Tuesday, November 11

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, November 11, 2014 5 comments
Compulsion is a deep-seated need to do something, a belief that a particular action will make one's anxiety evaporate. More serious compulsions we label "OCD"--obsessive compulsive disorder. OCD sufferers need to wash their hands frequently to dispel their anxiety about germs, or flick light switches a certain number of times to keep the universe in harmony.

Photo credit: mensatic from morguefile.com
Most of us have less dramatic compulsions that surface in times of stress. "I'll be okay if I can just go for a run," says the exercise-compulsive. One of my good friends cooks and freezes huge portions of food when she's anxious. I tend to clean, organize, and rearrange the furniture. Having a neat environment makes me feel like life is under control.

There's a wonderful indie film that got me thinking more deeply about this: Sunshine Cleaning, starring Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as sisters Rose and Nora. These women are both struggling financially and learn that they could be making good money starting up their own business--cleaning up crime scenes.

What sort of person would be drawn to this work? It's grisly and just really, really gross. But as you learn Rose and Nora's backstory, it becomes clear that this is therapeutic work for them. They lost a loved one in a grisly manner when they were both quite young and have had difficulty moving on. Clearing away the evidence of painful loss for their clients cleans their own damaged souls.

If a different set of characters had been set in this scenario, I don't know that it would have worked as well. A socialite scrubbing gore off the walls would have been funnier--but less believable. What kept me gripped by the film was a desire to understand the underlying compulsion--the psychological need being met in this particular set of circumstances.

At one point, Rose is at a baby shower and has to explain her new business to a group of well-off young women who were high school friends. You couldn't ask for a more ironic juxtaposition, so I was bracing myself for things to go horribly, hilariously wrong. But the writer took a light touch, and in that moment we expect to writhe for Rose, she gives a wonderfully layered response to her friends' questions that's simultaneously sappy and deep.

"We're helping people," Rose says, "at a time when they are going through something profound. And we make things better."

When you can link an old wound with a new challenge, well, friends, you have the makings of deep, compelling drama. The trick is to match your protagonist and plot well.

Does your story's plot force your character to grapple with an old wound? If not, how might you better match protagonist and plot?


  1. K.M. Weiland wrote a post about this plot with these characters. She said a similar thing about other characters not working in this setting, but it totally worked for these two because of their pasts. Using a characters compulsions can get really interesting in a manuscript, and it can serve similar reasons as in real life: to mask hidden pain, to avoid current circumstances, etc... Loads of elements. Great post!

    1. Great minds think alike! :-) In the case of Sunshine Cleaning, the drive is to work through rather than avoid the original wound--that's something that typically happens once some time has passed after the original trauma (In Rose and Nora's case, decades later).

  2. Character compulsions... hmmm, now that's something to think over. As an aside, I'm a fan of Emily Blunt, so thanks for the tip about this movie. I hadn't heart of it before!

    1. When old wounds drive current behavior, it's a compulsion; in other words, hurts of the past haunt actions of the present. It's compelling when we see that haunting but need to puzzle out its cause.

      Glad to be your indie film connection. Blunt can do a really great American accent, which I can't say for some British actors.

  3. Absolutely. I believe we all somehow are working through an old wound. I really want to see this movie now.