Jeannie Campbell

Jeannie Campbell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. She is Head of Clinical Services for a large non-profit and enjoys working mainly with children and couples. She has a Masters of Divinity in Psychology and Counseling and bachelors degrees in both psychology and journalism. Jeannie started doing character therapy in March of 2009. Her Treatment Tuesdays feature assessments of fictional characters and plot feasibility while her Thursday Therapeutic Thoughts take a psychological topic and make it relevant to writers. She can be found at her blog, The Character Therapist, at

Character Stereotypes: The Neat-Freak

The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue,
but that they are incomplete.

—Chimamanda Adichie

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Main Entry: neat•freak
Pronunciation: \ˈneet freek\
Function: noun
1 : a person who exhibits a pattern of behavior characterized by obsessive cleaning and ordering

If your character color-codes his sock drawer or lines up all her DVDs in alphabetical order, they qualify as neat-freaks.

Some out there in the world of psychology believe that Obsessive-Compulsive disorder operates on a continuum of sorts. On one end, you’ve got the germophobes, counters, and checkers (and double and triple checkers). They can’t function because their minds just won’t quit.

On the other end, you’ve got people who hand dry their pots and pans to avoid all trace evidence of watermarks, and those who have to iron their wrinkle-free shirts. These behaviors don’t interfere with their ability to function, but they do make them officially Type-A, for anal-retentive.

Kinda anomalous. Kinda admirable. Kinda aggravating.

How can you make your neat-freak pop on the page, larger than life? These four insights should help.

1) The underlying issue isn’t neatness. It’s control.

A neat-freak borders on neurotic in certain areas of their lives. They react disproportionately if something in their sphere of influence isn’t exactly the way they want it. Their anger often drives other people away, and those who stick around end up going toe-to-toe every day about the toilet seat left up or the pair of shoes carelessly left in the living room.

They possess an intrinsic motivation to keep their environments clean and lint-free. This obsessive cleaning feeds a need for the neat-freak to feel in control of their lives, which is their way of coping through stress and trauma. You know those people afflicted by the desire to scrub down every surface with a 10 percent bleach solution? Usually they do this when facing an overwhelming decision or event. They feel out of control, and cleaning helps lessen this negative feeling and gives them a sense of security.

2) The environment is an extension of the neat-freak.

Jennifer Brown Banks, author of Confessions of a Neat-Freak, wrote, “It’s no secret that one’s home is a reflection of self. Neat surroundings (we believe) help us to juggle many tasks, maintain order, think strategically and even save money!”

To a neat-freak, how his workstation looks is a direct reflection on his productivity and abilities. So while #1 focuses on the inner motivation, #2 focuses on the outward reward. As long as we

don’t see neat-freaks whip out a portable vacuum cleaner to suck up their dead skin cells and hair follicles from their keyboards, most coworkers would admire, even envy, the neat-freak’s clean and clutter-free desk.

3) Neat-freaks characterize themselves as having eccentricities, not problems.

Neat-freaks don’t think they have any more hiccups in their routines than everyone else. Banks wrote that she considers herself “idiosyncratic . . . much like a person who loves to whistle, a hair twirler, or practical joker.”

This little tidbit is where authors can have fun. As the story world envelops the Type-A character, forcing change upon her, have fun with the revelations outsiders bring to the neat-freak. Help her to see herself through someone else’s perspective. Give him a reality check. And this is done with heavenly tension.

4) In relationships, neat-freaks have (and probably will always have) trigger areas.

For those of you who write romance, you’ll be interested to note that little things left out of place or put away wrong can suddenly take on the extreme importance and hold insurmountable tension between the couple. The partner will feel the neat-freak is neurotic and over-the-top, and the neat-freak will feel the partner doesn’t care if they wallow in filth.

According to New York City clinical psychologist Ellen McGrath, as interviewed in Psychology Today in 2006, neat-freaks have very high standards for neatness in particular areas. These trigger areas might originate from childhood routines in a household where cleanliness was considered next to godliness.

It’s possible for neat-freaks to find meaningful relationships, as long as they are aware of their leaning toward obsessive cleanliness and withhold judgment from the not-so-inclined partner. This ideal ending would make for the nice completion of a secondary character arc.


The Character Thrapist