READING HABITS: EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE ONE!

Most medical professionals agree that a reading habit is much healthier than a cocaine habit or a heroin habit (the ones that don’t are the same dentists who don’t suggest brushing your teeth).  For one thing, reading is good for your physical and mental health.  You probably know at least some of these benefits of reading every day, but just to review briefly:

  1. Improves brain connectivity
  2. Increases vocabulary
  3. Increases comprehension
  4. Readers are more able to empathize with others
  5. Aids sleep readiness (if it’s a physical book)
  6. Reduces stress
  7. Lowers blood pressure
  8. Lowers heart rate
  9. Helps reduce depression
  10. Reduces cognitive decline with aging
  11. Lengthens lifespan 

So, everyone should read, and it should start at an early age. According to doctors at the Cleveland Clinic, parents should start reading to/with their children from infancy through elementary school years.

  • Builds warm, happy associations with books
  • Increases the likelihood that kids will enjoy reading in the future
  • Reading at home boosts school performance later on
  • Increases vocabulary
  • Raises self-esteem 
  • Builds good communication skills
  • Physically strengthens the human brain
  • Builds attention span

What Should You Be Reading? 

Eating a book ensures full absorption and comprehension.

Whatever you can get your hands on!  Even before they know how to read, children will learn reading habits such as which way to hold a book and finding familiar pictures or letters on a page. It’s important to expose kids to books both above and within their current reading ability, in a wide variety of genres.

If you want some guidance on what is age-appropriate for children, you can get advice on-line and/or in actual books.  Each grade level in school typically requires students to pass reading skill tests before passing to the next level. Libraries are an excellent resource for book suggestions for children of any age or reading ability.

Every child learns differently and at a different pace. Whether in real life or in your writing, it is entirely too easy to limit children by expected levels or shame a child for not conforming to expectations.

Types of Readers

When it comes to reading habits, to each his or her own.  To use a biology analogy, the “family” of readers includes numerous “genera.” In some instances, there are even “species.”

Just about every reader belongs to more than one species to a greater or lesser degree. Many people adjust their reading habits as circumstances allow, changing when children are born or a job change requires a different commuting style.

High Need-for-Achievement Readers 
Whoever has to read this should be paid. Well paid.

These readers read almost exclusively within their professional area, e.g., mathematics journals or business publications or medical research papers, etc. These readers may or may not enjoy their reading, but they read nonetheless. Some professions, such as teachers and paramedics, require continual study and testing to maintain up-to-date certifications to practice.

OCD Readers 

If you start a book, you finish that book, no matter what. Anything else feels like failure. For more information about the difference between obsessive compulsive disorder and quirky fixations, check out this post I wrote about the character possibilities of each.

Spiritual Readers 
Alcoholics Anonymous encourages its members to read from a variety of religious and philosophical texts as part of completing the program.

Although this group includes those who read (and study) the Bible, it also includes anyone whose goal is spiritual enlightenment and growth.  Many Muslims read and recite the entire Qur’an during Ramadan every year as a form of meditation. Writings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh are widely read by people of many faiths.

Book Groupies 
The dog is always a receptive audience but usually doesn’t contribute much to the discussion.

These readers want someone to talk with about their reads—which can be more or less academic. Depending on how books are chosen, they are likely to end up reading things they would never have chosen for themselves, which can be good—or not so much. Book groups often have a specific focus, such as current fiction, or botany books, i.e., anything from the genre preferences.

Friends’ Reads 

Much like a book group, except it’s whatever one’s bridge buddies, neighbors, family members, et al. are reading, recommending, and/or lending. Depending on the interests of friends, this can lead to a very eclectic reading list. Reading what friends recommend or enjoy can strengthen social bonds by encouraging discussion of books read in common.

Bestseller Addicts 
Many libraries create their own best-seller (best-borrowed?) collections.

These readers are up-to-the-minute at the water-cooler and/or cocktail hour. They often operate on the presumption that if it appeals to enough people to be a bestseller, a book will appeal to themselves as well. The traditional gold standard here is The New York Times. The Times tracks the following categories:

  • Hardcover fiction
  • Hardcover nonfiction
  • Combined print & e-book
  • Paperback trade fiction
  • Combined print & e-book
  • Paperback nonfiction

Note: These bestsellers divisions take account of readers’ format preferences and allow for combining with one’s genre preferences.

Genre Loyalists 

These people know what they like and stick to it: a genre is characterized by similarities of form, style, or subject matter. Accordingly, pretty much any category of book is a genre—and I’m probably missing some here, but you get the idea:

  • Literary fiction 
  • Mystery/detective fiction 
  • Thriller
  • Horror
  • Historical fiction
  • Romance
  • Humor
  • Western
  • Bildungsroman
  • Science fiction
  • Fantasy/fairy tales
  • Magical realism
  • Biography
  • Autobiography
  • Memoir
  • Exposé/tell-all
  • Creative non-fiction
  • Nature writing
  • Environmental activism
Genre Junkies 

Often read more than one book a day, limited to a specific genre, sometimes a limited number of preferred authors.  Genre Junkies tend to prefer genres in which a plethora of books are available. A fan of books about Arctic Circle Siberian reptile varieties is likely to run out of material much more quickly than a fan of paranormal dystopian romance fantasy books.

Binge Readers

Exactly what it sounds like. These people often skip meals and sleep when a book is particularly hard to put down. Accomplished binge readers may even learn to walk, dress, cook, and feed the dog without putting down the book in their hand.

The Eclectic 

Reads anything and everything: blogs, poetry, nature, non-fiction, fiction, sci-fi, or whatever. An interesting book from thirty years ago is no lower on the list than the absolute latest best-seller. Eclectics are often bright, inquisitive, and frequent readers.

Ping-Ponging

Some readers have multiple books going and bounce back and forth among them. The bedside book, the lunch break book, the evening book, the boring book they know they should read for some obligation but just can’t seem to make it through… I haven’t seen any formal studies on the subject, but I would imagine that ping-ponging readers would be very good at multi-tasking.

Mini-Readers
Mini Reader and Micro Reader?

Some people have such packed schedules, they can seldom read for more than fifteen minutes at a time. A person who is able to keep track of characters and plotlines despite snatching only small doses has to have a pretty-good memory.

Night Readers

Generally caretakers or parents, some readers have to wait until their charges are asleep before picking up a book. Parenting and caregiving are both stressful occupations, and reading during naptime or after bedtime can provide absolutely necessary stress relief for Night Readers.

Self-Rewarders

Some people use reading as a form of reward, much as others might promise themselves a piece of chocolate or pair of shoes for completing an unpleasant task. Anyone who enjoys reading could be a self-rewarder: a doctor can only read the latest sci-fi bestseller after reading the latest medical journals; a parent can only read after finishing the laundry; a binge reader has to put the book down until dinner is finished.

Strugglers
Will Smith is just one of many dyslexics who encourage others to keep reading despite the difficulty.

As a visitor to a blog about writing and reading, you are probably someone who enjoys reading on some level. However, reading is difficult and not enjoyable for many adults. Some researchers estimate that 1 in 7 adults in the US are functionally illiterate; dyslexia, disrupted schooling, dyspraxia, and many other reasons could lead to a person reaching adulthood with only enough reading skill to be able to function in society.

When? Where?

Besides what we read, our reading habits include when and where we read.

  • Transit readers: they read on planes, trains, automobiles, and subways. Very careful transit readers may be able to read while walking; audio books make this much easier.
  • Bed-time readers: exactly what it sounds like.
  • TV readers: while one’s partner/house mate/family members watch something unappealing on TV, they hang out companionably and read.
  • Vacation readers: weekends, holidays, and vacations, kicking back with a good book. 
    • Not recommended because it isn’t daily.
  • Boredom readers: any waiting room or line that goes on forever.

Modern Options

Last but not least, how do we read?  Today there are more options than ever. There’s no reason not to read every day! The three basic options:

This seems a tad irresponsible…
  • Physical books: the traditional option, most researched, with best/most positive effects on health
  • E-books (available on devices from smart phones to tablets to computers to dedicated devices such as Kindle and Nook). Often the choice of people with vision issues (any book can be LARGE PRINT), frequent travelers (who once went abroad with a dozen books or more weighing down the luggage), and anyone who likes having a light-weight, portable library at hand.
  • Audio books: the choice for someone who wants to do something else simultaneously (e.g., go to sleep, knit, make dinner). Can contribute to distracted driving, so don’t do that while behind the wheel. Audio books are also indispensable for people with impaired vision.
Do other formats have the same health benefits of physical books? 
It’s clear from this child’s reckless and dangerous nighttime e-reading that someone has not kept up with their subscription to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

A study by Beth Rogowsky at Bloomsburg University “found no significant differences in comprehension between reading, listening, or reading and listening simultaneously” using e-readers—and the test was limited to comprehension. It’s too complicated to get into here, but you can check it out. By and large, the effects of reading physical books daily are well-documented. E-books offer some but not all of those benefits. Audiobooks are the great unknown.

Bottom line: develop or nurture your daily reading habits. There is much evidence that it’s good for you, and no negative side effects on record.

HOW THIS BLOG ENDED UP IN THE BAHAMAS

Sometimes a writer (and I’m not alone here) starts out to write one thing and something entirely different emerges.  My metaphor for this is heading for Maine and ending up in the Bahamas.  That’s what happened to this blog.  I started out to write TELLING TIME, about using food to set or reveal the time in which the story takes place.  What I had in mind was a timeline for foods and cooking equipment.

For Example, by 1900

As many of you know, I collect cookbooks, and have done so for decades. As I pulled relevant references off my shelves, I discovered over a dozen books specifically on the history of food and cooking. 

No more than an hour or so into this effort, I realized three things:

  1. Readers might not be as enamored of lists as I am.
  2. The list would go on forever!
  3. Such a blog wouldn’t be helpful in the general scheme of things.

And that’s when I headed for the Bahamas, and turned this blog into a Better Know Your Character effort.

Assuming you don’t want to draw entirely from your own life and experience, there’s a book for that. 

You can get food and cooking information for any time period you need, in as much detail as you need, and for virtually any place you need.  If you write across time periods and/or locations, one of the books covering a broader range would be a good choice. 

Cookbooks for Specific Geographic Needs
  • By region, for example New England, Northern India, the Balkans
  • Any state in the US
  • Virtually any country or territory
  • Virtually any city
    • I say virtually here because I don’t have every one. But given that I have books for Paris; Tbilisi; Detroit; Pittsburgh; Los Angeles; Denver; Rochester, NY; and Westminster, MD (to name a few), I’m confident you could find what you need.
  • Plantation cooking
  • Australian Outback cooking
  • Wilderness cooking
  • Pacific Island cooking
  • Appalachian cooking
Cookbooks by Time Period
  • The American colonial kitchen
  • By decade since at least 1900
  • Food and cooking during war.
    • For example, The Doughboy’s Cookbook (common foods and cooking in the trenches of World War I) or M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf (cooking during WWII rationing).
    • Cooking during wars or other conflicts often focus on deprivation.
      • The recently published CCCP Cook Book: True Stories of Soviet Cuisine has recipes Russian cooks developed or adapted to deal with food shortages throughout the Cold War.
      • During the Civil War, there was a time when there were no pigeons left in the city of Richmond because all had been killed for the table.
Cookbooks by Ethnic Heritage
  • African American
  • Native American
  • Results of mixed heritages
    • West African and French influences in Cajun cooking
    • Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Indian influences all along the Silk Road
  • Any cuisine by country of origin

Everyone has to eat sometime (except alien cyborgs).

What is your character’s attitude toward food? 

Cover all three aspects of attitudes: think, feel, do.

What does home cooking mean to your character? 

The answer to this question can tell all sorts of things about your character besides ethnicity:

  • Approximate age
  • Social class
  • Family of origin
What is involved in meal preparation?

If your modern character is making a meal, does s/he start with raw ingredients or put a prepared meal in the microwave? Does the answer change if company is coming? Is it a family meal? Do other family members share your character’s attitudes toward food and cooking?

What does your character eat? 

Strictly a meat and potatoes person? Omnivore? PescatarianVegetarian? Vegan And why?

  • Religious prohibitions
  • Animal rights
  • Health considerations
  • Cultural habits
  • Availability
What health concerns does a character address with food?

Many medical conditions are caused by unhealthy eating habits or require dietary adjustments to treat fully. Depending on the diet, this character may have cookbooks addressing the concern, request substitutions when eating out, or be unwilling to eat or cook around others.

  • Lack of a nutrient, such as calcium, Vitamin D, sodium
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Celiac disease
  • Lactose intolerance

Consider also the possibility of mental health concerns when eating or preparing food. A character with alcoholism, compulsive overeating, bulimia nervosa, etc. would likely display signs of those disorders that might be noticed by others. On the other hand, a character with severe depression, body dysmorphia, or OCD related to food might avoid social situations involving food altogether.

Food is for everyone

Whether your character lives to eat or eats to live—or is somewhere between the extremes—it’s difficult to write realistically without food coming into play somewhere, sometimes, at least occasionally. Making those mentions specific to your story/character is a big plus.

Bottom line advice to writers: Bring food and/or cooking into your story to add realism, specificity, and richness.

FAT OR PHAT

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.

Tahiti

  • 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.

Nauru

  • 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.

Fiji

  • 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.

Jamaica

  • 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

Kuwait
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. 

Afghanistan
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.

Mauritania
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.

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: POTENTIALLY DEADLY

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.

Situations
  • 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
Illnesses
  • COVID/epidemic/pandemic
  • Bubonic plague
  • TB/consumption
  • Smallpox
  • HIV/AIDS
  • 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.

Denial

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.

Resignation

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.

Fight

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?

WRITING LIKE A CHILD

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.

GHOST MARRIAGES

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

CHINA

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

JAPAN

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.

KOREA 

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.

SOUTH KOREA

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.

INDIA

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.

FRANCE

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. 

GERMANY 

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.

SUDAN 

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!

WHO’S IN CHARGE HERE?

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.

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: GUIDING PRINCIPLES

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.

One

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

Two

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

Three

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

Four

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?

SORRY, I CAN’T BE THERE BECAUSE. . .

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.)

EVERY SUPERHERO HAS AN ACHILLES HEEL

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.