Character Trait Entry: Disorganized

Definition: lacking coherence or orderliness; a lack of systematic structure

Causes: Poor parental modelling or an unstructured environment growing up (clutter, lack of planning, hoarding tendencies, etc); living moment to moment without a sense of schedule; irresponsibility; being unable to prioritize; contempt for rules and structure; laziness; interests that shift with great frequency; suffering an emotional blow or loss that is difficult to overcome; mental instability

Characters in Literature & Film:  The 7 Dwarves (Snow White); Charlie (the Perks of Being a Wallflower); Clark Griswold (National Lampoon Vacation)

Positives: Disorganized characters find joy in small pleasures and simple interests. They are not as concerned with the big picture as they are with what's happening right now. They enjoy the moment, and don't take themselves or the world too seriously. The Disorganized character doesn't stress about keeping up appearances or conforming to the expectations of others. They are experts in closing out negative thoughts and distracting themselves with other things. No matter what happens, they are able to let certain negatives go and refocus on what makes them content.

Negatives:The disorganized frequently suffer the negativity, judgement and exasperation of others when they fail to meet expectations. A lack of order forces them into tight situations when forgotten deadlines, lost materials or skipped appointments carry consequences. These characters often let those around them down, and make poor leaders. They often need help to remain on task and do not inspire confidence that important details will be seen to. Inevitably, something will fall through the cracks, inspiring lectures, disappointment and disapproval.

Common Portrayals:
Writers, artists and other creative types; hoarders; the elderly; geniuses; the mentally ill; characters in slapstick comedy roles; red necks; messy teenagers

Cliches to Avoid: 
The 'mad' scientist; the eclectic wizard, the harried mother/aunt/grandmother/teacher with too many kids to keep track of; using a disorganized antagonist or gang of thugs as a plot device so the hero may easily defeat them

Twists on the Traditional Disorganized:  

  • Disorganized protagonists are never portrayed at their bleakest, or they have positive traits which negate their irresponsibility, leading to an 'all is forgiven' scenario. Challenge yourself to write a character who is extremely disorganized and excels at consistently disappointing others. How will you balance such a character to still make them likable to the reader?
  • This character type is used to disappointing others and then shrugging it off as, 'Sorry, but that's how I am. Forgive me?' What happens when someone they count on in turn lets them down in a huge way--an unforgivable way?
  • Show us a character who views her own disorganization with contempt, and pair it with the drive to change. As initial failures mount, this will give the reader a view of ironic self-disappointment.


JeffO said...

Ah, Clark W. Griswold. Sad to say, that may have been Chevy Chase's finest moment on the big screen.

You could have used a picture of me in front of my desk for this one. As a supremely disorganized person, I will tell you one of my greatest triumphs on a day-to-day basis is when I remember an address or phone number I need, look at the mountain on the desk, and reach underneath to the exact spot where that paper is.

tracikenworth said...

I am this to a degree at times but then I tend to go through periods of disorganization of my desk to comfortable neatness. It just depends.

Katrina S. Forest said...

My photo would work quite well on this entry too. Though, in my defense, may I add "rampaging one-year-old" to the list of causes?

Natalie Aguirre said...

Love how you picked Chevy Chase in that movie as an example. Awesome.

I'm the opposite. Super organized maybe to the extreme.

Anne Gallagher said...

Oh this is so me!

Rebecca Kiel said...

The photo of Clark made me laugh. (And then cough because I have a cold.) Disorganized is a great trait to highlight. Characters who are highly disorganized in one arean and meticulously organized in another interest me.

Dane Zeller said...

Stimulating topic. Disorganized characters come to mind quickly, mostly played by John Candy: "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles," and "Uncle Buck." No detective has been disheveled as much as the one-eyed Peter Falk in "Columbo."

In creating a disorganized character, doesn't he or she have to have one heck of a redeeming quality, especially if they are the protagonist or a significant character?

I'm just brainstorming on this. Can you think of an important character who is totally disorganized without one important positive trait? I could be wrong.

Becca Puglisi said...

Oh my gosh. Al will be so proud to see Clark featured on our blog. Great choice!

Dane, that's a good point. EVERY character needs some good qualities to make them relatable. Clark, for example, is very loyal and ridiculously optimistic. Our characters need both negative and positive qualities to make then well-rounded, believable, and likable.

Miranda Hardy said...

You've discribed my everyday life. lol

Love that movie. Great trait!

Angela Ackerman said...

LOL, I love reading everyone's own read into personal disorganization. I think writers operate in a 'Order Within Chaos' mode a lot of the time. Or, what we do appears to be disorganized to others, but to us, it all fits and makes sense.

I love this trait, because there is so much you can do with it, and it creates empathy with the reader, because we all feel we struggle with it at some point or another. :)


Arlee Bird said...

That sounds like the way my wife would describe me.

I love this description and now it makes me want to write a character like this. What fun! So many complications could arise.

Wrote By Rote

Jemi Fraser said...

Perfect pic for this one!! I read one novel a while back where one of the MCs was disorganized in personal life & organized in professional - it was very well written :)

Curmudgeon said...

Uh... Stupid thing. I'll just move these books over. I'll mop that up later. Any way I never have any problem being organized.

Melinda S. Collins said...

Hehehe.... I couldn't help but giggle when I saw this character trait entry. I'm fairly OCD with certain things, but when it comes to my writing space, I have what I like to call 'organized chaos.' Nobody else would be able to make sense of the piles and piles of books and papers, but if you asked me where a particular post-it note was, I could find it in 2 seconds flat - haha! So I guess I can relate a little to Clark Griswald in that aspect. :)

Mirka Breen said...

Not me, but this type feels so familiar... maybe it fits many people around me.
If only we organized types could fix it... No amount of organizing another person can work. And you better believe we try.
The interesting thing for me about the scattered types is the effect they have on others.

Southpaw said...

Hey, I thought this post was about me! LOL

My goal this month is to become organized.


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