FINDING JOBS THAT FIT YOUR CHARACTERS

They say there is an ideal job for every person, and in an ideal world every worker would find a job that absolutely suited their skills and interests. The world we live in is, alas, not an ideal world. The world you create through your writing can be as ideal as you choose, and the jobs held by characters can be a perfect fit. Or not.

Is being Scottish a career?

A perfect job match for a character can demonstrate their talents and background. An imperfect job match can be a source of conflict, humor, or even plot development. The ways in which characters find a career path can be just as revealing as the job itself: some people join the family business whether they have the aptitude and interest or not; some people slowly work their way up the ladder to the job they actually want; some people have an innate talent, honed by practice. Some careers are dependent on the setting (such as a snowshoe maker or dinosaur wrangler), but most types of work have some equivalent in every genre.

Jobs for people who love working with their hands.  Educational requirements, apprenticeships, licenses, etc., vary by job. Some have no requirements beyond on-the-job training. Both introverts and extroverts can find tactile jobs to suit their interests (in theory, at least).

  • Carpenter
  • Casino dealer
  • Chef/baker
  • Construction worker
  • Electrician
  • Hairstylist
  • Massage therapist
  • Mechanic
  • Sign language interpreter
  • Stagehand
  • Welder

High-paying, low-stress jobs for introverts.  These are jobs for characters who prefer independent tasks and interactions with smaller groups of people/coworkers. They typically require post secondary education. Apart from convenient plot devices, these jobs are unlikely to include terrifying catastrophes and world-ending deadlines. Usually.

  • Atmospheric scientist
  • Computer and information research scientist
  • Electronics engineer
  • Software developer
  • Technical writer
  • Technical translation

High-paying jobs with good work/life balance.  Education/training varies, but a common thread is that these jobs typically don’t require on-call or emergency response. (Actually, most writers earn very little from their writing, but the possibility is always there.)

  • Physical therapist
  • Dental hygienist
  • Web developer
  • Postsecondary teacher 
  • Writer/author

Jobs that require good observational skills.  Educational requirements vary, as do salaries. Despite high demands on the personal time and physical strength of people working in these fields, many have salaries significantly below the U.S. median.

  • Registered nurse
  • Veterinary technologists and technicians
  • Sociologists
  • Police and sheriff’s patrol officers
  • Private security
  • Environmental scientists and specialists
  • Childcare workers

Jobs that offer the possibility of frequent crises. Some people are perfectly suited for staying calm and doing their job in the middle of an adrenaline rush; some people simply love the adrenaline rush. Contrary to what television would have us believe, these professions are not a constant stream of accidents and terror. However, characters working in these jobs could be a very handy source of action to drive a plot.

  • Firefighter
  • Paramedic or EMT
  • ER surgeon
  • Personal security
  • Test pilot
  • Stunt driver
  • Middle school teacher
  • Parent of a toddler

Jobs that do not require reading.  Approximately 800 million adults worldwide are functionally illiterate; in the US, 36 million adults cannot read or write above a third grade level. The reasons for illiteracy are almost as varied as the people affected by illiteracy: inadequate or inappropriate education, poverty, social prejudice, learning disability, mental disability, physical disability, poverty, gender bias, etc. There are few jobs that require absolutely no reading, but there are several that don’t rely heavily on that skill.

Side Note: Functionally illiterate adults develop a variety of methods to get around in society; consider how you might write such a character.

  • Animal care and service workers
  • Crafts artists
  • Dancers
  • Fishing and hunting workers
  • Photographers
  • Agricultural work
  • Musicians/singers

Jobs that require little or no prior training. The eternal question “How can you get job experience if no one will hire you without experience?” applies in just about every career you can choose. Being born into a family of royals, subsistence farmer, or reincarnated dragon whisperers kind of limits career choices. For the rest of us, we have to start with anything we can find. That does not mean these jobs are any easier or less vital.

  • Dishwasher
  • Waiter or tables busser
  • Retail customer service
  • Housekeepers
  • Home delivery
  • Window washers
  • Shelf stockers
There’s always one…

Bottom Line for writers: if you are creating a new character, consider jobs that fit!

Public Service Announcement: The Red Cross is in desperate need of blood donations right now. Please take a trip to your nearest donation center if you possibly can.

FUNNY FIXATION OR OCD?

OCD, like love and hate, is a label thrown around pretty loosely, often for humorous effect. People with fixations on organization, precise routines, hygiene, perfectionism, etc. are frequently referred to as “acting so OCD” or “showing their inner OCD.” Marketing campaigns turn OCD into a punchline to sell products like Obsessive Christmas Disorder pajamas or Khlo-CD organizational apps.

Hilarious, no?

There is a significant difference between people with odd quirks and people who have a diagnosable mental illness. Both can be useful characters for writers, albeit in very different ways. Characters who have fixations, quirks, rituals, or habits that interrupt a scene or cause awkward situations can be a source of amusement for writers. Characters who actually have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can be a source of tension, tragedy, or demonstrated compassion for writers, but the actual mental illness is not amusing.

Confusing retail workers is a sign of having too much time on one’s hands rather than having a debilitating mental illness. (Disclaimer: This blog is not affiliated with any retail chain or candy brand.)

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, recurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions that s/he feels the urge to repeat over and over). The line between having a personality quirks and a mental disorder can be hard to find, but it generally comes down to quality of life. Dr. Steven Brodsky points out that actual OCD will “impair social or occupational function or involve frequent excessive distress” in the lives of those suffering from it.

  • Obsessions—repeated thoughts, urges, or mental images—are private, and thus no one knows about them but the person unless they’re talked about. These uncomfortable thoughts cause anxiety.
  • Compulsions are typically (but not always) public, as is any behavior that happens the presence of others. The repetitive behaviors are an attempt to deal with the anxiety the obsessive thoughts create.

Could you benefit from an O and/or C character? Although people/characters can exhibit symptoms of obsessions, compulsions, or both, thoughts and behaviors typically occur together. See the end of this blog for specific prompts.

Detective Adrian Monk from Monk, Physicist Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, and Chef Monica Geller from Friends

Consider Monk, The Big Bang Theory, and Friends. All three shows feature characters who exhibit signs of obsessions and compulsive behaviors, usually to the sound of the laugh-track. All three characters are referred to by others as “obsessive,” “OCD,” or some variation thereof, but none experience the pain that comes along with mental illness (which I can only imagine would be heightened by hearing laughing crowds).

Obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors become part of a vicious cycle in the minds of people with OCD. Most people with OCD realize that their thoughts and behaviors are irrational, but they are unable to break the cycle. Children often don’t perceive their abnormality; symptoms are noticed by parents and/or teachers.

In contrast, “neat freaks” and people with fixations often enjoy performing the behavior in question (such as alphabetizing books), enjoy the results (such as having a tidy apartment), have had the behavior drummed into them (such as rewinding video tapes after working at Blockbuster for years [I realize that I’m dating myself]), or out of practical necessity.

An over-organized closet may be a necessity for a working mother of two, saving endless headaches on school mornings.

Most People with OCD Fall Into One of the Following Categories (in no particular order)

  • Washers are afraid of contamination. They usually have cleaning or hand-washing compulsions. Many refuse to wear anything someone else has worn, take their own sheets to hotels/motels, etc.
    • Washing your hands before and after eating is just being extra hygienic; washing your hands until they are raw and cracked is a probable sign of OCD.
Artwork by NeverStayDead
  • Checkers repeatedly check things (motion-sensor lights turned on, car locked) they associate with safety. They might keep guns or other weapons that are checked for accessibility, condition, etc.
    • Jiggling the door handle after locking it could be a funny quirk; checking the lights, the thermostat, the window latches, and everything else repeatedly until you’re late for work is a sign of unhealthy compulsion.
  • Doubters and sinners are afraid that if everything isn’t perfect or done just so something terrible will happen or they will be punished. Dressing, undressing, bathing, eating must be done in precisely the same way, for example. Or furniture cannot be moved. Cars must always be the same make.
    • This can also take the form of rituals that must be completed regardless of convenience or safety, such as always taking seven steps at a time or touching every surface in a room, including the hot stove top.
  • Counters and arrangers are obsessed with order and symmetry, perhaps including superstitions about certain numbers, colors, or arrangements. For example, counting all the angles in a room, or the number of furniture legs.
    • Being unable to enter rooms painted blue or walk without counting sets of four steps sounds amusing… until the door out of the burning house is in a blue room five steps away.
  • Hoarders keep things they neither need nor use. They fear that getting rid of anything will cause something bad to happen, or it will be needed later. These people are often co-diagnosed with other disorders, such as depression, PTSD, ADHD, compulsive buying, or kleptomania. They might engage in skin-picking.

OCD symptoms may come and go over time. Added stressors increase symptoms.

It’s a vicious circle: obsessive thoughts trigger anxiety, which leads to compulsive behavior to try to curb the anxiety, and the behavior is followed by temporary relief.

Writers consider the following:

  • A person who actually is threatened in some way while others dismiss the anxiety and precautions as being silly fixations
  • A character whose compulsive behaviors are humorous and the source of derision/ joking among coworkers or friends/ acquaintances
  • A character whose compulsive behaviors embarrass children or other family members
  • A person whose compulsive behaviors put the family in financial jeopardy
  • A person whose compulsive behavior leads neighbors, classmates, and others to ostracize the person AND his/her family
  • A character who keeps obsessive thoughts private, doesn’t act on them, and the strain leads to withdrawal from intimate relationships
  • A character whose obsessions get them into medical or legal trouble
  • A character whose OCD has become so severe that they are unable to leave the house or keep a job

Bottom line for writers: OCD characters can provide tension, tragedy, and plot development; fixated or quirky characters can provide humor. There is a big difference.

OCTOBER IS FOR HORROR: VAMPIRES

Drawn by shamad

A friend recently told me that the horror villains we fear are subconscious stand-ins for things we’re afraid of in real life.  Vampires stand for a fear of change; zombies for a fear of crowds or strangers.  Fear of clowns is a sign you’re a normal, well-adjusted, perfectly rational person.

 

The anthropomorphic personification of EVIL!

Inquiring minds want to know!  I started with vampires—and I never got past vampires!

 

When I went online to learn what it means if we fear vampires, what popped up was an article by Ralph Blumenthal, “A Fear of Vampires Can Mask a Fear of Something Much Worse.”  He was writing in 2002 about villagers in Malawi believing that the government was colluding with vampires to collect human blood in exchange for food.

 

Mobs of vampire hunters killed dozens in Malawi

At the time, Malawi was in the grip of starvation, a severe AIDS epidemic, and political upheaval.  He cited Nina Auerbach, author of Our Vampires, Ourselves, to the effect that stories of the undead embody power ”and our fears of power.”

David J. Skal, author of The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror claims that a fixation on demons often accompanies periods of national stress.  “In times of social upheaval, the vampire asserts itself.”

 

 

In nearly every culture in the world, there is a legend of some variation of vampire-like creatures—the dead who reanimate and come back to feed on the living.  And there is general agreement that the roots of vampire legends are in the misunderstanding of how bodies decompose and of how certain diseases spread.

 

The Chinese Jiangshi hunts by “hopping” because of rigor mortis.

In an October 26, 2016 article in National Geographic titled The Bloody Truth About Vampires, Becky Little wrote, “As a corpse’s skin shrinks, its teeth and fingernails can appear to have grown longer.  And as internal organs break down, a dark ‘purge fluid’ can leak out of the nose and mouth.  People unfamiliar with this process would interpret this fluid to be blood and suspect that the corpse had been drinking it from the living.”

Paul Barber, author of Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality, made several telling points in the introduction to his book.  One is that there is little similarity between the vampires of folklore and the vampires of fiction.
Modern images of vampires are pretty stereotyped: fangs that bite the necks of victims; drinking human blood; can’t see themselves in mirrors; can be warded off with garlic, killed with a stake (or silver nail) through the heart; are aristocrats who live in castles and may be sexy.  This image was popularized by Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Count Dracula in the 1931 film adaptation of the Broadway show of the same name.  Unlike Bram Stoker’s description of the monster in the 1897 novel Dracula as a repulsive old man with huge eyebrows and bat-like ears, Lugosi showed audiences a mysteriously elegant gentleman in evening dress.

 

 

The 1922 film Nosferatu (on left), though an unlicensed adaptation, portrayed the vampire as described in Stoker’s novel.

 

In European folklore, vampires typically wore shrouds, and were often described as bloated, with a ruddy or dark countenance.  Specific descriptions varied among regions: sometimes male, sometimes female, might have long fingernails, a stubby beard, the mouth and left eye open, a permanently hateful stare, red eyes, no eyes, etc.  Fangs were not always a prominent feature, and blood was generally sucked from bites on the chest near the heart rather than the throat.

Polish strzyga

But perhaps the most important theme of Barber’s book is that, lacking a scientific background in physiology, pathology, or immunization, the common response of ancient societies was to blame death and disease on the dead.  To that end, the interpretations they came up with—while wrong from today’s perspective—nevertheless were usually coherent, covered all the data, and provided the rationale for some common practices that seemed to be otherwise inexplicable.

 

A manananggal from the Philippines will send its detached head and torso to hunt.

Should you ever be pursued by a vampire, fling a handful of rice, millet, or other small grain in its path.  The vampire will be compelled to stop to count every grain, giving you time to escape.  I found no information on how vampires came to be associated with arithmomania, but it endures: remember The Count von Count on Sesame Street?

 

He’s the color of a rotting corpse, but cloth fangs are pretty harmless.

At this point, I realize that getting into methods of identifying vampires, protecting against vampires, ways to destroy vampires, and cross-cultural variations on vampirism is way beyond the scope of this blog.  Instead, I refer you to books such as this:

 

 

And should vampires show up in your dreams, according to DreamBible: the answers to all your dreams, pay attention.  Their appearance could mean many things.
  • Seeing a vampire in your dream symbolizes an aspect of your personality that is parasitic or selfishly feeds off others.
  • Alternatively, a vampire may reflect feelings about people you believe want to pull you down to their level or convert you to thinking negatively in a way similar to theirs.
  • To dream of being a vampire represents a selfish need to feed off others.
  • To dream of being bitten by a vampire represents feelings about other people using you or feeding off you and being unable to stop it.
  • Vampires may be a sign of dependence, problems with addiction, social pressure, or ambivalence.
  • A dream vampire might be telling you that you need to start being more independent and relying less on others resources or accomplishments.
  • To dream of killing vampires represents overcoming dependence on others.
  • Repeated dreams of vampires hovering over your shoulder and correcting your spelling or suggesting topics for research and expansion is almost certainly a sign that you are writing a blog entry about vampires.

The yara-ma-yha-who in Australia drains a victim of almost all blood before swallowing and regurgitating the body, which then becomes a copy of its killer.

Bottom line for writers: consider whether a vampire is a fit metaphor for your character.
 

The soucouyant appears in the Caribbean by day as a harmless old woman, but she sheds her skin at night to hunt as a ball of fire.

SEE SOMETHING, DO SOMETHING—MAYBE

Kitty Genovese

The March 13, 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese led to an entirely new field of research in psychology.  Genovese was attacked while walking home from work at 3:20 a.m. in Queens, New York.  She was stabbed, sexually assaulted, and murdered over a period of 30 minutes.  Subsequent reports said 38 witnesses watched the attack from nearby apartments but neither intervened nor even called the police until the attacker fled.  Kitty Genovese died on the way to a hospital.

 

Two psychologists, Bibb Latané and John Darley, conducted extensive research to examine and try to explain such apparently callous indifference to the suffering of another human being.  Over time, these and other researchers teased out several factors that will affect the likelihood of bystander intervention.

 

  • Diffusion of responsibility is one of the earliest and most powerful variables identified: the more people who are bystanding, the less likely it is that anyone will intervene.  Responsibility is diffused among all.
    • Contrarily, Philpot et al. just this year published the results examining real-life video recordings from three countries and found that someone intervened in over 90% of cases.  Even if the likelihood of any one person responding was infrequent, someone in the crowd intervened.

 

Note the lack of assistance offered by the bystander

  • Emergency vs. non-emergency situations. The following conditions are relevant.
    • Notice that something is going on.
    • interpret the situation as an emergency.  Others not reacting provides social influence against acting,
    • Feel responsible: does the victim deserve help, is the bystander competent, what is the bystander’s relationship to victim.
    • The form of assistance needed (e.g., medical emergency, harassment protection, etc.).
    • Implement the action choice.

CPR? Thermal blankets? Take away the vodka?

  • Ambiguity and consequences: ambiguous situations take up to five times as long to respond to, and even then bystanders will often not intervene until after assessing their own safety.

 

No one will slip or fall. There is no room to land.

  • Cohesiveness and group membership: the more cohesive a group, the more likely it is that the norm of social responsibility will lead to helping.  Bigger cohesive groups are quickest to react.

 

When punching a small child is perfectly acceptable

  • Cultural differences affect intervention—both broad/national culture and subculture.

 

Taking a photo is far more important than looking for survivors.

  • Digital interference is a relatively new phenomenon.  With the spread of cell phones and social media, bystanders at a scene are becoming more likely to try to film the incident (whether as “armchair activism” or simply to attract online attention) than they are to intervene or call for help.  This has the doubled impact of overloading nearby cell towers so that actual phone calls to emergency services are not connected.

Plus, it makes you look like a total jerk!

Bystander apathy can be counteracted by raising awareness of bystander effects ad consciously taking steps to overcome it and help; and victims can overcome the diffusion of responsibility in groups by singling out a single member and asking for help from that one person.

 

In 2011, Muslims and Christians in Tahrir Square took turns forming protective circles to allow the others a safe place to pray.

Bottom line for writers: make your readers understand why your character does or does not intervene!

 

Any kind of intervention was clearly doomed.

ALTRUISM? REALLY?

Altruism: an individual performing an action that is at a cost to him/herself (e.g., time, effort,  pleasure, quality of life, probability of survival or reproduction) that benefits – either directly or indirectly – another individual or group, without the expectation of reciprocity or compensation for that action.

 

Helping behavior may or may not be altruistic.  There are many factors affecting the urge to help, including the following.

 

1) Kin selection: both animals and humans are more helpful toward close kin that to distant kin or non-kin.  Perception of kinship is affected by whether the other looks like the giver, shares a family name (especially if it’s an unusual name), has a familiar scent (in animal groups), etc.  Think of kin as the in-group.

 

2) Vested interests: helping friends, allies, and similar social in-groups (besides avoiding vicarious suffering to the individual) may eventually benefit the altruist.  Extreme self-sacrifice may be adaptive if a hostile outgroup threatens to kill the entire group.  During the Allied campaign in Italy in the World War II, First Lieutenant John Robert Fox ordered an artillery strike on his position in Sommocolinia, sacrificing his own life to take out invading German forces and allow US troops to retreat safely.  He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

 

First Lieutenant John Robert Fox

3) Reciprocal altruism: helping others is more likely if there is a chance that they can and will reciprocate.  Therefore, people are more helpful it is likely that they will interact again in the future.  If a person sees others being non-cooperative, they are less likely to be helpful.  If someone helps first, the recipient of the help is more likely to help in return.  Think charities that give small gifts of stickers, notepads, or holiday cards when asking for a contribution.

 

Cleaner wrasse servicing a big-eye squirrelfish

4) People are more likely to cooperate on a task if they can communicate first.

 

Technology assisting Rohingya in getting aid

5) Groups of people cooperate more if they perceive a threat from another group.  In the insect world, this frequently happens when a colony or hive finds safety in numbers while moving larvae, a queen, or the entire group.  Ants, bees, termites, etc., form large masses and structures to complete the move.

 

Moving a beehive

6) People will help more when they know that their helping will be communicated to people they will interact with later, is publicly announced, is discussed, or is simply observed by someone else.

 

Peace Corps volunteers swearing in

7) Selective investment theory proposes that close social bonds, and associated emotional, cognitive, and neurohormonal mechanisms evolved in order to facilitate long-term, high-cost altruism benefiting those depending on another for group survival and reproductive success.  Humans, like many other animals, care for members of the species who cannot care for themselves, ultimately benefiting the species as a whole.

 

Very young and very old humans often require assistance and care

8) Microbiologists are studying whether some strains of microbes might influence the hosts to perform altruistic behaviors that are not immediately obvious as beneficial to the host.  There is a possibility, currently being researched, that the bacteria in a person’s gut could affect their behavior and that changes in the bacterial makeup (such as from taking antibiotics) might result in a change in personality.

 

At first glance, this monkey grooming a sleeping wild dog must be suicidal

Psychology has defined psychological altruism as “a motivational state with the goal of increasing another’s welfare.  Some definitions specify a lack of external rewards for altruistic behaviors.  Even when not immediately obvious, altruism is often rewarded in various ways (see above).  When there is no tangible reward, feeling good about oneself can be rewarding.  Regardless of whether an act is “true” altruism, there are many psychological studies that document the conditions under which people are more likely to help.
  1. Helping is more likely when the recipient is clearly in need.
  2. Helping is more likely when the giver feels personal responsibility for reducing the other person’s distress.
  3. A person with a high level of empathic concern is likely to help regardless of how many bystanders are around.

The Good Samaritan mosaic by Fr Marko Rupnik

The up-side of helping: volunteerism is strongly related to current and future health and well-being.
  • Older adults who volunteered were higher in life satisfaction and will to live, and lower on measures of depression, anxiety, somatization.
  • A 30-year study of the physical health of mothers found that 52% of those who did not volunteer experienced a major illness, compared to 36% of those who did.
  • A 4-year study of people 55 and older found that those who volunteered for two or more organizations had a 63% lower likelihood of dying.  Controlling for prior health status indicated that volunteerism accounted for a 44%reduction in mortality.
  • Research supports the idea that altruistic acts bring out happiness but it also works in the opposite direction: happier people are also kinder.

Philemon and Baucis offered complete hospitality to Zeus and Hermes in disguise, despite being paupers

When too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing:
 
  • Although positive effects of helping were still significant, one study of volunteers found that feeling overwhelmed by others’ demands had an even stronger negative effect on mental health.
  • While generous acts make people feel good about themselves, it is also important for recipients of assistance to appreciate—and show that their appreciation—for kindness and help.
  • Research indicates that a conscious focus on gratitude led to reductions in negative affect and increases in optimistic appraisals, positive affect, offering emotional support, sleep quality, and well-being for the grateful person.
  • Volunteer burn-out is especially common in high-stress positions, such as volunteer firefighters and medical providers at refugee camps.

Altruism is an important moral value for virtually all of the world’s religions:
  • Jews practice tzedakah, righteous behavior, providing support to make the world a more just place

  • Daya (compassion) and Daan (chairty) are two of the fundamental teachings of Hinduism

  • As part of aparigraha (non-attachment), Jains give away possessions and harm no living creature

  • Many Christian churches still practice tithing, donating 10% of all earnings

  • One of the five primary tenets of Islam is zakat, giving to charity

  • Sikhs practice seva, which is unselfish and unbiased aid to all

  • Buddhism teaches kindness toward all beings

Bottom line for writers: helpful characters are a good option, but be clear in your own head who, why, and under what circumstances the person helps.

 

PREJUDICE: WHAT IT IS, WHAT IT ISN’T

Is fear of grey people racism or able-ism?

Prejudice is generally defined in one of two ways: 

 

1)  A preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.  This is the broadest definition and allows for being biased in a positive direction (such as assuming that harpists are poised and elegant).  Wikipedia goes a step further, saying an affective feeling towards a person based on that person’s perceived group membership.

Deborah Henson-Conant

2)  An unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reasons; unreasonable feelings, opinions, or attitudes, especially of a hostile nature (like thinking all wrestlers are vulgar and uncouth), regarding an ethnic, racial, social, or religious group.

Prejudice is one of the root causes of human conflict.  Conflict, in turn, can result in crime, war, systemic repression, and mass murder.  Writers note: anything that creates conflict between characters or between a character and society can be used in your writing.

 

Where prejudice comes from:
 

1) We tend to take on the attitudes—including prejudices—of the social groups to which we belong.  Social groups include gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, social class, religion, sexual orientation, profession, etc., etc., etc.  Adopting the attitudes of one’s social groups, including family, is often a means of fitting in and being liked.  Thus, prejudice may serve a social adjustive function.

Zebras always vote the same way in local elections.

2) Sometimes assuming a host of characteristics based on knowing one is cognitively efficient.  We don’t have to spend time gathering information or even stopping to think.

 

Cartoon by Dan Allison

3) And sometimes, prejudice serves an ego-defensive function.  If simply by being who we are we can feel superior to whole groups of people—e.g., all women, all blacks, all immigrants, all yellow ducklings—it helps counterbalance negative information about oneself (such as being chronically unemployed, ugly, or unpopular).

 

Like other attitudes, prejudice has cognitive, affective, and behavioral components.
 
  • Cognitive: overgeneralized beliefs or stereotypes.  E.g., Yankees fans are arrogant and obnoxious.
  • Affective: prejudice, feelings about people that could be positive but are more often negative.  For example, I hate Yankee fans They make me angry.

(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

  • Behavioral: the treatment of others.  When negative, it is discrimination, and may lead to excluding, avoiding, or biased treatment of group members.  Example: I would never hire or become friends with a person if I knew he or she were a Yankees fan.
Although people can hold positive stereotypes, prejudices, and discriminatory actions based on group membership—for example, giving preferential treatment to people who are like themselves—it behooves us to focus on the negative because that is what is most problematic.

 

“How It Works” by xkcd

First impressions: When meeting new people, we automatically note race, gender, and age because these social categories provide a wealth of information about the individual—albeit, based on stereotypes.

 

Categories of bias: Racism, sexism, ageism, sexual orientation, nationalism, class-ism, religious discrimination, linguistic discrimination, and more.
Self-fulfilling Prophecy: An expectation held by a person about how another person will behave, which leads to treating the person according to our expectations.  The treatment can influence the person to act according to our stereotypic expectations, thus confirming the original stereotypic beliefs.  (Think teacher expectations, employer expectations, etc.)

 

Confirmation Bias: Paying more attention to information that is consistent with our stereotypic expectations than to information that is inconsistent with our expectations..

 

In-groups and Out-groups: An in-group is a group we see ourselves as belonging to, involving a strong sense of belonging and emotional connection that leads to in-group bias and preferences.  Out-groups are seen as different in fundamental ways, less likable, often resulting in discrimination.  When an in-group’s goals are delayed or thwarted, an out-group is often blamed.  This is scape-goating.
 
Bottom line for writers: stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination can define characters and situations.  Think thoughts, affects, and actions and how each can work with POV and plot.

 

Species-ism?

CHARACTERS’ ATTITUDES AND BEHAVIOR


Attitude is a favorable or unfavorable reaction toward something or someone (often rooted in one’s beliefs and exhibited in one’s feelings and intended behavior).  It is tempting to assume that there is a direct line between these favorable or unfavorable reactions and behavior.  Good news for writers: people’s expressed attitudes seldom predict their actual behavior.  This is because an attitude includes both feeling and thinking, and both affect behavior.

 

I don’t FEEL wet. I THINK I’m walking on water. I must have an uplifting ATTITUDE!

Attitudes predict behavior when these conditions are present:
  • Social influences on what we say are minimal (little social pressure, fear of criticism).  For attitudes formed early in life (e.g., attitudes toward authority and fairness) explicit and implicit attitudes often diverge, with implicit being a stronger predictor.

I’m a good boy. I’m a good boy. I’m a… that treat is mine!

  • Other influences our behavior are minimal: situational constraints, health, weather, etc.

I’m supposed to stay in my cage, but that open window is right there…

  • Attitudes specific to the behavior are examined: e.g., expressed attitudes toward poetry don’t predict enjoying a particular poem, but attitudes toward the costs and benefits of jogging predict jogging behavior.

You’re getting up early tomorrow to go running. Sure. I totally believe you.

  • Attitudes are potent: stating an attitude and an intention to do something makes the attitude more potent and the behavior is more likely (recycling); asking people to think about their attitudes toward an issue also increases potency.

Someday, I WILL be taller than you.

  • Attitudes that are developed through direct experience are more accessible to memory, more enduring, and have a stronger effect on behavior.

Once a diva, always a diva.

Behavior affects attitudes when these conditions are present:
  • Actions prescribed by social roles mold the attitudes of the role players.  (Think prisoners and guards.)
  • What we say or write can strongly affect subsequent attitudes.  (Think being assigned a side in a debate.)
  • Doing a small act increases the likelihood of doing a larger one later.  (Think foot-in-the-door technique.)
  • Actions affect our moral attitudes.  We tend to justify whatever we do, even if it is evil.
  • We not only stand up for what we believe in, we believe in what we have stood up for.  (Think adopting a rescue animal or donating to a food drive.)

I adopted this pet hippo. You should adopt one too. All turtles should have a hippo companion.

The question of whether government should legislate behaviors to change attitudes on a massive scale is compounded by the question of whether it is even possible.

Every day, I come a little closer to my dream of being a balloon.

Why does our behavior affect our attitudes?
  • Self-Presentation Theory says people (especially those who self-monitor their behavior hoping to make a good impression) will adapt their attitude reports to appear consistent with their actions.  Some genuine attitude change usually accompanies efforts to make a good impression.

I meant to do that; I really wanted a lettuce hat.

  • Dissonance Theory explains attitude change by assuming we feel tension after acting contrary to our attitude or after making difficult decisions.  To reduce that arousal, we internally justify our behavior.  The less external justification we have for undesirable actions, the more we feel responsible for them, thus creating more dissonance and more attitude change.  (Think threat or reward.)

This color looks spectacular on me, and blue is a perfectly normal color for a sheep.

  • Self-Perception Theory assumes that when our attitudes are weak, we simply observe our behavior and its circumstances and infer our attitudes (correctly or incorrectly) rather than the other way around.  “How do I know what I think till I hear what I say?”  And conversely, rewarding people for doing something they like anyway can turn their pleasure into drudgery—the reward leading them to attribute their behavior to the reward rather than the enjoyment of the behavior itself.

I like grass because I have a lot of it.

Bottom line for writers: to present a character’s attitudes to the reader, write what they are doing, thinking, and/or feeling.  And note that each of these affects the other two and is affected in turn.  Dissonance among the these creates lots of opportunity for tension, conflict, and misunderstanding!

LIKING AND LOVING (PART 2)

 
In Friday’s blog, I outlined the factors that influence/promote liking:
  • Repeated exposure
  • Physical appearance
  • Similarity (the more similar two people are on a number of dimensions, the more their liking endures)
  • Reciprocal attraction
  • Relationships that offer more rewards than costs

Oshun, the Yoruba goddess of love

Surprise, surprise: these are the underpinnings of love as well!  And although liking and loving share roots, people seldom confuse the two.  The difference is largely a matter of degree: love is more intense than like.  It’s more personal and more important to one’s well-being.

 

Love comes in many guises. 
  • Love for dearest friends
  • Love for family, one’s children in particular
  • Romantic love

We use the word loosely and often.  We love chocolate, theater, gardening—whatever we feel strongly about.  But no one seriously confuses these feelings with love.

 

Sometimes chocolate is the foundation of love!

Although beloved friends and family are direct extensions of liking, romantic love is in a category largely by itself.

 

Eros, the embodiment of romantic love

A key ingredient of romantic love is arousal.  According to Psychologist Elaine Hatfield (1988, and not contradicted since), emotions have two ingredients: physical arousal plus cognitive appraisal.  Arousal from any source can enhance any emotion, depending on how we interpret the cause of the arousal.
Note for writers: at least part of the arousal from any source (fright, heavy duty workout, viewing erotica, listening to humorous or repulsive readings) will be attributed to a suitable object of affection.

 

Aztec goddess of love and beauty Xochiquetzal

Intense romantic love per se doesn’t last.  Romantic love reaches a fever pitch of obsession—infatuation, if you will—early on.  This is the period of constant calls, texts, letters (whatever fits the time period), exchanging love poems, giving personally meaningful gifts, etc..  For one thing, it gets exhausting!  But a case can be made that continued total focus on one’s partner/mate bodes ill for the well-being of any children they might have.

 

So, according to Professor Robert J Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love, there are seven types of love, defined by the underlying factors of intimacy, passion, and commitment.

Gender effects in liking and loving.
  • Men focus more on physical attractiveness.  Although interested in appearance, women generally value their potential mate’s status/ financial security over physical beauty.  These findings hold cross-culturally and even when someone is seeking a same-sex partner.
  • Age also matters: men value youth more than women do.
  • Men are much more willing to engage in casual sex than women are, and their standards for sex partners are lower.

 

Gender differences in mate preferences may be accounted for by social norms and expectations.  The different socio-economic status of women and the level of gender equality within a society is also a factor in what attributes are prioritized when seeking a mate.

Margaret Mead, center

I’ll start with the Mating Gradient.  As long ago as the mid-1950s, Margaret Mead wrote about the propensity for couples in which the men were older, taller, smarter, better educated, higher earning, and of higher socio-economic status than the women.  Decades later, I conducted an experiment in which I had men and women respond to a hypothetical love relationship with either the traditional pattern (as outlined) or the opposite.

As expected, people in the traditional hypothetical relationships were comfortable and positive.
  • When men responded to a loved one who was two years older, two inches taller, better educated, higher earning, more intelligent, and higher socio-economic status, they were surprisingly okay with it!  A typical response was, “If a babe like that loves me, I must be pretty hot stuff!”
  • When women responded to a loved one who was lesser on all these dimensions, they were generally negative.  A typical response was, “I couldn’t respect a man like that.  How could I love him?”

One interpretation of all this is that, traditionally, women are supposed to be taken care of by their mates and men are (perhaps) threatened when of an inferior status.  But the upshot of men marrying down and women marrying up is that, overall, the least marriageable men are at the bottom of the heap while the most capable, successful women remain unmarried at the top.

 

The Sumerians were all equally shorter than the king.

Consider the implications of the traditional relationship.  Feeling constantly inferior leads to depression and feelings of inadequacy.  Feeling constantly superior leads to lack of respect and perhaps a power grab.

 

True friendship is built on equality of hat ridiculousness at Ascot.

There is research evidence that enduring relationships are based on equality.  So how can these things be reconciled?  One way would be for the man to be “superior” on at least one dimension while the woman is “superior” in one or more of the other areas.

 


And speaking of the relationship of respect to liking and loving: Zick Rubin introduced the concept back in the 1970s, published as Measurement of Romantic Love in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  Rubin created scales to measure liking, loving, and lusting.  Each item was rated on a 5-point scale from “not at all true” to “very much true.”  Examples of these statements are below:
Liking scale items: I have great confidence in X’s judgment.  X is one of the most likable people I know.  I think that X and I are quite similar.  I think that X is unusually well-adjusted.

 

Mitra, an Indo-Iranian god of friendship

Loving Scale items: I would do almost anything for X.  If I could never be with X, I would feel miserable.  I feel responsible for X’s well-being.  When I am with X, I spend a good deal of time just looking at him/her.

 

Frigg, a Germanic goddess of marriage

Lust Scale items: I can’t stop thinking about having sex with X.  The best thing about X and my relationship is that we let our bodies do all the talking.  X’s attitudes and opinions don’t really matter in our relationship.  The best part of my relationship with X is the sexual chemistry.

 

Nanaya, a Mesopotamian goddess of sensual love

A fascinating finding (for me) in a study of engaged couples, was that women both liked and loved their partners.  Men loved their partners, but like—not so much.

 


We tend to like people more when we are in a good mood, and we like them less when we are in bad moods.  As partners stay together over time, cognition becomes relatively more important than passion.  Over time, close relationships are more likely to be based on companionate love than passionate love.
 
 
Bottom line for writersif you’re writing a love relationship, be clear on what kind of love it is!

 

by Chris Riggs in London

LIKING AND LOVING (PART 1)

 
Photo from Getty Images
Think about two people: a close friend and someone you are attracted to romantically.  How are these attractions alike and how are they different?

Both platonic and romantic love have been extensively studied by psychologists, including myself when I was earning my PhD in experimental social psychology.  Though there will likely always be more to explore, psychology has a huge breadth and depth of information available.  I’ll start with liking.  The information provided here is a summary drawn from Psychology (10th Ed.) by David G. Myers.
Caution: all of this research relies on group data; the behavior of individuals varies widely.

 

 

Proximity (geographic closeness) increases the likelihood of
  1. Meeting
  2. Interacting frequently
  3. The mere exposure effect: more frequent exposure to anything and virtually any person increases attraction: nonsense syllables, photographs, music, geometric figures, etc., etc., etc.

 

Kin-san and Gin-san, the oldest twins in the world (age 108)

Familiarity increases attraction 
  1. We prefer the mirror image of our faces to the one other people see.
  2. We prefer others who share some facial characteristics with us.
  3. We seem to be hard wired to bond with the familiar and be wary of those who are different.

 

An extraordinarily attractive Frigatebird from the Galapagos Islands

After familiarity, physical appearance is the  most important factor in attraction 
  1.  Physical appearance matters to both men and women, although women more likely to say it doesn’t.
  2. Physical appearance predicts how often people date and (no surprise here) how popular they feel.

 

xkcd knows how to make a good impression

Attractiveness affects how positive a first impression is
  1. Good looking people are perceived as healthier, happier, more sensitive, more successful, and more socially skilled
  2. Attractive, well-dressed people make a better impression in job interviews
  3. Attractive people tend to be more successful in their jobs: income analyses show a penalty for plainness and/or obesity
  4. In a study of the 100 top-grossing films since 1940, attractive characters were portrayed as morally superior to unattractive characters
  5. Based on gazing times, even babies prefer attractive faces to unattractive ones

 

 

Artwork by blogger Holytape

But there are limits to the attractiveness effect 
  1. Attractiveness does not affect how compassionate we think someone is.
  2. Physical attractiveness is statistically unrelated to self-esteem
  3. Attractiveness is unrelated to happiness
  4. People generally don’t view themselves as unattractive
  5. Attractive people are more suspicious of praise for work performance; less attractive people more likely to accept praise as sincere

 

Culture and beauty
  1. Beauty is culture bound: think piercings, tattoos, elongated necks, bound feet, dyed or painted skin and hair, ideal weight; body hair, breast size
  2. Cultural ideals change over time; for example, consider the feminine ideal in the U.S.: 1920s was super thin and flat chested; 1950s, the lush Marilyn Monroe look; currently, it’s lean but busty
  3. Those who don’t fit the ideal often try to buy beauty: Americans now spend more on beauty supplies than on education and social services combined, not to mention plastic surgery, teeth capping and whitening, Botox skin smoothing, or laser hair removal

 

Tibetan, Cambodian, and Bulgarian bridal costumes as drawn by Aakansh Pushp

Cross-cultural beauty 
  1. Men in many cultures judge women as more attractive if they have a youthful, fertile appearance (the latter suggested by a low waist to hip ratio).
  2. Women are attracted to healthy-looking men.  When ovulating, women are more attracted to men who seem mature, dominant, masculine, and affluent.
  3. People everywhere prefer physical features that are “normal”—i.e., not too big, too small.  Average is attractive.
  4. People prefer symmetrical faces—even though virtually no one actually has one.
  5. Across cultures, women are 2-18% more likely than men to say they “Constantly think about their looks.”
  6. Women have 91% of all cosmetic procedures.
  7. Women recall others’ appearance better than men do.

 

Benedict Cumberbatch and Sophie Hunter are not actually siblings

Similarity is greater among friends/partners compared to randomly matched pairs 
  1. Common attitudes
  2. Beliefs
  3. Values
  4. Interests
  5. Age
  6. Religion
  7. Race
  8. Education
  9. Intelligence
  10. Smoking behavior
  11. Economic status
  12. Opposites virtually never attract
  13. The more alike people are, the more their liking endures: similarity breeds content.

 

 

People like people who like them 
  1. True for initial attraction
  2. Self-fulfilling loop: A likes B, who responds positively, making A like B more, etc.
  3. Especially true for people with low self-esteem
  4. The effect is enhanced when someone moves from disliking to liking us

 

Atoms are also attracted to other atoms that reward their behavior

The reward theory of attraction: we like people whose behavior is rewarding to us, and we continue relationships that offer more rewards than costs.

 

 

BOTTOM LINE FOR WRITERS: if you want to write a realistic relationship, follow the principles above.  If you choose to go against the norm, take care to make it believable to the reader.

WRITING FICTION FROM LIFE

 
Writing from life isn’t a novel idea.  Indeed, there are whole books on the topic.  For many (if not most) people, writing from life conjures thoughts of memoir, autobiography, or biography.  But opportunities to mine your life to enrich your fiction are virtually limitless.  This blog explores ways to tap into your life experiences.   It’s a long but not exhaustive overview.  Here’s hoping you’re inspired!

 

PEOPLE

1) Maybe the most obvious: you lift a character whole cloth from an acquaintance, friend, family member, or neighbor.  Virtually the only thing you change is the name.  (You may want to get permission or change just enough so that you can still show your face at parties.)

 

Totally unrecognizable

2) Choose a habit, quirk, characteristic gesture, favorite word, etc. from someone you know (maybe yourself) and make it a character note.  This could be a private, unmentionable behavior (see my recent blog on the topic) or it could be quite public (think Rafael Nadal touching forehead nose, and both ears before every serve).  My story “Solid Line” (in “Chrysalis Reader”) drew on my husband’s habits of food shopping and breakfast cooking (alternating eggs and cereal six days a week, pancakes on Sunday).

 

A consistent lack of pants could be a very inspiring character trait

3) Choose one or more factually true things about a real person and graft them onto a fictional character/story.  For example, my story “Family Man”(published in Distillery) started with three true facts about my father: he had great eye-hand coordination, was stationed in Texas with the Army Air Corps in WWII, and he was a winning pitcher for the Old Timers Softball League in his later years.  In “Belle” (Compass Rose), I used my maternal grandmother’s true story of having thirteen children to craft a fictional piece in which the character leaves after naming the thirteenth and heads west.

 

 

PLACES

 
1) Draw on a familiar neighborhood for the setting of a story or scene.

 

2) Take details from a place you have worked, lived, or visited often.  I wrote “The Old Home Place” based on the hardscrabble farm where I visited my paternal grandmother for two weeks every summer.

 

Pictured above: not a farm

If your setting is as important as a character, you will need to return to it often and provide lots of detail.  Otherwise, don’t dwell on it, but use it to describe color, furnishings, feel, etc.

 

 

THINGS 

A sculpture by Anne Truitt and the house of a hoarder

  1) Give your character a familiar object to love or abhor.  Think skull, Tiffany vase, worn baseball glove, cast iron skillet, whatever.  Consider whether the character inherited it, received it as a gift, or chose it for him- or herself.  “Pictures Not Displayed” (Storgy Magazine) is fiction based on a box of photographs I found under my mother’s bed after she died.

 

Great Aunt Tillie is now a family heirloom

2) Give your character a collection of objects.  Here again, it could be anything—teacups, cloisonné napkin rings, antique farm implements, fake Christmas trees.  If you choose a collection you are familiar with, you might also want to incorporate some of the characteristics of the collector.

 

3) Consider objects around your home that could contribute to your plot: be damaging or even lethal (think beyond  knives and pokers), be used in defense or attack, or used in unconventional ways (think cast iron griddle used to hammer a nail).

 

 

EVENTS

1) Use repeated events to establish the rhythms of a character’s life.  For example, attending every home game, square dancing, hang gliding.  In addition, sometimes very different repeated events can be combined to form a new whole. Think holiday traditions, anniversaries, birthdays.

 

German Christmas customs

For example, I’m a devotee of massage.  In “Beautiful Bones” (Connecticut Review), I combined the behaviors of many massage therapists with a formerly abused widow getting a massage during a hurricane and becoming paranoid about the massage therapist killing her.

 

From the cover of “Paranoia” by Liza Anne

2) Sometimes an event sticks with you just because it’s quirky.  Once I was visiting family over Christmas and my granddaughter, who was enamored of special effects makeup at the time, had received a kit as a gift.  Simultaneously, she was looking up imaginary diseases for a writing project with friends.  The upshot was that she made up herself, her mother, and me to look like three generations suffering from hanahaki disease and I wrote “Lethal Love” (Good Works Review), in which suffering unrequited love resulted in growing flowers in your lungs and throat.

 

3) Perhaps more often, it will be one time only events that have made a huge impact on you.  For me, driving from upstate New York in winter in a whiteout led to “White Out” (Happy) involving a case of road rage that never happened.

 

When my husband had eye surgery, I used descriptions of his treatment, treatment, restrictions, and the aftereffects to write a magical realism story, “Her Husband’s Eyes” (Midway).  After the surgery, a superstitious wife thinks her husband’s eyes are haunting her.  My exposure to Chinese culture via a trip to Singapore and Taiwan resulted in “Good Works” (descant).

 

From Wish Girl by Nikki Lofton

4) Use a single event that isn’t quickly over to display coping skills.  For example, having breast cancer.  “Beast and the Beauty” (Clare) was a magical realism story spawned by radiation therapy following surgery, in which a woman suffering radiation poisoning turned to alternative healing methods.

 

 

ATTITUDES

1) Draw on how you were taught values, your moral compass.  For example, in “The Pig Sticker” (Chelsea) when Uncle Earl calls a dirty rag doll “Nig” Mommy tells him not to talk trash in front of her babies.  Of course, sometimes the lessons are much more explicit, as in being told throughout childhood that your word is your bond, or being exposed to church doctrine.  Consider how you came by your values and whether those lessons relate to how your character came to his/her values and morality.

 

Most people inherit a blend of attitudes

2) Sometimes attitudes transfer in elliptical ways.  In my family, “waste not, want not” was a maxim.  Several friends and I agreed to share our Lady Finger mold, fish poacher, turkey frier, and other seldom used cooking equipment.  That led me to write “The Darwinian Co-op Lending Library” (Clackamus Literary Review).  I created a post-modern library in which people could borrow everything from Valentine’s decorations to turkey basters to a husband and children for the holidays.

 

 

EMOTIONS

This is perhaps the richest minefield of all.  Remember emotional reactions in as vivid detail as possible, both your physical feelings and behaviors.  Remember when you felt joy, guilt, loss, bereavement, excitement, embarrassment, regret, inadequacy, love, sexual arousal, awe, helplessness, fear, being tipsy—any emotion at all.

 

A “street emotion” captured by Holly Clark

If your POV character is experiencing this emotion, describe how it felt.  If otherwise, staying in the POV character’s head, describe what the POV character can see, hear, etc. of emotional character”s behavior.

 

Photo from factretriever.com

The thing to keep in mind here is that you can transfer an emotion to a very different situation/even.  For example, if you’ve experienced the death of a loved one, those feelings can be written into your fiction as a character’s reaction to the death of a spouse, a sibling, a parent, a friend, even a beloved pet.

 

 

Bottom line for writers: your life is gold. Mine it!
 

Prometheus Caves in Kutaisi, Imereti, Georgia