Think about two people: a close friend and someone you are attracted to romantically. How are these attractions alike and how are they different?
Both platonic and romantic love have been extensively studied by psychologists, including myself when I was earning my PhD in experimental social psychology. Though there will likely always be more to explore, psychology has a huge breadth and depth of information available. I’ll start with liking. The information provided here is a summary drawn from Psychology (10th Ed.) by David G. Myers.
Caution: all of this research relies on group data; the behavior of individuals varies widely.
Proximity (geographic closeness) increases the likelihood of
The mere exposure effect: more frequent exposure to anything and virtually any person increases attraction: nonsense syllables, photographs, music, geometric figures, etc., etc., etc.
Familiarity increases attraction
We prefer the mirror image of our faces to the one other people see.
We prefer others who share some facial characteristics with us.
We seem to be hard wired to bond with the familiar and be wary of those who are different.
After familiarity, physical appearance is the most important factor in attraction
Physical appearance matters to both men and women, although women more likely to say it doesn’t.
Physical appearance predicts how often people date and (no surprise here) how popular they feel.
Attractiveness affects how positive a first impression is
Good looking people are perceived as healthier, happier, more sensitive, more successful, and more socially skilled
Attractive, well-dressed people make a better impression in job interviews
Attractive people tend to be more successful in their jobs: income analyses show a penalty for plainness and/or obesity
In a study of the 100 top-grossing films since 1940, attractive characters were portrayed as morally superior to unattractive characters
Based on gazing times, even babies prefer attractive faces to unattractive ones
But there are limits to the attractiveness effect
Attractiveness does not affect how compassionate we think someone is.
Physical attractiveness is statistically unrelated to self-esteem
Attractiveness is unrelated to happiness
People generally don’t view themselves as unattractive
Attractive people are more suspicious of praise for work performance; less attractive people more likely to accept praise as sincere
Culture and beauty
Beauty is culture bound: think piercings, tattoos, elongated necks, bound feet, dyed or painted skin and hair, ideal weight; body hair, breast size
Cultural ideals change over time; for example, consider the feminine ideal in the U.S.: 1920s was super thin and flat chested; 1950s, the lush Marilyn Monroe look; currently, it’s lean but busty
Those who don’t fit the ideal often try to buy beauty: Americans now spend more on beauty supplies than on education and social services combined, not to mention plastic surgery, teeth capping and whitening, Botox skin smoothing, or laser hair removal
Men in many cultures judge women as more attractive if they have a youthful, fertile appearance (the latter suggested by a low waist to hip ratio).
Women are attracted to healthy-looking men. When ovulating, women are more attracted to men who seem mature, dominant, masculine, and affluent.
People everywhere prefer physical features that are “normal”—i.e., not too big, too small. Average is attractive.
People prefer symmetrical faces—even though virtually no one actually has one.
Across cultures, women are 2-18% more likely than men to say they “Constantly think about their looks.”
Women have 91% of all cosmetic procedures.
Women recall others’ appearance better than men do.
Similarity is greater among friends/partners compared to randomly matched pairs
Opposites virtually never attract
The more alike people are, the more their liking endures: similarity breeds content.
People like people who like them
True for initial attraction
Self-fulfilling loop: A likes B, who responds positively, making A like B more, etc.
Especially true for people with low self-esteem
The effect is enhanced when someone moves from disliking to liking us
The reward theory of attraction: we like people whose behavior is rewarding to us, and we continue relationships that offer more rewards than costs.
BOTTOM LINE FOR WRITERS: if you want to write a realistic relationship, follow the principles above. If you choose to go against the norm, take care to make it believable to the reader.
Writing from life isn’t a novel idea. Indeed, there are whole books on the topic. For many (if not most) people, writing from life conjures thoughts of memoir, autobiography, or biography. But opportunities to mine your life to enrich your fiction are virtually limitless. This blog explores ways to tap into your life experiences. It’s a long but not exhaustive overview. Here’s hoping you’re inspired!
1) Maybe the most obvious: you lift a character whole cloth from an acquaintance, friend, family member, or neighbor. Virtually the only thing you change is the name. (You may want to get permission or change just enough so that you can still show your face at parties.)
2) Choose a habit, quirk, characteristic gesture, favorite word, etc. from someone you know (maybe yourself) and make it a character note. This could be a private, unmentionable behavior (see my recent blog on the topic) or it could be quite public (think Rafael Nadal touching forehead nose, and both ears before every serve). My story “Solid Line” (in “Chrysalis Reader”) drew on my husband’s habits of food shopping and breakfast cooking (alternating eggs and cereal six days a week, pancakes on Sunday).
3) Choose one or more factually true things about a real person and graft them onto a fictional character/story. For example, my story “Family Man”(published in Distillery) started with three true facts about my father: he had great eye-hand coordination, was stationed in Texas with the Army Air Corps in WWII, and he was a winning pitcher for the Old Timers Softball League in his later years. In “Belle” (Compass Rose), I used my maternal grandmother’s true story of having thirteen children to craft a fictional piece in which the character leaves after naming the thirteenth and heads west.
1) Draw on a familiar neighborhood for the setting of a story or scene.
2) Take details from a place you have worked, lived, or visited often. I wrote “The Old Home Place” based on the hardscrabble farm where I visited my paternal grandmother for two weeks every summer.
If your setting is as important as a character, you will need to return to it often and provide lots of detail. Otherwise, don’t dwell on it, but use it to describe color, furnishings, feel, etc.
1) Give your character a familiar object to love or abhor. Think skull, Tiffany vase, worn baseball glove, cast iron skillet, whatever. Consider whether the character inherited it, received it as a gift, or chose it for him- or herself. “Pictures Not Displayed” (Storgy Magazine) is fiction based on a box of photographs I found under my mother’s bed after she died.
2) Give your character a collection of objects. Here again, it could be anything—teacups, cloisonné napkin rings, antique farm implements, fake Christmas trees. If you choose a collection you are familiar with, you might also want to incorporate some of the characteristics of the collector.
3) Consider objects around your home that could contribute to your plot: be damaging or even lethal (think beyond knives and pokers), be used in defense or attack, or used in unconventional ways (think cast iron griddle used to hammer a nail).
1) Use repeated events to establish the rhythms of a character’s life. For example, attending every home game, square dancing, hang gliding. In addition, sometimes very different repeated events can be combined to form a new whole. Think holiday traditions, anniversaries, birthdays.
For example, I’m a devotee of massage. In “Beautiful Bones” (Connecticut Review), I combined the behaviors of many massage therapists with a formerly abused widow getting a massage during a hurricane and becoming paranoid about the massage therapist killing her.
2) Sometimes an event sticks with you just because it’s quirky. Once I was visiting family over Christmas and my granddaughter, who was enamored of special effects makeup at the time, had received a kit as a gift. Simultaneously, she was looking up imaginary diseases for a writing project with friends. The upshot was that she made up herself, her mother, and me to look like three generations suffering from hanahaki disease and I wrote “Lethal Love” (Good Works Review), in which suffering unrequited love resulted in growing flowers in your lungs and throat.
3) Perhaps more often, it will be one time only events that have made a huge impact on you. For me, driving from upstate New York in winter in a whiteout led to “White Out” (Happy) involving a case of road rage that never happened.
When my husband had eye surgery, I used descriptions of his treatment, treatment, restrictions, and the aftereffects to write a magical realism story, “Her Husband’s Eyes” (Midway). After the surgery, a superstitious wife thinks her husband’s eyes are haunting her. My exposure to Chinese culture via a trip to Singapore and Taiwan resulted in “Good Works” (descant).
4) Use a single event that isn’t quickly over to display coping skills. For example, having breast cancer. “Beast and the Beauty” (Clare) was a magical realism story spawned by radiation therapy following surgery, in which a woman suffering radiation poisoning turned to alternative healing methods.
1) Draw on how you were taught values, your moral compass. For example, in “The Pig Sticker” (Chelsea) when Uncle Earl calls a dirty rag doll “Nig” Mommy tells him not to talk trash in front of her babies. Of course, sometimes the lessons are much more explicit, as in being told throughout childhood that your word is your bond, or being exposed to church doctrine. Consider how you came by your values and whether those lessons relate to how your character came to his/her values and morality.
2) Sometimes attitudes transfer in elliptical ways. In my family, “waste not, want not” was a maxim. Several friends and I agreed to share our Lady Finger mold, fish poacher, turkey frier, and other seldom used cooking equipment. That led me to write “The Darwinian Co-op Lending Library” (Clackamus Literary Review). I created a post-modern library in which people could borrow everything from Valentine’s decorations to turkey basters to a husband and children for the holidays.
This is perhaps the richest minefield of all. Remember emotional reactions in as vivid detail as possible, both your physical feelings and behaviors. Rememberwhen you felt joy, guilt, loss, bereavement, excitement, embarrassment, regret, inadequacy, love, sexual arousal, awe, helplessness, fear, being tipsy—any emotion at all.
If your POV character is experiencing this emotion, describe how it felt. If otherwise, staying in the POV character’s head, describe what the POV character can see, hear, etc. of emotional character”s behavior.
The thing to keep in mind here is that you can transfer an emotion to a very different situation/even. For example, if you’ve experienced the death of a loved one, those feelings can be written into your fiction as a character’s reaction to the death of a spouse, a sibling, a parent, a friend, even a beloved pet.
Bottom line for writers: your life is gold. Mine it!
When someone says something that isn’t true, it’s a lie—except when it isn’t!For writers, any untruth can be a tool for building character, plot, tone, etc. I can think of three situations when an untruth isn’t a lie.
1) The person telling the untruth is incapable of discerning what the truth is. Very young children will often lie because there is no real difference between fantasy and reality in their mind. The cardboard box really did become a rocket ship. A mermaid and a kracken really did come to play in the bathtub.
Depending on the age of the child, this may extend to what seems to adults to be attempts to get out of trouble or deflect blame. Because a child’s sense of reality is not concrete, what an adult sees as a lie a child may simply see as very effective wishful thinking.
Children may also respond with the first answer to come into their mind that they think an adult wants to hear. This is true both for extremely young children who simply try to give an answer they think the adult wants to hear and for children who have trouble concentrating or remembering, such as those with ADD or ADHD.
Dr. Kang Lee, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, sees lying as an indicator of developmental status. I’ll skip the research methodology and simply cite the findings. When asked whether they had peeked behind a screen: of those who had peeked, 30% of two-year-olds, 50% of three-year olds, and about 80% of eight-year-olds lied about it.
2) The person telling the untruth suffers some form of dementia. For example, an obvious case would be a woman in a memory care facility who tells visiting relatives that she baked a chocolate cake and everyone at the party said how good it was, and Paul Newman came in through the window and danced with her.
Another version, often harder to detect, is the person who has temporal confusion. For example, a man who says that his son came to see him yesterday and it was actually last week. (Think false alibi!)
3) The speaker believes something is true that isn’t. In other words, the speaker is mistaken. It could be a misunderstanding of something seen, read or heard—but it could also be that the speaker was intentionally deceived so that s/he would spread a lie.
Which brings us to real lies as opposed to untruths: to make an untrue statement with the intention to deceive. But writers, go beyond the direct lie and use, half-truths, exaggerations, or pertinent omissions.
Not a rare behavior for people or characters. Indeed, Kendra Cherry writing on verywellmind.com pointed out that actual research about lying is relatively recent, and data replications are hard to come by, but some surveys suggest that as many as 96% of people admit to lying at least sometimes.
In 1996, Bella DePaulo, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, published the results of a study in which 147 people between the ages of 18 and 71 kept a diary of all the falsehoods they told over the course of a week. She found that most people lie at least once or twice every day! Over the course of a week, people lied in approximately 20% of social interactions lasting 10 minutes or more. They deceived about 30% of those they interacted with one-on-one.
Although she didn’t find gender differences in number of lies, there were relationship differences. Parents and teens interactions are often deceitful: “College students lie to their mothers in one out of two conversations.”
Little white lies. These lies are typically meant to do some good—or at least do no harm. For example, complimenting a friend’s shirt when you really think it looks dreadful. Coming late to a meeting and saying you were held up by an accident on the interstate when you really overslept.
Although pretty much everyone is told from a young age that it’s always best to tell the truth, the fact is that telling the truth (about oversleeping, for example) may be punished (for example, by a poor performance review). Thus, society often encourages or even rewards lying.
Some lies may serve as a social lubricant. DePaulo (above) found that 25% of lies were “fake positives” intending to make the other person feel better about someone or something. These were 10 to 20 times more common than lies in which people pretend to like someone or something less than they actually do (fake negatives).
But beware: according to Wanda Thibodeaux on Inc.com, telling lies to spare someone’s feelings is not good in the long run. Yes, we do take the liar’s intention into account, but it also raises doubts about whether a person willing to lie to us actually has our best interests at heart. These lies can cause doubt, uncertainty, suspicion, and trust issues.
White lies made up to excuse being late, unprepared, unwilling to do something, etc. bring into question a character’s ultimate trustworthiness.
Also, telling little white lies can desensitize the liar, making it easier to tell bigger/more serious lies.
People lie for the same reason they do everything else: a lie is the best perceived alternative at the time. Thus, lies are a means to an end, and those ends can be broadly grouped into four overlapping categories; to get what they want, to take the easy way out, to avoid criticism, to build a positive self-image. The likelihood of lying increases when someone is “pushed into a corner” or needs to react quickly.
1) To get what they want. This could be almost anything. In relationships, it might be to attract a partner, to hide cheating, to get a partner to agree to sex, to avoid an argument—and these are just a few possibilities.
In the workplace, lying to get ahead, discredit the competition, get even with a colleague, take credit for someone else’s work, cover up procrastination, avoid being fired, etc.
In any relationship, people lie for quick financial gain, to avoid taking responsibility or unwanted chores, to be liked/popular, or nearly any other objective that the liar sees as more important (at the moment) than the truth.
2) To take the easy way out. This overlaps with the good Little White Lies above, not wanting to deal with hurt feelings, for example. It also includes plagiarizing and making up data in a research project.
3) To avoid criticism. When people aren’t comfortable with some aspect of their behavior, character, or past they are prone to deceive in any of the ways mentioned above (lie, half-truths, exaggerations, intentional omissions). Closely related to inflate one’s image, to cover up for a mistake, or to excuse doing something wrong.
4) To build a positive self-image. Basically, this is lying to oneself. The liar wants something to be true and pretends that it is until eventually s/he believes it. Making excuses for behavior or thoughts or wishes that at some level are unacceptable to the self.
Other reasons people lie
One lie has led to another, especially good for writers. (Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.—Walter Scott)
To be malicious and hurt other people
To take control of a situation
To hide a disorder such as an eating disorder, compulsive gambling, alcoholism, etc., which goes beyond avoiding criticism
It is integral to certain occupations
Pathological lying. A person who feels compelled to lie, and will do so with no apparent benefit to self or others is a pathological liar. This is often part of a diagnosis of a mental health disorder:
Antisocial personality/sociopathy (no regard for right or wrong, no remorse, often become criminals)
Borderline personality (varying moods and behavior, often impulsive, conducive to unstable relationships)
Factitious disorders (acting as if s/he has a physical or mental illness but does not)
The severity and frequency of lying, and the reasons for lying are what point to a psychological problem.
How to tell when someone is lying. (As summarized by Kendra Cherry, above.)
Folk wisdom is wrong. It says that liars tend to fidget, squirm, avoid eye contact or have shifty eyes when lying. Research indicates that these are virtually useless as indicators. (Looking away, for example, is more likely to indicate the person is trying to access long term memory.)
Some of the most accurate (although still weak) indicators of lying:
Being vague, offering few details
Repeating questions before answering them
Speaking in sentence fragments
Failing to provide specific details when a story is challenged
Grooming behavior, such as playing with hair or pressing fingers to lips
More active ways to uncover lies
Ask the person to tell the story in reverse. Increasing the mental load makes lying more difficult—although telling a lie is more mentally taxing than telling the truth anyway.
Trust your instincts. We may have an unconscious, intuitive response to lying that gets drowned out if we spend too much time focusing on the non-verbals stereotypically associated with lying.
Consider an individual’s tells
Successful card players learn to hide when they are bluffing and to identify what the other players do when they have good or bad hands. The same might be true for your characters. Does she blush? Does he stutter? Does he rub his chin? Does she bounce her knee? Does your character have a poker face? And if so, is s/he on the side of good or evil (so to speak).
Bonus info about lying
The closer the liar is to the deceived, the more likely the lies are to be an altruistic (fake positive) one
Women are especially likely to stretch the truth to spare someone’s feelings
Men are more prone to lying about themselves: conversations between two guys contain about eight times as many self-oriented lies as they do falsehoods about other people
Bottom line for writers:
Lying is rampant, so there ought to be at least a little of it in your story
Lying can abet virtually any goal
Lies can be of virtually any size or seriousness
Pay attention to age, relationship, and gender differences
Canadian science fiction reviewer James Nicoll said, “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”
Among the many reasons I love writing is the way it allows me to explore the wonders of the English language. Here are some of the posts I’ve written on this blog that directly concern how language can enhance or destroy writing.
Pay attention to what you mean to be saying when you use a or the to designate something. In general, a indicates one of many possibles while the is restrictive to one specific person, place, event, item, etc.
Spellcheck programs will not generally recognize incorrect word usage if those words are spelled correctly. Eliminating word confusion is up to you. This is a writing prompt to practice correct usage of some of the most commonly confused words.
Know the rules of grammar so you can use them or abuse them to suit your purposes! Pronouns can be subject (I/ you/ he/ she/ it), object (me/ you/ him/ her/ it), or show possession (my/ your/ his/ her/ its).
Flabby writing is writing that includes unnecessary words or phrases. I’ll talk about four common types of flab: stating something for which there is no alternative, saying the same thing twice, naming characters or relationships already known, and stating an action that is inherent in another action.
To avoid wimpy writing, attend to the details. I already talked about avoiding weasel words like some, few, or many in favor of specific numbers or quantities. The same applies to vague nouns: flower, tree, shrub, car. Tell the reader it’s a rose, an elm, an English boxwood, a Ford.
You have a vague recollection that sometime in the past–perhaps in high school–someone told you that when writing a newspaper article, you need to cover all five Ws: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. That is good advice in general, including fiction–and even memoir.
Nature writing can be add depth, precision, and detailed setting in any genre of writing. This post provides examples of various genres in which nature writing has been used effectively and some tools to develop your own nature writing skills.
The same advice on adverbs applies to other modifiers. Make sure they add something to the story. “Very” should be on your hit list, along with all sorts of weasel words and phrases, such as a little, a lot, big, small, somewhat, sort of. . . You get the idea.
How do you recognize a weak verb? Look for adverbs! When you find a sentence in which you give the reader a tag telling how an action was performed, chances are you have a lazy verb–one you didn’t really think about as you plugged it in.
A touch of dialect helps establish voice, and may lend authenticity to the writing. But for the beginning writer, knowing how much is enough is often difficult. A story studded with apostrophes and phonetically spelled words draws attention to the writing, detracting from the story.
Children’s language development is a very interesting study for psychologists and linguists. It is important that child characters behave and speak appropriately for their age to be believable. However, every child is different; outliers on either end of the development scale can add interest but must have believable groundwork laid.
In my opinion, the best use of slang is setting the time of the story. Used effectively, it lends authenticity to dialogue. But if writing about any time other than the present, tread carefully. Inappropriate slang can ruin the tone and undermine the credibility of the entire story.
Writing historical fiction requires extensive knowledge of the period in which the story takes place, including the slang and speech styles common at the time. This blog provides several resources and suggestions for writing effectively about the chosen time period.
The development of the English language into the distinct dialects used in various English-speaking nations around the world can be mined for examples of characterizations by word choice and syntax. It is also a fascinating story on its own.
Research suggests that writing ability in American students has fallen, combined with (or caused by) a decline in concrete guidelines and principles for those teaching writing. Reading for pleasure has also been declining over the last few decades.
I approached this blog with the opinion that relying on emoticons—i.e., emojis—is dulling out ability to express emotions with rich language and subtlety. Some have asserted that the emoji is the fastest-growing language in history—for good or ill. How do you feel about emojis?
Longer, more complex sentences are much smoother and more graceful on the page than in the mouth. If you want dialogue to sound real, listen to it–literally. Reading silently, your brain fills in and evens out. So, when you feel your work is in pretty good shape, read it aloud.
Search your work for these words and closely examine each usage. They often contribute to run-on sentences that would be stronger and clearer if they were revised into two or more shorter sentences. Be especially wary if one sentence contains two or all three of these words.
When you are trying to get something on the page, moving quickly and just getting it done is the way to go. But know that isn’t the finished product. Go over your draft and mark commonplace words–particularly forms of the to-be verbs and vague adjectives. Consider at least three alternatives–and consider the value of the least expected.
“Very” is a word we all should do searches for in our documents—finding and replacing with something stronger. These are not exhaustive lists. The point is examine your writing to make sure every word is necessary, and then trust your words to mean what they mean!
Whether describing a person, a place, a thing, or a process, long detailed descriptions–unrelieved by action–are likely to be deadly. If very well done, readers will get so involved in the description, in visualizing exactly what the author had in mind, that they are taken out of the story itself. If not well done, those passages are likely to be skipped altogether.
Redundancy takes many forms and it makes for clunky, dull writing. This post demonstrates some common examples of punctuation, description, and incorrect word use that often lead to redundancy and can be removed.
Whenever the narrative Point of View is first person, the story is, by definition, about the narrator. In this case, as in any writing, your goal is to draw the reader in. Therefore, if you choose to use “I” as the narrator, you need to present a quest that many readers would care about.
Dialogue is essential to every genre of fiction; however, sometimes it’s hard to get it just right. Bad dialogue can trip up a reader, and sometimes doing so will make them want to stop reading altogether. That being said, here are a few dialogue dos and don’ts that can help you with writing speech.
Research (and book sales) suggest that modern readers are more interested in story than in style. Many writers appear to focus more on technique and self-awareness, according to an article by Adam Kirsch. Consider whether you think plot or style is more important.
This is writing prompt derived from one of the author’s favorite words. Conglomeration is another of those words I love because it sounds so much itself. Technically, it has to do with a spherical shape, and disparate things brought together in one. But its more common usage, of miscellaneous or even random things brought together (no particular shape) make it a very useful word.
Writers are readers, by and large, and also word collectors. We tend to fall in love with words. Some writers make a career of writing about words as well as with them. This is a quick list of some interesting words that can add flair and tone to your writing.
With so many specifically named colors in the English language, it is important to be specific about which one you mean. There is a close tie between color and mental or psychological state, which can have a great influence on readers’ perception of a scene, a character, or a work as a whole.
There are many things this author gets absolutely correct, but this post will focus on vivid language. We have all heard or read that we should use fresh, vivid language and strong verbs. Here are some of my favorite examples of Diana Gabaldon’s sensory and emotional writing.
Careful word choice, audience appeal, actions or words open to (mis)interpretation, complementary characters, innuendo, denial, and characters revealed by reflected traits of associates are all extremely important in any political campaign. The 2016 election was full of examples of all of these, which are also used in good writing.
You’re a writer—so for purposes of this blog, communicating without words means without dialogue. And there are many reasons you want to be able to do this. The 2016 presidential campaign offers several educational examples.
The 2018 June 18th issue of The New Yorker includes an article titled “High Crimes” by Anthony Lane, a review of Bill Clinton and James Patterson’s book The President is Missing. The article highlights some nuggets of really egregious writing, from mixed metaphors to clichés, offered here for your amusement.
Thanks to Rosemary Shomaker, we have a chance to vicariously experience the struggle of a writer stretching into a new challenge. She discusses her methods of creating a tight, closely-written short story.
When Jesse Sheidlower wrote this book, he was the Editor at Large of the Oxford English Dictionary. The book was published by Oxford University Press, one of the most prestigious academic presses in the world. The 49 pages of front matter and the 269 pages in the body of the book deal exclusively with the F word. Seeing this started me thinking. Ultimately, I concluded that the F word is one of the most important words in the English language. And therefore writers should consider its many uses.
One indicator of importance is the number of euphemisms coined to express the F word without tipping into the vulgar or obscene. A woman born and reared in North Carolina once told me that when a Southern Lady wants to say the F word, she says “Fine!”
That one wasn’t familiar to me, but we’ve all heard many others. These are what is sometimes called a “minced oath.” Here are some examples:
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Fark (not to be confused with FARC, which might add unintended political themes to your work!)
I could keep going, but the internet would eventually run out of pixels…
Although listeners know exactly what the euphemism stands for, many feel that the impact of the euphemism loses much of the cathartic value of the original and may come across as tepid, ineffectual, or just plain namby-pamby.
William Shakespeare was one of the most creative users of minced oaths and euphemisms to describe everything from copulation to defecation, writing some of the most vividly imaginative phrases to avoid the censorship of the age. Juliet may have had the sheath to make Romeo’s dagger happy, but no children’s ears had to be covered.
Of course, this still wasn’t clean enough for Dr. Thomas Bowdler and his sister Harriet. In 1818, they announced the publication of a G-rated book of Shakespseare’s work, in which “those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.” The Family Shakespeare didn’t sell particularly well (and was a pretty short book), but “bowdlerise” became a term for overdone, fussy, prissy censorship.
Note to writers: consciously decide whether to use a euphemism or the original. There is a time for vulgarity and a time for bowdlerising.
The F word is so prominent in English that the basic entry for fuck in Slang and Euphemism runs a full half page, followed by 60 entries directly involving the word, and surrounded by acronyms that take the place of actually saying the word. Though the origins are unclear, it dates back at least to 1475.
Basically, it refers to a sexual act, an act of copulation. It’s universally characterized as obscene or at least vulgar. However, over time, much of the resistance to the original word has been diluted by long and frequent use.
And it is arguably the most versatile word around. In modern usage, the F word and its derivatives (such as fucker and fucking) can be used as a noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, conjunction, interjection, or adverb.
A sexual act in its most straightforward form, as in “Let’s fuck.”
Transitive: John fucked Mary.
Intransitive: Mary was fucked by John.
To cheat or mistreat someone, as in “She totally fucked me.”
Referring to the act itself, as in a specific event being “ A great fuck.”
Referring to a partner, as in “A great fuck” referring to the other person involved.
Referring to an incentive or strong feeling on any subject.
Note to writers: make sure the context clearly specifies ambiguous meanings.
Used in place of his/her, as in “Tell the fucker at the end of the bar that I buy my own drinks.”
A modifier to a verb as in
2. A modifier to another adverb, as in “The Broncos played fucking well out there.”
3. A modifier to an adjective, as in “Fucking beautiful.”
A modifier to a noun, as in “That was some fucking speech!” or “I had a fucking good time.”
Connecting two parts of a sentence, as in “I left, fuck the boss’s order.”
Exclamation or intensifier: fuck can express innumerable emotions. Most often, as a single word, it expresses joy, despair, surprise, or anger.
But fuck can intensify virtually any emotion, depending on surrounding situation or text.
Ignorance: Fuck if I know.
Trouble: Mary returned and I’m fucked now
Fraud: I got fucked in the real estate deal.
Aggression: Fuck you!
Displeasure: What the fuck do you think you’re doing?
Difficulty: I can’t understand these fucking data!
Incompetence: You fuck-off!
Stupidly or incompetence: You really fucked up that negotiation.
The F word has a long and varied history. Though its origin remains somewhat obscure, it most likely derives from an early Germanic root, such as peuk (to prick), fokken (to thrust), or peig (hostile). Though linguists can’t seem to agree on the etymology, most agree that “fuck” has been a vulgar or taboo word for most of its very long history, which contributes to the difficulty of tracking down its history as it was not officially used or written down often.
It has a Wikipedia entry that runs to 19 pages, which goes into the history and gives examples of modern usage in politics, marketing, and literature. And as the Urban Dictionary says of it, “The only fucking word that can be put everyfuckingwhere and still fucking make fucking sense.”
Bottom line for writers: The F word is useful, versatile, and becoming ever more acceptable. But should you decide to use it, use it sparingly as the narrator, and limit it to one or a few characters. It loses its impact with repetition (see The Wolf of Wall Street).
People—and by extension, characters—regularly do things that they don’t mention, or even admit to, even though they aren’t illegal, immoral or physically harmful. Writers can make their characters more realistic when said characters engage in unmentionable behaviors. What follows is an extensive but not exhaustive list of possibilities.
Nose Picking is a prime example of a virtually universal unmentionable behavior. It has its own Wikipedia entry, complete with a technical definition (extracting nasal mucus with one’s finger) and formal label of rhinotillexis. Psychiatrists at the Dean Foundation for Health, Research, and Education in Wisconsin conducted a study revealing that 91% of people said they were currently nose pickers (though only 75% believed everyone did it).
So, how and where does your character nose pick? Always the same digit? Always the same place? Always the same time of day?
And then what? Is the residue flicked off? Wiped on a tissue? Wiped on the underside of an article of clothing? Wiped off on a rug? On furniture? Added to a booger wall? Or maybe the residue is eaten.
Mucophagy is the technical term for eating nose pickings. Most societies condemn it, but some scientists claim there are health benefits. Dr. Friedrich Bischinger, a leading Austrian lung specialist, says that eating one’s mucus gives “a natural boost to their immune system” because the mucus contains a “cocktail of antiseptic enzymes that kill or weaken bacteria that become entangled in it.” Reintroducing weakened bacteria may allow the immune system to safely produce antibodies.
Time considerations for nose picking. How often? A few times a day—however unmentionable—isn’t odd. But one-to-two hours daily? When it becomes an obsessive-compulsive disorder, it’s called Rhinotillexomania.
Wiping your nose on anything available.
Urination is another universal. How about peeing in the shower? Or the bathtub? The ocean—or the swimming pool? Is your female character comfortable urinating outside?
Recently, there have been a number of devices developed and put on the market to allow women the same ease of urination as men. They come in very handy on long car trips or when getting to the bathroom requires a trek through an unheated house, up a snowy mountain, and behind a tree to squat over an unsettlingly drafty hole in the ground.
I once spent two weeks on a whitewater rafting drip on the Colorado River. People were required to pee in the river. (Recall that urine is sterile.) In camp men simply walked to the edge of the water. Women often waded out and pulled down their pants. On the water, men stood at the stern. Women pulled down their clothes, hung onto the cargo straps, and cantilevered out over the water.
In all of these circumstances, the other people politely looked the other way. But then how did it happen that the last night out I was voted the person most improved in peeing off the side of the raft? So if your character is urinating in unmentionable ways, consider both culture and circumstances.
Defecation is always fertile ground. It seems whole herds of people get completely naked to poop—every time. Imagine trying to use a public toilet!
Consider a character who wipes his/her anus and looks at it. Or smells his/her fingers afterward. One justification for frequently smelling one’s anus or genitals (via finger swipes) is being familiar with one’s usual smell so that changes that might signal a change in health status would be recognizable.
Not washing hands after using the bathroom. Or even turning on water so others in the public toilet will think you washed when you didn’t. And it raises the question of why not wash?
Burping, a cousin to the more offensive Passing Gas. These things happen.
I remember a joke from grade school. “What did the stomach say to the burp?” “Be quiet, and I’ll let you out the back door.”
But what about someone who burps and/or farts on purpose, on demand, or as loudly as possible?
What about someone who intentionally farts in elevators, subway cars, on trains or busses and casts a blaming glare at those nearby?
What about intentionally expelling loud farts and/or burps but only when alone?
Or sniffing farts to try to figure out which food made it smell that way.
For truly obnoxious characters (and spouses), there is the dreaded Dutch Oven: farting in bed and then pulling the blanket over your bed partner’s head, trapping them in the stench.
And consider whether your character has an extreme reaction to other people’s flatulence. I know of a woman who became furious if someone passed gas in her presence: smell is a molecular sense, so smelling a fart means taking in fecal molecules.
Eating is fraught with unmentionable behaviors. For example, eating food off the floor after 5 seconds have passed.
Eating from the cooking pot. Eating/drinking directly from thecontainer. (In this case, whether your character lives alone is relevant. )
Eating food other than snacks or sandwiches (for example, tossed salad) with fingers. Eating the unthinkable as a regular thing: chalk, insects, dirt, tissue paper, etc.
Nakedness is sometimes necessary, of course. But what if your naked character regularly sits on the sofa and reads? Cooks dinner? Sits on the deck or patio—and if so, at what time, and how private is the space?
What about taking naked selfies for no particular reason? Saying you deleted the naked pictures sent to you but you didn’t?
Sucking Blood From a Cut.
Having sexual thoughts about an inappropriate target. Think relative, someone else’s spouse or partner, subordinate—whoever is beyond the pale because of relationship or other taboo.
Self Absorption.is almost always unmentionable! Narrating thoughts aloud—while driving, planning, etc. Closely related to talking to oneself.
Consider cracking up at one’s own jokes, even when alone. Practicing pick-up lines in the mirror, ditto facial expressions. How about making weird faces at yourself? Or googling oneself?
Women Only Unmentionables.Shaving—where and how often. Plucking or shaving facial hair from eyebrows to chin and jowls. Obsessing about changes in body odor during menstruation. Collecting “fuck me” shoes in colors to match every outfit.
Men Only Unmentionables: measuring his dick, jerking off to fantasies of his friend’s girlfriend, windmilling/ helicoptering his penis, frequently resettling his junk in his banana hammock.
Miscellaneous unmentionables could be almost anything.
Dancing like no one with the authority to commit you is watching
Running up the stairs on all fours
Eavesdropping or otherwise spying on people—including reading another person’s mail, email, or texts
Squeezing pimples or blackheads
Climbing on furniture
Bouncing on the bed
Making weird noises
Breath syncing to someone else, music, in the extreme known as sensorimotor obsession
Arithmomania, a strong need to have one’s life governed by odd, even, or certain numbers, brushing teeth to setting the thermostat, etc.
Blow-drying “down there”
Overview for writers: Make your character more human by giving her/him a characteristic unmentionable behavior or two. Don’t go overboard unless your character is totally neurotic and/ or you are going for humor. And remember that such behaviors are even more revealing if the characters do such things in the presence of others. Have fun!
Nearly 70% of Americans play video games on at least one device, and nearly all play on smartphones. Indeed, if you do an online search for games, best games, or similarly general queries, you will be inundated with info about video games in general as well as individual games. If game playing is one of your character’s activities (and your story is set in the current time or near future) decide whether s/he is part of the majority or the minority here. Consider what the game of choice says about the character of your character. For example,does success depend more on speed or strategy? Does a round end quickly or take a significant time commitment? Can it be interrupted/paused? How violent is it? And is it mechanized violence or hand-to-hand? Does s/he play alone, against the program, or with/against other gamers worldwide?
As I indicated in the opening sentence, most people in the U.S. currently play video games, but these are a relatively new phenomenon. In the remainder of this blog, I shall focus on card games and board games—for three reasons:
They are suitable for current settings as well as throughout history. Just check out what games were around when the story is set.
I believe that the majority of readers are more familiar with them.
I am not a “gamer” and—truly—I always try not to say too much about any vast canyon of ignorance.
Modern playing cards may have originated in China, India, or Persia, but they were commonly used in Europe by the end of the fourteenth century. The number and composition of cards in a deck varied throughout history and from country to country. Some decks had mounted knights, noblemen, peasants, and Church figures. Some countries used bells, hearts, leaves, acorns, swords, cups, or paving stones to differentiate suits. Over the years, the royal figures have been labelled as Charlemagne, Julius Caesar, Solomon, Empress Judith, Sir Lancelot, Joan of Arc, Hector of Troy, and various mythological figures, to name a few. As printing became widely available and playing cards were produced cheaply, the modern deck of cards gradually came into being and was eventually standardized to those we use today. (For more details, check out the Snopes article on the topic.)[The history of playing cards is kind of interesting:
Advantages of card games:
Equipment is inexpensive
They are extremely portable
Lots of choices from total luck games to highly skilled strategies
Can be played alone or with others
Can be totally competitive or in partnerships
Suitable for people of almost any age
Games with simple rules can transcend language barriers
If you search for the most popular card game(s), poker is at or near the top of the list. Poker is associated with gambling, whether in a casino, bar, country club, or private home. As the name implies, penny ante poker means minimal stakes. Other associations with poker include alcohol, smoking, and maybe the Wild West. It is still a male-dominated game.
Writers: as always, consider the value of going with the flow or defying the images. Many variations exist, and it can be played online.
Other popular card games in the US:
Spades: created nearly 100 years ago, hit its peak in the 90s
War: one of the easiest games, suitable for children, no skill involved; also good as a mindless activity
Gin: aka gin rummy, is related to rummy (see below); very popular right now, a fun gambling game; started in the U.S in the 1800s and has remained popular ever since; reached its peak in the 1930s and 1940s; faded in favor of canasta in the 1950s
Rummy: popular around the world, especially In India; involves matching and memorization; can be played online
Blackjack (aka twenty-one): largely a gambling game played in clubs and casinos; lots of luck involved; players play against the dealer rather than each other
If a player is able to calculate probabilities and keep track of cards in play, s/he may be able to “count cards” to win nearly every hand. This technique is outlawed by many casinos, but it can be a good way to demonstrate a character’s extreme intelligence or pattern recognition skills.
Crazy Eights: originated in Venezuela; has lots of variations; requires two or more people
Agatha Christie wrote an entire murder mystery, Cards on the Table, that hinges upon who was playing in what rotation at what time during an evening bridge party. Hercule Poirot deduces alibis and personalities entirely by studying the notations people made while keeping score, enabling him to identify the murderer.
Card games and board games have been used as a method of teaching and developing military strategy skills throughout history, including by the American CIA. An online essay The Appeal (and Manliness) of Card Games includes a subsection on 6 Card Games Every Man Should Know. The essay notes that men’s games are often symbolic representations of more violent clashes and war. In my opinion, what this says is that games are a non-violent way of competing to be the alpha male. When only men are involved, there are often jokes and insults to demonstrate the art of clever talk. According to this essay, the essential manly card games are:
Gin Rummy: game scholars think rummy is a card variation on the Chinese game of mah-jong, perhaps dating to the 1700s, much modified since then; generally played to a specified number, often 100
Hearts: a trick-taking game stemming from whist, except the goal is to avoid collecting tricks; the person with the fewest points wins; first appeared in he U.S. in the late 1800s; played online since the 1990s
Poker(specifically, Texas hold ‘em): perhaps originated in 1820s New Orleans on Mississippi River gambling boats; poker really took off in the 1980s when Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, legalizing casinos on Native American land
Solitaire: first developed in the mid-1700s; originally played with multiple people, it’s now a game played primarily alone—any of more than 1000 variations; surged in popularity with the advent of personal computers
Cribbage: beloved for centuries, technically involves a board for score keeping, it’s essentially a card game for 2 (possibly 3 or 4); came to the colonies by English settlers; especially popular in New England
Blackjack (aka 21): most widely played casino game; fast and easy to learn; dating to the mid- to late 1500s, became more popular int the U.S. in the late 1950s
The Most Popular & Fun Card Games as posted on ranker.com
Writers: consider the value of a character playing a card game against type, such as a woman playing poker or a man playing bridge. Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon are more commonly played by children, but an adult could play with a child they are caring form. How would a quintessentially honest person behave in a situation requiring bluffing, such as playing poker or Bluff? What might a young person discover by learning to play Hearts as a means of bonding with an older relative?
5 Hardest Games to Master in the World: According to Casino.org, these are the most difficult to master, regardless of how long it takes to learn.
Note: this lists includes 4 board games and only 1 card game
Go is an ancient Chinese game dating back over 5,500 years—making it the oldest board game still played today. It’s also one of the most complex, involving abstract strategy aimed at occupying the most territory on the board.
Go is referenced, played, or used to demonstrate a character’s attitude toward traditional values in lots of Japanese media, including manga and anime. It is so widespread in Japanese culture that there is an entire anime about a schoolboy haunted by the spirit of an ancient Go master: Hikaru No Go.
Chess, arguably dating back to the 6th century in India, but perhaps it originated in China—as many games did. It’s a game of strategical conquest played by two people. The essence of success is forward planning. Historically, chess has been used as a means of teaching battlefield tactics; that is why, in modern chess rules, the king is relatively constrained but holds such strategic importance.
Bridge is the only card game included in this list of hardest games to master. See above.
Diplomacy was released in 1959; as games go, it is still in its infancy. It is a strategic board game for two to seven players, played on a map of 1914 wartime Europe, Middle East, and North Africa, geared toward conquest. There are no dice, but lots of negotiation skills are required.
Diplomacy was one of the first games (other than chess) that could be played by mail, which made it available as a form of connection for people who were not able to play together in person. Writers, consider the possibilities this provides for characters in a historical setting who lived far apart or were shut-ins or prohibited by social taboo from playing together, etc.
Hex, released in 1942, was inspired by Go and has since been tweaked. The goal is to make a connected string of shoes from one side of the board to the other before the other player.
Card Games vs. Board Games
As noted above, card games have many positive qualities, especially portability and ease of set-up. Board games require more complex “equipment,” lengthy set-ups, and can take a long time to complete. Many board games are quite cerebral, chess being the ultimate example. In board games, every player is likely aware of the possible moves of the other player(s).
The Top Ten Board Games of All Time
The website hobbylark.com provides a brief history of board games and ranks the top 10. Many that have been around for literally thousands of years can now be played online. Details of all of these are, of course, available online.
The Settlers of Catan
Ticket to Ride
There is no board game equivalent to solitaire. By their nature, board games require other players, and thus involve social interactions.
Game Considerations for Writers (whether cards or board games)
If you include a game as a character note, consider the general character of players of that game and whether you want to go with the general image or have a character who goes against the grain. Why does your character play that particular game? Where, how, and with whom (if anyone)? Under these circumstances, chances are you establish the preference and make only brief references to it thereafter—unless the character is addicted.
If the game is an element to advance the plot, it will probably involve a more detailed description of the game itself, so that readers will better understand the important people interactions around the game. Did playing the game establish or refute an alibi? Reveal important info through the chat around and over play? Is someone trying to establish dominance? Losing more money than s/he can afford?
In associating a character with a game, be aware of the possible correlations: when in history your story is set, age of the character, region of the country (or country in the world), social class, and possibly ethnic background all are considerations.
On April 13, 2018, I posted Pets: A Treasure Trove for Writers focusing on how people treat their pets and how pets might fit into plot points and scenes. Now, I’m turning to the ways pets reflect their owners, and the things an informed character might deduce from simply knowing another character’s pet choice(s). These are group data, of course, so as a writer you need to decide whether your character reflects the norm or is an outlier.
Cat owners are the most dependable and emotionally sensitive.
Reptile owners are the most independent.
2) Comparing dog people and cat people:
Dog people are 15% more extroverted, 13% more agreeable, and 11% more conscientious.
Cat people are 12% more neurotic and 11% more emotionally open.
Dog owners are healthier: handled stress better, were more relaxed, had higher self-esteem, and were less likely to be diagnosed with depression.
3) Richard Wiseman concluded that people often see their pets’ personality as a reflection of their own. Maybe a character could ask, “So, what’s your X like?”
4) Younger people who are disagreeable tend to prefer aggressive dogs.
5) Dog owners tend to seek different qualities in their dogs depending on their political leanings:
Liberals want dogs that are gentle and relate to their owners as equals.
Conservatives want dogs that are loyal and obedient.
6) Likelihood of owners cleaning up after their dogs:
35.3% of males; 58.2% of females.
18.2% of those who are lower income; 68.7% of those with higher income.
72.6% of those who kept their dogs on a leash.
The website medium.com has published at least two articles on this topic: “What Your Pet Says Abut Your Personality and Career” (Mitch Fodstad, 3/6/2017) and “What Your Pet Says About You” (Dustin Bilyk, 1/10/18). The Bilyk article was written for humor and is basically an opinion piece, but you might want to read it for inspiration about a character’s opinions. In addition to personality and career, life stage is addressed. All of the following points come from these two articles. Not surprisingly, there is some overlap with the points above. So, by pet, here are the generalities:
Snake people: Owners are unconventional and novelty-seeking, may be bad-ass or wannabe bad-ass, and may have a kinky side. FYI, male snakes are so focused on reproducing that they don’t even eat during mating season and many of them die. Snake owners tend to lead unusual lives and make impulsive decisions. They’re eager for the next move, even when unsure what that move might be.
Common careers: engineer, social worker, marketing/public relations professional, editor/writer, or police officer.
Turtle people: They are hard-working and reliable. Turtle owners harness exceptional commitment, which drives quality performance and bodes well for upward mobility to a higher social class.
Common careers: engineer, social worker, marketing/public relations professional, editor/writer, or police officer.
(VL: Note the similarities with other reptile people as described above.)
Fish people: They are optimistic and not materialistic, unconcerned with possessions. They prefer low-maintenance pets. Fish owners are hopeful and confident about the future.
Common career choices: human resources, financial professional, hotel and leisure professional, farming/fishing/forestry professional, or transportation professional.
Bird people: These pet owners tend to be outgoing and friendly, expressive, and socially confident. They communicate effectively and may include some of the most powerful visionaries.
Common careers: advertising professional, sales person, construction worker, or administrative professional.
Cat people: Cat owners tend to be adventurous, creative, and anxious. They enjoy new experiences, often have vivid imaginations, and are likely to be less sociable than dog owners.
Common careers: physician, real estate agent, science/medical technicians, machine operator, or personal caretaker.
Dog people: These people tend to be extroverted, confident, and risk-averse.
Common careers: professor, nurse, information technology professional, military professional, or entertainer.
Frankly, I find the links between pet, personality, and careers more suggestive than factual. Writers should still consider the narrative possibilities of such links.
Scientific American MIND published on-line an overview of the research into what pets say about their owners (Karen Schrock Simring, 9/1/15). There isn’t much data published in peer-reviewed academic studies, but lots of information is available from huge market surveys within the pet industry and survey responses from pet owners. Because I don’t want to footnote specific statements, I am not combining info from this article with related statements above.
If a character has a dog, he or she is more likely to be in senior management and consider their pet part of the family; live with family members, not have a college degree (although other research suggests dog owners are likely to be a professor, nurse, information professional, military professional, or entertainer); be extroverted, agreeable, and conscientious; have gotten the dog from a shelter or rescue group; live in Arkansas, New Mexico, Kentucky, Missouri, or West Virginia.
If the character’s pet is a cat, they are more likely to be divorced, widowed, or separated; live in an apartment; be neurotic and open to new experiences; be college educated; be a physician, real estate agent, science or medical lab technician, machine operator, or personal caregiver; be less socially dominant; live in Vermont, Maine, Oregon, South Dakota, or Washington state.
If the character owns a bird, they are more likely to be unemployed, describe themselves as caring and polite, be outgoing and expressive (and socially dominant if female), and live in California, Oregon, Washington state, or Nevada.
Horse owners tend to be more assertive and introspective and less warm and nurturing; be aggressive and socially dominant if he is male but non-aggressive and easygoing if she is female; hold an advanced degree; be married and a homeowner; live in a rural area; reside in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, or Louisiana. They are most likely to describe themselves as dependable and self-disciplined.
Cold-blooded exotic pet owners if female, are more open to new experiences than male owners or female owners of traditional pets; if male, they are much less agreeable than female owners or male owners of traditional pets.
If the pet is a snake, the character may describe themselves as neat and tidy, relaxed and unpredictable; be unconventional and novelty seeking; and consider their pet “part of the family.”
If the character’s pet is a turtle, that character is more likely to be hardworking, reliable, and upwardly mobile, and describe themselves as rational and goal-oriented.
Fish owners are most likely to describe themselves as calm and emotionally stable.
Rabbit owners describe themselves as sympathetic, warm, and open to new experiences.
Hamster owners were the most likely to have an advanced degree.
Guinea pig owners were least likely to describe themselves as extroverted.
Owners of unusual pets were more likely to have a menagerie. For instance, more than half of ferret owners said they had six or more pets. Dog owners, on the other hand, were the most likely to have only one pet.
More than half of cat owners are fond of both cats and dogs. More than half of dog owners say they only like canines.
Beyond the most common pets, people make a pet of almost any animal: chickens, exotic insects, possums, pigs, etc.
Writers note: For people who have pets, those pets are often integral to how owners see themselves. For example, some men who want to look tough may get a tough-looking dog. Some people have rabbits or poodles because that’s the family tradition. Some people who feel misunderstood may seek “misunderstood” pets such as spiders. If you give your character a pet, choose it for a reason!
And in spite of it all, keep in mind that although 68% of U.S. households have pets, that leaves 32% pet-less.