Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a condition characterised by extreme emotional instability and sensitivity to criticism. This means that characters with the condition are naturally well suited to dramatic fiction. This article looks at how to write interesting and believable characters with Borderline Personality Disorder.
Originally named because it was the label given to those on the border between diagnoses (in particular psychosis and neurosis), BPD has taken on a somewhat different meaning in recent editions of the DSM. Indeed, some believe the name is no longer accurate, and the condition ought to be renamed as something like “Emotional Disregulation Disorder”.
People with BPD tend to have extremely strong reactions to criticism. This is believed to stem ultimately from a weak sense of self, which makes them prone to being heavily impacted by what other people say about them. It’s as if they don’t have the same defences that most people have when it comes to accepting criticism and resisting bullying.
They also tend to have problems when it comes to interpersonal empathy. A character with BPD might seem a bit narcissistic or psychopathic to other characters because of their apparent refusal to take other people’s feelings into account when making decisions. Alternatively, they might perceive someone to be angry at them when they really are not.
If the protagonist of your story has BPD, it might be that they experience even mild criticism as brutal, sharp and denigrating. This could make them seem extremely sensitive, or even narcissistic, to other characters. The difference between BPD and narcissism in this sense is that a person with BPD can be reassured that the criticism was not intended to be wounding, whereas a narcissist would likely bear a grudge.
People with BPD also tend to have a very strong fear of abandonment. It is uncommon for them to feel secure in romantic relationships. A protagonist with this condition will probably experience a lot of thoughts of jealousy and suspicion going through their minds. They will frequently perceive their partner as flirting with others when they really aren’t.
A protagonist that gets involved in a romantic relationship with another character who has BPD is probably in for a rocky time. People with BPD tend to treat their lovers like a demigod one minute and dogshit the next. This is often very difficult for those lovers, who then don’t really know where they stand. The line between this kind of behaviour and narcissistic abuse is not obvious.
On the other hand, a character with BPD might be more than memorable in bed. The combination of emotional intensity, need for reassurance, and lack of inhibition can make for an incredible sexual experience – perhaps even enough to make up for all the insanity otherwise endured. A psychologist can tell you that this kind of treatment is liable to become addictive, which makes for a tumultuous time.
Realistically, an experience with BPD is more likely to be deeply unpleasant than it is to result in legendary erotic achievements. Self harm is common among people with the condition, and could be considered characteristic of it. If the protagonist of your story encounters someone with scars on their forearms, this could foreshadow some intensely emotional scenes.
If your protagonist encounters a character with BPD, they might realise something is amiss on account of that that character has dysfunctional life goals. The borderline character might seem to drift from one meaningless activity to another, with little awareness paid to the fact that they’re getting older and that time is passing them by. This might manifest as a nihilistic streak.
A character with BPD might be disliked by other characters, sometimes intensely, if they don’t have sympathy for the condition. Because people with it tend to be deeply wounded by criticism, they can develop a tendency to lash out hard at minor insults. This can make them antagonistic and grudge-keeping. Other characters might get the perception that they have to walk on eggshells around the borderline or else run the risk of being attacked.
BPD is around three times more common in women than it is in men (this is likely one of the main reasons why women are often seen as less emotionally stable than men). This can add to the difficulty of having the condition. If you’re writing a female character with BPD, that character might discover that other people don’t take their condition seriously, because their prejudice leads them to put it down to being a woman etc.
In the eyes of a protagonist who is encountering a character with BPD, the borderline character might just seem like a loose cannon, akin to certain other conditions like Schizophrenia and Histrionic Personality Disorder. Much as with those conditions, the risk of self-harm and suicide is often present with BPD. This is partially a result of the disinhibition that comes with the disorder but it is also the result of the fact that people with BPD tend to have difficult lives.
All in all, a character with Borderline Personality Disorder is a good choice if your dramatic fiction needs some more drama. Things are unlikely to remain stable for long with such a character around. However, care will have to be taken to portray such a character with compassion, and not make them seem like an arsehole.
This article is an excerpt from Writing With The DSM-V (Writing With Psychology Book 5), edited by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2018/19.