THE DOWNSIDE OF SELF-CONCEPT

Despite being a legendary harpist, ruler, and monarch, King David said, “But I am merely a worm, far less than human, and I am hated and rejected by people everywhere.” ~Psalm 22:6
Chu Wanning of Er Ha He Ta De Bai Mao Shi Zun is a visual illustration of the power of self-concept. When he appears in other’s flashbacks, Chu Wanning is an extremely handsome young man. When he is the narrator, Chu Wanning is an old, ugly, weak man.

Self-concept is how people perceive their behaviors, abilities, and unique characteristics.  For example, beliefs such as “I am a good friend” or “I am a kind person” are part of an overall (positive) self-concept. These perceptions of oneself are important because they affect motivations, attitudes, and behaviors.  Self-concept also impacts how people feel about who they think they are, including perceived competence and self-worth.

Low self-worth is having a generally negative overall opinion of oneself, judging (or evaluating) oneself critically, and placing a generally negative value on oneself as a person.


Self-esteem is a similar concept to self-worth but with a small (although important) difference: self-esteem is what we think, feel, and believe about ourselves, while self-worth is the more global recognition that we are valuable human beings worthy of love (Hibbert, 2013). People with low self-confidence tend to have low self-esteem and vice versa.

Abraham Lincoln’s “melancholia” is likely to have been influenced by a negative self-concept.
“Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.”

Some of the most common characteristics of low self-esteem—of which there are many—also appear in those with low self-worth:

  • Depression/sadness
  • Anxieties
  • Low mood
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Extreme focus on clothing, makeup, grooming, etc., because of a belief that self worth comes from exterior appearance
  • Poor confidence
  • Feeling like a burden to other people
  • Criticize their appearance and personality regularly in their head and out loud
  • Feeling a lack of control in life
  • Negative social comparison
  • Negative self-talk
  • Worry and self-doubt
  • Not trying things out of fear of failure
  • Neglect of their own needs, particularly emotional ones
  • Guilt over self-care
    • (E.g., you feel guilty buying things because you feel you don’t deserve them.)
Esther Summerson, in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, has been described as both an ideal of Victorian womanhood and a personification of low self-esteem.
(Illustration by Hablot Browne)

Some of these characteristics have an obvious effect on how a person interacts with others.

  • Avoiding social situations
  • Trouble accepting positive feedback
  • Afraid to talk in a conversation, and belief that no one listens when they do
  • Sensitive to any criticism and obsessing about it for weeks if not months
  • Apologize when other people bump into them
  • Problems asking for what they need
  • Fear of leaving the house to avoid anything out of their comfort zone
  • Questioning how a romantic partner could possibly love them
  • Always needing everyone’s agreement
  • Needing constant validation from others
  • Constantly comparing themselves to other people
  • Treating Feel other people are more important
  • Belief that other people don’t actually enjoy your company and are just being polite
Avatar Korra masks her low self-esteem by being impulsive and impatient. This leads to anger, depression, isolation, physical impairment, and nearly destroying the world.

Some of these characteristics may affect how a person interacts with others in less obvious ways.

  • Frequent anger and irritability
  • Difficulty making decisions because of worry about making the wrong one
  • Needing to be perfect 100% of the time
  • Over-achieving in general
  • Overly accepting or not accepting flaws in others
  • Tendency to criticize other people to make oneself feel better
  • Jealousy of other peoples accomplishments, instead of being happy for them
  • Shifting blame to others because they think it is unacceptable to make the slightest mistake

How Did This Happen? 

Even after becoming a mother, a senior witch, and Queen of Lancre, Magrat Garlick (left) remained in the shadows of the elder witches in her coven.
“She seemed to have spent her whole life trying to make herself small, trying to be polite, apologizing when people walked over her, trying to be good-mannered. And what had happened? People had treated her as if she was small and polite and good-mannered.” (Lords and Ladies by Sir Terry Pratchett)

Causes of low self-esteem can include:

  • Disapproval from authority figures or parents
  • Emotionally distant parents
  • Sexual, physical, or emotional abuse
  • Contentious divorce between parents
  • Bullying with no parent protection
  • Academic difficulties
  • Guilt associated with religion
  • Social beauty standards
  • Unrealistic goal setting

Does It Have To Be This Way? 

If these sound all too familiar to you personally, don’t panic!  You can retrain your brain and start to replace all the negative things you told yourself with positive things.

Several ways in which one can improve self-esteem:

In one of the most dramatic depictions of negative self-concept, George Bailey (It’s a Wonderful Life) so firmly believes that he is “worth more dead than alive” that he considers suicide.
  • Identify and challenge negative beliefs
  • Identify the positive about oneself
  • Build positive relationships—and avoid negative ones
  • Give yourself a break
  • Become more assertive and learn to say no
  • Improve physical health
  • Take on challenges

Low self esteem can lead to anger, depression and anxiety, and generally a miserable life. Therefore, it’s important it is to work on it—and to keep working on it. If you have never worked on your self esteem before, positive affirmations for confidence are a good place to start.

Bottom line: You can identify low self-worth (in yourself and/or others) and portray it in your characters without an explicit label.

TWO POWERFUL HUMAN MOTIVES

Of course, humans are driven by a lot more than two motivations. Various levels of deprivation (of all sorts of needs, such as food, shelter, sleep, sexual release, and much more) can motivate behavior in specific situations. Those are not the focus of this blog. Instead, I’m focusing on two powerful motives that tend to shape behavior across numerous situations and often whole lifetimes. 

I’m talking about the need for achievement and the fear of failure.

In the simplest terms (according to me) the difference is striving to be the best versus trying to be good enough.

Need for Achievement

Nadia Nadim, possibly the human embodiment of n-Ach

Need for achievement is the desire to obtain excellent results by setting high standards and striving to accomplish them. It is a consistent concern with doing things better.

According to the American Psychological Association,  the definition of need for achievement (n-Ach) is a strong desire to accomplish goals and attain a high standard of performance and personal fulfillment.  The need for achievement was proposed by Henry Alexander Murray and investigated extensively by David McClelland.

People with high need for achievement often undertake tasks in which there is a high probability of success and avoid tasks that are either too easy (because of lack of challenge) or too difficult (because of fear of failure). 

An example of the latter would be a 5-ft-tall basketball player with poor leaping ability, ball handling abilities, and passing skills. Such a person high in n-Ach is unlikely to try out for the team!

Recognizing Accomplishment

Even “minor” accomplishments deserve to be recognized and celebrated.

Studies have shown that feeling a sense of accomplishment is an important element in students developing positive wellbeing over time.

Research also shows that people with a strong sense of purpose, persistence, and accomplishment perform better at work.

Because one tennis ball is simply not enough

People high in need for achievement present as ambitious, driven, successful … and insecure. The need for achievement drives behavior in school, work settings, even recreational activities. In case it isn’t obvious, this trait can cause problems:

  • Driven to achieve the task—any and every task
  • Fails to differentiate “urgent” from merely “important”
  • Has difficulty delegating
  • Struggles with producer-to-supervisor transition when promoted
  • Obsesses about getting the job done at all costs
  • Craves feedback

No doubt about it, people high in n-Ach put themselves under a lot of pressure. At first glance, it might seem that such people should relax, take it easy, and be happy doing well enough. 

Fearing failure in a particular endeavor is experienced by most people,  including high n-Ach people, sometimes. Think a new situation or task, or one that’s just being learned. Think public performances. There are times when just not humiliating oneself is success.

Fear of Failure

This is why restaurants deliver.

But the fear of failure, more generally, is an irrational and persistent fear of failing

(FYI, irrational and extreme fear of failing or facing uncertainty is a phobia known as atychiphobia.) 

Sometimes fearing failure might be triggered in only one specific situation/task. Sometimes it’s more generalized. And sometimes it’s related to another mental health condition such as anxiety or depression.

In any case, the fear of failure varies in level of severity from mild to extreme. Here are a few ways it’s commonly exhibited:

  • A sense of hopelessness about the future
  • Chronic (versus occasional or limited) worry
  • Worry about what other people will  think about you if you fail or don’t do well
  • Frequent procrastination
  • High distractibility, being pulled off task by irrelevant or unimportant things
  • Avoiding tasks or people associated with a project or general goal
  • Physical symptoms (fatigue, headaches, digestive troubles, joint or muscle pain) that prevent working toward a goal
  • Believing that you don’t have the skills or knowledge to achieve something
  • Feeling like you won’t be able to achieve your goals
  • Procrastinating to the point that it affects your performance or ability to finish on time
  • Telling people that you will probably fail so that expectations remain low
  • Underestimating your own abilities to avoid feeling let down
  • Worrying that imperfections or shortcomings will make other people think less of you
  • Failing makes you worry about your ability to pursue the future you desire
  • Failing makes you worry that people will lose interest in you
  • Failing makes you worry about how smart or capable you are
  • Failing makes you worry about disappointing people whose opinions you value (especially family/friends)
  • You tend to tell people beforehand that you don’t expect to succeed in order to lower their expectations
  • Once you fail at something, you have trouble imagining what you could have done differently to succeed
  • You often get last-minute headaches, stomach aches, or other physical symptoms that prevent you from completing your preparation
  • You often get distracted by tasks that prevent you from completing your preparation which, in hindsight, were not as urgent as they seemed at the time
  • You tend to procrastinate and “run out of time” to complete your preparation adequately, as a way of protecting your belief in your ability to have done it
Social Media can illuminate and exacerbate both the need for achievement and the fear of failure.
Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and Bored Panda (just to name a few)

Bottom line: Two people may exhibit the same behavior, even turn in the same objective performance, but their reasons for doing so can vary dramatically.

SNACKING: WHY AND WHERE

WHO? 

Nearly everyone in the U.S.

Over 70% of surveyed Americans said they snack.

WHAT?

Food that isn’t part of a regular meal, usually a small amount.

In fact, dictionary definitions specify a small amount. However, eating more than a quart of ice cream can be a snack without being small. (For some of the most popular snack foods, see last week’s blog.)

WHEN?

Any time, day or night. Or habitually, the same time every day and/or every night

WHERE?

Anywhere possible!

  • Wherever you watch TV
  • Reading chair
  • Bed
  • Boat
  • Car
  • Bar
  • At sports events
  • On fishing trips
  • Hiking
  • Pillow fort
  • Treehouse
  • In front of the refrigerator
  • While driving
  • Backstage
  • Grandma’s house
  • In class (not recommended)
  • Hospital waiting room
  • Swimming
  • Camping
  • Wakes
  • Wedding receptions
  • Card parties
  • Cocktail parties
  • Retirement parties
  • Birthday parties
  • Graduation parties
  • Virtually any kind of party

WHY?

Duh! Who needs a reason? But let me list a few.

  • Too hungry to wait for a meal
  • Too busy to stop for a meal
  • Too tired to cook a meal
  • Need to gain weight
  • Need to lose weight
  • To maintain blood sugar levels
  • To explore when traveling
  • It’s a favorite food, so it’s the pleasure principle
  • It’s right there
    • When you see it, you eat it, the convenience factor
  • To be polite when someone offers food 
    • In many cultures, it is considered rude to refuse an offer of food, particularly from a host
  • You’re drinking
    • Well established that people snack more with alcohol
  • You always eat leftovers
    • The waste-not principle
  • You need an energy boost
  • You feel like celebrating
  • You’re feeling down or depressed
  • You want to reward yourself
  • It’s a habit
    • You always have a bite to eat at a particular time
  • Other people are snacking
    • Psychology has documented that people who’ve stopped snacking when alone in a room start eating again when someone else comes in and starts eating

Bottom line: Snacking is ubiquitous. What can we learn about ourselves and/or our characters based on what, when, where, and why we snack?

SNACKS AND SNACKING IN AMERICA

While filming The Avengers (2012), Robert Downey Jr routinely hid food around the set so he could snack between takes. When he offered to share with his co-stars, the director let the camera keep filming. And so we end up with Iron Man offering Captain America and Hulk some of his blueberries.
Some people (particularly those who keep outgrowing their sneakers) snack on anything that stays still long enough.

February is National Snack Food Month. It was started in 1989 to “to increase consumption and build awareness of snacks during a month when snack food consumption was traditionally low” according to the Fooducate wellness community. February 15th is a particularly good day to stock up on chocolate!

According to Oxford Languages, a snack is a small amount of food eaten between meals. Snacks often differ from main meals in what they contain, portion size, consumption time, and place as well as why they`re eaten 
So, theoretically, it can be anything.  But certain foods are more likely to be chosen than others. My personal observations—totally not scientific—is that people tend to be primarily salty snackers OR sweet snackers.

Salty or Sweet?


You can find favorite junk food by state, but these are the nation’s most popular snacks, as measured by consumer opinion.

  • Jif.  (peanut butter)
  • Oreos. 
  • Lay’s.  
  • Pringles. 
  • Fritos. 
  • Snickers. 
  • Tostitos.
  • Cheetos.

And sometimes, one is not enough: according to a OnePoll survey of 2000 snackers, 60%  said snacks taste better when they’re paired together.

Celery salt and Worcestershire sauce?
  1. Cookies and cream                         39 percent
  2. Chocolate and nuts                         37 percent
  3. Popcorn and chocolate                   35 percent
  4. Chocolate and marshmallow          34 percent
  5. Chocolate and fruit                         33 percent
  6. Peanut butter and jelly                   32 percent
  7. Peanut butter and apples               30 percent
  8. Cheese and crackers                       27 percent
  9. Chips and salsa                                26 percent
  10. Chocolate and peanut butter         26 percent

Modern Snack Trends

Little Women is modern, right?


According to an article by Bridget Goldschmidt (progressivegrocer.com), Americans are snacking between meals more than ever, and eating snack foods with meals grew by 5% over the ten-year period from 2010 to 2020. She cited several conclusions.

Some people bake the cookies before eating them.
  • NPD (a national research group) also found that snacking follows a daily pattern in most U.S. households: better-for-you snacks such as fruit or yogurt are eaten in the morning; snacks like potato chips or tortilla chips are likely eaten at lunch; and sweeter snacks like chocolate candy and cookies in the evening. 
  • What drives snacking?
    • Taste
    • Satiety (how full the eater is)
    • Preferences 
    • How easy a food is to eat 
    • Time of day (health-driven motivation gives way to satiety as the day goes on)
  • The COVID-19 pandemic ramped up snacking. (How surprising is that? Not.) The NPD study cited in the article found that having enough snack foods available during the pandemic is important to 37% of consumers. These consumers’ homes are well stocked with salty snacks and frozen sweets more than other items. 
  • In many cases, the more snack food packages in the home, the more often the item is eaten, which tends to be particularly true of certain kinds of snack foods, such as salty snacks.
Wonder Woman takes her snacking seriously.
Kebabs are wonderful!

According to the survey of 2,000 American snackers mentioned above: 

  • 71 percent of all those surveyed consider themselves “snackers”
  • 66 percent said snacking brings them great joy
  • 67 percent said snacking is one of their favorite forms of stress relief
    • (No wonder snacking is up during the pandemic!)

Snacks? What Snacks?

Conan the Barbarian always steals Princess Yasimina’s snacks, but at least he shares.

48 percent of surveyed Americans have stashed their favorite treats in hidden spots around the house (often with no plans to share!).

Doctor McCoy tries to hide his snacks, but Vulcans are notorious snack sleuths.
  • 46 percent of those who had hidden snacks said they simply “don’t want to share” 
  • 53 percent said the people they live with would “eat them all” if they knew where to look

Of respondents who have ever hidden snacks, 69 percent said they’re currently doing so!

  • 72 percent said their snack stash has been discovered by someone else
  • The average person has moved a snack stash four times to try to keep it a secret.
  • 71 percent of the time partners and kids were the finders of respondents’ “snackpiles”
  • Only 6 percent of respondents have never been caught
Does time travel for fries count as a hiding place?

A few creative snack hiding places:

  • Behind the washing machine
  • Inside oatmeal containers
  • Behind books on a bookshelf
  • In the freezer, behind the broccoli
  • Under yarn piles in a knitting basket
  • On a top shelf, out of sight
  • Among cleaning supplies
  • At the bottom of the diaper bag
  • Taped to the underside of the fish tank lid
  • Behind the butter churn
  • Suspended from the ceiling, above the ceiling fan
  • In the wall, behind the vents or outlet covers


And the average respondent believes they could survive almost FIVE full months on their stockpile of snacks alone. 

Really? I’d be pressed to live 5 months on my pantry, 2 refrigerators, and a freezer! Surely that was 5 full months of snacks. 


BOTTOM LINE: In the U.S., you now know the what of snacking, and a bit of the when.

STAY TUNED: Next week I’ll delve into where and why!

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: SLEEP

Even without pausing to think, people can easily describe their sleep habits. What does your character think and feel about about his or her own ? Is sleep a welcome respite or a necessary evil? What’s necessary for your character to fall asleep—and stay there? Is insomnia a chronic condition, or only within the plot situation? Does your character sleep as an escape mechanism? Does your character take sleep aids? Self-medicate with alcohol? Does sleep feel like a waste of time?

Deviating From Eight Hours

By now, pretty much everyone knows that, on average, people spend approximately one third of their lives sleeping. Anything that time-consuming must impinge on people’s (characters’) awareness.

It turns out most people sleep about 7 hours a night, so that would be “normal.” Fewer than 6 hours a night means one is a short sleeper, and more than 8 hours a night is a long sleeper. Does it matter?

People tend to perceive short sleepers as high-energy, productive, and on top of things. Long sleepers are often perceived as lazy, or at least not hard workers. 

What is your character’s sleep duration? Is s/he happy with with it? Smug? Defensive? Self-conscious?

Sleeping longer is better for physical health.  A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology titled Sleep Duration and Survival Percentiles Across Categories of Physical Activity says sleep duration affects physical health: Those who get less than six hours of sleep are at increased risk of diabetes, hypertension, and early death even if they’re active and exercise regularly.

But can one sleep too much? Not if you maintain a reasonable level of physical activity. (Inactive long sleepers also die earlier, usually from cardiovascular problems.) 

Keep this in mind when creating realistic characters.

Early Birds vs. Night Owls

Early birds tend to get up early without setting an alarm, and even on the weekend.  Mornings are the most productive times. And activity trackers indicate that early birds actually move 60-90 more minutes per day. They fade in the evening, often in bed by 10:00.

There is a middle group: Day people sleep a little later and are most effective in the afternoon.

Night owls sleep as late as possible and are up well past nightfall, into the wee hours of the morning.  Night owls tend to sit more and move less, even when researchers factored for education and health conditions—so need to make an effort to move more for health reasons! And because this pattern doesn’t fit the world at large, making appointments for doctors, etc., can be problematic. Robo-calls while still in bed are especially annoying!

Stereotypes favor early risers for being healthy, wealthy, and wise. On the other time, creative types often report that their best work hours are evening/wee hours of the mornings.

NB: sleep patterns can change naturally over the lifespan. Infants sleep almost constantly; teenagers seem to sleep only while in a classroom setting.

What is your character’s sleep rhythm? Is it felt to be a blessing, a burden, or relatively irrelevant fact of life? Does s/he struggle against the “natural” rhythm? If so, why? Does your character push the limits for staying awake and then “catch-up” later?

Napping

Some people doze off while sitting in a chair; some settle into a recliner and nap intentionally; and yet others can only nap in their own beds, often with shoes off and tight clothes loosened. 

Some take “power naps” for 15 minutes or so during the work day; others nap for an hour or more at a time.

Napping offers several benefits for healthy adults, including

  • Relaxation
  • Reduced fatigue
  • Increased alertness
  • Improved mood
  • Extended functioning hours later
  • Improved performance, including quicker reaction time and better memory

Napping can also have negative effects, such as

  • Sleep inertia: feeling groggy and disoriented after waking up from a nap.
  • Nighttime sleep problems. 
    • Short naps generally don’t affect nighttime sleep quality.
    • People who experience insomnia or poor sleep quality at night, napping might worsen these problems. 
      • Insomniacs often have trouble napping at all because it takes longer to fall asleep than the allotted duration of the nap!

Does your character nap? Where? Why?  And is s/he okay with that?

Dreaming

Does your character claim not to dream? If so, s/he is mistaken. People team an average of 7 times a night during so-called REM sleep. These dream periods get longer as the night’s sleep progresses. Chances are, your dream denier simply doesn’t wake up within ten minutes of dreams ending.

Are dreams important to your character?  Some people mine dreams for clues to their inner lives, creative insight, and even hints of the future. Some people treasure dreams as raisers of awareness of non-conscious problems or conflicts. Some believe internal conflicts actually get solved during dreams. Some dreams are erotic and can lead to sexual release. And some people keep dream journals for later review and inspiration for creative works.

Like other dreams, nightmares often include elements of real life: anxiety, fears, failures, embarrassments, or trauma. People do not wake up happy from nightmares. Because nightmares are a disruption of the REM cycle rather than a part of it, a sleeper with nightmares wake up less refreshed than before. (Nightmares are not the same as night terrors.)

Lucid dreaming is less well-known than other sorts of dreams. According to Psychology Today, “During lucid dreaming, which most commonly occurs during late-stage REM sleep, a dreamer is aware that they’re asleep, but is able to control events within their dreams, to some extent.” Lucid dreamers report willing themselves to fly, fight, or act out sexual fantasies. There are communities dedicated to learning how to lucid dream at will, although evidence that this is possible remains inconclusive. Still, that doesn’t mean your character can’t be a dedicated lucid dreamer!

Research indicates that dreaming is crucial to intellectual functioning, memory consolidation, and mood regulation. A sleeper who is allowed to undergo every part of the REM cycle except dreaming will eventually develop the same problems as severe sleep deprivation, including hallucinations and strokes!

What is your character’s dream scape? Are dreams remembered? Are they amusing, irritating, or sources of unease? Does your character talk about his/her dreams? If so, to whom?

Bottom line: sleep—and everything associated with it—can make your plot richer and your character more realistic. 

A while back (March 10, 2020, to be exact) I wrote a blog Sleeping Alone and Together, about gender and personality reflected in sleep positions. 

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: GRIEF

Funeral for a victim of the Siege of Sarajevo
photo by Mikhail Estafiev

Grief, deep sorrow at the loss of someone/something important, comes to everyone in one form or another, at some time or another.  According to healthline.com, grief is personal, not necessarily linear, and doesn’t follow timelines or schedules. Everyone grieves in his or her own way.

People usually recognize when someone is grieving the death of a loved one. But other deaths—other losses—any change that alters life as one knows it—can cause grief. What might cause your character(s) to grieve? Loss of . . .

Refugee woman, circa 1945
  • Job/career
  • Marriage
  • A love relationship
  • A child
  • Loss of child custody
  • A pet (or pet custody)
  • A close friend
  • One’s home
  • Reputation
  • Faith
  • Physical ability
  • One’s youth
  • Treasured object
  • …and others?

How Would Your Character(s) Grieve?

In 1969, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross published On Death and Dying, based on her years of work with terminally ill people. Subsequently, it was applied to other losses as well.  Because grief is so complex and personal, various numbers of stages—from two to seven—have been posited. The original model had five stages:

Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions is another model of possible progressions of grief.
  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

Models with seven stages include the following three after depression:

  • Upward turn
  • Reconstruction and working through
  • Acceptance and hope

Important to note: Stages can vary in order, can overlap, or can be skipped altogether. The duration of any given stage can vary widely, from days to months to years

What Would Your Character(s) Grief Cycle Look Like?
  • Straight line?
  • Bowl of spaghetti?
  • Immediate start?
  • Delayed?

Expressions of Grief Reflect One’s Personality

For example, people who express anger physically will continue to do so while grieving, very different from those who express anger verbally. Grieving can be self-destructive, triggering harmful eating, drinking, or risk-taking behaviors. Some might grieve by intellectualizing (finding out everything possible about the causes, prognosis, etc.) or compartmentalizing (confining conscious grieving to certain times or places).

BOTTOM LINE: What causes feelings of loss and how your character(s) respond are rich sources of adding depth and feeling to your plot.

TATTOOS: CONVICTS AND STREET GANGS

Japanese Yakuza

If you aren’t in a prison or a gang, who cares? More people than you might imagine! Think self-preservation and decision making—not to mention writing realistically.

  • Prison employees
  • Parole officers
  • Social workers
  • Police officers
  • Medical providers
  • Those new to the neighborhood/prison
  • Border patrol
  • Anyone living or travelling in Eastern Europe or Russia

Indeed, an extensive list of tattoos, with pictures and meanings, has been produced for the Canadian Border Patrol. It’s available online at publicintelligence.net (search tattoos and their meanings).

Another good source is corrections1.com.  

There is an abundance of on-line information about the meaning of prison tattoos, and it’s generally consistent. But keep in mind, there are varied meanings, and context is important.  One example here would be playing cards, typically found on the knuckles. In Russian prisons, the suit chosen have meanings. In other settings, this type of tattoo may indicate someone who likes to gamble, or who sees life as a gamble. (See below.)

The Nature of Prison Tattoos

Overall, prison tattoos tend to look dark and crude. Inmates tattoo each other using whatever equipment they can gather, such as staples, ballpoint pens, paper-clips, improvised needles, molten rubber, styrofoam, etc. 

Sometimes the “artist” will draw a picture on a wooden plank, place needles along the lines of the design, cover the needles with ink and stamp the whole tableau on the prisoner’s body. Another method is to slice the image onto the skin with a razor and daub the cut with indelible ink. When prisoners manage to get an electric shaver and a syringe with a needle, they can jury-rig a tattooing machine.

One of the least horrific photos I could find of an infected tattoo

Ink is hard to come by, so for dye, they can use pen ink. Also, they  can burn the heel of a shoe, and mix the ash with the prisoner’s urine – a practice superstitiously believed to reduce the chance of infection. Research has revealed a connection between tattoos and high rates of hepatitis C among prisoners.

Tattooing is typically slow and nearly always painful.  Conditions are inevitably far from sterile, so infections and complications are common.  Suffice it to say that what prison tattoos convey is important to the wearer.

Not All Tattoos are Voluntary

The most famous instance would be during the Holocaust when concentration camp inmates were tattooed with an identification number. Also see the section on gender below. Any tattoo that stigmatizes a prisoner, or invites abuse by other inmates, is likely to have been applied involuntarily.

White Supremacist Gang Tattoos 
  • KKK
  • Neo-Nazism
  • Arian Brotherhood (AB)
  • Family Affiliated Irish Mafia (FAIM)
  • Sacramaniac
  • Number tattoos
  • General white supremacist symbols
    • For example 1488 (or 14 or 88) found anywhere on the body identifies white supremacists/Nazi inmates.  There are a variety of tattoos associated with the Arian Brotherhood, important to identify, for they make up 1% of the prison population but commit 20% of inmate murders.
  • FAIM members sometimes wear a shamrock as well, signifying affiliation with the AB—but this is only allowed with permission of the AB
Russian Prison Tattoos

In the Soviet Union, particularly during Joseph Stalin’s time, non-political prisoners (thieves, murderers, arsonists, etc.) in the Gulag system were often given preferential treatment by prison guards. Tattoos told the guards as well as other prisoners how to treat a prisoner, including what labor assignments they got and whether to assign prisoners as enforcers. Eventually, non-political prisoners gained so much power within the Gulags that the Vor v Zakony (Thieves in Law) essentially ran many of the prison camps. Today, the Vory is one of the most powerful mafia organizations in the world. In many areas within the former Soviet Union, anyone with visible tattoos is assumed to be affiliated with the Vory or pretending to be.

  • Star
  • Manacles
  • Epaulette
  • Birds on horizon
  • Barbed wire
  • Symbol of the cross
  • Crowns and rings
  • Scarab beetle
  • Playing cards
  • Cat
  • A cat tattoo represents a thief.
    • One cat = the prisoner worked alone
    • Multiple cats = the prisoner was part of a gang of thieves
    • A cat tattoo (think stealthy as a cat) is considered good luck for a thief
    • If worn on the chest, it also signals a dangerous criminal who hates law enforcement 

Playing card suits carry specific meanings: spade represents a thief; clubs symbolize criminals in general, diamonds label stoolpigeons and informants – and was probably applied by force—and hearts imply that someone is looking for a romantic partner in the prison, which may also be forcibly applied.

The knife through the neck tattoo, in Russian prisons, means the bearer is a murderer—and proud of it. Much has been written about Russian prison tattoos. If interested, you can find information specific to Japan, Australia, France, Italy, etc.

Street/Prison Gang Tattoos

MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha)
  • Mara Salvatrucha 13
  • Black Guerrilla Family
  • Red Blood Dragon
  • Gangster Discipes
  • Santana
  • Mexican Mafia
  • Mexikanemi
  • Texas Syndicate
  • Almighty Latin King Nations
  • 18th Street Gang
  • Sureños
Crips
  • Norteños
  • Texas Chicano Brotherhood
  • Border Brothers
  • Hells Angels
  • Bloods
  • Crips
  • Indian Warrior
  • Laotian Boyz (LB)
Common Symbols
  • Tiger
  • Spider web
  • Tear drop
  • Three dots
  • Five dots
  • Angel of death
  • Clown faces/masks
  • Vida loca
  • Barbed wire
  • spiderweb, typically representing a lengthy incarceration, is commonly found on the elbow or neck. 
  • Teardrops can mean a lengthy prison sentence, that the wearer has committed murder, or that one of the inmate’s friends was murdered and the tattooed one is seeking revenge.

According to corrections1.com, “One of the most widely recognized prison tattoos, the teardrop’s meaning varies geographically. In some places, the tattoo can mean a lengthy prison sentence, while in others it signifies that the wearer has committed murder. If the teardrop is just an outline, it can symbolize an attempted murder. It can also mean that one of the inmate’s friends was murdered and that they are seeking revenge. The teardrop has been popularized recently by rappers and other celebrities, but still remains a staple in prisons. Those who are newbies behind bars with a teardrop tattoo will make a lot of enemies, fast.”

Alternatively, Mental Floss says, “There are many stories about why a prisoner would have this tattoo, but the most common is that an unfilled teardrop might symbolize the death of a loved one, while an opaque one might show that the death has been avenged.

Three dots representing “my crazy life” (vida loca) refers to the gang lifestyle, but no particular gang; typically applied at the corner of the eye or between the thumb and index finger. Sometimes three dots, like three crosses, represents the holy trinity of Christianity. 

Five dots between the thumb and forefinger represents time done in prison. It’s found internationally. Located elsewhere on the body, this design may mean association with the People Nation gang.

A clock with no hands represents doing time and a lot of it. Ditto watch without hands or an hourglass.

Barbed wire tattoos are fairly common and many have no specific meaning. Sometimes each barb represents a year served in prison.  On the forehead, such tattoos typically mean serving a life sentence.

Laughing and crying clown faces/masks often means “Laugh now, cry later” attitude of the gang lifestyle.

Gender As a Factor in Prison/Gang Tattoos

Although there is much online discussion of convict tattoos in general, most of the images shown feature men. From this, with an overlay of gender stereotypes, one might conclude that tattoos among female inmates are rare.  But I found one research paper to the contrary.

“This study confirmed that there is a high frequency of tattoos among female offenders, but disproved the hypothesis that the frequency would be higher and more aggressive among violent offenders in comparison to non-violent offenders. Based on these findings, non-violent female offenders were more likely than violent female offenders to have a tattoo or tattoos, to have multiple tattoos, and to have aggressive or masculine tattoos. However, offenders convicted of violent crimes like robbery and assault or battery had the most visible tattoos, primarily located on the hands, face, fingers, and wrists.” 

(Sullivan, Megan, “Crimes Committed By Tattooed Female Offenders and the Significance of Body Art Content and Location” (2011). All Regis University Theses. 48 (.https://epublications.regis.edu/theses/483

I found no indication that the images and/or their meanings differ by gender. 

And according to Wikipedia, “Forced and enslaved prostitutes are often tattooed or branded with a mark of their owners. Women and girls being forced into prostitution against their will may have their boss’ name or gang symbol inked or branded with a hot iron on their skin. In some organizations involved with the trafficking of women and girls, like the mafias, nearly all prostitutes are marked. Some pimps and organizations use their name or well-known logo, while others use secret signs.  Some years ago, the branding mark was usually small, only recognized by other pimps, and sometimes hidden between the labia minora, but today some “owners” write their names in big letters all upon the body of the victim.”

Bottom line: Tattoos can carry a lot of meaning. When deciphering that meaning, tread carefully.

TATTOO!

Quick: what’s the first thing that came to mind?

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in the 1963 film of the same name
Vladimir Franz, a candidate for the Czech Presidency in 2013

Last week, a woman said to me (approximately), “People  think permanent make-up is a new thing, but Cleopatra’s famous eyes were tattooed on. Soot was applied with knives.” I’d never heard such a thing, and I’ve actually been to Egypt. I always assumed her face was painted. As with anything that pricks my curiosity, I googled it. Lo and behold, it’s a much more complicated topic than I ever considered.

Bontoc Warrior with Chaklag Tattoos

Basically, any time an indelible design is created by inserting pigment under the epidermis, the result is a tattoo. Tattooing has been practiced in various cultures over centuries.

How Many Centuries? 

Ötzi the Iceman

As for bodily evidence of tattoos, for a long time the oldest known examples were Egyptian mummies, dated about 2000 BCE. However, Ötzi the Iceman, found on the Italian-Australian border in 1991, pushed that back. His mummified skin has at least 60 tattoos and was carbon dated a thousand years earlier, making him 5,200 years old.

This pre-Cucuteni figurine was made sometime between 4900 and 4750 BCE, with what look like evidence of cultural tattoos.

If one considers non-body evidence such as figurines and and paintings, then tattooing was practiced in Egypt in the Predynastic period, around 3100 BCE.

Tattooing Was Everywhere 

Moana was also the first Disney film to feature characters with tattoos!
Tätowierung Inuitfrau, an Inuit woman painted by Jens Peder Hart Hansen, circa 1654

The word tattoo started as the Polynesian word ta, meaning to strike. It evolved into the Tahitian word tatatau, meaning to mark something. As seen in the animated film Moana, these traditional tattoos were applied by means of rapidly striking a bamboo rod to drive an inked thorn into the skin.

A marriageable girl of the Koita people of Papua New Guinea, who had new tattoos added every year since she was five years old

In nearly every ancient culture, such as those in Greece and Rome to Native Americans, Japanese, sub-Saharan African, Australian Aboriginal, and Innuit, evidence has shown that tattooing was and most modern cultures tattoos were and are everywhere.

But Why Tattoo?

Preserved skin of a British military deserter, tattooed with a D
  • A cultic symbol dedicating the wearer to a specific god or belief
    • For example, Amunet was a priestess of the goddess Hathor.
  • As a brand signifying servitude/slavery/shame
    • For example adulterers marked with an A, T for thief, etc.
  • As a professional identification (e.g., prostitute, priestess)
  • As a permanent amulet seeking protection
    • Sailors having anchor tattoos or miners with lamps tattooed on their foreheads were trying to bring good luck.
    • The patterns of tattoos on Egyptian women’s abdomens and thighs seem to have been for fertility and for protection during pregnancy and childbirth. 
Japanese prostitute of the Kansei Era (circa 1888) painted by Tsukiok Yoshitoshi
  • Tattoos may have been a therapeutic tool, similar to acupuncture. 
    • The Ice Man had tattoos on his hands, lower back, and feet in areas that showed signs of stress damage.
  • As a declaration of group membership (think Marines, college fraternities, or Nazis)
  • As a visible means of intimidating the enemy (think Maori warriors) or showing bravery or success in battle
  • As a personal symbol of a meaningful event (e.g., birth of a child) or belief (sayings of Jesus or Buddha), or tribute to a beloved person
  • And, of course, as pure body art/decoration
  • Tattoos used by gang members and prisoners are often extraordinarily complex and will be covered in a separate blog post of their own.
    • The tattoos used by the Nazis in concentration camps were a form of branding, not in the same class as voluntary markings prisoners have chosen to put on their bodies for various reasons.
  • Tattoos to repair or restore
    • Today, plastic surgeons often work with tattoo artists to cover scars, burns, the effects of alopecia or vitiligo.
    • Many women get tattoos on their breasts after cancer surgery.
      • Along with her other artistic work, Amy Black (Pink Ink Fund) is a tattoo artist well known in the Richmond, VA area, for creating realistic-looking nipples or other art for women who have had cancer surgery. 

Permanent Make-Up, the Daughter of General Tattooing  

The goal is to look natural, or like externally applied makeup, enhancing colors on the face, lips, eyebrows, and eyelids. This type of tattooing (also known as cosmetic tattooing, dermapigmentation, micropigmentation) is also older than one might think.

Tattooed Eyebrows and Eyeliner

The first documented permanent makeup artist was Sutherland MacDonald, in the U.K. in 1902! His specialty was “all-year-round delicate pink complexion”—i.e., rouged cheeks. By the 1920s, it was popular in the U.S. The tattooist George Burchett wrote about beauty salons that tattooed women using vegetable dyes without their knowledge under the rise of “complexion treatment.” (Personally, I can only imagine that those women were willfully ignorant, given that tattooing is generally an uncomfortable procedure with visible aftereffects, such as temporary scabbing.) 

Mrs. M Stevens Wagner, 1907

As with all matters of fashion, popularity varies over time. During the 1960s and 1970s, the popularity of tattoos took a sharp uptick. According to one article (the guardian.com) in 2016, a US poll revealed that 29% of people had a tattoo, up from 21% four years earlier. Of people born between 1982 and 2004, 47% have at least one.

General Considerations 

Whang-od Oggay is the last Mambabatok (master practitioner of the traditional Kalinga tattoo method) of the Butbut people of the Philippines.

Do multiple tattoos create a different impression from a single one? And if so, in what way? What difference does the reason for the tattoo make? What about the nature/content of the tattoo?

But Back to Cleopatra 

Retrato Femenino: Fresco of a woman believed to be Cleopatra from a villa in Roman Herculaneum, circa 1st Century CE

According to accepted academic evidence, in Egypt—unlike most cultures—only women were tattooed. The tattoos most often seemed related to fertility and childbirth, or identifying the woman as high ranking. However, I found nothing specific to Cleopatra’s face. Bummer.

Bottom Line

Permanent body decoration serves psychological and/or practical purposes for the tattooed one. In addition, body decorations send out a range of social signals—intentional or not. Think about it.

WHAT MODE OF TRANSPORTATION SAYS TO OTHER PEOPLE

Like other accouterments of our lives—housing, clothing, pets—how we get from Point A to Point B communicates to those around us—and not everyone draws the same conclusions! The following observations are some of the most common (or loudest) I’ve come across; different countries and time periods have had varied observations about modes of transportation. Like most stereotypes and public perceptions, the following are of varying degrees of truth.

As general background: when users have to decide which mode of transport to use (private car, public transport, cycling, walking, etc.) gender is often a more robust determinant than age or income!

Shank’s Mare (A.K.A. walking): the Oldest Mode 

If only we could see what was on the other side!
  • Seldom chosen as the primary or only way to get around
  • People on long pilgrimages (Hajj to Mecca, walking cross country to raise awareness for a cause, Gandhi’s march to the Sea)
  • Depending on other info, may indicate poverty or health awareness

Bicycle: Impressions Depend on Model, Condition, Etc.

Many cities in China have more bicycles than cars.

Bicycles, mopeds, scooters, and motorcycles are almost always two-wheeled vehicles driven and steered by one rider. The distinctions are, like almost everything else, varied around the world and prone to blurring. A bicycle is powered entirely by the rider pedaling; a moped has a small motor attached to assist with pedaling in especially difficult environments. Bicycles are relatively easily modified for people with physical limitations, compared to cars and motorcycles.

  • People are in the best mood when riding bicycles
  • Can be inexpensive or very expensive, depending on type of bicycle and riding gear
  • Environmentally friendly 
  • Difficult to park securely in many places
  • Primarily for physical fitness
    • In fact, the vast majority of regular bicyclists in the US ride for transportation as they cannot afford a car and do not have access to public transit
  • Limited passenger capacity
    • Not as limited as most in the U.S. assume.
    • In Copenhagen, “’Cargo-bike moms’ are gentrifying the Netherlands.”

Scooter Impressions

Scooters are powered entirely by an engine, with a foot well for the seated rider’s legs. Unlike a car, all engine controls are in the handles.

Ambulance scooter with a sidecar for patients
  • Easy to drive
  • Cheaper and slower than a motorcycle
  • No safer than motorcycles 
  • Popular on very rural country rides for teenagers
  • More popular abroad than in the U.S.
  • Easier to maneuver and store in crowded areas
  • Driving permit requirements are often different from those of a car or motorcycle
    • Many areas don’t require permits at all
    • Iran and Saudi Arabia (among others) are questioning whether scooters fall under the same laws forbidding women to drive

Motorcycle Rider Stereotypes

Motorcycles and scooters are very similar, but a motorcyclist sits astride the seat. The engine of a motorcycle is generally more powerful than that of a scooter.

Bessie Stringfield rode her motorcycle from one end of America to the other, and as a dispatch rider in World War II.
  • Violent
  • Gang members
  • Harley riders are elitist and only care about brand; Other riders are effeminate
  • Reckless behavior
    • Stunt hooligans on the road
    • Prone to road-rage
    • Have a death wish
      • Emergency Response personnel sometimes refer to motorcycle riders as “Organ Donors,” but that is more because of the lack of safety gear than specific behavior patterns
  • Car haters
  • Uneducated rednecks
  • All young riders prefer sports bikes
“Dykes on Bikes” motorcycle club at a Pride rally
  • Physically tough appearance
    • Men have long, unkempt beards
    • Tattoos are common
    • Women dress provocatively
    • Lots of black leather, chains, spikes, gang markings, etc.
    • Gear is chosen to look tough rather than for practicality
  • Many of these perceptions are based on Hell’s Angels and other “outlaw motorcycle clubs”

Multi-Passenger Public Transportation

Public transport is much safer than automobiles (the above photo is an exception).  For example, bus and rail travelers are 20 times less likely to die en route than drivers. Even if self-driving and safety technology could reduce car by 90%, fatalities per passenger mile would still be twice as high in private automobiles.

Dogs ride free, right?
  • World-wide, the largest share of public transportation users are women
  • Bus and train riders experience the most negative emotions
    • Bus: poor people who cannot afford a vehicle/gas;
      • homeless/mentally ill people seeking temporary shelter from the elements.
    • Subway: city-dweller
    • Train: long-distance commuters;
      • More common in Europe and Asia, where train systems are much more comprehensive
    • Plane: long-distance (business or pleasure) travelers of means

Individual Cars

Private automobiles are especially dangerous if they don’t obey the laws of gravity.
So happy! He knows he’s going to the park.
  • The second happiest people are car passengers, followed by car drivers
  • Carpoolers: cut down air pollution
    • Lessen expenses of gas/parking
  • Private chauffeur
    • Renting a limousine or similar
  • Driver alone: not sociality responsible
    • Selfish or ego-centric
  • Taxi/Lyft/Uber: short distance trips for those valuing convenience
    • People who cannot drive for whatever reason (inebriation, tourist, moving larger than normal cargo, etc.)
    • Consider the possible conflicts between traditional taxi services and Lyft or Uber style companies, or even the conflict between drivers and management within those companies
  • Car drivers are so common that to dig into assumptions, it’s necessary to get into make and model

Other

Other methods of transportation are more common outside the US. Extreme climates, different resources, and distance have made what we might see as extraordinary into the everyday.

Ferries are common in highly populated areas on the water.
  • Dog sled, snow mobile, cross-country skiing
  • Bush plane
  • Tuktuk, marsrhutka, or any other kind of informal minibus system run by individual drivers
  • Horseback or horse-drawn vehicle (or donkey, mule, camel, etc.)
  • Canoe or kayak
  • Hitch-hiking
  • Rickshaw

BOTTOM LINE for writers: consider your choice and the reason for it!

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: MONEY

I have to work very hard not to spend all my money (and time) one books.

Money, money, money! It touches nearly every aspect of a person’s/character’s life—and deserves conscious decision making.

Does owning an entire city count as filthy rich?

How much money?  These are not scientific or economic terms, rather, the sorts of terms people use to describe themselves and/or others. The actual dollar amounts associated with the descriptors may vary. What would you/your character say? Point of information: people tend to make finer distinctions closest to where they peg themselves, lumping the extremes into bigger chunks.

Being penniless isn’t so bad when there are open barrels of food everywhere.
  • Penniless
  • Poverty stricken
  • Poor
  • Lower middle class
  • Middle class
  • Upper middle class
  • Well off
  • Rich
  • Filthy rich

*I’ve also seen income level defined by preferred fast food options. The scale ranges from Going to AA Meetings for Coffee, through Taco Bell and Chipotle, all the way up to Whatever the Private Chef Makes.

Social attitudes toward shopkeepers often depends on the quality of merchandise.

Source(s) of income: Note that respect for various sources of income varies widely. This often translates into treating people differently.

Musicians playing in a bar are often treated differently from musicians playing in a symphony hall, though their incomes are often almost identical.
  • Begging or panhandling
  • Gambling
  • Theft of various sorts, with or without another source
  • Illegal activities
  • SSI disability
  • Medicare/Medicaid 
  • Hourly wage
  • Entertainment, anything from a classical pianist to an exotic dancer
  • By the job/ piecework
  • Having multiple jobs
  • Salary
  • Salary plus bonuses
  • Stocks/bonds, dividends/interest
  • Trust funds
  • Family loans/gifts

Stability/predictability/security of income: Obviously, stability has implications for mental health and life stress. Money can’t buy happiness, but it certainly makes achieving stability somewhat easier.

Some people value experience and travel more than money, making a living on the road, feeling the wind in their fur… er… hair.
Assassins are generally exempt from income and property taxes, though sales tax may still apply.

Thoughts on taxes: This could be the modern IRS, but the same questions could just as easily be applied to citizens providing magic spells or Zygloxans giving helium globules to the Grand Tyrant on Planet YT-3H81.

  • Taking fewer payroll deductions than allowed in order to assure a tax refund vs. planning to owe and have the use of the money in the meantime
  • Being willing to pay taxes or looking for ways to avoid paying them
  • Finding quasi-legal or outright illegal methods to get out of paying taxes
  • Carefully accounting for every expenditure or estimating
  • Moral objections to the use of taxes (such as Thoreau)

Attitude toward money: Not necessarily related to amount of income.

Making everything at home is a way to save money and ensure quality.
  • Always more where that came from
  • Easy come, easy go
  • Best to save for a rainy day/unexpected expense
  • Sacrifice now for a secure retirement/college tuition/whatever
  • Always live below your means
  • Clips coupons and shops sales
  • Shop resale/garage sales/etc.
  • Buy quality, not quantity
  • Budget every penny and then figure out which bills will have to remain unpaid

Money by comparison: Source(s), level, etc., of income, especially compared to family and friends.

Relationships can get really complicated if your friends sell you off for scientific experiments.
  • Similar
  • Comparable
  • Much above
  • Much below
  • Changed over your/your character’s lifetime
  • Income disparity causing conflict

Where the money goes:

  • Religious tithes
  • Charitable contributions
  • Necessities only
  • Whatever strikes one’s fancy
  • Luxuries, with or without guilt
  • Whatever is most visible to elicit praise, admiration, or envy from others
  • Hobbies (what?)
  • Supporting family or friends who need a hand
  • Pets
  • Back into a business
  • Stocks/bonds
  • Sponsoring people on social media as indirect advertisement
Partying with demons is surprisingly expensive.

How money is handled:

If these characters offer a loan, running away is probably the best response.
  • Cash only
  • Charge everything possible
  • Pay by debit card whenever possible
  • Pay bills as soon as one arrives
  • Have bills paid by bank debit
  • Pay at the last minute, sometimes incurring late fees
  • Tip lavishly or stingily?
  • Bank account
  • Checking account
  • Savings account
  • Needing to take payday or title loans
  • If having to choose food, rent/mortgage, utilities, gas/transportation, which?

Bottom Line: What other ways is money a lynchpin in the life of you / your character?

No matter how carefully one budgets and saves, it can all be taken away at any time when a horde of dragons comes by.