How can you create a compelling and authentic character with avoidant personality disorder? Start by making sure you understand the diagnostic criteria.
There are characters who are shy and anxious by nature, preferring their own company and shunning large groups.
Then there are characters whose fear of criticism and rejection is so strong that it interferes with their work and relationships; characters whose feelings of inadequacy cause their self-esteem to plummet; characters who long for affection and acceptance but hold themselves back for fear of ridicule. These are characters with avoidant personality disorder.
Suzy falls into this category. We met her in the Psychology Segment, How to Tell If Your Character Has Avoidant Personality Disorder, and caught a glimpse of how her personality disorder has affected her over her lifetime. Now it’s time to delve even deeper into the realities of avoidant personality disorder and explore how they can be portrayed accurately, sensitively and subtly in your fiction.
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.
To be diagnosed with avoidant personality disorder (AvPD), your character needs to meet at least four (or more) of the diagnostic criteria listed below. But picking which characteristic features of the personality disorder your character will experience isn’t enough to write about them in an engaging and realistic way. You need to know what the criteria actually mean, in plain terms, which is why I’ve created some ‘translations’ of the features, illustrated by our character Suzy.
On that note, on with the translations. Your AvPD character may experience the following criteria:
Avoids occupational activities that require significant contact with others for fear of criticism, disapproval or rejection.
The root of this characteristic feature is your character’s fear of negative evaluation. It’s this feeling that causes her to avoid certain situations, like occupational activities, or take personal risks (see Criterion 7). If she experiences this criterion, she may avoid jobs that need her to interact with others a lot or even turn down job promotions, as her new responsibilities could result in criticism from her co-workers. This avoidance gives a sense of security, but can seriously restrict your character’s lifestyle and career.
Is unwilling to become involved with people unless she’s certain of being liked.
If your character meets this criterion, she holds back from making friends unless she’s certain she’ll be liked and accepted by them. She’s unlikely to join in group activities unless the members give repeated and generous offers of support—but it could well be that groups stop inviting her after the first few times she turns them down. Keep in mind the isolation—and the conflict—that could cause.
Your character may also assume that other people are disapproving and critical, until they’ve passed stringent tests that prove otherwise. Again, these people may give up on trying to reach out to her before that happens. Don’t forget to consider how observers could interpret her behaviour—as overly suspicious, insulting even, especially if their intentions are pure and honest.
Shows restraint in intimate relationships due to the fear of being exposed, shamed or ridiculed.
Though the characteristics of avoidant personality disorder suggest a solitary life, with few relations, intimate relationships are indeed possible if your character is assured of uncritical acceptance. However, the deep-seated fear of having her secrets exposed and made fun of could cause your character to hold back in the close relationships she does have.
How might you show that in your story? Your AvPD character may try to turn the conversation back to her partner if any personal topics are broached and, though she may talk to her friends and loved ones, she won’t necessarily open up to them about personal issues. Other characters, particularly those in close relationships with her, may interpret her behaviour as cold or feel that there’s a wall between them.
Is preoccupied with thoughts of criticism or rejection in social situations.
These thoughts, always at the back of her mind, can weigh your character down and wear her out. Remember that personality disorders, by definition, cause distress to the person experiencing them? It’s no different here. This preoccupation can plague your character so much that it negatively affects her interactions with others, her performance at work, even her physical health (anxiety is not good for the body).
When your character first meets someone, she may immediately interpret him as forming a critical opinion of her. Remember: your POV (point-of-view) character’s perceptions don’t have to be accurate, so don’t shy away from colouring her narrative with her biases. Her assessment of a person could well be very different to other POV characters’.
It’s also likely that your character will vigilantly assess others for signs of disapproval or criticism, being highly sensitive to their body language and facial expressions. Even slight signals of negative evaluation can make her feel extremely hurt.
Is inhibited in new interpersonal situations because of her feelings of inadequacy.
An AvPD character may be described as ‘shy’ and ‘solitary’ by observers because of this inhibition in social situations, but that description doesn’t get to the heart of why she acts this way—because she feels inadequate. She may be worried that she’ll say something that others will mock or criticise her for, or behave in a way that causes her embarrassment. To make sure that doesn’t happen, she may keep to herself or steer the conversation away from personal matters. These feelings of inadequacy can cause your AvPD character’s self-esteem to plummet, which can reflect in other areas of her life too.
Views herself as socially inept, personally unappealing or inferior to others.
These thoughts and feelings become particularly apparent when interacting with strangers. Your character may feel clumsy and incapable in social situations, like when meeting someone for the first time at a party, or inferior to others, deeming these people more likeable, skilled and socially adept than her. She may also feel that she’s personally unappealing and unlikeable, questioning the motives behind positive comments she receives or kind behaviour towards her.
Is reluctant—unusually so—to take personal risks or take part in any new activities as they might prove embarrassing.
There’s being reluctant to get up in front of your dance class to demonstrate a move because you’re afraid of being embarrassed. Then there’s being reluctant to even join the dance class because you’re afraid you’ll be embarrassed by not dressing appropriately or saying the right words or acting in the right way. Key here is being prone to exaggerating potential dangers of ordinary situations. This could make your character unwilling to engage in new activities and restrict her lifestyle as a result, all for this need for certainty and security.
A Few Final Thoughts
Personality disorders are, by definition, inflexible, pervasive and enduring. Try colouring your character’s thoughts, feelings, dialogue and behaviour with the characteristic features of avoidant personality disorder so that it affects her whole perspective of the world, not just little bits here and there. Keep it consistent and pervasive to match the enduring nature of personality disorders.
Found this post interesting? Check out Fearful and Anxious: Writing About Cluster C Personality Disorders and Emotional, Erratic and Dramatic: Writing About Cluster B Personality Disorders.
Oh, and one last thing. A 17 page downloadable workbook, complete with character profiles for you to fill out. Enjoy!