Tuesday, September 15, 2020

character compulsion vs choice

I read a book recently with a character who had OCD** and was thus compelled to tidy up, and tidy up, and tidy up.

I live in Brooklyn, and my apartment is more than an adequate size for one;  given NYC real estate parameters, it's not that small.

For those of you not in NYC, it's smaller than your garage.
By a long shot.

Apartments this size require CONSTANT tidying up. One sock on the floor, three unwashed plates, and laundry stacking up for more than a week, and the place looks a right mess.

So I tidy.
And tidy.

I even bought a very small dish drainer that forces me to wash every dish after I use it.
not my sink or actual dishes-but that's the drainer

And I don't hesitate to tell you that tidying up this incessantly is a real struggle.

There are minutes and hours where I have to force myself to do one small thing.

Which makes me think of characters who have compulsions (like OCD) where they have no choice but to tidy, versus people like me who have to struggle to get stuff done (sometimes, not always).

And I think it's much more interesting if a character has to struggle to do something (tidy up) or NOT do something (not tidy up), than do something because of a compulsion.

A struggle implies a choice. The character chooses to be meticulous, because that kind of attention to detail can mean the difference between life and death in his/her perilous profession (reference librarian comes to mind, also bomb squad.)


Struggle is tension.
Tension drives plot.
Compulsion is just a characteristic.

 Your thoughts on this?

**(This is not Katja's book in case any of you are wondering;
 it's an advance copy and I don't want 
to spoil any of it for long time fans of the series)


french sojourn said...

My best friend is a corporate pilot and he has OCD. He is so detailed about every aspect of his life. He manages it well, but there are times where it is debilitating. He does joke about it on rare occasions, I can sometimes tease him about the fact that I'm surprised he doesn't spell his name in alphabetic order, but that's about it.

I remember in High school we might be driving somewhere and he would have a distraction he would look at off to the side of the road. As he turned to look, I would slightly turn the cigarette lighter to where the cigarette icon would be slightly off-level. He'd turn his head back to the road ahead, then scan the gauges and then re-level the lighter. He'd laugh, then add, "knock it off".

Still best friends 45 years later.

Steve Forti said...

I think you said it well. It's not the compulsion itself that's interesting, it's the struggle to overcome it in the moment of need.

nightsmusic said...

I've often wondered: If someone with OCD is faced with an immediate life or death situation where the OCD would mean the difference between living and dying, can they overcome their OCD? Maybe it depends on the degree but I had one person tell me that they had no choice in what their OCD forced them to do. So...

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

I have a sister with some form of OCD. Her daughter's husband called and asked her to come to their house and babysit because her daughter was having her next baby. My sister said she couldn't come because it was
time to go grocery shopping. She has a time for doing everything, 2 PM must eat orange etc.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Yes. Agree. It also makes a character sympathetic, which even if that character is your villain, pulls the reader in because we all have our own struggles - things we are compelled to do or not do whether from something like OCD or because of upbringing and environment. This is the nature of humanity. Imperfect, broken, and beautiful.

Leslie said...

french sojourn, your friend may now see his OCD tendencies as a necessary part of his job. If a pilot doesn't do everything precisely right before takeoff, it could literally end in disaster.

But sometimes one's OCD can be used for entertainment. Many years ago, I had an awful manager foisted on me. Every morning at a specific time, he ordered us into his office and I watched as he kept taking out the Pledge and paper towels to keep spiffing up his desk, as he saw each smudge missed before. So, one morning when I had something to discuss, I stood, leaned forward, and pressed my fingertips on his shiny desk. Then, I watched as his eyes widened in horror as I smudged my fingers up, down, and all around that spiffy desk. He couldn't wait to get us out of there (the meetings were usually waaaay too long) and he stopped compelling us to waste time in his office every morning. Mission accomplished

Katja said...

I don't get quite a bit of this post. I'm suddenly totally confused about things - I don't see 100% how a struggle implies choice.

I can see how a compulsion is just a characteristic. And it becomes boring and annoying to read those because they are basically always the same.

Yes, my book is pretty loaded with those. Sounds it would be better for a book not to have them.

I know, my book isn't getting anywhere any way.
My main character who has OCD is also in my second book. That one is not on OCD whatsoever but she still shows a few compulsions because the OCD can't just be removed. But the whole OCD stuff is kept to a minimum, so yeah, just a characteristic. But hey, it DOES provoke tension because she blocks the bathroom in London and her flatmate gets totally mad at her; pressures her (understandably) and then rips the shower out of the wall (true event!).
Isn't that tension? She stands all scared in her room, 'praying' for Flatmate to calm down.

french sojourn, I'm so glad you are still best friends after 45 years. Sending a big hug to you. And your friend!

Regarding the ** : I wish it was my book you've read, LOL.

Is the title a top secret? If it comes out in the UK by a traditional publisher, I can really pack up and go, I suppose.

C'est la vie.

Katja said...

Leslie, I'm sure you mean this innocently but I am sweating on my hands as I'm typing this. I am cringing at the sentence that OCD can be used for entertainment. No, it can't and it never should.
Please read a good book on this topic. Or an article. Something.

OCD isn't funny and I feel for your boss. Please, please educate yourself on this. OCD can be so bad, it leads to suicidal thoughts (...).
Please don't use it against any sufferer. You can reason with them, yes, have discussion and express your own feelings and struggles with the sufferer. But don't press your finger on his desk if it's for entertainment.

I have a friend whose 6-year-old daughter shows OCD symptoms. I have been 'fighting' for her as in convincing my friend to seek therapy NOW at this age. Because I know what would come later, otherwise...

Craig F said...

Not going to say anything specific about OCD. Everyone knows someone with at least a touch of it and it has a spectrum.

The easiest way to add some depth to characters is to highlight their quirks and foibles. These are myriad and don't always have anything to do with the mental stability or compulsions.

Usually this is just character development, but can at some point work into tension, through struggles, and thus into plot devices.

Leslie said...

Katja he is a truly hideous person. Not just to me and others who got in his way, but he was (is) a con man who scammed millions of dollars from investors, and bounced around from stock brokerage to stock brokerage. You don't have to take my word for it -- he was arrested and indicted by the feds, as well as banned for life from the securities industry. (He's one of the creeps mentioned in this article https://www.nytimes.com/1999/07/23/business/us-indicts-15-in-brokerage-firm-fraud-case.html)

He constantly tried to get me fired, and got one of his male minions to threaten to beat me up. He also tried to steal money from me and a number of other brokers at this firm.

And while I can never prove it, I'm positive he was behind my car windshield being smashed on the same day I had to make one of the biggest transactions in the firm's history.

So yeah, I used whatever I could against him until he left

Janet Reid said...

Let's all remember this post is about creating characters in a book, NOT about people in real life.

This is akin to understanding that "when things get boring, kill someone" is for fiction, not a to do list.

Leslie said...

I did not mean to start any trouble or hijack the thread and for that, I apologize.

It's just that mention of OCD reminds me of this awful person and the PTSD from that time, then off I go...

I'll do better from now on

Katja said...

Leslie, it's okay. :) I'm okay with it. Your explanation has helped, and yes, mentally ill people can be good people but also be bad people. Like everyone else.

I still find this post good, because yes, it helps me for my second book to confirm that I'm not going to bore my readers, hopefully.

Janet, if you're able to reveal the title of that book, I'd love to know. I can buy ebooks for my phone now. I'd love to read it when it comes out and analyse how it's done. :)
If you're not able to reveal the title, I understand. :) Maybe later? 😃

Lennon Faris said...

Hmm. Trying to keep this about fiction...

I think struggle is all about perspective. To a person without OCD, sure, the struggle will be to clean (yay! clean apartment!) or be lazy (yay! netflix).

To a person with OCD with a compulsion to clean, their struggle will be to clean (feel peace in my brain for a few minutes, thank God, but after the 3rd cleaning my hands are bleeding and I missed my date), or not clean (hot poker in brain, and my dad will die by car wreck tomorrow, according to the ocd).

Perhaps in the story mentioned, the person wasn't too harshly affected by the OCD? Not sure.

But I think I see what the point of this post is. The harder the (apparent) struggle is for a character, the more interesting it is for the reader.

So I guess it's the author's job to make sure the reader truly feels how hard something is for the character.

Katja said...

Lennon, spot on with everything. EVERYTHING.

S.P. Bowers said...

I do not have personal experience with OCD, but I do with small places. Our house is 1100sqft. Probably huge by New York standards, but we have six people here. Plus the occasional foster kids. Kids have a lot of things. And since I save all their clothes to pass on to the younger ones,or share with foster kids and we grow most of our food and have to preserve and store it our house is too full. I spend so much time tidying up and telling the kids to clean up the things they left all over the freshly tidies house. It definitely creates tension. Yesterday hubby came home from work and asked if he could do anything to help. My reply was 'nothing you wouldn't go to jail for.'

Brenda said...

IMO For a how-to of doing it right, I’d recommend The Woman in the Window.

Karen McCoy said...

Not to further complicate the conversation, but I also think it's important to consider not making caricatures when creating characters. Not that this author did that of course, but I've seen it happen. Example: Not all people with OCD obsessively clean. Sometimes OCD people are hoarders (my mother--and I know she is a real person, but still). I'm thinking about portrayals in fiction, particularly stereotypes involving race, gender, and disability etc. Not all women...not all people of color... not all people with OCD...I hope this makes sense...

Katja said...

I don't know if I can still comment... and I apologise cos I've already so many times. But this is obviously close to my heart and there will, unfortunately, never be an end to trying to educate people and raise awareness.

Yes, Karen McCoy, very true - there are tons of cases of OCD where it isn't about cleaning whatsoever. It's a stereotype and people are 'fighting' to correct this. Many sufferers live in filthy places because they are UNable to clean due to their OCD.

In my case, it's not about cleaning either, really. I do clean but not to wash off germs. I wash off my parents. I am obsessed about separating myself from them, on microparticle-level, and it is sooo hard to do. It's a struggle.

Adele said...

Wondering now about Jack Nicholson's character in "As Good As It Gets" He has OCD and among other things will not step on a crack. The scene where he has to cross a floor tiled in 1" squares to get to Helen Hunt still fills me with vicarious triumph. You just knew what it cost him.

Wondering if that scene would fly now; so much has changed since 1997. Would people say Helen Hunt was too cruel in making him come to her for once?

AJ Blythe said...

I read Janet's article. Then I read the comments. I must have interpreted Janet's words very differently to everyone else, or I am not taking on the comments the way they were meant? So confused.

But I agree with Janet. For a character who has a compulsion (such as OCD) it is an inherent component of who they are on the page. In the same way a character might have a lisp which makes speaking in public problematic, a character with OCD might not be able to leave a room until objects are placed in a certain symmetry. That's who they are.

But that is different to the struggle they are trying to overcome in the book. The struggle comes from the internal conflict - and it's possible the struggle and the OCD might stem from the same issue... but they might not.

The struggle Janet is talking about, as I see it, is the thing that might have to be sacrificed to reach their goal. To borrow Janet's bomb squad example, usually they might be meticulous and focused and had a record history of defusing bombs and saving lives.

But now, in this one instance where chaos is happening around them and there are mere seconds to get the bomb defused, they either have to abandon the training ingrained in them and act on instinct, or follow their procedure and risk running out of time. Either could result in their death, but the second choice almost guarantees the death outcome.

Their decision is a choice. How they are as a person (lisp, OCD) might influence how they make that choice.

Janet, please flap your fins in my direction if I have totally missed the boat.

John Davis Frain said...

I agree with the general thought here, but there are myriad examples of how you can use compulsive behavior to create tension. (BTW, I can't believe no one has mentioned Monk yet.)

Let's say you're Edgar Allan Poe and you set up a character who has a compulsive behavior of checking door locks around the house and all the appliances around the house. A second character could use that compulsion against the original character by methodically unlocking locks already checked and switching controls on appliances (like Hank did to his best friend with the cigarette lighter) but do it in a way where you're not spotted, so pretty soon the original character is going crazy like a good ol' Edgar Allan Poe character is supposed to do.

What heightens the tension even further is the fact that the reader knows this compulsion exists and can see the problem coming even before the character sees it.

Imagine a guy who ALWAYS takes six steps forward before doing anything and his wife wakes him up five steps from the edge of a cliff. The chapter would end after his fourth step, of course ... to set up a cliffhanger.
(Apologies to all ... I was compelled.)

Keep writing, everybody!

KDJames said...

Janet wrote: "And I think it's much more interesting if a character has to struggle to do something (tidy up) or NOT do something (not tidy up), than do something because of a compulsion."

I disagree. That implies there is no struggle involved with compulsion: you're compelled, so you do it. I don't get the impression OCD works that way, or that compulsion is necessarily that simple. It could be, sure. But as others have said, it's a range both of severity/disability and of behaviors.

As with all things in writing, it depends. Is OCD the *only* struggle the character faces? That could become tedious and boring, especially if it doesn't escalate. What does the writer do with that compulsion? How does it set up or enhance other situations, like in John's example above. OCD could be a great catalyst for conflict/tension, in relation to other events and characters. It's only "less interesting" if the writer fails to explore the dynamic a unique characteristic can cause. That's true of any characteristic, not just OCD.

As an aside, I also disagree that "tension drives plot." Conflict drives characters, and can also create tension (not all stories are tense); characters in conflict drive plot. But maybe I'm just quibbling about word definitions here. I've been known to do that. :)

Miles O'Neal said...

They don't have to be mutually exclusive.
Here are a few characters who need to make a choice... but can they?
- I feel compelled to say hello to everyone I pass on the sidewalk, but here comes my ex. She filed a restraining order against me last week. And oh, boy. Her lawyer boyfriend is with her.
- I absolutely must clean the toilet if anyone pukes in it. I've cleaned it twelve times today, and I have to puke again. I'm so sick I can barely get my head high enough to puke in the bowl. I need to just flush it and lay down for a nap. But Now what?
- I can't pass a dragon without mocking its eyes; they're so weird. I mean, I just can't. But Salome here has a nasty reputation. Please don't let her open her eyes as I pass. Please don't let her... oh %&$^%!

Katja said...

KD James, I'm so happy you put it the way you did: "I disagree. That implies there is no struggle involved with compulsions."

This is why I said in my first comment that I was confused about quite a few things that Janet wrote. I even discussed it with Fiancé because I needed to know that I got the English right. He suggested that either it isn't understood what OCD really is, or that Janet didn't articulate properly what she meant.

I so wish everyone would read my book. I feel powerless reading things here. I'm even a little sad.
In my book, I use two characters for the same person - sure, a twist that has been used before... but I had this idea many years ago at 25 years old.

Finja has no OCD in the book. Sonja does (well, and she IS Finja's OCD). They are best friends to start with because Finja finds everything in their friendship she needs and lacked.
But then there is soooo much conflict when Sonja demands that Finja does everything she wants and performs the same compulsions with Sonja.
There is a scene where Sonja makes Finja wash her mouth, inside of her those and her eyes with shower gel. Finja fucking struggles with this compulsion! (This is all drawn from true events - I did this! I was driven by my OCD to perform this compulsion and HELL it was a struggle!)

Finja tries to reason with Sonja and wants to beg her to stop it, but Sonja doesn't even listen and then gives the next instruction: "And now the eyes!"

Finja can't just not do it, because Sonja would stop being her friend that she needs so badly. There is SO much conflict and tension.
Finja even attempts killing her in a spontaneous fit. Twice! And she is planning the third time.

If you want a free e-copy, let me know. I'll hand everyone one, because I feel things are still misunderstood about this. And I find I've built it super tension-rich, but sure, it's my subjective opinion.

The fight of raising awareness will never end..