Tips on writing a character who’s ADHD
Courtesy of yours truly, an actual person with ADHD (who’s just slightly sick of bad ADHD characterisations)
- We don’t ramble randomly, we infodump. I see a lot of writers writing ADHD characters as speaking these enormous, unbroken paragraphs on essentially whatever topic happens to be current, which isn’t how ADHD works. We might be long-winded at times (though really, not any more than non-ADHDers are,) but when it comes to those signature rambles, it’s about a topic we’ve hyperfixated on. Often, these topics seem random to NTs, but for us it’s very specific and topical. Often times, I’ll have only a handful of functioning hyperfixations at a time, and it’s usually something you can put under a specific header (cold war history/biology/etc., a particular band/genre, a specific show, and so forth.) My advice? Get a sense of your character’s hyperfixations before you write it in; Rick Riordan does a fantastic, albeit slightly heavy-handed, job of doing this with Leo Valdez in Heroes of Olympus. (another VERY IMPORTANT tip: just don’t write big unbroken paragraphs of rambling if you’re expecting me to actually read that shit. As an ADHDer it’s like physically painful for me to try and sift through that lmao)
- We experience a wide range of emotions, and we experience them very strongly (AKA we’re not just balls of hyperactivity and joy.) Intense emotions are a hallmark of ADHD, which is why a lot of the time we seem super happy and energetic all the time to non-ADHDers. It’s a L O T more socially acceptable for us to express the intense happiness we feel, not so much the other emotions we feel just as intensely. Particularly for impulsive-type ADHDers, the main emotions we struggle to regulate are excitability, irritability, frustration, and dysphoria, all of which are emotions we’re taught from a very young age to be ashamed of and hide (which happens, in my experience, like this: you exhibit the strong emotion, you act in a way that is seen as unreasonably intense to non-ADHDers, and rather than learn to cope with the intensity of the emotion we’re taught to turn it inwards.) When we experience these intense negative emotions, we internalise it like we’re taught to, and our emotions appear more subdued to the people around us, though we still experience them intensely. We’ll typically close off and downplay our state if pressed, but in my experience we open up to people who we know to be ADHD/ND. That being said, we’re not always able to internalise it–especially (honestly, almost exclusively) when stressors pile up/when we’ve dealt with it for so long–and that’s when we explode. Because we experience emotion a lot more intensely than non-ADHDers, we almost always cry when this happens. I’m talkin’ ugly cry people. I’ve got hella information on the subtleties of a good ol’ fashioned ADHD-brand meltdown, which would make this post even longer than it’s already doomed to be, so if you’re interested in some tips on that feel free to shoot me an ask!
- Our thought process is not random; we have highly-associative brains. Please. For the love of GOD. Stop fucking characterising us along that “OOH SQUIRREL” line of bullshit. I’ll come directly to your house and curse your shins to bump against every coffee table you encounter. Don’t fucking test me.
Our thought process is highly-associative, which essentially means our brain makes more connexions between memories and thoughts when they’re being solidified, which results in memories triggering thoughts that wouldn’t occur to non-ADHDers. These links might seem tenuous when you don’t have a highly-associative brain, but they’re there, and they’re fairly evident on the part of the person with ADHD. And as a writer nota bene, don’t retroactively make these associations–in other words, don’t try to justify the link after it’s made just because a subject change is plot convenient for you. Try your best to make these transitions organic if you’re gonna include them. A good example of this is Jake Peralta in Brooklyn Nine Nine: he makes pretty sizeable leaps in topic, but the transitions always make sense.
- ADHD is highly comorbid with other neurodivergencies. I’ve not met a single person with ADHD who is *only* ADHD; I personally have almost ten other neurodivergencies I’ve been diagnosed with. The most common comorbidities are: anxiety/depression (every ADHDer I know has at least one if not both of them,) autism spectrum disorder, and dyslexia. ADHD is a developmental disorder, which means our brains are fundamentally structurally different from NT brains, and this lends itself to the presence and development of other conditions. Don’t be afraid of including those other conditions/symptoms in your character’s story for realism! That being said, for the most of us, our ADHD is the most prominent condition we have, so we identify with it the most. The way we often see it, ADHD is the *main* condition, and the others feel like tag-alongs (this isn’t always the case and it isn’t always true, but that’s how we tend to interpret it.)
- Our symptoms get worse when we get tired or stressed, but especially tired. When we’re stressed but reasonably rested/fed, we typically have the mental faculties to perform pseudo-neurotypically (we do decently well with controlling our symptoms,) though they might become slightly more pronounced. Lack of sleep/mental rest amplifies our symptoms and inhibits our ability to control them, most noticeably in our working memory (remembering/following instructions, immediate task completion, concentration, etc.) Just as NT/non-ADHDers become scatter-brained as they get increasingly stressed, so do ADHDers. The two main differences are that 1) it’s more pronounced and has a lower threshold, and 2) we (conveniently for you!) have a set list of symptoms that are going to react predictably to this.
- We are very aware of our symptoms, thank you very much. While there will be times where my symptoms slip out and I’m not paying attention to them, nine times out of ten I’m very painfully aware of how non-NT I’m acting. When I simply can’t slow down my speech for the life of me, when I feel myself rambling about a hyperfixation, when I get stressed over something little and have an emotional outburst, I know. A lot of authors miss this, but ADHDers are very early made aware of why we’re perceived as different, and often times that’s done so at the expense of our self-esteem. Our ADHD doesn’t exist in a vacuum in our minds, and we’re very often self-conscious about how we’re socially read because of it. If you’re trying to get into the mind of a character with ADHD, that’s an important dimension to keep in mind. The self-consciousness factor is usually diminished when we’re around ppl who know that we’re ADHD, but when they show up around people we haven’t told we’re ADHD, we’re not usually quite so keen to share it. While this probably isn’t the same for all people with ADHD, it’s been my experience at the very least.
Anyhow this has been sitting in my drafts for God knows how long, so I’ll just release it into the wild. ADHDers, if you have any other tips, or want to share your experience, please feel free to add on!