Of course, humans are driven by a lot more than two motivations. Various levels of deprivation (of all sorts of needs, such as food, shelter, sleep, sexual release, and much more) can motivate behavior in specific situations. Those are not the focus of this blog. Instead, I’m focusing on two powerful motives that tend to shape behavior across numerous situations and often whole lifetimes.
I’m talking about the need for achievement and the fear of failure.
In the simplest terms (according to me) the difference is striving to be the best versus trying to be good enough.
Need for Achievement
Need for achievement is the desire to obtain excellent results by setting high standards and striving to accomplish them. It is a consistent concern with doing things better.
People with high need for achievement often undertake tasks in which there is a high probability of success and avoid tasks that are either too easy (because of lack of challenge) or too difficult (because of fear of failure).
An example of the latter would be a 5-ft-tall basketball player with poor leaping ability, ball handling abilities, and passing skills. Such a person high in n-Ach is unlikely to try out for the team!
Studies have shown that feeling a sense of accomplishment is an important element in students developing positive wellbeing over time.
Research also shows that people with a strong sense of purpose, persistence, and accomplishment perform better at work.
People high in need for achievement present as ambitious, driven, successful … and insecure. The need for achievement drives behavior in school, work settings, even recreational activities. In case it isn’t obvious, this trait can cause problems:
Driven to achieve the task—any and every task
Fails to differentiate “urgent” from merely “important”
Has difficulty delegating
Struggles with producer-to-supervisor transition when promoted
Obsesses about getting the job done at all costs
No doubt about it, people high in n-Ach put themselves under a lot of pressure. At first glance, it might seem that such people should relax, take it easy, and be happy doing well enough.
Fearing failure in a particular endeavor is experienced by most people, including high n-Ach people, sometimes. Think a new situation or task, or one that’s just being learned. Think public performances. There are times when just not humiliating oneself is success.
Fear of Failure
But the fear of failure, more generally, is an irrational and persistent fear of failing.
(FYI, irrational and extreme fear of failing or facing uncertainty is a phobia known as atychiphobia.)
Sometimes fearing failure might be triggered in only one specific situation/task. Sometimes it’s more generalized. And sometimes it’s related to another mental health condition such as anxiety or depression.
In any case, the fear of failure varies in level of severity from mild to extreme. Here are a few ways it’s commonly exhibited:
A sense of hopelessness about the future
Chronic (versus occasional or limited) worry
Worry about what other people will think about you if you fail or don’t do well
High distractibility, being pulled off task by irrelevant or unimportant things
Avoiding tasks or people associated with a project or general goal
Physical symptoms (fatigue, headaches, digestive troubles, joint or muscle pain) that prevent working toward a goal
Believing that you don’t have the skills or knowledge to achieve something
Feeling like you won’t be able to achieve your goals
Procrastinating to the point that it affects your performance or ability to finish on time
Telling people that you will probably fail so that expectations remain low
Underestimating your own abilities to avoid feeling let down
Worrying that imperfections or shortcomings will make other people think less of you
Failing makes you worry about your ability to pursue the future you desire
Failing makes you worry that people will lose interest in you
Failing makes you worry about how smart or capable you are
Failing makes you worry about disappointing people whose opinions you value (especially family/friends)
You tend to tell people beforehand that you don’t expect to succeed in order to lower their expectations
Once you fail at something, you have trouble imagining what you could have done differently to succeed
You often get last-minute headaches, stomach aches, or other physical symptoms that prevent you from completing your preparation
You often get distracted by tasks that prevent you from completing your preparation which, in hindsight, were not as urgent as they seemed at the time
You tend to procrastinate and “run out of time” to complete your preparation adequately, as a way of protecting your belief in your ability to have done it
Bottom line: Two people may exhibit the same behavior, even turn in the same objective performance, but their reasons for doing so can vary dramatically.
Money, money, money! It touches nearly every aspect of a person’s/character’s life—and deserves conscious decision making.
How much money? These are not scientific or economic terms, rather, the sorts of terms people use to describe themselves and/or others. The actual dollar amounts associated with the descriptors may vary. What would you/your character say? Point of information: people tend to make finer distinctions closest to where they peg themselves, lumping the extremes into bigger chunks.
Lower middle class
Upper middle class
*I’ve also seen income level defined by preferred fast food options. The scale ranges from Going to AA Meetings for Coffee, through Taco Bell and Chipotle, all the way up to Whatever the Private Chef Makes.
Source(s) of income: Note that respect for various sources of income varies widely. This often translates into treating people differently.
Begging or panhandling
Theft of various sorts, with or without another source
Entertainment, anything from a classical pianist to an exotic dancer
By the job/ piecework
Having multiple jobs
Salary plus bonuses
Stability/predictability/security of income: Obviously, stability has implications for mental health and life stress. Money can’t buy happiness, but it certainly makes achieving stability somewhat easier.
Thoughts on taxes: This could be the modern IRS, but the same questions could just as easily be applied to citizens providing magic spells or Zygloxans giving helium globules to the Grand Tyrant on Planet YT-3H81.
Taking fewer payroll deductions than allowed in order to assure a tax refund vs. planning to owe and have the use of the money in the meantime
Being willing to pay taxes or looking for ways to avoid paying them
Finding quasi-legal or outright illegal methods to get out of paying taxes
Carefully accounting for every expenditure or estimating
Moral objections to the use of taxes (such as Thoreau)
Attitude toward money: Not necessarily related to amount of income.
Always more where that came from
Easy come, easy go
Best to save for a rainy day/unexpected expense
Sacrifice now for a secure retirement/college tuition/whatever
Always live below your means
Clips coupons and shops sales
Shop resale/garage sales/etc.
Buy quality, not quantity
Budget every penny and then figure out which bills will have to remain unpaid
Money by comparison: Source(s), level, etc., of income, especially compared to family and friends.
Changed over your/your character’s lifetime
Income disparity causing conflict
Where the money goes:
Whatever strikes one’s fancy
Luxuries, with or without guilt
Whatever is most visible to elicit praise, admiration, or envy from others
Supporting family or friends who need a hand
Back into a business
Sponsoring people on social media as indirect advertisement
How money is handled:
Charge everything possible
Pay by debit card whenever possible
Pay bills as soon as one arrives
Have bills paid by bank debit
Pay at the last minute, sometimes incurring late fees
Tip lavishly or stingily?
Needing to take payday or title loans
If having to choose food, rent/mortgage, utilities, gas/transportation, which?
Bottom Line: What other ways is money a lynchpin in the life of you / your character?
What would (or wouldn’t) your character(s) do? And just as important, why? This particular election has been unusual in several dimensions. When considering your character(s)’ behavior, also consider whether it might reflects a general or stable level of political activism/ involvement or is it specific to this election (or fictional elections with similar circumstances). If the latter, is that because of the pandemic, the candidates/issues of this particular election, or both.
Social Media Activity
Following candidates, pundits, campaigns
Replying or reposting to boost signal
Researching candidates’ policies or campaign news
Sharing information with others within a social group
Contacting candidates or campaigns through social media
How carefully would a character ensure that information is factual and unbiased before believing it or sharing it?
If a character has verifiably true information, how much effort would they put into combating falsehoods?
Would a character knowingly spread disinformation?
Before Election Day
Provide forms to register to vote at the DMV or other locations
Help voters obtain documents needed to register to vote
Check registration status for voters
Campaign to expand voting access or challenge flawed registrations
Manage a candidate’s campaign
Absentee drop off
In person early
Campaign for a local, state, or national candidate
Donating money to a campaign or political party
Sign petitions and share on Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Attend a rally
Advertise his/her support
Clothing (hat, T-shirt, etc.)
Try to convince friends/family to vote
Encourage voting in general
Persuading to vote for particular candidates
Only if the weather is good
If the lines aren’t very long
Work for the elections board
As a poll worker directly interacting with the public
As a ballot counter for early or mail voters
Helping voters contact election clerks to resolve problems
Volunteer as an election monitor
Officially representing a campaign, being a silent presence in the background while ballots are counted
Challenging potential voter fraud outside of a polling place (unofficial)
Carry signs or flags supporting one candidate or party
Distribute campaign literature or sample ballots to those far enough away from the polling place
Provide assistance to those waiting in long lines
Drinks and snacks
Umbrellas or parasols
Playing music, dancing, entertaining
Hand sanitizer and masks
Driving voters to the polls
Providing childcare so parents can go vote
Planning vote time around work requirements
Taking time off during the workday
Getting to the polling site at 4am to vote before work
Going after work and potentially staying in line until late at night
Follow the media
Early evening only
Late into the wee hours
Not at all
Post Election Day
Electoral college tally
State or local races only
Every few minutes
Only on the 6:00 news
When results are in
Protest the outcome
If unhappy with outcome
Protest with violence against property/people
Have a quiet glass of champagne
Party with family/friends
Dance in the streets
Binge on chocolate cake
Remove all visible signs of political support
Only if his/her candidate lost
Yard signs but not bumper stickers
Not at all
Try to pretend it never happened
How the Character(s) Felt—Check All That Apply
Determined to run for office in the next election
To continue momentum from the current campaign
To correct future errors of the recently elected
Consider whether your character’s behavior would be consistent with his/her feelings. Why or why not?
Bottom line for writers: Though your plot may never involve an election at all, this exercise should shine light on your characters’ level of civic involvement and activism.
Some people, I’ve heard, actually like to exercise. These people are probably playing games such as tennis, golf, basketball, etc. Maybe biking, hiking or kayaking. There are also people who enjoy lifting weights just for the sake of lifting weights. Is your character one of these? If so, how good is s/he? And when did s/he take up the game?
Then there are activities that some people do for fun and others do as a means to a specific end. In this category I’d put swimming or water aerobics for a bad back, running to relieve stress, boxing as a form of anger management, yoga to relax. Some people bike or walk for fun; for many others, walking and biking is a primary mode of transportation.
This group also would include those people who work out primarily to get or keep a body beautiful.
For most of human history, the vast majority of people have gotten plenty of exercise just trying to stay alive. Farming, hunting, and gathering food require activities people pay big money to recreate in a gym today. Building defense structures, making tools and weapons, chopping wood, washing clothes, and travelling are all much more physically demanding without machinery to help. In almost every part of the world, there are still cultures today that rely primarily on human or animal labor rather than technology.
Some people exercise simply because they have to. Physical therapy can be done to prevent a future injury as well as to treat an existing injury. Martial arts practice can people alive in crisis situations, but regular practice has also been helpful in the treatment of mental illness. A home might only be reachable by strenuous hiking; a job might require frequent lifting and carrying.
At the other end of the spectrum are people whose preferred activity is reading novels while snarfing chocolates or swigging scotch. Or maybe that’s watching TV while munching chips and chugging beer. Sound like any characters you know?
But even these people have probably heard “sitting is the new smoking” when it comes to being detrimental to one’s health. This group of people will find the easiest or least painful way to stay minimally fit.
Go to the gym with a friend and enjoy the socialization
Join an exercise class that’s nearby
Hire a personal trainer
Get up for jumping jacks during commercial breaks
Lifting the coffee mug to take a sip counts as doing bicep curls
For some, getting dressed and going somewhere is too much effort—not to mention those who don’t want anyone to see them doing whatever it is they are doing. And in these times of COVID-19, many people don’t want the exposure. These people are likely to choose a stay-at-home option.
Buy equipment to use at home:
Graduated weights, hand-held or strapped to wrists/ankles
Note: Jugs of water, broken swivel chairs, flat-surface furniture, paper plates, and compliant dogs or small children can provide the same benefits as all of these expensive gadgets for almost no money at all!
Workout to an exercise tape or a televised program, often choosing things like Sit-and-Be-Fit, Sittercize, or chair yoga
Using a phone or FitBit to count 10,000 steps a day—and seldom a step more
Invictus by William Ernest Henley: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” Compare that to “Life happens.” In essence, these are examples of internal locus of control and external locus of control, respectively. Most protagonists—for good or ill—have an internal locus of control.
Locus of control is a psychological concept regarding an individual’s belief system concerning the causes of experiences, successes, and failures. Psychologists have been studying locus of control for approximately 70 years, and a lot has been discovered.
Note to writers: Be aware of what usually goes along with locus of control and how that might drive your characters.
True story: the first minute I was alone with my future father-in-law, he said, “Tell me. What were the guiding principles by which you were reared?” He was a retired dean, and it felt for all the world like a job interview. I paused, never having thought about this issue in quite such a direct way, answered, and it must have been okay because after I became his daughter-in-law we got along very well.
Writers: What are the basic principles that shape your character(s) behavior?
These are “truths” that might have been taught directly, or just pulled out of the air. In any event, consider the following possibilities.
If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right
Finish what you start
If at first you don’t succeed, try again
The only thing worse than failure is not having given it your best effort
Honesty is the best policy
Your word is your bond
Treat others as you want to be treated
Always look out for number one
Winning is everything
There’s a sucker born every minute
Play the angles
Always fight to win
You can’t trust anyone farther than you can throw ‘em
You either take or get taken
Keep your friends close and your enemies closer
It’s better to give than to receive
The meek shall inherit the earth
Cleanliness is next to godliness
Take care of family first
Live well and you’ll be rewarded, if not in this life then in the hereafter
Pride goes before a fall
Turn the other cheek
The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world
Benefit to many outweighs benefit to one
Community is stronger than an individual
Trust in the Leader/ Group
Sink or swim together
The nail that stands out gets hammered down
Every cog is needed for the machine to function
United we stand; divided we fall
Work is its own reward
Writers: What are the principles your character has internalized that determine how s/he behaves, feels, and thinks?
Knowing things about one’s character(s)—even things that never make it onto the page—will keep those imaginary people in character, consistent, well-rounded, and flexible so that new plot twists and turns don’t leave the reader feeling like an entirely new person has been introduced.
A worldwide pandemic is definitely an unexpected turn (unless your character is a historical tracking epidemiologist)! And rich with complexities. For the sake of better knowing your character(s), consider what the current pandemic would reveal. Remember that traits revealed by current events can be applied by authors to characters dealing with any historical, fantastical, futuristic, or imaginary setting.
This isn’t as singular as it first seems. What is your character’s attitude/ behavior regarding masks? And why? Here are several possible choices. The Why is up to you!
Will wear only when visiting nursing homes or vulnerable family
Embraces masks a good thing
Sees masks as just another opportunity to accessorize
What do your character’s masks look like? What quality or grade? Would your character confront someone about wearing/not wearing a mask?
Easy or difficult for your character?
Ignores physical distance
Meticulously maintains a 6’ distance
Social distances in public places only
Feels safe being closer when outdoors
Hugs and kisses family
Pays no particular attention, i.e., washes when hands feel/look dirty
Cleans hands when entering or leaving a building
Sets up a hand washing/sanitizing schedule, e.g., every hour
Preference for soap and water or sanitizer?
Safer at Home
Does not leave residence at all; everything is distance communication and delivery
Goes out only for medical reasons and food
Travels locally in own vehicle
Travels locally in someone else’s vehicle, just driver and character in back seat passenger side
Comfortable traveling by taxi, bus, train, or plane with appropriate precautions
Travel whenever and wherever, damn the consequences
Alone or Together
Does your character live alone? Is that a good thing or bad?
Does your character alone get lonely?
Does your character living with others experience increased tension and conflict? With partner and/or children.
What if your character’s friend/loved one dies?
How would your character handle home schooling?
(If s/he has no children, consider a distance learning tutor or a character educating him/herself via online resources.)
Avoids them like the plague (pun intended)
Braves them only for a “good cause” such as civil rights demonstration
Would go to a family reunion
Would address a crowded room for work reasons
Happy to party down
Would your character be able to work from home?
Is your character an essential worker?
Could/would your character be furloughed?
Is your character a business owner, responsible for others?
Would your character’s workplace be shut down?
Would money/loss of income be a problem for your character?
With But Not of COVID-19
Would your character have a singular or varied response, depending on what’s being renamed? Consider the timing and speed of public opinion shift in the setting: immediately renaming provinces, shops, schools, and cities per government mandate during China’s Cultural Revolution versus the gradual shift of the capital of Kazakhstan from Astana to Nur-Sultan.
Rename schools, named for Confederate “heroes”
e.g., Stonewall Jackson Middle School, Washington and Lee University
Rename roadways, bridges, etc.
e.g., Lee-Davis Highway
Rename Washington Redskins team
Public Memorials, Symbols
Confederate flag, paintings, statues displayed on public property.
Leave them alone. It’s history.
Leave them, but provide context.
Remove them to Civil War battlefields or museums.
Remove and destroy.
Bottom line for writers: Remember that you are describing your character(s), not yourself. The “why” is important. Did you learn anything about your character(s)?
We in the U.S. are highly aware of greeting cards at this time of year—both the receiving and the sending. Dunbar and Hill (2003) conducted a study on social networks by studying Christmas card lists. They found that each household receives about 150 Christmas Cards, and sends an average of about 68 cards. Clearly, people are receiving more than they give! (Don’t ask me to explain how those numbers work.) The study did not include cards for Hanukkah, Solstice, Yule, Kwanzaa, and New Years, but all of these together make for a very busy Postal Service throughout December.
Since holiday-specific greeting cards are so widespread in the US at the moment, it’s worth taking a moment to think of how they might feature in your writing. If you’re already sick of holiday cheer, just wait for St. Valentine’s Day to be shoved down your throat!
Motivation Behind Christmas Cards
According to my reading, Sir Henry Cole (see above) resorted to creating Christmas Cards because he had too many friends to write individual notes. I venture to assert that the time crunch is still a major factor in sending a greeting card rather than a letter. But that leaves open the question of who gets on someone’s card list in the first place. I seem to recall that once upon a time, cards were for people seldom seen—and thus unavailable to greet personally. Today?
Residents of nursing homes or hospitals
Members of social groups
Those who sent cards last year
That one person you don’t really like but gets a card just so you can use up the last of the 12-pack of cards you bought
This increasingly vague list leaves plenty of room for confusion and accidentally hurt feelings. Consider someone who sends a card but doesn’t receive one in return. Consider a child arguing with a parent over whether online cards are a suitable replacement for paper cards. If you really want to jerk some tears, consider an elderly character sending out cards to peers and seeing the list shrink a little more every year.
What Type of Card?
There is a huge variety of cards available, and the type of card sent could reveal as much about a character as the people they send those cards to. Religious ones, humorous ones, nature scenes, musical ones, pop-up ones. The first personalized Christmas card was sent in 1891 by Annie Oakley. She was doing sharp-shooter exhibitions in Scotland and sent cards back to friends and family in the U.S. featuring her picture—wearing tartan!
Should a character send a generic card with vaguely wintry scenes and vague wishes for general well-being? What about a character sending explicitly religious cards to recipients of a different faith or no faith at all? Why would a character choose to make dozens of cards by hand rather than grabbing a box off the drugstore shelf? Some families include newsletters with the card, letting friends and families know what they’ve been doing since last year’s holiday card. Why would a character send newsletters or photo collage cards?
Meaning of Holiday Cards for the Recipient
When I was growing up, my mother, aunts, etc., knew exactly how many cards they received and how many they sent—sort of like being able to cite how many trick-or-treaters came by on Halloween. Christmas cards were typically displayed on stair banisters, windowsills, archways, mantels, etc.
Could receiving holiday cards be a bad or unpleasant experience? What about a character receiving a card from someone they dislike? How about siblings or friends who see messages of boasting and rivalry in personalized cards? What might a character think after sending out dozens of cards and receiving none in return? How would someone who hates the entire holiday season react to all those reminders in the mail?
According to anthropologists, the number of holiday cards you receive reflects how many people care about you. That’s the premise of a 2003 study of social network size carried out by evolutionary anthropologists Robin Hill of the University of Durham and Robin Dunbar of Oxford and published in the journal Human Nature. “In Western societies…the exchange of Christmas cards represents the one time of year when individuals make an effort to contact all those individuals within their social network whose relationships they value.”
Maybe I’m just being defensive, but I refuse to measure my circle of caring family and friends by the handful of seasonal greetings I receive. Just saying.
Holiday Cards are Big Business
Getting a definite count is tricky, depending on the year and what cards are included in the count. For example, one study asserted that 6.5 billion greeting cards are bought each year, at a total cost of more than U.S. $7 billion. On the other hand, sales of holiday cards in the U.S. dropped from 1.8 billion in 2009 to 1.5 billion in 2011. Christmas Cards account for 61% of seasonal greeting card sales, followed by St. Valentine’s Day at a distant second of 25%.
And that doesn’t even include the USPS revenue! Imagine what a postal worker, especially a letter carrier, thinks about all that extra volume moving around the country. Both of the holidays most frequently celebrated with extra paper and postage happen during some of the most unpleasant weather. Do the holiday bonuses outweigh the extra weight in the satchel?
And FYI: only 15% of cards are bought by men. Millions of dollars are raised for charities by Christmas Cards each year. For example, UNICEF launched their charity Christmas card program in 1949. Schools, research institutions, hospitals, food banks, and lots of other community organizations raise funds by selling holiday cards.
Some organizations also send cards to donors to encourage continued support the following year. Does it really count as a holiday greeting if it’s a reminder to send a check?
Well, I seem to have been caught up in a seasonal issue. But bottom line for writers: what are your character’s attitudes and behaviors regarding holiday greeting cards? Any phenomenon as ubiquitous as this can contribute to your characters and/or plots.
Today’s blog is written by a fellow writer who wishes to remain anonymous for privacy reasons.
Among the many odd things I’ve done in my life, one that has had the most lasting impact is being a linguistic and cultural ambassador posted to a country that shall remain nameless here. Because of various regional disputes, a massive prison outbreak, less-than-polite national elections and regime changes, and a general culture of aggressiveness, I found myself living in conditions that were much more dangerous than I’d been led to expect.
When I eventually returned home, among the souvenirs and keepsakes I brought back with me, I found in my luggage a serious case of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). As Vivian’s blog is for writers and writing, I thought perhaps a guided tour inside the warped and broken mind of a person with PTSD might be of interest to you all.
Please keep hands and arms inside the cart at all times, and don’t feed the negativity gremlins as we go past.
Very Important Disclaimer: Neither Vivian Lawry nor this guest author are psychiatric professionals or are qualified to provide medical assistance. The information contained herein is not intended to be used for diagnostic or treatment purposes in any way, shape, or form.
Before the ride begins in earnest, you can look to your left for some basic information about PTSD. The most common association people have with PTSD is of veterans of military combat, but it can result from many different experiences, including natural disasters, abusive relationships, assault (sexual or otherwise), prolonged insecurity, traffic collisions, and so on. People can even develop second-hand PTSD from witnessing these events in other people’s lives. A patient may develop PTSD immediately after an event, but sometimes symptoms don’t appear until well after the event itself.
With all of these possibilities, there are loads of ways in which the inclusion of a character experiencing PTSD can enrich, complicate, drive, or drive, or even resolve your writing. There is a lot of information available about the causes and effects of PTSD, but remember that each case is different. Every person will have different triggers, coping mechanisms, involuntary reactions, etc.
You may notice the cart shaking violently as we enter the tunnel; this is simply the result of uneven neural pathways, nothing to be alarmed about.
As a writer and a reader, I’ve found myself thinking of ways in which my warped thoughts and behaviors could fit in with other common narrative techniques. I have also found some absolutely infuriating stories out there in which a character has a traumatic experience (usually rape or sexual assault) simply so the hero can come to the rescue or to establish a villain as a villain… and victimized character goes right back to skipping through the tulips. Don’t be that writer!
If you look out on either side of the cart, you may be able to make out (through the erratic strobe lights and general gloom) a few of the ways common behaviors of characters with PTSD could be very useful in your writing. Please remember that these are only glimpses from one mind and do not necessarily reflect every patient. Also, hold on to the lap bar as there are some sharp curves coming up.
Unreliable Narrator: What I see and hear is always filtered through the PTSD in my mind. If a story is told from the point of view of a character with PTSD, this is a good way to demonstrate the disconnect from reality. If another character is getting information from a character with PTSD, it could skew everyone’s opinions and affect the plot moving forward.
Social interactions are a minefield of side-stepping physical attacks (handshakes, hugs, pats on the back).
Random strangers only ever approach me with violent intentions, such as petting my dog, asking me to reach something off a high shelf, or walking past me on a narrow sidewalk.
People waiting in parked cars are obviously armed, most likely on the lookout for potential victims.
Anyone who stands in a doorway must be trying to block the exit or prevent escape.
An approach from behind must be someone trying to sneak up on me, and anyone who surprises me from behind is an attacker and will be punched.
This isn’t helped by chronic sleep deprivation giving me the same symptoms as early-onset Alzheimer’s: How can I be trusted to provide accurate information when I lose time and forget everything?
Mistaken Motivations: Objectively, I know there is nothing wrong with mental illness, nor should there be any shame attached. Still, I try to hide it or play it off as no big deal. As a result, family, friends, and strangers all have reason to assume my coping behaviors are something very different. Having a character reveal midway through or near the end of a story that their actions were motivated by coping mechanisms could be a plot twist, a clue for investigators, a reset of other characters’ attitudes, or plenty of other ways of adding narrative interest.
Friends frequently ask if I’m cold because I can’t stop shaking.
Constantly scanning for threats and possible exits sometimes makes me look like I’m trying to find someone or looking for an excuse to leave a boring conversation.
Being hyper-vigilant in general makes me look twitchy, itchy, over-caffeinated, or paranoid, depending on who is providing their opinion.
My brother thought he’d done something to offend me when I repeatedly moved away from him or left the room when he entered.
After I repeatedly panicked and cancelled plans at the last minute, many friends thought I was just blowing them off.
Arriving late to social gatherings, hiding in the corner, and leaving early have all led acquaintances to assume I’m too stuck-up to mingle.
To make it through particularly important events that I cannot miss, I’ve sometimes taken extra doses of anti-anxiety medication. My slurred speech, unfocused gaze, less than ideal balance, and inability to follow conversation looks an awful lot like I’ve shown up to the baptism or wedding drunk as a skunk.
I escape to the bathroom a lot when things get overwhelming, sometimes for extended periods of time. Most of my family now thinks I have severe digestive issues.
Affects in My Life: In order to be diagnosed as a disorder (the D in PTSD) a patient must have symptoms severe enough to disrupt their ability to live a normal life. A character who develops PTSD midway through a narrative would almost certainly show changes in behaviors. These are some of mine.
Chronic insomnia and nightmares: Years later, I still sleep in a separate room from my spouse, with the lights on, with distracting or soothing music playing… and I still manage to wake the household at least once a month by screaming in my sleep.
My ability to concentrate and complete tasks on time severely impacted my job. Twice, I responded to a coworker trying to get my attention by panicking and attacking them. Going into the office grew increasingly difficult as it became harder to leave the house. I am now unemployed.
Weeks at a time go by when I cannot leave my house, even to go into the backyard. I feel threatened every time I open the door.
Side effects from different medications I’ve tried have included weight gain, headaches, heartburn, memory loss, drowsiness, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseam. These could also be examples of mistaken motivations!
I no longer participate in hobbies I once did, especially anything that involves leaving the house or interacting with other people.
Suicide and suicide attempts are very common among patients with PTSD.
Anxiety Attacks, Panic Attacks, and Flashbacks: These can be triggered by almost anything, depending on the person and the situation. Smelling cigarette smoke, walking on an icy sidewalk, being in a room of people speaking another language I only halfway understand… any of these can send me spiraling. Being under stress increases the chance that something will hit that switch.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we’d like to remind you at this time that motion sickness bags can be found under your seats and to hold on tightly.
Anxiety or Panic Attack: It’s really bizarre to be terrified and not know why. Why is my heart racing? Why can’t I breathe? Why can I not stop screaming? When I have an anxiety attack, I don’t think rationally but I can speak and respond to people around me. When I have a panic attack, it feels like I’m about to die. I can’t feel anything but the absolute terror that completely takes over my body. Usually, I am able to leave a situation when I feel one of these about to happen so that I can mentally implode in the peace and quiet of a public urinal.
Flashback: These are even more bizarre. Anxiety attacks often segue into flashbacks. I am completely unaware of my surroundings and respond to threats that are long gone. I’ll switch languages to talk to people who aren’t there; I’ll be able to smell the food or feel the cold from specific memories. Sometimes, I have flashbacks that aren’t tied to precise events, more an amalgamation of similar threats that get lumped together in my head. It’s very embarrassing to come out of it and realize that I’m hiding behind a clothes rack in Target, desperately fighting off the attack of a stiff coat sleeve.
Treatment Options: There are many different types of treatments for PTSD, with varying degrees of accessibility, cost, success, and side effects. I’ve tried just about everything: some worked, some did not, some worked at first and then stopped. I can’t stress enough that every person will respond differently to different treatments. The information here is simply what undergoing the treatments felt like for me.
Therapy Animal: My dog trained himself to be a therapy dog because he was just that awesome. Before I was eventually laid off, my boss let me bring my dog into the office with me. He learned to impose himself between me and anyone getting too close to my personal space. When I had anxiety attacks, he’d put his head in my lap and nudge my hand until I pet him. Focusing on the feeling of his fur, his cold nose, his super stinky breath worked to calm me down and remind me that I was safe. He passed away in April, and it felt like going through all the trauma again.
TMS (Trans-Cranial Magnetic Stimulation): It felt a bit like sitting in the dentist’s chair while a woodpecker tapped on my head. I went every day for three months, and the only side effect was a minor headache when I first started.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing): My eyesight is so bad that I couldn’t do the actual eye movement part of it; I held a buzzer in each hand and felt the vibrations in alternating hands at different speeds. In each session, I relived particularly traumatic events over and over while the therapist guided me through sense memories and varied the speed of the buzzing. By the time the hour was up, I was usually an exhausted, damp, shaking mess running to the bathroom to vomit.
Medication: I think by now I’ve tried every different medication type on the market. I can’t even pronounce most of them and have to stutter and hope at the pharmacy. Most gave some relief for a little while and then stopped working.
There is now a way in which doctors can send a sample of your DNA to a lab, where people in white coats and shiny goggles can magically determine which medicines will or won’t work for you. I have no idea how they do it; I assume it involves cauldrons and eyes or tails of newts.
Ketamine: I was very hesitant to try this method because there have been so few long-term studies. When I started, I went in every day for a week and a half. After that, I went in every three to four weeks depending on how the doctor thinks I’m doing. Ketamine treatment is available through aerosol or intravenously. I sit in a comfy chair with a needle in my arm for about an hour while geometry loses all meaning and everything becomes either fascinating or hilarious. Everything in the universe swirls in front of my face, and the feeling of my hair is the most amazing sensation I can remember. According to the nurse, I tend to wax rhapsodic about how much I love every person who comes through the door. For some reason, they won’t let me drive afterwards!
Healing Crystals/ Salt Lamps/ Essential Oils: I had a lumpy pillow, a pink wall, and everything tasted like lavender.
PTSD is expensive!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour through the mess inside my head. Please wait for the ride to come to a complete stop before unbuckling safety harnesses. Be sure to gather all personal items and take them with you as you exit down the ramp to your right. Don’t forget to check the photo booth for a hilarious souvenir memento of your trip. You can also find resources for actual help; as I’m sure you remember, this has just been an example of some personal experiences for your writing toolbox.
OCD, like love and hate, is a label thrown around pretty loosely, often for humorous effect. People with fixations on organization, precise routines, hygiene, perfectionism, etc. are frequently referred to as “acting so OCD” or “showing their inner OCD.” Marketing campaigns turn OCD into a punchline to sell products like Obsessive Christmas Disorder pajamas or Khlo-CD organizational apps.
There is a significant difference between people with odd quirks and people who have a diagnosable mental illness. Both can be useful characters for writers, albeit in very different ways. Characters who have fixations, quirks, rituals, or habits that interrupt a scene or cause awkward situations can be a source of amusement for writers. Characters who actually have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can be a source of tension, tragedy, or demonstrated compassion for writers, but the actual mental illness is not amusing.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, recurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions that s/he feels the urge to repeat over and over). The line between having a personality quirks and a mental disorder can be hard to find, but it generally comes down to quality of life. Dr. Steven Brodsky points out that actual OCD will “impair social or occupational function or involve frequent excessive distress” in the lives of those suffering from it.
Obsessions—repeated thoughts, urges, or mental images—are private, and thus no one knows about them but the person unless they’re talked about. These uncomfortable thoughts cause anxiety.
Compulsions are typically (but not always) public, as is any behavior that happens the presence of others. The repetitive behaviors are an attempt to deal with the anxiety the obsessive thoughts create.
Could you benefit from an O and/or C character? Although people/characters can exhibit symptoms of obsessions, compulsions, or both, thoughts and behaviors typically occur together. See the end of this blog for specific prompts.
Consider Monk, The Big Bang Theory, and Friends. All three shows feature characters who exhibit signs of obsessions and compulsive behaviors, usually to the sound of the laugh-track. All three characters are referred to by others as “obsessive,” “OCD,” or some variation thereof, but none experience the pain that comes along with mental illness (which I can only imagine would be heightened by hearing laughing crowds).
Obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors become part of a vicious cycle in the minds of people with OCD. Most people with OCD realize that their thoughts and behaviors are irrational, but they are unable to break the cycle. Children often don’t perceive their abnormality; symptoms are noticed by parents and/or teachers.
In contrast, “neat freaks” and people with fixations often enjoy performing the behavior in question (such as alphabetizing books), enjoy the results (such as having a tidy apartment), have had the behavior drummed into them (such as rewinding video tapes after working at Blockbuster for years [I realize that I’m dating myself]), or out of practical necessity.
Most People with OCD Fall Into One of the Following Categories (in no particular order)
Washers are afraid of contamination. They usually have cleaning or hand-washing compulsions. Many refuse to wear anything someone else has worn, take their own sheets to hotels/motels, etc.
Washing your hands before and after eating is just being extra hygienic; washing your hands until they are raw and cracked is a probable sign of OCD.
Checkers repeatedly check things (motion-sensor lights turned on, car locked) they associate with safety. They might keep guns or other weapons that are checked for accessibility, condition, etc.
Jiggling the door handle after locking it could be a funny quirk; checking the lights, the thermostat, the window latches, and everything else repeatedly until you’re late for work is a sign of unhealthy compulsion.
Doubters and sinners are afraid that if everything isn’t perfect or done just so something terrible will happen or they will be punished. Dressing, undressing, bathing, eating must be done in precisely the same way, for example. Or furniture cannot be moved. Cars must always be the same make.
This can also take the form of rituals that must be completed regardless of convenience or safety, such as always taking seven steps at a time or touching every surface in a room, including the hot stove top.
Counters and arrangers are obsessed with order and symmetry, perhaps including superstitions about certain numbers, colors, or arrangements. For example, counting all the angles in a room, or the number of furniture legs.
Being unable to enter rooms painted blue or walk without counting sets of four steps sounds amusing… until the door out of the burning house is in a blue room five steps away.
Hoarders keep things they neither need nor use. They fear that getting rid of anything will cause something bad to happen, or it will be needed later. These people are often co-diagnosed with other disorders, such as depression, PTSD, ADHD, compulsive buying, or kleptomania. They might engage in skin-picking.
OCD symptoms may come and go over time. Added stressors increase symptoms.
It’s a vicious circle: obsessive thoughts trigger anxiety, which leads to compulsive behavior to try to curb the anxiety, and the behavior is followed by temporary relief.
Writers consider the following:
A person who actually is threatened in some way while others dismiss the anxiety and precautions as being silly fixations
A character whose compulsive behaviors are humorous and the source of derision/ joking among coworkers or friends/ acquaintances
A character whose compulsive behaviors embarrass children or other family members
A person whose compulsive behaviors put the family in financial jeopardy
A person whose compulsive behavior leads neighbors, classmates, and others to ostracize the person AND his/her family
A character who keeps obsessive thoughts private, doesn’t act on them, and the strain leads to withdrawal from intimate relationships
A character whose obsessions get them into medical or legal trouble
A character whose OCD has become so severe that they are unable to leave the house or keep a job
Bottom line for writers: OCD characters can provide tension, tragedy, and plot development; fixated or quirky characters can provide humor. There is a big difference.