NIGHT TERRORS: MORE THAN DREAMS, MORE THAN NIGHTMARES

The Pooka (or Poukha or Puca), an Irish nightmare

A character’s “night life” can provide depth to the characterization and understanding for the reader. Nightmares and night terrors are both frightening, but the two sleep disorders are frightening in different ways to very different audiences. Knowing the distinctions will help you use them effectively in your writing.

Pity by William-Blake 1795

Adequate sleep, with all the different stages and cycles, is a crucial part of overall physical and mental well-being. Dreaming is absolutely necessary to good mental health. There is far too much detail to get into here, but research is clear. Indeed, repeatedly waking someone to prevent dreaming is a well-known form of torture.

What Are Nightmares?

Job’s Evil Dreams by William Blake

Nightmares are vividly realistic, disturbing dreams that rattle a person awake from a deep sleep. They often affect the body in the same way waking danger does. Adrenaline spikes, heart rate and respiration rate increase, and the body increases sweat production.

Rakshasa, a Hindu demon causing nightmares

Nightmares tend to occur most often during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when most dreaming takes place. Because periods of REM sleep become progressively longer as the night progresses, people experience nightmares most often in the early morning hours.

A Dream of Crime & Punishment (1847) by JJ Grandville

Some people wake from nightmares crying, while others may wake shaking from fear. After a nightmare, people often have trouble falling back to sleep. The combination of the stress hormones flooding through the body with whatever lingering images from the nightmare are stuck in the mind make it very difficult to relax enough to fall back asleep. Particularly disturbing nightmares can cause sleep disruptions for days and stick around in the brain for years.

What are Night Terrors?

Night terrors are recurring nighttime episodes that happen while a person remains asleep. They’re also commonly known as sleep terrors. When a night terror begins, a sleeper will appear to wake up. They might call out, cry, move around, or show other signs of fear and agitation.

Lady Macbeth Sleepwalking by Artus Scheiner

Other common reactions:

  • Screaming or crying 
  • Staring blankly
  • Flailing or thrashing in bed
  • Breathing rapidly 
  • Having an increased heart rate
  • Becoming flushed and sweaty
  • Seeming confused
  • Getting up, jumping on the bed, or running around the room
The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch

A sleeper may become aggressive if a partner or family member tries to restrain them or keep them quiet. The episode can last for a few seconds or up to several minutes, though the sleeper typically doesn’t wake up. Most people fall right back to quiet sleep after a night terror.

Takagi Umanosuke Confronts the Ghost of a Woman
by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Night terrors are more common in young children, but they can disturb adults as well. An estimated 2 percent of adults also experience night terrors. In reality, this number may be higher, since people often don’t remember having night terrors. 

Night terrors usually happen earlier in the night, during the first half of the sleeping period. This is when a sleeper is in stages 3 and 4 of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, also called slow-wave sleep. It’s uncommon to have them twice in one night, though it can happen. 

What is the Difference Between Night Terrors and Nightmares?

Dream-Land etching (1883) by S.J. Ferris after a painting by C.D. Weldon

Night terrors may might seem similar to nightmares, but the two are different. In addition to the immediate mental and physical effects, the effect on witnesses or other members of a household are very different for night terrors and nightmares.

The Last Judgment (detail) by Jan van Eyck

When a sleeper wakes up from a nightmare, they will probably remember at least some of what the dream involved. Come morning, the sleeper is quite likely to remember the episode, though the memory may be vague.

During night terrors, the sleeper remains asleep and usually doesn’t remember what happened when they do wake up in the morning. The sleeper might remember a scene from a dream they had during the night terror episode, but it’s uncommon to recall any other part of the experience. 

The Orphans Dream (ca. 1900) by James Elliott

A partner, roommate, family member, or other witness to a night terror episode is likely to remember the experience quite well. The daughter of a friend has fairly frequent night terrors, during which she will wander out of the house in her pyjamas or physically attack her partner in his sleep. In the morning, she occasionally has grass on her feet or bruised knuckles but no memory of how she got them.

What Causes Sleep Disorders?

Nightmare by Eugene Thivier
SPECT Readout of a Sleepwalking Patient, from the Lancet

Many adults who experience nightmares or night terrors live with mood-related mental health conditions, such as depressionanxiety, or bipolar disorder.  Night terrors have also been associated with the experience of trauma and heavy or long-term stress

Physical factors can also contribute to the frequency of night terrors and nightmares. Sleep apnea is a very common cause of other sleep disorders. Some other possible causes

Khumbhakarna, a bringer of nightmares, in a temple in Bali

Frequent disruptions to sleep cycles (such as night terrors or nightmares) cause fatigue and, eventually, sleep deprivation. Fatigue and sleep deprivation increase the likelihood of having night terrors or nightmares. There’s no escape!

Nightmare (1810) by Jean Pierre Simon

Bottom Line for Writers: Characters can be just as interesting when they sleep! Why would your character have disrupted sleep, and how would they react? Would the sleep disruption be more effective if experienced by the narrator (nightmare or confusion after night terrors) or by someone close to the narrator (night terror or discussing remembered nightmare)?

Sleepwalker a rather odd statue put up in Boston in 2014 by Tony Matelli

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: FITNESS

Some people, I’ve heard, actually like to exercise. These people are probably playing games such as tennis, golf, basketball, etc. Maybe biking, hiking or kayaking. There are also people who enjoy lifting weights just for the sake of lifting weights. Is your character one of these? If so, how good is s/he?  And when did s/he take up the game?

Then there are activities that some people do for fun and others do as a means to a specific end. In this category I’d put swimming or water aerobics for a bad back, running to relieve stress, boxing as a form of anger management, yoga to relax. Some people bike or walk for fun; for many others, walking and biking is a primary mode of transportation.

This group also would include those people who work out primarily to get or keep a body beautiful.

For most of human history, the vast majority of people have gotten plenty of exercise just trying to stay alive. Farming, hunting, and gathering food require activities people pay big money to recreate in a gym today. Building defense structures, making tools and weapons, chopping wood, washing clothes, and travelling are all much more physically demanding without machinery to help. In almost every part of the world, there are still cultures today that rely primarily on human or animal labor rather than technology.

Some people exercise simply because they have to. Physical therapy can be done to prevent a future injury as well as to treat an existing injury. Martial arts practice can people alive in crisis situations, but regular practice has also been helpful in the treatment of mental illness. A home might only be reachable by strenuous hiking; a job might require frequent lifting and carrying.

At the other end of the spectrum are people whose preferred activity is reading novels while snarfing chocolates or swigging scotch. Or maybe that’s watching TV while munching chips and chugging beer. Sound like any characters you know?

But even these people have probably heard “sitting is the new smoking” when it comes to being detrimental to one’s health. This group of people will find the easiest or least painful way to stay minimally fit.

  • Go to the gym with a friend and enjoy the socialization
  • Join an exercise class that’s nearby
  • Hire a personal trainer
  • Get up for jumping jacks during commercial breaks
  • Lifting the coffee mug to take a sip counts as doing bicep curls

For some, getting dressed and going somewhere is too much effort—not to mention those who don’t want anyone to see them doing whatever it is they are doing.  And in these times of COVID-19, many people don’t want the exposure. These people are likely to choose a stay-at-home option.

  • Buy equipment to use at home:
    • Balance ball
    • Exercise bands
    • Graduated weights, hand-held or strapped to wrists/ankles
    • Heavy-duty weights, barbels, etc.
    • A multi-purpose machine such as Bowflex
    • NordicTrack or similar treadmill
    • Rowing machine
    • A compact elliptical trainer
    • Stationary bicycle
    • Some version of a vibrating plate

Note: Jugs of water, broken swivel chairs, flat-surface furniture, paper plates, and compliant dogs or small children can provide the same benefits as all of these expensive gadgets for almost no money at all!

3.1 How likely is your character to show up at the gym wearing only a towel?

Bottom line for writers: Know your characters’ fitness habits, particularly main characters. There are three components to a person’s/character’s exercise decisions

  1. How does s/he feel about fitness/exercise?
  2. What does s/he think about fitness/exercise?
  3. What does s/he actually do?

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?

WORD PLAY

Sometimes, it’s fun just to fool around with language. Word play comes in wide variety, of course. Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde are famous (infamous?) for their clever manipulation of the English language. Way back before the English language settled into its modern form, Geoffrey Chaucer turned Middle English into his personal plaything.

Anagrams and whimsical stories are two of my favorites because they require nothing but an awake brain! However, for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll write them out.

Anagrams

For anagrams, think of a word—longer is better—and then see how many other words can be made from those letters. Whether plurals or contractions are allowed is up to the player! For example, thanksgiving. The options here are limited by the fact that there is no E, the most frequently used letter in the English language. 

  • thanks
  • thank
  • sang
  • snag
  • nag
  • than
  • tan
  • gnat
  • kin
  • king
  • stag
  • stank
  • stink
  • ink
  • skin
  • sin
  • gas
  • tank
  • tang
  • aging
  • staging
  • thigh
  • tights
  • thighs
  • knights
  • night
  • thanking
  • kings
  • hats
  • giving
  • gating
  • knit
  • ask
  • at
  • an
  • as
  • in
  • asking
  • ski
  • skiing
  • vast
  • gist
  • hat
  • scathing
  • gangs
  • hating
  • shit
  • hit
  • has
  • having
  • task
  • nights
  • hank
  • hang
  • sing
  • ailing
  • tin
  • vat
  • shank
  • shiv
  • shaving
  • van
  • shag
  • shank
  • gash
  • this
  • task
  • scat
  • tasking
  • thinking
  • his
  • has
  • hag
  • hit
  • tat
  • stat
  • sighing
  • sighting
  • tag
  • sag
  • sagging
  • gin
  • thin
  • think
  • gang
  • sting
  • shag
  • sank
  • hag
  • sink
  • shin
  • saving
  • hint
  • gag
  • skit
  • shining
  • gait
  • having
  • gas
  • it
  • sting
  • singing
  • angst
  • sigh

Story Word

One way I like to launch into writing whimsy is to find a word and ring as many changes on it as I can. Here’s one such piece. 

Writers note: this is not the sort of writing that would pass muster in a class or critique group! It’s an example of writing fun, not good writing!

ABSOLUTION

Abelia hates her name. She is forever telling people not to call her Abby, abby being altogether too descriptive for comfort. All her adult life she’s longed to abolish her belly, but she’s seldom succeeded even in abbreviating her abs. They are aboriginal.

Today she is at that abattoir they call a fitness center. She abhors the place, and cannot walk through the door without sinking into abjection. But so strong is her wish for an absolution, she puts her abhorrence in abeyance and follows the yellow brick abscissa to the abs machine. The results are abysmal. After fifteen minutes, she abandons the effort.

The trainer shrieks, “It’s too soon for you to abscond!”

Everyone stares and Abelia is abashed, wishing fervently for an alien abduction. She wishes she were abalone, or perhaps an abstract painting, anything but abnormally abby. She no longer counts leg raises and crunches. She knows they’re absurd. Her abs are absolutely aberrant, an abomination she wishes absent. If she were royalty, she’d have to abdicate. She considers ablation but decides to abstain. The pitfalls of surgery are not abstruse.

Her therapist says, “There’s absolutely nothing abnormal about your abdominals!” She points out that Abelia’s absorption has become an abstraction. “You must abjure that.”

Abelia takes the advice of her high abbess of health, vowing that from this day forward, she will abrogate concern for her abs and embrace abundance. She dons a flowing silk abba  in red, gold and purple. No more abstemiousness. No more abstinence. No more abnegation.

Bottom line: When you just want to unwind or jolt some creativity, consider word play!

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!

ROUTINE, GOOD; RUT, BAD

Pretty much everyone has routines. They are often enjoyable. At the very least, they provide predictability, and thus security. Routines are efficient.

But most people want to get out of a rut. Being in a rut means one’s life isn’t going where one wants it to, but there is no perceived way to escape. Dr. Vance Havner, of North Carolina, suggested that a rut is just a grave with both ends knocked out.

Writers: Mine your characters’ routines and consider the usefulness of ruts in raising tension.

There’s a fine line between a habit and a routine. For my purposes, a habit is something a character does repeatedly, often without conscious intention, and it’s over pretty quickly. For example, most people habitually put the same leg first in a pair of pants, put a sock on the same foot first. 

A routine would be a bunch of habits strung together. For example, a woman getting ready for the day.

  • Gets out of bed
  • Use the toilet
  • Take off her sleep clothes
  • Wash her face
    • Shave those pesky middle age whiskers
  • Apply astringent to face and then neck
  • Apply moisturizer with sunscreen to her neck
    • Apply moisturizer with stronger sunscreen to her face
  • Apply deodorant
  • Put on underpants
  • Put on long pants
  • Put on shirt
  • Arrange hair
  • Puts on jewelry
    • Earring first
    • Then pendant
    • Rings and bracelet last

Thus, routines can extend over time, encompassing multiple behaviors. They can cover days, weeks, months, or even years. Properly planned routines are rooted in meaning and purpose, and they keep us moving in the direction that we think best. They are good when they give order to our lives.

Routines become ruts when they become stale and empty. At that point, they become roadblocks to growth. A rut is a narrow or predictable way of life, set of attitudes, etc.—dreary, undeviating routine.

Writers note: One person’s routine can be another person’s rut.

In 2005 the Chrysalis Reader Embracing Relationships, included my short piece “Solid Line.” Here is the opening of that piece. 

Isobel cuts into the fried egg and pushes the bits around her plate.  “We need to think of something different for breakfast.”

Ray always makes breakfast.  “Like what?” he asks.

“Oh, I don’t know. Something. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday we have an egg. Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, we have cereal. On Sundays we have pancakes and two strips of bacon. It would just be nice to have something different sometimes.”

Ray points out that he makes eggs five different ways, including omelets. That they have six kinds of hot cereal and four kinds of cold cereal, plus homemade granola. That he sometimes makes muffins with the Sunday bacon. That they always have fresh fruit—bananas, grapefruit, oranges, or melon, depending on the season—sometimes a fruit cup. That they even alternate coffee with a dozen kinds of tea. That if she asks for an English muffin or a bagel with cream cheese or something, he makes it.  “I think we probably have more variety than most people. But if you want something else, tell me what it is.”

Isobel bites into her half slice of toast—Ray always makes toast in half slices. She says nothing. Why does so much variety feel so predictable?

Bottom line for writers: Pay attention to the way habits, routines, and ruts can up the tension and enrich your plot!

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.

THERE’S KISSING, AND THEN THERE’S KISSING

When writers write about kissing, it’s almost always in the spirit of Klimt: love, passion, romance, sexual attraction, sexual activity, and/or sexual arousal. These kisses are often described in great detail: lips, tongue, involuntary reactions like breath and pulse, all taste, and smell. The reader is told whether it’s tender or demanding, hard or seeking, along with related sensations of hair, hands, body positions, and eye contact.

FYI, Kissing is the second most common form of physical intimacy among U.S. adolescents (after hand-holding). About 85% of 15-16-year-old have experience kissing. (At least, they say they do; one of the only things worse for a 15-16 year old to be caught doing than lieing on an anonymous survey is being shown to have less experience than their peers in any kind of sexual activity or exploration.)

Affection

Affectionate kisses are presented very differently. While not denying that affection can be a part of romantic/sexual kissing, it often has no erotic component at all.  Although seldom mouth-to-mouth, affectionate kisses are much broader, and can express loyal affection, gratitude, compassion, sympathy, joy, or sorrow. 

Affectionate kisses are common among family members, especially parents and children, and others who are “like family.” These are often cheek kisses accompanied by hugs. But affectionate kisses typically are not described with the sensory detail of erotic kisses. It is as if, given the context (of wedding, funeral, leave taking, illness, etc.) the act itself says it all.

Consider the possibilities of sensory description of affectionate kisses. A great-aunt’s overly strong perfume and clouds of fine, white hair obscuring vision as she leans in for a slightly whiskery kiss at a funeral. An exuberant friend hugging hard enough to squeeze breath out or lift someone off their feet entirely while smacking loud kisses on the cheek. A young child inadvertently pulling hair or scratching while pressing slobbery, banana-scented open-mouthed smears of affection to the face.

Greeting

Pro-forma kisses of friendship are common in Northern Africa, the U.S., Europe, and South America as a ritualistic form of salutation. Though occasionally given on the hand, most pro-forma kisses are on the cheek (or in the air next to the cheek). Think French cheek-kissing or Russian back-pounding hug accompanied by multiple kisses on both cheeks. Such kissing is very culture bound. The “rules” are different for every occasion in every society.

Joseph Stalin kissing pilot Vasily Molokov in congratulations, 1937

The Socialist Fraternal Kiss is a complicated bit of political theater, usually involving multiple kisses on the cheeks and lips combined with back-slapping and hand-shaking. Originally, it was a sign that all members of society should greet each other as equals rather than subjects kissing the hands or feet of a ruler. After World War II, the custom spread from Russia to Communist areas of Eastern Europe, Asia, and Cuba. The duration and intensity of the greeting kiss largely depended on the global standing of the country involved and the number of cameras in the area.

The Meeting at the Golden Gate by Giotto di Bondone

The Holy Kiss was an important part of early Christian ceremonies. Apostles were instructed to ‘salute one another with a holy kiss’ in several books of the New Testament, including St. Paul’s letters. This was later replaced with a handshake in Catholic services; in these days of COVID-19, congregants are encouraged to wave over the internet.

The Oceanic Kiss is not technically a kiss but is common in many cultures where actual kissing is not commonly practiced. Both parties approach and pass each other with their mouths slightly open but do not touch. Sniffing may be involved, so avoid the onions in these cultures.

Ritual

Ritual kissing has a long and varied history. Here again, the sensory detail is usually nil. Perhaps dwelling on the specific smell of feet or trying hard not to think of how many lips have rubbed that ring before yours.

Religion: kissing a temple floor, a religious book or icon. It conveys devotion, but also indicate subordination, or respect. Examples include kissing the Pope’s ring, or the foot of someone to show total subservience.

Joan of Arc Kissing the Sword of Deliverance by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The kiss of peace: while part of religious ritual, it was also long a tradition to signify reconciliation between enemies.

Pope Francis greeting Holocaust survivors

The kiss of death: a signal from the leader of a group that the receiver of a kiss on the cheek is marked for execution.

The Godfather, Part II

Learning to Kiss 

Contrary to common belief, kissing does not “come naturally.” Although some anthropologists hold that kissing is instinctual and intuitive, evolving from suckling or pre-mastication—and others maintain that kissing evolved from tasting the saliva of a potential mate to determine health—these are contradicted by societies where kissing was unknown prior to exposure to Europeans. These include indigenous people of Australia, the Tahitians, and many tribes in Africa. 

Some people learn a little later than others.
from The 40 Year Old Virgin

Perhaps the most convincing—and entertaining—evidence is when infants and young children are taught how to kiss.  Starting with the wide-mouthed cheek lick. They are taught who to kiss, where, and when it is an appropriate occasion for kissing, with plenty of hilarious trial and error. These vary widely across cultures and time periods.

The Lovotics Kissenger, a cell phone attachment that allows people to kiss while on opposite sides of the planet!

Kissing doesn’t happen in approximately 10% of the world’s population.  Some believe it is dirty. Others have superstitious reasons, as in the mouth is the portal to the soul, so kissing can allow one’s soul to be taken and invites death.  Some cultures see kissing purely as a form of greeting or a sign of platonic affection rather than being associated with sex at all. Researchers at the University of Nevada have found that societies near the equator are less likely to equate kissing with romance than with affection or greeting.

Health Benefits of Kissing

There’s a moratorium on a lot of kissing just now because it can transmit some infectious diseases (COVID-19 as the newest, mononucleosis and herpes simplex, to name a couple of oldies). But overall, kissing is good for one’s health.

Maybe it’s just safer to blow kisses.

Kissing stimulates the production of feel-good hormones such as endorphins and dopamine. Regular kissing protects against depression and stress. Married or cohabiting couples who increased their frequency of kissing reported less stress, and increase in relationship satisfaction, and—wait for it!—lower cholesterol levels.

Another possible meaning of the Kiss of Death is an infection of the herpes simplex virus in infants. An infected person kissing a newborn can easily pass the virus on, sometimes proving fatal to the baby.

History of Kissing

Graves found in Teppe Hasanlu, Iran and Valdara, Mantua, Italy indicate that humans have been kissing for at least 6,000 years.
Sanskrit Vedas

However kissing got started, it’s been around for a long time.  Kissing is believed to have originated and spread from India. The earliest documentation of kissing comes from Sanskrit scriptures important to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, around 3,500 years ago. It is present in Sumerian and ancient Egyptian love poetry, in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. 

Romans had separate words for kissing the hand or cheek (osculum), kissing relatives on the lips with closed mouth (basium), and passionate kissing (suavium). The French have at least 5 nouns for a kiss and at least 10 verbs for to kiss, depending on the sort of kiss being referenced. There are at least 12 German words for kiss.  Using the wrong word for the occasion in any of these languages can lead to very embarrassing linguistic

This blog has just skimmed the surface, raising things a writer might want to consider whenever kissing is part of a scene—or could be. If you are truly intrigued, check out The Kiss and its History, by Kristoffer Nyrop.

Bottom Line for Writers: the types and meanings of kisses are nearly infinite. Enrich your writing by giving each kiss the level of sensory details usually reserved for erotic kisses.

So much sensory detail!

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.)