Psychology for Writers: ADHD

I read a book recently, a contemporary romance, where the male protagonist had a diagnosis of ADHD. It was a well written, beautiful love story (I do love those) that managed to grasp the challenges and realities an adult living with this disorder must face. Although this is the first book that I’ve read where ADHD is explicitly stated as being part of the protagonist’s challenges (I’m sure there are countless others that have yet to slide into my limited reading time slots), lots of other writers have captured the energy and impulsiveness this disorder typifies (just think Dennis the Menace, Cat in the Hat or Willy Wonka). I tip my hat off to any writer that captures these qualities in an authentic, layered and accurate way. Considering so many of us have been affected by glitches in our neurochemistry in some way, it’s a challenge well worth accepting when aiming to craft art that actually imitates life.

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So if your character has Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, formally diagnosed or not, this is what psychology can tell you they will present:


Inattention tends to manifest itself behaviourally in a number of ways; wandering off task, lacking persistence, having difficulty sustaining focus and being disorganised.

You’ll see a medley of some, or all, of the following:

  • Failing to give close attention to details, or making careless mistakes e.g. in schoolwork or work.
  • Will often have difficulty sustaining attention in lengthy tasks e.g. during lectures, conversations or when reading War and Peace.
  • Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly, their mind seems elsewhere even when there is no obvious distraction.
  • When there are extraneous stimuli, they will find these highly distracting. For teens and adults, this can include unrelated thoughts.
  • Often won’t follow through on tasks or duties, e.g. your character may start something, but quickly lose focus and be easily side tracked.
  • Organisation isn’t their strong point – they will have difficulty keeping materials and belongings in order, they may be messy and disorganised or have poor time management. This can make meeting deadlines a challenge…
  • They will tend to dislike, and avoid, tasks that require sustained mental effort. For children and adolescents, this makes school a challenge. For adults, completing reports and reviewing forms are going to be met with reluctance.
  • They are often forgetful – they tend to lose belongings, like school materials, paperwork, mobile phones or their glasses, and they will forget daily activities; such as running errands, returning calls or paying bills.

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Hyperactivity and Impulsivity

The hyperactivity part of ADHD refers to the ‘motor’ that always seems to be driving these individuals. In younger folk this will manifest as running, climbing and go-go-going when everyone else is ready to collapse. For adults, it can translate to excessive fidgeting, tapping, or talkativeness. The impulsivity component refers to hasty actions that occur without forethought, generally at high risk of harm to the individual. Impulsive behaviours can be a product of a desire for immediate rewards, or an inability to delay gratification.

You’ll see any of the following:

  • Fidgeting, hands or feet tapping, squirming in their seat.
  • Struggles to stay still e.g. remaining in their seat during a meeting or at a restaurant.
  • Often talking excessively; frequently blurting out an answer before a question has been completed or completing people’s sentences.
  • Waiting their turn or waiting in line isn’t their strong suit.
  • Often interrupting or intruding on others e.g., butting into conversations or games, they may starting using other people’s things without asking, or may intrude or take over what others are doing.

To add some nuances and authenticity, it’s valuable to note these symptoms vary depending on the context. Signs of ADHD may be minimal or non-existent if your character is under close supervision, is somewhere new and novel, is engaged in especially interesting activities (e.g. a computer game, a football game, or a rendezvous with a particularly hot female they’ve had a long time attraction to…) or is interacting in one-on-one situations (e.g. like a doctor’s appointment, an interview, or a rendezvous with a particularly hot female they’ve had a long time attraction to…).

What do you think? Could you have a character with ADHD? What does it look like for them? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on FacebookTwitter or Instagram.

Have a wonderful week,


EditingPS Have you noticed that PsychWriter now has services for writers? Why not make the most of my expertise with affordable developmental editing or individual consultation? For more intensive support, I provide regular coaching to bring your story to vivid life and make it shine.



  1. Glitches in our neurochemistry? Now THERE’S a can of worms, Tamar! Such a biochemical view of ADHD and other ‘disorders’ is very widespread among professionals, patient/clients, and the general public. But not unopposed. I am quite skeptical about it, and I lean somewhat towards the Psycritical and Anti-Psychiatrical movements. When somebody comes up with a blood test or other test to measure, or even just detect, any supposed glitch in anybody’s neurochemistry, I’ll reconsider my opinion. Even then though, one would have to question whether any ‘glitch’ was produced by the ‘disorder’ or by the psychiatric drugs which are used to ‘treat’ it. I do draw a strong distinction between Psychiatry and Psychology, and I urge practical engaged psychologists like yourself to question psychiatrists’ theories and power.

    That said, the rest of your article is a good checklist of the pattern of behaviors and attitudes we call ADHD. I haven’t given ADHD to a character yet, though I do know several real people with such a diagnosis. And many, if not most of us behave in some of the ways you list, some of the time. And parents of children with ADHD I know have noted the overlap with some of the behaviors associated with Dyspraxia and Asperger’s Syndrome.

    ADHD diagnoses are getting so common here in Ireland for boys that I see a danger of pathologizing boyhood itself. Part of the problem is that parents cannot get extra educational services their child may need without a diagnosis, even though the diagnosis is a double-edged sword, influencing people’s view of the child, and the child’s view of himself, possibly for the rest of his life.

    A cousin of mine recently published an article in a parenting magazine, titled ‘DIAGNOSIS, LABEL OR LIFELINE?’ She judged it a lifeline for her child, and I agree. But we don’t yet know the long term consequences of medicalizing so many human behaviors.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking article, Tamar!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi John! Yes, the biochemical view of ADHD is certainly contentious! I don’t subscribe to it as the predominant cause for the behaviours we see in children and adults with a diagnosis of ADHD – I see the impact of children’s environment on their behaviour every day in my role. But I believe it certainly plays a factor, its just variable how much for each individual (which means medication isn’t always the solution). I do love your thought-provoking perspective in relation to psychiatry and psychology (I’ve never heard of the term ‘psycritical’ but I like it!).
      You also touch on some very salient points – the value of diagnosing (my son was diagnosed with dyslexia some years ago, it was very liberating for him which sounds similar to your cousin), the pathologising of human behaviour (pathologising grief is a classic example), and the emphasis on diagnosing for obtaining support and funding (which is part of my role as a school psychologist – there are a lot of stakeholders in that little party!).
      Looking forward to talking again, Tamar 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Paradoxically, some of the leading critics of Psychiatry are psychiatrists themselves, notably Dr. Peter Breggin and the late Thomas Szasz. Psycritical advocates include Joanna Moncrieff in the UK, they seek to substantially reform Psychiatry rather than abolish it.

        I must say I’m skeptical about ADHD ‘medications’. Even if biochemistry did wholly or partly cause ADHD that does not mean any psychiatric drug corrects it. Stimulants do seem to paradoxically help some kids concentrate, but milder everyday stimulants like tea and cocoa and cola can actually work better overall than powerful pharmaceutical drugs like Ritalin.

        I’m glad to hear your son’s Dyslexia diagnosis has proved liberating.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Tamar, this topic really speaks to my interests. I was about eight drafts in to 1916-ish when I changed Ingrid from 3rd person to 1st. Suddenly *shwoosh!* she let me know she had ADHD. Everything she did, blurted, noticed, didn’t notice, etc finally made perfect sense.
    Prior to this, my son was diagnosed with ADHD. This seemed odd at the time, as everything that qualified him for the diagnosis was ‘all the stuff I did as a kid!’
    Then the proverbial penny dropped. Oooooooh, I have ADHD as well!
    If there had been better diagnosis when I was a student, I might not have annoyed my teachers so much. Might not have interrupted, might not have been so disorganised, might have done better in exams. I was always getting them done really quickly, then thinking, ‘this is great!’ only to discover when I got my results I’d barely passed!
    Not everyone with ADHD presents the same way either. I was (still am) a total chatterbox, but I know others who barely say a peep because they’re so introverted.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting Ebony! In a similar vein, my husband realised he has dyslexia when our son was diagnosed (and he realised why school was so unpleasant for him). You’re right about the variability in any diagnosis though, there’s so many factors at play (genetics, personality, environment etc). Thanks for sharing 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have ADHD and am writing a novel where the main character has ADHD and doesn’t realize it until the end of the novel. It’s told from the POV of an adult (who is in a mental hospital) looking back on their entire ife leading up to the hospital and slightly after. Well, the character NEVER shuts up and goes on tone of semi-relevant digressions, one after the other, but does manage to sat on topic a majority of the time. The digressions are mostly related to the story in some specific and obvious way and I make sure they’re interesting and dhow the reader a new way to look at the world (character explains something in a unique way). Also, he’s prone to boredom and as he gets older he goes on the hunt for adrenaline rushes. He ends up becoming a quasi-superhero (a guy in a balaclava and hoodie who goes after small time criminals). Anyway, his ADHD leads him to uncover a huge nationwide conspiracy, but is not be able to pin down who exactly is in charge of it all. He hyper focuses on it and ends up isolating himself from friends and the world. He ends up in an institution after a weird episode and is originally treated for depression and in the end for ADHD. It’s never expressly said that it’s depression then ADHD but the meds he’s on are mentioned and they are the most common for those conditions. I’m writing the story 1st person so it’s from the POV of a person who doesn’t know he has ADHD so all of the things he does he has reasons for and the reader should think, yeah, it’s a little odd but the reasoning makes sense. Until the end, like I said. I used my experience of having ADHD to form the character. I extremely bored like ALL the timer, even when doing something I enjoy…then I’m less bored…and I never never ever stop talking ever. Hell, I own a dog because I feel insane talking to myself at home, lol.

    Liked by 1 person

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