doing that?

You’ve come to the right place! Let’s dive right in.

Many writers who write novels about a character with OCD are doing so because they themselves or a family member has OCD.  Great! That kind of deep personal experience can infuse writing with passion and insight. This is a beautiful way to share an experience with others, to help others who may also have OCD, and it’s cathartic.

But because OCD is an issue that can so completely consume a person’s life, sometimes writers forget the storytelling aspect of their novel and focus on the OCD and emotions. Readers, although moved by emotions, quickly put a book down when the plot forgets to make an appearance.

So, even when writing a novel with a character with OCD, don’t neglect the basics of craft.

Let’s break it down…

The External & Internal Arcs

At its core, every novel has two elements: The external and the internal arcs.

The external arc is what happens in a story and it has two parts:

    1. The main character has a goal
    2. An obstacle is in the way

The internal arc is what the story is about and it also has two parts:

    1. The character has an intangible need or lesson to learn
    2. The character’s personality, flaws & mental baggage are in the way

This leads us to…

The Three Types of OCD Novels

    • OCD as the external plot
    • OCD as the internal plot
    • OCD as a stable character trait

These three types of novels showcase the interplay between OCD and the internal and external arcs. Each has a different tone/voice, marketability, and reader audience. So, broken down this way, it’s pretty easy to choose the one that’s right for you—it all depends on what you’re trying to accomplish with your book!

The “OCD as External Plot” Novel

This is what some call an “issue” book. A main character has OCD and wants to overcome it (external goal) because their compulsions and obsessive thoughts interfere (external obstacle) with their life.  Their OCD needs to get better (internal goal) but it’s hard to resist the urge of a compulsion or stop the spiraling obsessive thoughts (internal obstacle).

Writers who have OCD often write this type of book. They’re intimately aware of what it means to have OCD. They’ve spent their lifetime in this battle and it has overshadowed and pervaded all aspects of their days.

Issue books are heavy on emotion and conflict and focus less on plot. The tone tends toward serious and often requires the slower pacing reserved for emotionally taxing subjects. These books can be enlightening (or disturbing) for readers who are not familiar with OCD and profoundly resonate with readers who have OCD. These types of novels are harder to sell traditionally because the target audience is small. The audience tends to be limited to readers with OCD and educators who might use the novel to help students to broaden their awareness of the world.

The “OCD as Internal Plot” Novel

These novels are more likely to appeal to a broader audience—readers with OCD, educators, and the general public. In these novels, a main character’s external goals and obstacles have nothing to do with OCD.

For example: Maybe Sophie wants to attend a school dance, find treasure, or stop an alien invasion (all external goals). But she can’t afford the ticket, her nemesis has stolen the treasure map, or her beloved pooch is an alien magnet (all external obstacles). 

These stories can still be about OCD because of the…drum roll, please… internal plot! Sophie has OCD and her compulsions and obsessive thinking is making everything impossible. She needs to learn something (the internal need) to overcome her mind (the internal obstacle).

And what does a character with OCD need to learn? Well, the same things that everybody needs to learn!

And what does a character with OCD need to learn? Well, the same things that everybody needs to learn! “OCD as internal plot” novels feature main characters who need to learn one (or more) of the following four things:

    • To forgive themselves
    • To love themselves
    • To overcome fear
    • To trust in themselves and/or others

Great examples of novels with OCD as the internal plot are Turtles All the Way Down by John Green and Finding Perfect by Elly Swartz.

The “OCD as a Character Trait” Novel

These novels feature external plots unrelated to OCD. The internal plot might have some elements of OCD or might not. Instead, OCD is basically a stable character trait.

What do I mean as a character trait? Some characters don’t have growth arcs and remain the same throughout the story. Think Pippi Longstocking, Mary Poppins, Fineas of Fineas and Pherb, and Sherlock Holmes. These characters are quirky and idiosyncratic (and might even have debilitating disorders, i.e. Holmes has opiate dependence and, in some renditions, Autism Spectrum, Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, and Narcissistic Personality Disorder). The key here is that these characters don’t change. The main story line and growth arc is for another character (Annika & Tommy, Banks family, Candace, and Dr. Watson).

OCD as a character trait can be a nice way to bring a character with OCD to a wide, general audience and increase awareness. Because OCD is a character trait, story lines tend to be plot heavy and action packed which makes for a captivated reader. The downside of writing a character with trait OCD is that it’s easy to accidentally use the character for pratfalls and easy laughs. Special care has to be taken with this kind of character to make sure that respect is used every step of the way.

One Last Thing…

If you’re writing a comedy, don’t forget to give the reader a peek every now and then into the supreme pain and mental agony that a character with OCD experiences. Not only does this create a complex and believable character, but it’s what a person with OCD actually experiences—and the goal of a story line is not the easy laugh but to create something that is loved by you and others.

Please see the next blog on writing OCD and what is an achievable (and what is an unbelievable or down right insulting) character arc.

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