A Flair for the Dramatic: Writing About Histrionic Personality Disorder

What is histrionic personality disorder and how can you write about it subtly, accurately and realistically? Time to dive into the drama.

Readers love drama in a story—the plot can fall flat without it—and the same can be said for dramatic characters. And you can’t get much more dramatic than characters with histrionic personality disorder.

What is histrionic personality disorder (HPD)? How is it diagnosed? What are the symptoms? If those are the questions burning on your lips, you should head over to the previous Psychology & Storycraft post, How to Tell If Your Character Has Histrionic Personality Disorder, and get some answers.

Once you know what’s what about HPD, it’s time to move onto the next step: creating realistic histrionic characters and ramping up the conflict to match their extremes.

To Keep in Mind:

The information in this post comes from the DSM-5 (see ‘Further Reading’). Please do not use it to diagnose yourself or others. It isn’t intended to be a substitute for professional advice so do consult a qualified clinical professional if you have any questions about the diagnosis criteria. Feel free to use this information to diagnose your characters, however!

You remember that your character needs to display at least five (or more) of the following criteria to be diagnosed with histrionic personality disorder, right? Cracking. Now how might your characters show these behaviours and in what ways could they add to the plot? Let’s have a look.

1. Attention-seeking and feeling uncomfortable when not the centre of attention.

Here you could show your character actively trying to draw people’s attention, through their dialogue (e.g., bold exclamations, over-the-top declarations, heavy on the purple prose), their actions (e.g., exaggerated flourishes, excessive hair-flicking, expansive movements), and their clothes (e.g., inappropriately provocative clothing, eye-catching accessories, lots of make-up).

When they aren’t centre of attention, let your HPD character’s thoughts turn toward ways to attain that attention, however they can. If, for whatever reason, they can’t have everyone’s eyes on them, let their distress show in their thoughts, dialogue and actions. It could well be an outburst of this distress that gets them the attention they so desperately crave.

2. Shallow and quickly shifting displays of emotion.

HPD characters will flit easily from emotion to emotion, making leaps that might give other characters whiplash. They may begin the scene feeling one emotion, only to change to several others within the space of a thousand or so words.

Though these emotional displays shift quickly, make sure they don’t come from nowhere—have each emotion lead into the next, or include appropriate justification (e.g., through dialogue, actions or thoughts) around sudden emotional leaps. Even if the reader doesn’t immediately realise why a HPD character’s emotions have shifted, there will be a reason for it, however small, that you should be aware of.

3. Inappropriately provocative or sexually seductive behaviour when interacting with others.

Inappropriate and excessive are key here. Your HPD character may wear provocative clothing to work or flirt with most of the other characters they encounter.

The latter could lead to relationships that your HPD character invests in quickly or to uncomfortable and awkward situations, depending on how the members of your cast respond.

In the case of the former, your HPD character may alienate or confuse their co-workers, offend or embarrass potential customers, and ultimately jeopardise their job through dressing inappropriately.

4. Drawing attention through physical appearance.

Hyper-feminine HPD characters may try to draw attention through lots of make-up and revealing clothing, while hyper-masculine HPD characters might strut around, broadcasting how macho they are.

Have your character pay particular attention to how they appear to others. Maybe they frequently check their reflections, zero in on people’s responses when they look at them, or habitually adjust their clothing or make-up to maximise its effect.

5. Exaggerating emotions and being excessively dramatic and theatrical.

Turn your character’s emotions to the extremes—frustration becomes fury, sadness becomes despair, happiness becomes euphoria. Your character might sob hysterically at something had might barely upset others and fly into a tantrum when things don’t go their way.

6. Basing conversations on impressions rather than reason or fact (i.e. speaking in an overly impressionistic way, which lacks in detail).

Have your character focus on emotions rather than the details or facts that go with them. For example, they might announce that they absolutely love or hate something, but be vague in their reasons for it. They might not know the why (analytic and specific), but they certainly know the emotion (impressionistic).

7. Easily influenced by others and circumstances (i.e., high levels of suggestibility).

If someone your HPD character likes mentions a film they really enjoyed, have your HPD character alter their own opinion to reflect this. Their feelings are easily swayed and so your character may move back and forth between extreme opinions in a short space of time.

8. Regarding relationships as more intimate than they really are.

An easy way to show this is to have your HPD character dedicate themselves to a relationship in its very early stages. They might seek closeness that their partner isn’t ready for yet or become over-involved and attention-demanding within the first few days or weeks of a relationship. Will this scare off their partner or will their unsuspecting love interest stick with it—only to regret it later?

Related posts: What’s Your Character’s Love Style?, Fatal Attraction: How to Kill Your Character’s Relationship

Personal History

Because many people diagnosed with histrionic personality disorder were rewarded for their superficial qualities, such as their beauty or ability to entertain, as a child, their sense of worth may now be tied to these qualities.

Your character may have been a child star or beauty pageant entrant, with parents who praised their exterior qualities and neglected the inner ones. As a result, your HPD character may now be dependent on the approval of others, fearful of rejection, and feel that their value is tied to their superficial abilities.