People with Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD) are colloquially known as “drama queens” or “shit-stirrers”. Fundamental to the disorder is a desire for attention that borders on the narcissistic, as well as strong, shallow, rapidly-changing emotions. This article looks at how to write realistic and believable characters with HPD.
As is the case with many of the conditions in this book (and especially the personality disorders), people with HPD are often high-functioning in several ways. As with most of the conditions in this book, people with HPD can often be entirely competent and effective in their niche. For instance, they excel at screen and theatre acting.
A simple (if crude) way of conceptualising HPD is that, for people with it, drama is like a drug. They get hooked on it, they seek it out compulsively, they try to get bigger and bigger doses of it. The more attention they can draw to themselves the better. A cynic might call them a “psychic vampire” because dealing with them frequently leaves a person tired.
For these reasons, HPD is a fitting and excellent choice for some of the characters in your fiction. A character with HPD will naturally liven things up – even if they end up causing chaos. Because they seek drama out, it is never far from them. Not only do they like drama, but they tend to have just enough narcissism to bring some truly dark emotions out of others.
From the perspective of other characters who might encounter a character with HPD, one of the most difficult things about them is their apparent need to be overly emotional and dramatic all the time. Because emotional reactions are contagious to some extent, a person with HPD will tend to trigger those around them – a great quality in a bartender perhaps, but if there is a need for calmness and order this is usually unhelpful.
Other characters might also find the constant self-aggrandisement extremely tiresome. People with HPD like to use elaborate and flowery speech when unnecessary or even unhelpful, and love to tell stories that feature themselves looking good or being heroic. Such typically unsubtle attempts to draw praise are sometimes described as “needy”. Indeed, it is common for people with HPD to display symptoms typical of Dependent Personality Disorder.
Several common characteristics of HPD overlap with common characteristics of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. One of these in particular is the usual reaction to criticism. For the histrionic, any and all criticism is a brutal personal attack, an act of the utmost cruelty. It is so bad that any retaliatory measures are justified (although a character with HPD will tend toward passive-aggressive revenge tactics).
Related to this is the constant seeking of reassurance or approval. A protagonist with HPD might have compulsive thoughts about not being a good enough person and so seeks out ways of being told that they’re worthwhile. If a character has HPD, there might also be very clear ways that this can be shown through their clothing choice: “Loud and proud” would sum up their dress style.
Other characters might find it very stressful to be around a character with HPD, partially because of the narcissism but mostly because they don’t leave other people in peace. Because of their need to be the centre of attention, a character with HPD might continually butt into other people’s conversations, or make it all about them. They’re also generally happy to spread rumours around, especially if they think that doing so will make someone angry.
A character with HPD might strike other characters as superficial or false. After all, their emotions might strongly rise, but they also strongly fall and quickly transform into other ones. A second character might come to feel that they can’t really trust the histrionic one. It’s hard to know whether they’re acting or genuine.
One area in which the lives of people with HPD tend to be in particular disarray is romantically. They commonly perceive sexual interest where none exists. This makes their own lives difficult, as they often end up misreading the signals and making a move on someone who then rejects them. It can also make other people’s lives difficult, as people with HPD tend to perceive sexual infidelity where it doesn’t exist. This jealousy can fuel untold dramas.
On a darker note, people with HPD are well-known for hitting on people who are already in established relationships. This is partly because of the aforementioned tendency to perceive sexual interest where none exists, but this can also be influenced by a narcissistic refusal to respect other people’s boundaries and an inability to delay gratification.
Having said that, people with HPD are often very engaging to make love to. Excessive sensitivity and dependence on other people’s approval can make for a powerful contribution to the bedroom magic.
Adding a character with HPD to your story, or adding aspects of it to a character in your story, has the potential to liven things up but there is a risk that it can also make things more trivial. Because histrionic characters can get upset over small things, they can be hard for the reader to relate to, and therefore are often better as a foil to another character or as comic relief.
This article is an excerpt from Writing With The DSM (Writing With Psychology Book 5), edited by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2018/19.