In modern slang, phat is roughly equivalent to excellent. Fat is a loose label that can refer to normal, overweight, obese, or extremely obese—or body parts that the speaker considers overly large. Fat or phat depends on where and when—and whether TV is available. 

According to The Body Project at Bradley University, “Although thin bodies are the ideal in America today, this is not always the case in other parts of the world. In some countries larger bodies are actually preferred because they are symbols of wealth, power, and fertility.” Here are their highlights.


  • In Tahiti, researchers in the 19th century observed chosen men and women engaging in a ritual process called ha’apori, or “fattening.”
    • Those selected to participate were usually young men and women from the upper echelons of society. 
    • During the fattening process, they would reside in a special home where relatives fed and cared for them so they would grow large, healthy, and attractive.
  • This ritual is no longer practiced today, but Tahitians still find large bodies attractive. This may be due in part to a diet rich in carbohydrates and coconut milk.


  • In Nauru, large bodies were traditionally associated with beauty and fertility.
    • Young women were fattened up in preparation for child bearing.
    • Young men were fattened in preparation for contests of strength.
  • Fattening rituals had both social and biological benefits.
    • Feasting brought the community together and helped unite them.
    • The additional calories given to women of childbearing age increased the likelihood of conception and healthy birth and lactation.
  • Such fattening rituals ended in the 1920s.


  • In Fiji, larger bodies are symbols of health and connectedness to the community. People who lose a lot of weight or are very thin are regarded with suspicion or pity.
    • In a 1998 study in Fiji, 54% of obese female respondents said they wanted to maintain their present weight, while 17% of obese women said they hoped to gain weight.
    • Among overweight (although not obese) women, 72% said they did not wish to change their weight, while 8% of these women hoped to gain weight.
  • Both overweight and obese women expressed a high level of body satisfaction.


  • A 1993 study in Jamaica found that plump bodies are considered healthiest and most attractive among rural Jamaicans.
    • Fat is associated with fertility, kindness, happiness, vitality, and social harmony.
    • Some Jamaican girls even buy pills designed to increase their appetite and help them gain weight.
  • Particular emphasis is placed on generous hips and hindquarters.
  • Weight loss and thinness are considered signs of social neglect.

The body project reports: “In recent times, even many societies that once favored larger bodies seem to be moving toward thinner bodies as the ideal. Why? One factor is that with globalization and the spread of Western media, people around the world are receiving the same message that we do in America: that thin bodies are the most attractive.”

  • In a landmark 2002 study, researchers reported the effects of the Western mass media on body ideals in Fiji.
    • When researchers visited one region of Fiji in 1995, they found that broadcast television was not available. In that region, there was only one reported case of anorexia nervosa.
    • Just three years after the introduction of television, 69% of girls reported dieting to lose weight.
    • Those whose families owned televisions were three times more likely to have attitudes associated with eating disorders.

Other Countries Where Big is Beautiful

52% of Kuwaiti women over 15 are obese.  Extra weight was historically seen as a sign of health and wealth.  Additionally, the idea of women exercising is a taboo.

American Samoa
Anthropologists believe Samoans may have developed a genetic predisposition to store extra calories in fat tissue as a result of millennia of food shortages.  Heavy women (and men) are simply the norm and therefore embraced.

South Africa
The end of Apartheid did not mean South Africans adopted European size ideals to replace the correlation of weight and wealth. More recently, AIDS has become so prevalent that the societal association between weight loss and illness has contributed to South Africa’s negative view of thinness. 

Female fertility is highly associated with excess pounds, particularly among the most traditional nomadic tribes in Afghanistan. Today, burquas conceal most of the body’s shape, but round faces and soft hands are immediate signs of attractiveness.

Female obesity is so synonymous with beauty and wealth that young girls are sometimes force-fed if they do not exhibit sufficient appetites.  Women often take antihistamines and animal steroids to induce appetite.  Exercise is frowned upon, and women are frequently divorced for their inability to sustain excessive girth after childbirth.

Changing Body Ideals

As The Body Project so clearly documented, body ideals are fluid. The changes over time are apparent, most obviously since 1900. 

From the Stone Age to the Renaissance, fat was beautiful, thought to reflect both health and wealth. Consider the early Fertility Goddesses (such as Venus, Ishtar, Brigid, Parvati, Hathor, Ashanti Akuba,) as an ideal:

  • Prior to 1900, in China, the stigma of thinness was so strong that thin people had trouble finding marriage partners. Special bulking diets were consumed to make sure those of marriageable age would be attractive.
  • Elite pubescent Efik girls (in Nigeria) spent two years in fattening huts, which were exactly what the name implies.
  • The Tarahumara of Northern Mexico idealized fat legs. Both women and men were considered more attractive or prosperous if obese.

Plus-sized beauty ideals are everywhere in old art. For example, “The Bathers” by Renoir (1887) is typical. Rubens, Titian, Memling, Botticelli, Michelangelo, and their fellow artists were all appreciative of the breadth of their subjects’ forms.

At the turn of the 20th century, Lillian Russell, weighing approximately 200 pounds, was a sex symbol. Women carrying extra weight were considered beautiful and fertile. Overweight men were perceived as powerful. There was even a club just for men who weighed over 200 pounds.

Connecticut Fat Men’s Club in 1866

Although during the Roaring Twenties in the U.S. the ideal body for women was “boyish” (flat chest and narrow hips), by the 1950s the ideal female body was significantly heavier than today. (Think Marilyn Monroe.)

Miss America pageant winners
The most beautiful woman, according to different populations.

Degrees of “acceptable” weight vary among cultures, regions, even ethnic groups. A number of studies report that African-American women were less likely than white women to obsess over their weight or to view their body as an enemy. Black women, as well as Hispanic women, didn’t start to express dissatisfaction until they were borderline obese. White women expressed dissatisfaction when they were at the high end of normal/borderline overweight.

From the 1960s to 2020, the ideal body has been some degree of thinness, even as there is a wave of obesity around the world.

Obesity and Physical  Health

I won’t dwell on physical health because it’s common knowledge. Obesity is bad for one’s health, increasing the likelihood of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, cancer, osteoarthritis, infertility, fibroids, gastro-intestinal problems, and sleep disturbances. Recent studies have indicated that overweight patients who become infected with COVID-19 are more likely to develop life-threatening complications. 

Stereotypes of Fat People

Numerous surveys have demonstrated that the American public is biased against people who are overweight and obese. 

Negative attitudes toward fat people are dominant, pervasive, and difficult to change in both children and adults.

According to the AMA Journal of Ethics, physicians hold numerous biases. “A survey involving a nationally representative sample of primary care physicians revealed that, not only did more than half of respondents think that patients who are obese were awkward and unattractive, but more than 50 percent believed that they would be noncompliant with treatment. One-third thought of them as “weak-willed” and “lazy.”

Another study found that as patients’ weight increased, physicians reported having less patience, less faith in patients’ ability to comply with treatment, and less desire to help them. Other studies have added to the evidence that bias against patients who are obese is common in health care settings.”

These findings are particularly scary in light of the relationship between obesity and health problems summarized above—and in light of the fact that the majority of Americans are overweight or obese.

Fat people are thought to have no willpower, no self-control. Although expected to be good humored and laid back, they are also thought to be gluttons.

Tess Holliday (left) was mocked for wearing this dress on the red carpet. Several other (thin) celebrities were admired for wearing the same dress.

Anyone can identify prejudices held by people in general, and the media—particularly TV—exacerbate the problem.  Greenberg et al. reported on their findings of television actors’ BMI after analyzing 5 episodes of the top 10 prime time shows.

  • In comparing television actors’ BMI to that of the American public, they found that only 25 percent of men on television were overweight or obese, compared to almost 60 percent of American men.
  • Almost 90 percent of women on TV were at or below normal weight, compared to less than 50 percent of American women.
Korean pop stars (such as Xiumin from EXO) are held to absurd body weight standards, often being forced by managers and publicists to remain in a perpetual state of malnourishment.

Popular television shows that include people who are obese portray them as comedic, lonely, or freaks (think Mike and Molly).  Rarely if ever are they romantic leads, successful lawyers or doctors, or action stars.

In addition, The Biggest Loser promotes the perception that obesity is caused by individual failure rather than a mixture of individual, environment, and genetic sources.

  • Miscellaneous negative attributions
    • Rejected
    • Lazy
    • Slow
    • Sick
    • Low self-confidence
  • Indeterminate attributions
    • Hungry
    • Quiet
    • Shy
  • Although the negative attitudes are predominant, some positive traits are attributed to fat people
    • Happy
    • Sweet
    • Playful
    • Intelligent
    • Honest
    • Likely to fulfill promises
    • Kind
    • Generous

Fat and Employment

Male Body Ideals Through History
  • Negative attributions (see above) make employment particularly difficult for people who have some extra pounds.
    • Fat people have a harder time finding employment
    • Even when employed, fat people earn less than their thinner counterparts for the same job
    • They are less likely to be promoted
    • They get smaller raises
    • They’re more likely to be thought to be slacking off 

Fat and Mental Health

Even Plus-Size Models are photo-shopped to be nearly unrecognizable.
Karizza Photographer
  • In a nutshell, the more overweight a person is, the more likely that person is to have mental health problems.
    • Partly it’s because people incorporate the negative stereotypes held by society.
    • This, in turn, can cause-isolation-poor body image 
      • Low self-esteem
      • Depression
      • Anxiety
      • Bulimia or anorexia
Some people are totally comfortable in their bodies, not caring what anyone thinks.

Women in general react more strongly than men to negative comments and the lack of positive comments. Overweight women are much more likely to be hurt by criticism of their bodies than overweight men are.

Bottom line for writers: Whatever the body type of characters, make a conscious decision on whether to draw on stereotypes or go against them.


How would your character respond to potential death? Throughout time, people have faced illnesses and situations from which they knew, expected, or feared they might die. The possibilities are nearly limitless. Here are a few examples.

  • Prisoner of war-torture-prisoner on death row
  • Slavery
  • Famine/starvation
  • Exposure to extreme heat or cold
  • Domestic violence
  • Lost in the wild
  • Having a stalker
  • Being old
  • COVID/epidemic/pandemic
  • Bubonic plague
  • TB/consumption
  • Smallpox
  • Malaria
  • Seasonal influenza
  • Cholera
  • Rabies
  • Pneumonia
  • Infectious diarrhea
  • Ebola
  • Variant Creutzfeldt
  • Jakob disease
  • Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)
  • Leprosy
  • Cancer

Common Responses

A glance at these examples reveals that deadliness depends, not only on what but also on location, time period, and resources (medical and otherwise). As with so many things—all things?–responses vary. Here are some of the most common responses.


The label says nearly everything. The person, one way or another, says, “It just ain’t so.” Symptoms are ignored, dismissed as symptoms of something less serious. If actually diagnosed, the person thinks that a mistake has been made. 

For example, a woman attributes her shortness of breath to asthma or pneumonia. When referred for X-rays, she doesn’t follow through. One Sunday, when she doesn’t make it to church, other congregants find her unconscious and call the volunteer EMT squad and take her to the emergency room. The preliminary diagnosis is pneumonia. Five days later, she dies of lung cancer that has metastasized to her brain and other soft organs.


This is, basically, what will be, will be. Not motivated to seek or follow medical treatment. There are some religious sects that chew medical treatment, on the belief that God will heal or not, “His will be done.” Often life is carried on as close to normal as possible, sometimes the person does as little as possible, waiting for the outcome.

Resistance and Endurance

The epitome of this response would be Senator John McCain, a war hero who survived years of imprisonment and solitary confinement.


For a disease, this person would actively seek treatment, the latest treatment, even alternative treatment. 

An example would be a man diagnosed with lung cancer who agrees to participate in an experimental trial. After two seizures in which he nearly dies of heart attacks, he leaves the trial, takes what ameliorating treatments he can find, and dies a year later, looking like an Auschwitz survivor.

For events such as exposure to heat or cold, it means physically fighting to survive, calling on whatever skills are available

Make the Best of It

This is a person who accepts the diagnosis, looks at the data on prognosis with various treatments, and moves forward. Here are a couple of examples of women with breast cancer.

  • The first had an optimistic outlook. She had a lumpectomy, radiation, one infection followed by another, a second surgery, followed by months of treatment for a persistent non—healing wound. During those treatments, she spent hours a day, five days a week in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber. A year after the original diagnosis, she was offered plastic surgery to repair the surgical scars. After a year of life bound by the medical establishment, she opted to redecorate instead: she had the scarred area tattooed. Eventually that original tattoo was expanded and entirely encircled her torso. She reveled in reclaiming her time and her body, and celebrated five years of without a recurrence.
  • The second woman, in her early fifties, had a less positive prognosis. There was evidence that the cancer had metastasized, so she embarked on a course of chemotherapy, every three weeks for months. Her approach to coping was to take a few days before each chemo treatment—while she felt the best—to check something off her bucket list.- Six years before her best friend’s body had been cremated, and she had promised to scatter the ashes in Arizona, so she flew from Massachusetts to Phoenix and fulfilled her promise. She went zip-lining in Costa Rica, spent time at the beach, danced on the beach at night and went skinny-dipping, went hang gliding off the cliffs in California. Not able to take a safari to Africa, she took her children on a private safari at the local zoo, went parasailing in the Bahamas, and got a tattoo—not to be seen in public
Try to Stay in Control

Sometimes the anxiety of the unknown and feeling out of control of one’s own time and body leads to an attempt to take control of the unknown by committing suicide.

Self Medication

Trying to avoid the reality, and/or pain, alcohol and/or drugs can make the wait time more bearable.

Questions for writers: What situation would—most reasonably—be potentially deadly for your character? And how would your character handle it?


When a writer gets the voice right, it largely goes unnoticed. It’s a “good read” when the language, format, and structure seem more natural than noteworthy.

Writing Children

People often struggle to write from the point of view of a child, keeping the language and thinking consistently child-like. This is especially the case if one doesn’t have young children around spouting examples. One helpful step is to check on the language/vocabulary level by age. And as with everything else, there’s a book for that.

This is perfectly normal.

There are also a variety of resources available online. K. M. Weiland outlined “8 Necessary Tips for How to Write Child Characters” on the Helping Writers Become Authors website, in which she compares Shirley Temple’s characters with Louisa May Alcott’s. Julia Hecht wrote a more in-depth guide for the website All Write Alright. “A Guide to Writing Child Characters Authentically” identifies traits that children display when acting, speaking, and thinking at various ages from infant through teens.

Observing children and copying their behavior and speech patterns into your writing is the most reliable way to ensure authentically childlike characters. However, parents tend to get a bit uneasy when strange adults follow their children around with notepads. Videos online are a much safer method of research.

Children Writing

Less frequently—but equally important—is getting it right when the child is actually doing the writing. Instances might include letters, thank-you notes, notes passed in school, diary entries, etc.

Here for your edification (and enjoyment?) is one example—a short story by a real eight-year-old.

The Panda Thief

Ones there was a family
of Pandas. One day they had
a baby. They were over joyed
with :: but there 
was a person (not a panda)
that wanted a panda more
then anything in the worled.
She promest that if she
got just one panda she
wodent hunt them anymore.

Lukuly there was someone
who loved pandas so much
that she protekted
and her name was . . .
Nalani! She knew about
the theift so she really wanted
to proteked them so one
nite she made a trap
that rodent hert the thift
but keep her frome
comejng back. And she dided
ever again and Nalani said
“Thank you for not hunting 
Pandas in reward I will 
let you keep one that
yo may choose.”

The theft became
good and get a punda
and folowed her promes
and the panda 
she piked was the
newly born baby. The 
parents were sad for
a little but soon got over
it and everyone
lived hapily ever after!

The end

Things to note:

  • Language usage is much better than spelling
  • Spelling is mostly phonetic
  • Spelling is inconsistent (e.g., thief, theift, thift)
  • Lack of logic: there was no theft, and they ended up losing a baby panda anyway
Want to give it a try?

The Cat
Ones there was a cat
who’s oners coulded

Bottom line for writers: it’s easier to write well from a child’s point of view than to write like a child!

Writing examples from a two year old and then a three year old. I believe the one on the left is a shopping list. Fruit gummies were mentioned.


Spinster? Life-long bachelor? Being dead is no excuse for not getting married. If you are dead and looking for love, there is a dating website for you! Check out: http://www.ghostsingles.com/ (I am not affiliated in any way with this website; please do not perceive this as an endorsement for necrogamy.)

Ghost marriage (a.k.a. spirit marriage or necrogamy) has been practiced in some form in various cultures around the world for millennia. The first records appeared in Chinese legends more than 2000 years ago and has been part of the culture ever since. Although the practice was less common in China in the late 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution, it’s made a comeback.

Reasons for marrying the dead vary among cultures and in different time periods, but there are a few recurring themes. The examples listed in this blog are not comprehensive, but the motives could easily be applied in many fictional scenarios.

  • Appeasing the spirits of those already dead
  • Fulfilling an agreement made before one or both parties died
  • Maintaining social decorum
  • Ensuring the legitimacy of children and inheritance rights


Ghost weddings are most common in China. Minghun is, essentially ghost marriage in which the bride and/or groom is dead and has not left behind a widow(er). A Chinese ghost marriage is usually set up by family members.  The preferred ghost spouse is recently deceased. 

Ancestor Tablets

Writers note: Because, in China, men outnumber women in death as in life, ghost brides can be big business.  At least two cases have been reported (2007 and 2013) in which men killed more than a dozen prostitutes, housekeepers, and mentally ill women and sold the bodies to undertakers for about $2000. The undertakers then sold them to prospective “in-laws” for $5000. 

An engaged couple from Taipei were posthumously married despite having died together in a landslide

But why would dead people marry?  In China, and among the Chinese in Taiwan and Singapore, ghost marriage ceremonies are performed primarily to appease unhappy ghosts and to maintain social order or stability. The importance of marriage in Chinese society means that the ghosts of those who die unmarried are assumed to be unhappy and can wreck havoc on the birth family, the family of its betrothed (if engaged), and the married sisters of the ghost. This can take the form of any misfortune—financial setback, illness, etc.

Benefits for Women
  • Spinsters can gain social acceptance and cease being an “embarrassment” to their families (by being old spinsters at age 20!)
  • An unmarried daughter must gain a patrilineage so she can have a spirit tablet. With a tablet, the husband’s family will honor and care for her spirit after death.
  • Living unmarried women are not allowed to remain in the family home, nor are they allowed to die there.
  • A living woman marrying a ghost husband lives with his family, participates in the funeral ritual, abides by the mourning customs regarding dress and behavior, and takes a vow of celibacy. She also cares for her husband’s aging relatives. 
  • For some women, particularly during the nineteenth century, marrying a ghost was their ideal social arrangements. A rising class of silk merchants, primarily comprised of women, were not eager to give up their independence and relative freedom by being tied to a husband. Being married to a respectable ghost would provide such a woman with the social protection of marriage without the hassle of raising a family. For more details, check out Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert, a fascinating look at the history of marriage.
Benefits for Men
  • Dead sons were honored by giving them living brides.
  • The practice ensured the family line and name would continue. The groom’s family could adopt a grandson, usually a son of a male relative, who behaved as a son and inherited his deceased “father’s” share of the family wealth.
  • The groom’s mother would have a daughter-in-law to wait on her and care for the house.
  • It was considered unlucky and sometimes shameful for a younger brother to be married before an older one (even if the older brother was dead.)

Finding a suitable spouse is a varied business. Sometimes it involves a marriage broker who finds a family with a recently dead member who has a favorable horoscope. Some families use a priest as a matchmaker. Some families approach an undertaker/funeral director.

Paper offerings of money and luxuries are burned at ghost wedding to provide the married couple comfort in the afterlife.

Sometimes the family assumes that the ghost will identify his or her preferred spouse. The potential bride or groom will reveal him or herself. A restless ghost may also express a desire to be married by appearing in a family member’s dream or while being channeled through a spirit medium during a séance.

Financial arrangements also vary.  Often there is an exchange of bride wealth and/or dowries between the two families, but more often paper representations of wealth are exchanged.  Houses, cars, servants, food, and furniture are all burned in offering to the deceased. (Often, money made to be burned will have “Bank of Heaven” printed on one side and “Bank of Hell” printed on the other. Wherever the happy couple wind up, they’ll have plenty of spending power!)

Ghost Wedding from 1922

A ghost marriage ceremony is as similar as possible to a regular marriage ceremony, but with the dead person(s) represented by manikins made of cloth, bamboo, wood, and/or paper. The bride and groom wear real clothes but costume jewelry. A living groom would wear black gloves instead of white. The effigies are typically treated as though alive—being ‘fed,” talked to, and moved from place to place—until after all the festivities, when they are burned, and the bride’s ancestral tablet is added to the groom’s family’s tablets. If the bride and groom were engaged before he died, the groom is often represented on the wedding day by a white rooster.

Lantern Offerings for the Festival of Hungry Ghosts


Some regions of Japan, particularly the northern islands and Okinawa Prefecture, have a very long tradition of posthumous marriage, probably because of centuries of Chinese influence. Here, again, the reason relates to the placing of spirit tablets and continued honoring of ancestors.

The main factor distinguishing Japanese ghost marriage from its Chinese counterpart is the type of spouses married to ghosts. A deceased person is not married to another dead person, nor to a living one, but to a doll. The most common ghost marriage is between a ghost man and a bride doll, but posthumous weddings can go the other way, with a ghost bride marrying a groom doll. During a Japanese doll wedding ceremony, a photo of the dead man or woman is placed in a glass case alongside the doll to represent their union. The tableau stays in place for up to 30 years, at which point the deceased’s spirit is considered to have passed into the next realm. The symbolic companionship is designed to keep the ghost husband or wife calm and prevent supernatural harm from coming to the living family.

Ellen Schattschneider wrote about ghost weddings in Japan in her 2001 paper “Buy Me a Bride”: Death and Exchange in Northern Japanese Bride‐Doll Marriage

Persons who die early harbor resentment toward the living. Denied the sexual and emotional fulfillment of marriage and procreation, they often seek to torment their more fortunate living relatives through illness, financial misfortune, or spirit possession. Spirit marriage, allowing a ritual completion of the life cycle, placates the dead spirit and turns its malevolent attention away from the living.


Throughout the Korean Peninsula, it used to be customary for a person to marry the soul of a betrothed who died before the wedding. The living spouse would then remain celibate for the rest of his/her life. Currently that tradition is not binding.


Modern law in South Korea allows posthumous marriage in cases where one member of an engaged couple dies because, according Unification Church beliefs, only married couple can enter the highest levels of heaven. Another reason for postmortem marriages is—again—if the prospective bride is pregnant.


In Kasargod, India, children are often engaged to be married at a very young age. If the children pass away before they are old enough to marry, their families may hold in a Pretha Kalyanam. After consulting an astrologer, the two families will hold a traditional Hindu wedding ceremony with dolls in place of the bride and groom. The dolls are dressed in traditional wedding clothes, horoscopes are matched, and a wedding feast is served to guests.

After the ceremony, the dolls are buried under a sacred tree, submerged in a lake or river, or burned in a ceremonial pyre.


Etienne Cardiles posthumously married his civil partner Xavier Jugelé after Jugelé was killed in a terrorist attack by ISIL

Posthumous or Postmortem Marriage is a legal form of marriage which originated in the 1950s. The story behind the addition begins with a disaster: on December 2, 1959, the Malpasset Dam just north of the French Riviera collapsed, unleashing a furious wall of water that killed 423 people. When then president Charles de Gaulle visited the devastated site, a bereaved woman, Irène Jodard, pleaded to be allowed to marry her dead fiancé. On December 31, French parliament passed the law permitting posthumous marriage.

The President of the Republic may, for grave reasons, authorize the celebration of the marriage where one of the future spouses died after completion of official formalities indicating unequivocally his or her consent. In this case, the effect of marriage dated back to the day preceding the death of the husband. However, this marriage does not entail any right of intestate succession for the benefit of the surviving spouse and no matrimonial property is deemed to have existed between spouses.

Article 117 of the French Civil Code

Ways to legally show intent include having posted an official wedding announcement at the local courthouse and written permission from a soldier’s commanding officer. Grave reasons include the birth of a child, and to legitimize children is a primary reason for such marriages. If the couple had planned to marry and the family of the deceased approves, the local official sends the application back to the President. 

Writers note: One quarter of the applications for posthumous marriage are rejected.

During the ceremony, the living spouse stands next to a picture of the deceased fiancé. Instead of the deceased’s marriage vows, the mayor conducting the ceremony reads the presidential decree.

Magaly Jaskiewicz’s posthumous marriage to Jonathan George in 2009

Money: The law does not allow the living spouse to claim any of the deceased spouse’s property or money. No matrimonial property is considered to have existed. However, the living spouse is considered a widow for purpose of receiving pension and insurance benefits.

Pro or con: A posthumous marriage bring the surviving spouse into the family of the deceased spouse, which can create an alliance and/or emotional satisfaction—or the opposite! The surviving spouse is also subject to the impediments of marriage that result. 


Charlotte Kaletta and Fritz Pfeffer

The German government did not allow Jews and non-Jews to marry under the 1935 Nazi Nuremberg Laws. Charlotte Kaletta and Fritz Pfeffer lived together without marriage. In 1950, Charlotte married Fritz posthumously, with a retrospective wedding date of May 31, 1937.


Within the Nuer ethnic group of southern Sudan, ghost marriage happens in a very particular way. “If a man dies without male heirs, a kinsman frequently marries a wife to the dead man’s name,” writes Alice Singer in Marriage Payments and the Exchange of People. “The genitor [biological father] then behaves socially like the husband, but the ghost is considered the pater [legal father].”

Manyok bride

This arrangement, Levirate marriage, is conducted in order to secure both the property and ongoing lineage of the dead man. The woman receives a payment at the time of the ghost marriage—a fee known as the brideprice—which may include “bloodwealth” money from those responsible for the death of the man as well as payment in the form of cattle that once belonged to the deceased man. The Dinka (Jieng) and Nuer tribes of Southern Sudan most commonly practice this form of ghost marriage. Women will also marry a deceased man so they can retain their wealth and property instead of losing it to a living husband.

Dinka wedding celebrations

The term Levirate is a derivative of the Latin word levir meaning “husband’s brother.” Instances of Levirate marriage have also been documented in Judaism, Islam, Scythia, Central Asia and Xiongnu, Kirghiz, Indonesia, Somalia, Cameroon, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, South Sudan, Zimbabwe and England.

THE UNITED STATES does not legally recognize ghost marriages.

Bottom line for writers: Marrying dead people is rife with possibilities for tension, romance, murder, and conflict. Real-life examples are often tragic. Wikipedia has a list of posthumous marriage in fiction—TV, film, and novels. Feel free to go for it, even if you will not be the first!


In Vrindavan, India, a group of widows break social taboos and celebrate Holi, the festival of colors

Invictus by William Ernest Henley: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” Compare that to “Life happens.” In essence, these are examples of internal locus of control and external locus of control, respectively. Most protagonists—for good or ill—have an internal locus of control.

Locus of control is a psychological concept regarding an individual’s belief system concerning the causes of experiences, successes, and failures. Psychologists have been studying locus of control for approximately 70 years, and a lot has been discovered. 

Note to writers: Be aware of what usually goes along with locus of control and how that might drive your characters.

Internal Locus of Control People

  • Are more likely to take responsibility for their actions
  • Tend to be less influenced by the opinions of others
  • Often do better when they are allowed to work on tasks at their own pace
  • Usually have a strong sense of self-efficacy
  • Feel confident in the face of challenges
  • Tend to work hard to achieve the things they want
  • Tend to be physically healthier
  • Report being happier and more independent
  • Often achieve greater work/professional success

Internals Say Things Like

  • “I know it’s up to me.”
  • “I have to learn how to become more successful at X.”
  • “I’m responsible for what happens in my life.”
  • “If I want better grades, I have to start working sooner.”

External Locus of Control People

  • Blame outside forces for their circumstances
  • Often credit luck or chance for any successes
  • Don’t believe they can change their situation through their own efforts
  • Frequently feel hopeless or powerless in the face of difficulties
  • Experiencing tasks as exceptionally difficult and consequently failing often can lead to developing an external locus of control as an ego defense mechanism

Externals Say Things Like

  • “It’s too hard to succeed these days.”
  • “The competition in my field is killing me.”
  • “Just when you think you’ll get ahead, fate kicks you in the ass.”
  • “The teacher had it out for me.”

Things to Keep in Mind When Determining Your Characters’ Behavior, Attitudes, and Feelings

  1. Locus of control is not an absolute, it’s a continuum.
  2. Men tend to have a more internal locus of control, women more external.
  3. When men fail, they tend to attribute the failure to luck or other external circumstances. When women fail, they are more likely to attribute the failure to their own abilities or efforts.
  4. When confronted with truly uncontrollable circumstances, externals are likely to suffer less psychological distress than internals.
  5. People who are externals are likely to experience anxiety because they believe they have no control over their lives, no predictability.

Roots of Locus of Control 

While there’s a tendency to assume a person was born that way, there’s lots of evidence that early life experiences have a strong effect.

  • Internals are more likely to have parents who encouraged independence.
    • Internals have parents who help them see the connections between their actions and the consequences.
    • Internals are likely to be healthier, less likely to be overweight, less likely to report poor health and high levels of stress.
  • Externals grew up seeing no relationship between what they did and what happened. 
    • Even worse, externals who were “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” suffer learned helplessness.

Bottom line for writers: Use locus of control and situational variables to up the stakes for your characters.


True story: the first minute I was alone with my future father-in-law, he said, “Tell me. What were the guiding principles by which you were reared?” He was a retired dean, and it felt for all the world like a job interview. I paused, never having thought about this issue in quite such a direct way, answered, and it must have been okay because after I became his daughter-in-law we got along very well.

Writers: What are the basic principles that shape your character(s) behavior? 

These are “truths” that might have been taught directly, or just pulled out of the air. In any event, consider the following possibilities.


If you do your best each and every day, good things are sure to come your way.
-Tiana, The Princess and The Frog
  • If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right
  • Finish what you start
  • If at first you don’t succeed, try again
  • The only thing worse than failure is not having given it your best effort
  • Honesty is the best policy
  • Your word is your bond
  • Treat others as you want to be treated


Some of you may die, but that is a sacrifice that I am willing to make.
-Lord Farquaad, Shrek
  • Always look out for number one
  • Winning is everything
  • There’s a sucker born every minute
  • Play the angles
  • Always fight to win
  • You can’t trust anyone farther than you can throw ‘em
  • You either take or get taken
  • Keep your friends close and your enemies closer


Pride is not the opposite of shame, but its source. True humility is the only antidote to shame.
-Uncle Iroh, Avatar: The Last Airbender
  • It’s better to give than to receive
  • The meek shall inherit the earth
  • Cleanliness is next to godliness
  • Take care of family first
  • Live well and you’ll be rewarded, if not in this life then in the hereafter
  • Pride goes before a fall
  • Turn the other cheek
  • The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world


Now you see how dangerous individualism can be. It makes us vulnerable.
– General Mandible, Antz
  • Benefit to many outweighs benefit to one
  • Community is stronger than an individual
  • Trust in the Leader/ Group
  • Sink or swim together
  • The nail that stands out gets hammered down
  • Every cog is needed for the machine to function
  • United we stand; divided we fall
  • Work is its own reward

Writers: What are the principles your character has internalized that determine how s/he behaves, feels, and thinks?


So sorry I can’t make it. My car is on fire.

Sometimes, we just really don’t want to be there. Work, of course, comes to mind. Classes.  IRS audits. The battle at the end of the world that has been foretold to bring about the fall of Valhalla. Social engagements that seemed innocuous when the invitation was accepted but loom ever more dreadfully as the deadline approaches. (Psychologists call this an approach-avoidance conflict.)

So sorry I can’t make it. My pants are on fire.

On the other hand, announcing one’s intent not to meet an obligation triggers, “Why not?” and, often, hurt feelings and scrambling for an acceptable explanation. Of course, sometimes one scarpers without an announcement, in which case the questions, hurt feelings, and guilty stammering come after the fact. But come they do. It’s socially unacceptable to blow-off a commitment without a “good” reason. Thus, we come to reasons and excuses.

So sorry I can’t make it. My marshmallow is on fire.

What’s the difference between a reason and an excuse? Truth. In fiction, truth is decided by the author; your character might genuinely have something bizarre prevent them from going to work. One study reported that 85% of employees say they are always honest when they call in sick. And 1 in 7 women has lied about a work absence. I have no data on social obligations. 

So sorry I can’t make it. My hair is on fire.

But as a writer, your first decision is whether the character is telling the truth.

Here, for your consideration, are some rather atypical explanations for an absence. Sometimes, the plot might be well served if it’s a reason rather than an excuse!

  • I couldn’t find a clean mask.
  • I couldn’t find my keys.
  • I couldn’t find my front door.
  • My COVID test results aren’t back yet.
So sorry I can’t make it. My pool is on fire.
  • My dog is having a nervous breakdown.
  • My grandmother’s body is being exhumed for a police investigation.
  • My toe is stuck in a faucet and the plumber can’t come till afternoon.
  • The FBI told me to come in for some follow-up questions.
  • I watched “The Hunger Games” and I’m too upset.
  • I read so much I got sick.
  • My hermit crab is moving to a bigger shell, and I promised I’d take her to look at some new places.
So sorry I can’t make it. The baby is on fire.
  • Our toddler learned Krav Maga, and no one is willing to babysit.
  • Our toddler taught Krav Maga to the ferrets.
  • I’m still trying to get the squirrels out of my attic.
  • I’m still trying to get the squirrels out of my hair.
  • I’m suffering from a broken heart.
  • I have to report for jury duty. They’re doing it on Saturdays now.
  • I was dyeing my hair at home, and it came out orange.
  • I was dyeing my hair at home, and it all came out.
  • I have to deliver the nuclear football.
  • My mom says I’m grounded until I pay the mortgage.
So sorry I can’t make it. My castle is on fire.
  • A bird bit me.
  • My fish hasn’t finished her homework, and I think she needs some help with the last few math questions.
  • The sobriety tool wouldn’t allow me to start the car.
  • The cat ate the car keys, and we have to wait for them to pass through.
  • My astrologist warned me not to associate with people of your aura this week.
  • I finally got my hair the way I like it, and now I can’t move for fear of disturbing it.
So sorry I can’t make it. The world is on fire.
  • The veterinary hospital had an emergency, and I had to take my dog in to donate blood.
  • My family in Singapore called about my grandfather and there’s a 12-hour time difference.
  • The rain always makes my arthritis worse.
  • A wizard just showed up and told me I have to go on an epic quest to save the world from certain doom.
  • The pigeons at the park are on a very strict feeding schedule, and they get anxious if I’m late.
  • A tree fell across my driveway and I couldn’t get my car out.
  • I’m still recovering from my last chiropractor appointment.
  • The podiatrist cut out my ingrown toenails and I can’t walk.
So sorry I can’t make it. The world really is on fire.

Bottom line for writers: When your character bugs out, make it work for your story.

So sorry I can’t make it. My dog is on fire.
(No worries! It’s just powder and trick lighting. No dogs were harmed in the making of this blog.)


Just about everyone knows that an Achilles heel is a potentially fatal weakness, or vulnerability—even if the story behind the term is vague or missing.  The term stems from the Greek legend about the heroic warrior Achilles whose mother tried to make him immortal by holding the infant by his heel and dipping him into the River Styx. 

Achilles was killed by an arrow, shot by the Trojan prince Paris. In most versions of the story, the god Apollo is said to have guided the arrow into his only vulnerable spot, the heel that was not dipped in the river. 

I think of Achilles as the prototype of all modern day superheroes, with their varied and entertaining versions of Achilles heel. 

Note to writers: Don’t make your protagonist too perfect. How can one pull for a character who couldn’t possibly lose?

Editor’s Note: There are almost as many variations of the powers and vulnerabilities of most comic book characters as there are characters. The characterizations provided here refer to the most interesting timelines from among the Golden Age comics, the Silver Age comics, DC’s New 52, Marvel 616, Flashpoint, Universe of M, and the myriad other reboots and multiverses.

Everyone knows that Superman is crippled by Kryptonite and that’s that. But weakened as he is by green Kryptonite, pink Kryptonite may be even more devastating: it can fundamentally alter his personality in many ways, including hinting at being gay and attracted to Jimmy Olsen. At the time, this would have been seen as a major character flaw (possibly illegal) by the writers and the audience. A sillier effect came from silver Kryptonite, which made Superman act drunk and get the munchies.

For Martian Manhunter (also known as J’onn J’onzz), the weakness is fire. And it doesn’t need to be a raging inferno, or even a blowtorch, even a book of matches will do. In addition to scalding his exterior, flames scramble his masterful mind. Perhaps there’s a bit of lingering mental trauma from watching his entire planet destroyed by fire.

And he isn’t alone: Venom, the symbiote taking advantage of enemies of Spider-Man, could be done in by two seconds exposure to a cigarette lighter. Fire is just about the only way to force Venom to leave his host.

Captain Marvel, Jr. (later renamed Shazam) calls out his superhero name to activate his powers, but if he says his own name (Freddie Freeman) aloud during a battle, he immediately goes back to being a little boy. Thus, he adopts a number of aliases to hide his secret identity and his super identity.  This was not a very useful strategy.

When Daredevil went blind, he developed an echolocation skill that would be the envy of bats, along with a super sense of smell. At the same time, he is susceptible to unexpected loud noises, deafening or supersonic sounds, and noxious odors. He can be rendered unconscious and vulnerable to a follow-up attack.

The Flash is one of the few Superheroes—perhaps the only one—to be killed by his own powers. In battling to save the world, he ran so fast that he burst apart into atoms. Apparently he didn’t know that his excessive speed was also his weakness. (He didn’t stay dead long.) When triggering Flashpoint, the Flash was consumed in the Speed Force, where he became lost and stuck for more than twenty years. He can also be slowed down by extreme cold, but that’s not as funny.

The Riddler is more a supervillsain than a superhero, but even so, not truly deadly. He’s so narcissistic that he wants recognition for his cleverness more than he wants to avoid being caught. Dr. E. Nigma can never complete a crime without leaving clues. His paradoxes are always solvable.

Today the horrible effects of asbestos exposure are well known, but in the 1960’s when Asbestos Man was introduced, it seemed perfectly reasonable to outfit him with an asbestos suit, a fire-retardant shield, and a fisherman’s net to best his arch enemy, the Human Torch.

Impurities in the Green Lantern Corp’s rings make them useless against anything yellow. This weakness is easy to exploit and makes for some truly comic plots. His second debilitating weakness is wooden weapons, or even tree bark.

Power Girl was the antithesis of the Green Movement: she was done in by anything in natural in its unadulterated state. Think sticks, stones, cotton, silk, etc., ughh. According to comic book logic, it was because those materials didn’t exist in her home dimension. Power Girl was eventually revealed to be Super Girl, the cousin of Superman, though she did not share his weakness to Kryptonite.

In the early days of Thor, all it took to force him to return to his alter ego of Donald Blake was to get his hammer away from him for 60 seconds. Considering his primary method of attach was throwing the hammer at enemies, one might think he’d make certain nothing could stop its retrieval. Surprising how often that happened!

Mr. Mxyzptlk was generally safe, unless someone can convince or trick him into saying his name backwards. If that happens, he’s consigned to his native dimension for three months.

Wonder Woman, the prototypical female with superpowers, had skills to match or exceed those of male superheroes. I find it irritating that her weakness was being tied up by men, her super bracelets tied behind her back. Some of this can be traced back to her creator, William Moulton Marston and his recreational pursuits.

In later years, Wonder Woman joined an increasing number of super-powered heroes and villains with much more relatable weaknesses. In the 2017 film Wonder Woman, Princess Diana is nearly destroyed by despair at the violence in the world. 

Gladiator can freeze a planet with his breath melt it with his eyes, or shatter it with his bare hands. He runs at superhuman speed, flies like Superman, and is immune to Death Stars. And he’s incredibly good looking. All of this makes his weakness surprisingly humanizing: if he starts doubting himself, all his super powers desert him.

Tony Stark did not have any superhuman abilities, but his mechanical genius allowed him to become Iron Man. However, his alcoholism is still a major liability. By trying to fly and fight while drunk, Iron Man endangers his entire team and any civilians who happen to be nearby.

Cyborg must deal with constant internal conflict because of his apparent loss of humanity. After a severe accident, Victor Stone had robot parts melded with his remaining flesh. He cannot survive without the technology grafted to his body, but he battles self-loathing stemming from his belief that the medical procedures made without his consent have robbed him of his humanity.

Bottom line for writers: your protagonist’s Achilles heel doesn’t have to be fatal, or even logical, as long as you have the right backstory for it.

Everyone is defenseless against zombies, even superheroes and super-villains.


Sulfur Mining

In Friday’s blog I talked about the most dangerous jobs in terms of actually dying from accident or injury. These are acute incidents. But exposure over time—what I’m calling chronic hazards—can be just as deadly, often with prolonged pain and suffering. 

In truth, it isn’t always an either/or situation. If they are combined, being President of the United States is the deadliest job in the country. To date, 8 of the 45 presidents have died in office: 4 were assassinated and 4 died of natural causes.

The ill effects of exposure over time is the focus here.

Heavy metals

Not that kind of heavy metal

Heavy metals” and metal compounds are notoriously harmful to people’s health. Some toxic, semi-metallic elements, including arsenic and selenium, are as well. In very small amounts, many of these metals are necessary to live. However, in larger amounts, they become harmful by building up in the body’s systems. People were dying from such exposures long before they knew the causes or had explanations. Of the 35 metals that are of concern because of residential or occupational exposure, 23 are heavy metals. Here’s a partial list.


Common sources of exposure to higher-than-average levels of arsenic include working near or in hazardous waste sites or in areas with high levels naturally occurring arsenic in soil, rocks, and water. Arsenic released by human activities is triple the exposure from natural sources.  Most paints, dyes, soaps, metals, semiconductors, and drugs contain arsenic. Some animal feeding operations, pesticides, and fertilizers also release arsenic to the environment. 

Occupations with high exposure:

  • Alloy manufacturing
  • Carpentry
  • Chicken and swine farming
  • Electronic manufacturing technicians
  • Electronic waste disposal
  • Pesticide, insecticide, and/or herbicide applicators
  • Smelter operator or engineer
  • Glass manufacturing
High arsenic levels in drinking water causes health problems in areas of India, Bangladesh, China, and other countries.

Symptoms of lower arsenic exposure include nausea and vomiting, reduced production of erythrocytes and leucocytes, abnormal heart beat, pricking sensation in hand and feet, damage to blood vessels. Prolonged exposure leads to skin lesions, internal cancers, neurological problems, pulmonary disease, peripheral vascular disease, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes mellitus (Type 1 and 2). Many of the effects are irreversible. There is no effective treatment for arsenicosis. Exposure to high levels of arsenic can cause death.


Beryllium Strip Mine

Elemental beryllium has a wide variety of applications. Occupational exposure most often occurs in mining, extraction, and in the processing of alloy metals containing beryllium.  

Industries and occupations include:

  • Aerospace
  • Automotive parts
  • Computers
  • Construction trades
  • Dental supplies and prosthesis manufacturer
  • Electronics
  • Industrial ceramics
  • Laboratory workers
  • Metal recycling
  • Mining of beryl ore
  • Nuclear weapons
  • Precision machine shops
  • Smelting foundry
  • Tool and die manufacture
  • Welding
X-ray of a patient with Berylliosis

Beryllium causes sensitization and lung and skin disease in a significant percentage of exposed workers.


Chocolate sometimes has dangerous amounts of cadmium. I’m going to cry.

Cadmium is an extremely toxic metal commonly found in industrial workplaces, particularly where any ore is being processed or smelted. Several deaths from acute exposure have occurred among welders who have unsuspectingly welded on cadmium-containing alloys or with silver solders. Beware jewelry makers!

Cadmium and its compounds are Group 1 carcinogens as classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. It can cause both acute and chronic effects: high toxic to kidneys, bone mineralization, osteoporosis, lung damage. Smokers are more susceptible to cadmium intoxication. The biggest contributor to human cadmium exposure is fossil fuels, 33%.

Hexavalent Chromium

Green snow caused by leakage from a an old slurry tank in Pervouralsk in Siberia.

When chromium is in a valence state (+6 oxidation), it becomes hazardous to health. Calcium chromate, chromium trioxide, lead chromate, strontium chromate, and zinc chromate are known human carcinogens. An increase in the incidence of lung cancer has been observed among workers in industries that produce chromate and manufacture pigments containing chromate.

Such exposure is likely in these jobs and industries:

  • Welding and other types of “hot work” on stainless steel /other metals that contain chromium
  • Use of pigments, spray paints, and coatings
  • Leather tanning
  • Operating chrome plating baths

Besides cancer: when broken skin comes in contact with any form of chromium compound, a deep hole will form; also targets respiratory system, kidneys, liver, and eyes. 


The brain is most sensitive to lead poisoning.  Symptoms may include abdominal pain, constipation, headaches, irritability, memory problems, inability to have children, and tingling in the hands and feet. It causes almost 10% of intellectual disability of otherwise unknown cause and can result in behavioral problems. Some of the effects are permanent.  In severe cases anemia, seizurescoma, or death occur. 

Occupational exposure to lead is one of the most prevalent overexposures. Industries with high potential exposures include:

  • Construction work
  • Most smelter operations
  • Radiator repair shops
  • Firing ranges 

Outside the workplace, the main sources of exposure to lead occur from contaminated air, water, dust, food, industrial emissions, and soil, or consumer products such as paint, gasoline, toys, and cosmetics.  Lead-based makeup was used in Ancient Greece, but became especially popular when Queen Elizabeth I started using it to hide her chickenpox scars. It killed her. Symptoms prior to death include hair loss, skin welts, and inflammation of the eyes.


All except this form

As far as I can find, all forms of mercury are hazardous.  Common occupational sources of mercury exposure include:

  • Mining, production, and transportation of mercury
  • Mining and refining of gold and silver ores 

High mercury exposure results in permanent nervous system and kidney damage. Depending on the specific form of the mercury, symptoms include shyness, tremors, memory problems, irritability, and changes in vision or hearing; lung damage, vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, skin rashes, increased heart rate or blood pressure; depression, memory problems, fatigue, headache, hair loss, etc.

Mercury poisoning—a.k.a. mad hatters disease—wasn’t nearly as fun as the tea parties in Alice in Wonderland.  Mercuric nitrate, used to make felt, is extremely toxic, and breathing the fumes all day, every day resulted in uncontrollable twitches and tremors, as well as emotional changes, mental decline, kidney trouble, and respiratory failure. As early as 1757, a French physician noted that hat makers seldom lived beyond 50 years, and suffered ill health long before that.

Pregnant women are advised to limit their consumption of fish, especially fatty fish because of mercury buildup.

Toxic Exposures That Aren’t Metals At All


The bacterium Bacillus anthracis causes anthrax, usually lethal to humans. Inhalation anthrax is caused by breathing in spores and has an especially high fatality rate. Person to person spread is rare.

Bacillus anthracis is an unfairly pretty bacterium

Anthrax infections occur naturally in wild and unvaccinated domestic animals. It is contracted primarily from livestock—which is another way farming, ranching, and large-animal veterinary practice can be hazardous to your health.


Asbestos Miners

Asbestos is actually a group of naturally occurring minerals that are resistant to heat and corrosion.  Things made of asbestos will not burn—and therein lay its appeal. 

Ancient Greeks and Romans knew about it. By the 1850s, French firefighters wore uniforms of asbestos cloth. In the period of hoop skirts, asbestos fabric seemed the perfect solution to skirts ignited by open flames. 

Men who mined the ore, women and children who prepared and spun the raw fibers into cloth, all developed asbestosis, scarring of the lungs. This led to chronic shortness of breath, increased risk of some cancers, and eventual death.

Asbestos Lady was a Marvel villain who frequently fought the Human Torch

Asbestos is a heat-resistant fibrous silicate mineral. Besides being woven into fabrics, it is used in fire-resistant and insulating materials. Brake linings, pipe insulation, and house shingles were common uses for asbestos.

NBC caught this image of the Dominion building imploding.

Heavy exposures tend to occur in the construction industry and in ship repair, particularly during the removal of asbestos materials due to renovation, repairs, or demolition. The recent implosion of the Dominion building in Richmond is one example. It was in need of renovation and building a new building was less expensive than trying to remove the asbestos.

Lung cancer from asbestos

Asbestos is well recognized as a health hazard and its use is now highly regulated by both OSHA and the EPA. 


Naturally occurring formaldehyde in pears is not enough to make you sick.

Previously mentioned in the context of harmful clothing, formaldehyde is a chemical (composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen) formed when burning methane. It is used to make other chemicals, as a disinfectant, and as a preservative.  In spite of numerous adverse effects, it’s still widely used.

Formaldehyde poisoning is caused by breathing the fumes, either by working directly with it or using equipment cleaned with it. It can also be absorbed through the skin. Short-term effects include eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, and/or skin rashes.  Long term, it is well known to be a human carcinogen. Workers exposed to formaldehyde, such as funeral directors and embalmers, are at increased risk of leukemia and brain cancer. 

Inhaling above 50ppm concentration of formaldehyde can cause severe pulmonary reactions within a short period: pneumonia, bronchial irritation, and pulmonary edema. Lower concentrations cause coughing, wheezing, and bronchial asthma, sore throat, and red irritated eyes.

Ionizing Radiation 

Natural sources of ionizing radiation include radon and uranium. Types include alpha- and beta-decay, X-rays, and gamma rays. They can strip atoms of electrons, damaging DNA. At high enough levels, it kills instantly.

Occupational settings with ionizing radiation:

MRI technician
  • Medical and dental offices (X-rays)
  • Hospitals and outpatient treatments centers (radiology, computed tomography, nuclear medicine, radiation oncology, interventional fluoroscopy or radiology, cardiac angiography
  • Veterinary facilities
Sendai Unit 1 was the fits nuclear power plant to restart in Japan after the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi.
  • Nuclear power plants and their support facilities
  • Nuclear weapons production facilities
  • Industrial operations (testing materials or products)
  • Research laboratories
  • Manufacturing settings and construction
  • Air and space travel and transport operations, especially at high altitude
  • Fracking for oil and gas well development


From the play Radium Girls at Skidmore College
From the movie Radium Girls (2018)

All isotopes of radium are highly radioactive.  Radium, in the form of radium chloride, was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898. It glowed, and quickly became popular in Europe. Various companies produced radium-based luminescent paint. It was used to make glow-in-the-dark instrument panels and watch dials, among other things. Women and girls (as young as 11) were hired to paint the watch faces, and were encouraged to twirl the brush tip between their lips to get the finest, most precise point—and with each lick of the brush, they swallowed radium.

Some of the girls had a bit of fun with it, painting their nails, teeth, etc. just because who wouldn’t want to glow in the dark? Between the paint ingested and applied and radium dust in the factories, soon the workers glowed as they walked down the street. Radium was in their clothes and under their skin.

Early research using radium to kill cancer cells had been a success, and soon the public thought radium was a cure-all. Doctors started experimenting with it for everything from tuberculosis to lupus, and quacks started touting products for acne, baldness, impotence, and insanity.

LD Gardner began marketing a health water he called Liquid Sunshine. The market was flooded with radium toothpaste, cosmetics, children’s toys, and theatrical costumes. Fortunately for consumers, radium was so expensive that many products didn’t contain real radium.

X-rays of radium poisoning patients

When workers got sick, they got sick slowly. Most of the girls became truly ill in their 20s. Radium is absorbed into the bones just like calcium, and then the rot starts. Some suffered chronic exhaustion first. But for many, it started with teeth falling out one by one. When rotten teeth were removed, their gums wouldn’t heal. Sometimes the jaw disintegrated at the dentist’s touch. Not surprisingly, bad breath was common. Skin became so thin that the slightest touch would cause open wounds. Skin ulcers formed for some. Pregnant women had stillborn babies. Death came slowly and painfully. Bones became honeycombed and crumbled, limbs were amputated, the girls became anemic, bedridden, and unable to eat.

By the late 1930s, enough were dead or dying that they got national attention—but never did they get compensation. One controversy was over whether all of this was caused by radium: how could one element cause such diverse problems?

Because it is so good at killing cells, today the Royal Society of Chemistry says the only appropriate use for radium is targeted cancer treatments.


Viscose is a thick orange-brown solution made by treating cellulose with sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide. It’s used as the basis for making rayon and transparent cellulose film. 

It was developed in the early 1900s. Fumes emitted during manufacture drove workers insane. They suffered horrific bouts of mania. Historian Alison Matthews David said that one factory put bars on the windows so “workers, demented from carbon disulfide exposure, would not jump out.” Such exposure also leads to Parkinson’s disease.

Many household products contain chemicals which may be harmful to the environment or hazardous to your health if inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin.  They should be used and disposed of according to instructions on the packaging. Common examples include:

  • Drain cleaner
  • Laundry detergent
  • Furniture polish
  • Gasoline
  • Pesticides
  • Ammonia
  • Toilet bowl cleaner
  • Motor oil
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Bleach

Writers: Consider all the ways occupational exposure to these products could be harmful to janitors, maids, housecleaners, etc. Consider how they might be used to cause intentional harm. And consider how they might bring serious harm to toddlers.


Sometimes the job does not cause death in a direct way but by creating such stress that the employee turns to self-destructive behaviors.


Edouard Manet – Le Suicidé

Nothing says self-destruction like taking one’s own life. From 2000 to 2016, the suicide rate in the U.S. population of working age (16-64) increased by 34%. Suicide rates for employed men are three times higher than for women. FYI: the occupations with the lowest suicide rates are education, training, and library. The Bureau of Labor Statistics uses only 23 classifications of occupations; thus, for example, college teachers and library archivists are lumped together.

Among the BLS categories, the one with the highest suicide rates for men was construction and extraction. This includes everyone from boilermakers to electricians to hazardous materials removal workers. 

For women the category was arts, design, entertainment, sports and media. This category includes everyone from artists to singers to athletes to court reporters. I find these categories too broad to be helpful.  Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a more refined basis for comparison. 

In 2018, according to an article in PhRMA, American health-care workers were committing suicide in unprecedented numbers. Some are expecting a tsunami of suicides caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

Police officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. Their depression and PTSD rates are five times higher than within the general civilian population.

Alcohol Abuse 

No construction workers were inebriated in the making of this photo. That’s water.

The top three professions with heavy alcohol use are (1) mining, (2) construction, and (3) the accommodation and food services industry. Arts, entertainment, and recreation are 4th.

A 2012 study in JAMA found that 25.6% of female surgeons and 13.9% male surgeons showed symptoms of alcohol addiction. These surgeons were more likely to report feeling burned out or depressed, and/or to have made a major medical error within the previous three months. 

Among lawyers 29% in their first decade of practice report problem drinking behavior; 21% of lawyers in their second decade of practice have alcohol use disorders. Lawyers in law firms abuse alcohol at the highest rate. Overall, 33% drink problematically, 28% suffer from depression, and 19% exhibit symptoms of anxiety.

Drug Use/Abuse

An estimated 10% of health care professionals abuse drugs, about the same as the general population. However, doctors are more likely to abuse/misuse prescription drugs than their patients. They use prescription drugs to manage physical pain, emotional distress, and stressful situations. Psychiatrists and emergency room doctors used drugs most, surgeons and pediatricians the least.

Accommodation and food service workers leads all other industries in past-month illicit drug use and past-year. There is no one drug these workers abuse most, including both depressants and stimulants. 

Miners are more likely to use illicit drugs (5%) than opioids (1%).


The highest prevalence of smoking was among workers in the accommodation and food services industries (28.9%), followed by construction (28.7) and mining (27.8%). The lowest rates were in education services (9.2%).

COVID-19 Adds Hazards

Current circumstances have made already hazardous jobs worse; professions that used to be relatively safe now carry a constant risk of infection. Similar shifted dynamics have occurred with pandemics throughout history, though the specific risks and professions vary.

Workers With Added Risk

Many professions already at risk for acute or chronic health problems are experiencing even more danger. Here are a few of the workers society has finally started to recognize as essential to function in the face of

Healthcare: Nearly every member of the healthcare profession has added stress now, whether from direct contact with infected patients or from increased workload as their colleagues shift to other departments or fall ill themselves. Separation from family and friends to avoid spreading infection adds to the mental strain as well as removing one of the major sources of relief. Add in longer hours and the very real threat of becoming infected, and it’s no wonder mental health experts are predicting a sharp increase in suicides and PTSD among healthcare workers. These extra health hazards are affecting everyone from home health aids to hospital janitorial staff.

First Responders: Paramedics and Emergency Medical Technicians face all the risks associated with healthcare work, but they also have to work in extremely high-stress situations. Firefighters, police officers, medical pilots, National Guard, dispatchers, emergency chaplains, etc. now face the additional risk of infection in every interaction they have with the public. Budget cuts in many areas have caused layoffs, adding extra stress and longer hours for other employees. Firefighters, who often double as medics, generally spend 24-48 hour shifts in close quarters when not responding to calls.

Food Production: Employees at every stage of the chain producing food for tables are facing added risks of infection and added workload. The people who harvest crops (already backbreaking work in its own right) often face the additional health threats of close living conditions, lack of access to regular medical care, and frequent moving among regions.

Employees at meat processing plants face similar external health risks, with the additional infection burdens of longer shifts in close-packed factories, and a lack of sufficient personal protective equipment. Some of these people have been ordered to continue working in the face of Health Department concerns and their own fears for their health.

Cargo Transportation: Relatively empty roads reduced the risk of vehicle collisions temporarily, but drivers faced added risks from longer hours, longer routes, and additional delivery pressure. For every driver who becomes sick or stops driving to take care of family members, other drivers take on additional work to cover routes. In addition, drivers now face a risk of infection at every pick-up, delivery, and rest stop.

Workers With New Risk

Many careers formerly considered relatively safe now come with risks entirely the result of the pandemic. Massive layoffs have put extreme performance pressure on remaining workers as well as adding the constant risk of economic uncertainty. Those deemed “essential” to the continued functioning of society as we know it often face threats of retaliation if they don’t remain at work. And still, these careers tend to be among the lowest-paying jobs in the US economy. They often lack proper safety equipment, paid sick leave, adequate health care, childcare options, and numerous other ways to mitigate risk and stress for themselves and their families.

Bottom Line: Many people/characters have little or no idea of the hazards their jobs hold for their health, both short and long term. Tension, illness, and death possibilities are nearly limitless! Consider an entire family’s suffering.


Deadliest Job in the Galaxy: Red Shirt Crew in Star Trek

Although necessary for the economic (and possibly mental) health of most people, working is more-or-less bad for your physical health. This two-part blog explores the most unhealthful jobs. Jobs can be unhealthful in two basic ways: acute incidents and chronic conditions. In Part 1, I’m focused on acute incidents that take workers’ lives. Next time, I’ll explore chronic work conditions that injure people with repeated exposure, over time. 

Writers Note 1: All of these jobs provide opportunities for murders that look like accidents–and when occupational deaths are so common, sliding in a murder would be more likely to be missed. 

Killer Jobs 

There’s a very good reason they put these signs up.

The rate of fatal work-related  injuries overall is 3.5 per 100,000 workers. More than any other big category, transportation-related accidents killed workers (more than 2,000 of 5,250 deaths, 40%). The second-most common workplace fatalities was contact with objects and equipment, 13%. These numbers come from cnbc.com, 12/27/2019.

Although exact rankings vary somewhat from year to year, there seems to be consensus that the following jobs are the ones most likely to have workplace fatalities, based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The parenthetical numbers are fatal injuries per 100,000 workers, giving you a comparison metric

According to ISHN, a publication for safety and health professionals, the two most frequently fatal jobs are deep sea fisherman and logger. All death rates below come from ishn.com/articles/110496-most-dangerous-jobs-in-the-us-the-top-20

Loggers (109.3) most often die because of logging equipment or logs. In addition, they work outside, in isolated areas, exposed to dangerous weather conditions.

Deep Sea Fishermen (74.2) as well as other sailors (55.1) most often die by drowning. They also face risks from icy decks, working with heavy equipment, being sick or injured too far from land to get medical treatment in time. ISHN: “And to top it all off, this [deep sea fishing] is about the only profession where you can be swallowed whole.”

Aircraft Pilots and Flight Engineers (50.4) most often die in transportation “incidents.” The majority of fatalities result from crashes of privately owned planes. About 20% of fatal U.S. crashes happen in Alaska, where 82% of the towns and settlements can only be reached by plane.

Paving, Surfacing, and Tamping Equipment Operators (46.7) most often die from getting hit by construction equipment or crashes involving other motor vehicles.

Dredging, Excavating, and Loading Machine Operators (42.4) die by contact with objects and equipment. Unstable dredging equipment can sink.

Roofers (39.0) die in ways you might expect: most often falling off the roof, but also slipping and tripping: 34% of falls from roofs are fatal.

Machine Maintenance (37.4), Woodworking Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders (35.9) are most likely to die from contact with equipment.

Septic Tank Servicers and Sewer Pipe Cleaners (34.3) die from contact with objects and equipment. 

Refuse and Recyclables Collectors (31.9) are most likely to die after being hit by the truck or another vehicle. Garbage collectors’ mortality rate is 100 times higher than is considered acceptable risk. By comparison, police offers suffer 15.8 deaths per 100,000.

Structural Iron and Steel Workers (28.0), like roofers, are most likely to die from falls, slips, and trips.

Delivery and Other Truck Drivers (26.0) die most often in traffic crashes. Long-haul trucking accounts for about one out of every four fatal work accidents. Although other jobs have higher fatality rates, truckers have the largest number of deaths on the job. 

Farmers, Ranchers, and Other Agricultural Managers (25.6) die most often in crashes, including tractor crashes. However, there are also falls from roofs or multi-story barn lofts, trampling by farm animals, and suffocation in grain silos.

Children (16 and younger) working on farms die more often than all other industries combined. “Farmers are nearly twice as likely to die on the job as police officers, five times as likely as firefighters, and 73 times more often that Wall Street bankers.” (INSH.world)

Taxi Driving is the lowest-paying career on these lists of the most dangerous jobs, with an average annual income of $23,500 in the US. Taxi drivers are twice as likely as police officers to be a victim of homicide while working, and 20 times more likely to be murdered while working than the average American.  Compared to other workers, they have an increased risk of such deaths because they work with cash, with the public, alone and during nighttime hours. Black and Hispanic drivers are more likely than white drivers to die on the job, and male drivers are six times more at risk than female drivers.

Writers Note 2: These rankings apply primarily to jobs in the US. Differences in labor laws, environmental conditions, and record-keeping around the world means that characters in other countries have an even wider range of ways to die at work!

All the biggest stars have doubles film the dangerous scenes.
  • Stunt work – doing dangerous activities on purpose for pay
    • Tourist attractions, street theater
    • Doubles for actors in dangerous roles
    • Stage magicians, escape artists, circus performers, etc.
  • Shipbreaking – stripping retired ships for reusable materials
    • Open welding torches around explosive gasses
    • Sheets of metal falling without warning
    • Falling from multi-story heights
HuaShan Mountain Pass is one of the most treacherous trails in the world,
  • Sherpa – guiding hikers up mountain trails
    • Carrying incredibly heavy packs
    • Falling off mountains
    • Avalanches
  • Mining – many countries have far less stringent safety protocols
    • Tunnel collapses
    • Toxic fumes with little or no ventilation
    • Heavy, sharp, dangerous

Bottom Line for Writers: deaths, whether accidental or intentional, are great plot points, tension builders, and revealers of character.