What Sadistic Sob Would Do That?

More than 1,000 people gather at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, to protest President Donald Trump's order that restricts immigration to the U.S., Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017, in Seattle. President Trump signed an executive order Friday that bans legal U.S. residents and visa-holders from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S. for 90 days and puts an indefinite hold on a program resettling Syrian refugees. (Genna Martin/seattlepi.com via AP)
[Source: Concord Monitor]
You can find stories all over the internet of people increasingly being treated inhumanely while trying to enter the U.S.—preschoolers being handcuffed, weeping mothers and young children separated for hours at a time, people held for twenty hours without food… Sometimes such stories suggest that it’s because of the things Pres. Trump says and does. His supporters are likely to reply, “No way in hell would he order such things! These are the acts of a few sick individuals.”


As writers, we don’t need to prove or disprove either of these causes. As writers, we know that almost anyone is capable of almost any act if the motivation is sufficient. What we may not have considered is just how easily ordinary people can be led to do extraordinary things.  
In 1963 Stanley Milgram first published his research on obedience to authority figures. The beginning of his research (1961) was with the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. He started with the question, “Could it be that Eichmann and his accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders?”
The short answer is “Yes.” A very high proportion of people would fully obey the instructions, even if reluctantly, even if the acts ran counter to their own consciences.
The basic paradigm was that the subject thought he was the teacher, assisting the experimenter by delivering electric shocks to a learner whenever the learner gave a wrong answer. With each wrong answer, the apparent shock level was increased, finally to a point where the shocks—if real—would have been fatal. In the initial experiment, 65% of subjects gave the maximum shock level at least three times.


The important thing to remember is that the experimenter had no real authority over the subject delivering the shocks. The experimenter wasn’t a parent, a supervisor, a friend, a lover. The subject was not physically restrained from leaving. You can read all about it, in detail, in his 1974 book.


stanley milgram book 1974
[Source: HarperCollins]
Variations on the original experiment revealed that a less official looking setting decreased obedience slightly. When the teacher was physically closer to the learner, the level of compliance decreased—but even when the teacher had to physically hold the supposed learner’s hand on what was supposed to be a shock plate, 30% completed the experiment. When the experimenter was physically farther away, compliance decreased. For example, when the experimenter gave instructions over the phone, compliance dropped to 21%. There was no significant difference in results when all women were used.


To write convincingly about obedience, it’s important to note that the people were greatly stressed by what they were doing. They objected verbally, questioned the experimenter, and reported high levels of distress when debriefed.
So, can we conclude that someone is telling people to get rough with those trying to enter the United States? NO! 
[Source: TED]
Enter Philip Zimbardo. In 1971 he conducted The Stanford Prison Experiment. It was specifically intended to investigate issues of the relationships between prisoners and guards. Did the behaviors of prisoners and guards reflect inherent personality differences between the two groups?


Volunteers for a two-week prison experiment were screened and those with criminal backgrounds, psychological impairment, or medical problems were excluded. The research team chose 24 men they deemed most psychologically stable and healthy. Participants were paid $15 per day (the equivalent of $92.91 in 2018).


The subjects were randomly divided into prisoners and guards.


stanford prison experiment
[Source: HowStuffWorks]
The guards were instructed not to physically harm the prisoners or withhold food or drink, but Zimbardo emphasized that “…in this situation we’ll have all the power and they will have none.” Guards were told to call prisoners by their assigned numbers rather than their names. But otherwise, guards improvised their roles. Prisoners were given no instructions.


prison experiment
[Source: SF Gate]
On the second day the three prisoners in one cell rioted, blocked the door with their beds, tore off their caps, and refused to come out or obey the guards. Guards from other shifts agreed to  work overtime to quell the riot and eventually they attacked the prisoners with fire extinguishers (while not being supervised by research staff).


sadist stanford prison experiment
[Source: Daily Maverick]
The experiment was terminated after only 6 days. By then, about a third of the guards had exhibited “genuine sadistic tendencies”; prisoners were emotionally traumatized and five of them had to be removed from the experiment early. You can read about this experiment in any social psychology textbook. Online you can also view video clips.


Arguably, the most important outcome of the study is that the behavior of two equivalent groups diverged dramatically after one was labeled “guards” and the other was labeled “prisoners.” 
To answer the initial question of what sadistic SOB would do such a thing: the perfectly ordinary, likable, friend, colleague, or neighbor.
As a writer, keep that in mind as you create characters behaving badly.

Do You Need a Gossip?

do you need gossip
In discussing toxic gossips, Lillian Glass says, “They are good at letting the cat out of the bag. They pick up more dirt with the telephone than they do with a vacuum cleaner. They have a keen sense of rumor.” Consider how such a character could advance your plot.
S/he could overhear something and pass it along because that’s what gossips do. Depending on your needs, what was overheard could be true or false. Depending on your plot, either could increase tension, and true gossip could provide a vital clue. Enough said.


A gossip often makes the hearer feel like a special confidante, getting privileged information—until and unless the hearer discovers s/he is only one of many.


Consider how the gossip disseminates the information: word of mouth, in person or by phone; email or text; Facebook or other social media. The spoken word is, of course, the most deniable—also the most vulnerable to alteration or exaggeration in the retelling.


do you need gossip
Consider the character of the gossip. The one basic truth about the character of the habitual gossip is that s/he needs to feel important. In addition, the gossip does not truly disclose information about him/herself. But beyond that, what typifies him/her? Some possibilities include insecure, belittling, competitive, hurtful, self-righteous, sneaky, mean-spirited, angry, lonely—and the list goes on. Depending on what you choose, the gossip could be an object of humor, pity, or dislike to your reader.


Consider the gossip’s relationship to your protagonist. The likelihood is that a gossip would be a secondary character in your story. Is s/he a friend, neighbor, coworker, family member, employee? Is s/he a one-off or a recurring character in a series?


Last but not least, remember that s/he who brings, carries. The gossip could be a great channel for passing information or misinformation among characters by telling A about B and then telling B about A.
do you need gossip
These are only some of the ways a gossip could enrich your cast of characters. Can you think of others?

Writing Cruelty

Some of us—dare I say most of us?—are not inherently cruel or sadistic. Therefore, when our plots require a scene that involves such behavior, there is a great temptation to fall back on the stereotypes of many TV shows and movies. Don’t. If you need really gruesome, vivid, compelling cruelty, look to reality!


historical torture
As you may know, I recently toured northern Italy. In San Gimignano (“of the beautiful towers”) I visited the earliest of the city’s torture museums.
And of course I bought a book.


tortura inquisizione
The implements on display were truly horrifying—and thought-provoking!


stretching rack
Not long ago, I had a medical procedure that required me to lie absolutely motionless, face-down, arms stretched above my head for 45 minutes. By the end of the procedure, my shoulders ached and muscles twitched, and I wondered how long those condemned to the rack might last before at least passing out.


head crusher
My point here is that although many types of torture are intended to cause death eventually, this doesn’t happen immediately. Might writers use a less-than-lethal version? For example, using an implement like a head crusher only to the point of cracking the skull bones.


Some mechanisms that I would label instruments of torture had other purposes—at least ostensibly. But besides ensuring a woman’s virtue, consider the discomfort of long-term use, and the humiliation of such an item at all.


Immobilizing someone in any way becomes painful after a time.


And many body parts, from skin to fingers and toes, tongues and scalps, can be removed without causing death. Ditto broken bones.


It is possible to force someone to drink so much water—or other liquid—that the stomach actually explodes. But short of that? What about a parent pinching a child’s nose shut and forcing her/him to drink milk?


punishment necklace
Forcing someone to wear a heavy weight around the neck is tiring, humiliating, and eventually very painful. What about a modern version, that required the wearing of a loaded backpack without relief?


My point is that if you need inspiration for a truly cruel and haunting scene, you really don’t need to be able to create it out of thin air. Start with what people are known to have done!

Writers Love Toxic Men!

And you needn’t be a female writer to succumb!


Lillian Glass Toxic Men
Toxic Men by Lillian Glass, PhD.
Lillian Glass defines a “Toxic Man” as one who elicits negative emotions from you, behaves badly toward you or doesn’t treat you right, or makes you feel bad about yourself (thus affecting your behavior and lowering your self-esteem). Substitute “your character” for “you” and voila! You have the makings of a great deal of tension in scene after scene and a lot of sympathy for your character.


Glass’s book includes questionnaires to identify specific ways in which the Toxic Man elicits negative emotions.


Under the heading “How Does He Behave Toward You?” there are several subheadings: sadistic behavior, manipulative behavior, dishonest behavior, selfish behavior, non-communicative behavior, critical and judgmental behavior, angry behavior, embarrassing or shaming behavior, controlling behavior, and jealous behavior.


And under the heading “How Does He Make You Feel about Yourself?” the subcategories are: feeling emotional changes (feeling depressed, hopeless, frustrated, anxious or panicky, angry, empty, etc.); feeling afraid or fearful; feelings of self-doubt; physical changes (such as sickness, headache, weight gain or loss); feelings of guilt and shame; or just not feeling like your old self.


The Eleven Toxic Types of Men:

  1. The jealous competitor
  2. The sneaky passive-aggressive silent-but-deadly erupting volcano
  3. The arrogant self-righteous know-it-all
  4. The seductive manipulative cheating liar
  5. The angry bullying control freak
  6. The instigating backstabbing meddler
  7. The self-destructive gloom-and-doom victim
  8. The wishy-washy spineless wimp
  9. The selfish me-myself-and-I narcissist
  10. The emotional refrigerator
  11. The socio-psychopath
Glass’s book is accessible, gripping, and a great read. I recommend it to writers in any genre!
Dr. Lillian Glass
Dr. Lillian Glass
AND REMEMBER: role-reversal is always a great alternative! For every toxic man, there’s a toxic woman!

Guest Post on Thrill Writing: The Company You Keep

Thrill Writers, The Company You Keep - Does Your Character Act "Out of Character" in a Group Dynamic?

I’m honored to be interviewed on Fiona Quinn’s Thrill Writing, a blog helping thriller writers write it right. 

We talk about why a character might act “out of character,” group mentality, behavior matching, why people might be more passive in groups or more likely to riot, and more.

Excerpt from “The Company You Keep – Does Your Character Act ‘Out of Character’ in a Group Dynamic?”

In this article, we’re talking about what happens to a character when they get into a group where a character might act “out of character”, which is a fun way to develop the plot.

Can you first give us a working definition for “group”

Vivian – We usually think three or more, but some “group” effects are present even with only two. Also, the “group” needn’t be physically present to exert influence.

Fiona – Can you explain that last sentence?

Vivian – Some group memberships are literal memberships–for example, a church congregation, sorority, bridge club, etc. such groups are often in our thoughts, and serve as a reference or standard for behavior even when the member is alone.

Fiona –  Does “group mentality” work both ways? For example, people in a riot become riotous, but people in a disaster, where they see all hands on deck, become heroes?

People in a religious forum feel more religious. . .sort of like a magnifier?

Vivian –  Absolutely. I just mentioned formal groups–which are the ones having the strongest influence at a distance– but crowds, mobs, any physical gathering of people, shapes our behavior to act or remain passive.

Fiona – Can you give us a short tutorial on what we need to know about group dynamics to help write our characters right?

Vivian – Well, there is a phenomenon known as behavior matching, a tendency to do what others around us are doing. This is reflected in everything from eating to body language. Even a person who has eaten his or her fill will eat more if someone else comes in and starts eating. If others are slouching, your character isn’t likely to remain formal.

Fiona – Yes, it’s hard to pass up a piece of chocolate cake when everyone else is moaning about how delicious it tastes.

Just sayin’

Vivian – A related phenomenon–I suppose it could be a subset of behavior matching– has the label diffusion of responsibility. This is the tendency for people to stand passively by when others are present. There was a classic case, decades ago, in which a NYC woman named Kitty Genovese was murdered in the courtyard of her apartment. The murder took approximately half an hour, and dozens of her neighbors watched from their windows. No one came to help or even called the police. The more people who could help, the less likely anyone will take responsibility for doing so.

And then there is group disinhibition. This is sort of the opposite. It is that people are more likely to take risks, break the law, be violent when others are doing so. Think looting, or harassing a homeless person. Disinhibition is even more powerful when alcohol is involved. I recently posted a blog on alcohol for writers that goes into that a bit.

But the bottom line is that we behave differently with others present than when alone.

Read more at Thrill Writing

Thank you, Fiona!

Friday the 13th: Is This Your Lucky Day?

Friday the 13th, superstition, calendar, 13
©phodopus via Canva.com

Friday the 13th and superstitions

According to Gallup polls, over half of Americans say they are at least a little superstitious. Consider the value of superstition for your character(s).

A Brief Dictionary of American Superstitions, book, Friday the 13th
A Brief Dictionary of American Superstitions by Vergilius Ferm

People who are truly not superstitious are nevertheless well aware of what’s associated with Friday the 13th, black cats, broken mirrors, four-leaf clovers, etc. Such people might well make a wish with fingers crossed, or when tossing a coin into a fountain or other water, when blowing out birthday candles, or kissing a horseshoe. If you don’t consider yourself superstitious, you may engage in superstitious thinking or behavior nevertheless, without paying attention—an habitual or non-conscious action. For me, that’s knocking on wood.

8,414 Strange and Fascinating Superstitions, Claudia De Lys, book, superstitions, Friday the 13th
8,414 Strange and Fascinating Superstitions by Claudia De Lys

This collection by Claudia De Lys has an excellent two-page description of this and other wood superstitions, ranging from the balsam needle pillows to wooden rosary beads, traced back to the spirits believed to live in trees that bring on the seasonal changes (life, death, and resurrection) or maintain the evergreen state (immortality). A tree or wood was touched when asking favors and again in appreciation of good fortune received.

Superstitions and characters

Diana Gabaldon Outlander Series, The Fiery Cross
The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon

Diana Gabaldon’s work is an excellent example of effectively using her characters’ beliefs, superstitions, and ritual acts—everything from beliefs about witches and fairies to making the sign of the cross—to illuminate both the characters and the historical context.

Stuart Vyse, Ph.D., author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, is an authority on magical thinking. He differentiates superstition from obsessive-compulsive behavior or other mental disorders and religious ritual, and discusses the functions each serves. I’ll stick with superstition for the sake of (relative) brevity.

Why are people superstitious?

Anything as nearly universal across time and cultures as superstition must serve some beneficial function! In a 2010 paper by Damisch, Stroberock, and Mussweiler, “Keep Your Fingers Crossed! How Superstition Improves Performance,” the researchers argue that superstitions give people a sense of control in chaotic situations. The major outcome of this research was that people who were allowed to solve problems with their lucky charms at hand performed better than when those charms were absent.

But the important point is that it is performance based. So wearing mismatched socks when playing baseball or tennis—or mah jongg jewelry when deep into that game—might improve performance.

Necklace and earrings of mah jongg pieces, worn for superstitions

But lucky charms have no impact on outcome when the results are due to chance. So skip the lucky dice—unless you just like the look.

necklace and earrings of dice, worn due to superstitions, Friday the 13th

These researchers point out the ways in which this phenomenon may be wide-spread and important, for example in alcoholism. Many if not most members of AA attribute their abstinence to the higher power in their lives giving them strength. If they believe, they are more likely to stay sober.

AA - Medal,
Photo: Jonn Leffmann [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Who is superstitious?

Some people are more superstitious than others—athletes and actors are notoriously so—and superstitions run in families. One example is a Virginia friend who says, “Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit,” first thing in the morning on the first day of each month to ensure a good month. Her daughter in Texas does the same thing. And now they text each other to see who says it first!

And, incidentally, women are more superstitious than men. Vyse relates this to locus of control. People who have an internal locus of control (I am master of my fate) are less superstitious than those with an external locus of control (life happens to me). Compared to men, women still feel that they have less control in their own lives. So maybe they wear special earrings for dominoes, euchre, and bridge for a reason!

necklaces and earrings that look like playing cards and dominoes, worn due to superstitions

Vyse also makes a connection between performance improvements and effort. He says that lucky charms don’t significantly reduce anxiety, but they do increase persistence. So maybe that’s what’s going on with a friend who happens to be a lapsed Catholic. When she loses something, she still says what she calls “the kid’s version of the prayer to St. Anthony”: Tony, Tony, come around. Something’s lost and must be found. She swears it works.

Truly magical thinking is taking an action that has no logical way to affect the outcome but may bring comfort anyway. A third friend who grew up in a Navy family won’t watch people leave because that means they won’t come back. She attributes this to her life on base, when families would see their husbands/fathers off at the dock but turn away as soon as the ship was underway.

When pressed, many non-superstitious people will admit that they prefer not to walk under ladders, step on graves, or open umbrellas indoors. They prefer to leave a building by the same door through which they entered, and they want to round an object in the path on the same side as their companion. Do you always include money when you give a purse or wallet? Does the recipient of a gift knife have to “pay” the giver at least a penny? Superstitions are everywhere, everyday, not just on Friday the 13th!

Takeaway for writers

Give your characters superstitions and/or rituals. It can add interest, tell something about the person’s ethnic or family background, and illustrate her/his anxieties and feelings of control.


Writing Prompt Roundup

Here are a few of my favorite writing prompts.

The French Chef Cookbook by Julia Child

The French Chef Lives On!

Julia Child, chicken, and language…

Writing 101: Winter Weather

Writing Winter Weather 

In 1992, the Common Council of Syracuse, NY, passed a decree that any more snow before Christmas Eve was illegal.  Just two days later, they had more snow. But what’s the story there?


Writing 101 Animal Writes

Animal Writes

Think carefully before you throw one or more animals into your story. Consider the role of the animal(s), and the fit between your character and the fictional animal(s). And then have fun with it!


Writers Need Toxic Relationships

Eight types of unattuned and unloving mothers:

  • Dismissive
  • Controlling
  • Unavailable
  • Enmeshed
  • Combative
  • Unreliable
  • Self-involved
  • Role-reversal

The good news for writers is that these toxic relationships needn’t be limited to toxic mothers and vulnerable daughters. (You may recognize here an echo of what I said about Deborah Tannen’s analysis of mother-daughter communication patterns: what one says isn’t necessarily what the other hears could apply to virtually any long-germ relationship.) In this instance, consider toxic relationships between husbands and wives. Consider boss and subordinate. Consider role reversal in that it’s the daughter who is toxic.

Three cheers for toxic (literary) relationships!

Virginia is for Mysteries: Volume II book signing on April 2

Don’t forget my signing later today at Barnes and Noble. Details are below.

Libbie Place Shopping Center

5501 West Broad Street

Richmond, VA 23230

12:00 – 2:00pm

Copies of my Chesapeake Bay Mystery series will be available.

When It Comes to Pet Detectives, Cats Rule

If you have evidence—or opinions to the contrary, I want to hear from you!


black cat crouched outside

Yes, there are offbeat animal detectives. In Three Bags Full: a sheep detective story by Leonie Swann, the shepherd is murdered and the sheep, led by the ewe Miss Marple, set out to discover the murderer. In Anonymous Rex, by Eric Garcia, dinosaurs continue to live among us, disguised in latex masks and tail girdles. Otherwise, Rubio is the classic hard-boiled detective. Freddy the Detective by Walter R. Brooks features a pig detective. Bernd Heinrich writes ravens, by far the smartest of birds. And Elmore Leonard, in his first children’s novel, created Antwan, a hip-talking coyote living in the Hollywood Hills, for A Coyote’s in the House.



Dogs are poorly represented in the mystery genre. In Hank the Cowdog, Hank is the inept “Head of Security” for a ranch, and setting out to find who’s stealing the corn, he sets clever traps that consistently trap him. Play Dead by Leslie O’Kane features a dog behaviorist/therapist and an “ugly collie” rescue dog.

Cats, on the other hand, are everywhere. There are whole series featuring cats. Think the Mrs. Murphy series by Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown, or The Cat Who… series by Lilian Jackson Braun. Perhaps less well known is the Joe Grey Cat Mystery series by Shirley Rousseau Murphy, in which Joe is a cat from the Catswold that can speak and understand English, among other talents. And then there is the series in which the point of view shifts between a big black cat named Midnight Louie and his person, Temple Barr.

cat by window

Why cats? Well, for one thing, they are notoriously independent and sneaky. They were domesticated tens of thousands of years after dogs—or maybe not yet, even. Cats are confounding creatures, for centuries associated with death cults, witches, Satan, black magic, and so forth. So creating fictional cats with paranormal abilities—talking, shape shifting, psychic reasoning or implausible acts of physical derring-do, invisibility, tele-transportation—is much less jarring than similar traits in a dog—or sheep, goat, pig. A monkey, now . . .

black and white cat crouched on bag

So, if you want to sample some cat detective fiction, apart from what’s mentioned above, consider the following: A Cat Tells Two Tales and/or The Cat, The Vagabond, and The Victim by Lydia AdamsonThe Cat, The Mill, and The Murder by Leann SweeneyAll Dressed Up and No Place to Haunt by Rose PresseyCat In a White Tie and Tails by Carole Nelson DouglasTailing a Tabby by Laurie CassCat Nap and/or Last Licks by Claire DonallyNo Cooperation From The Cat by Marian BabsonLiterally Murder by Ali Brandon;The Cat, The Devil, The Last Escape by Shirley R. & Pat J. J Murphy. And I’m sure there are others out there.

By the way, as far as I know, cat detective stories are all written by women and feature women partners for the cats. Surely there are deep historical associations between women and cats.

Take-away for writers

If you are thinking about adding an animal detective to your mystery, consider the competition—and riding the wave of popularity!

The Value of the Unexpected

woman on motorcycle, 20th century
Great-aunt Mary


This is Great-aunt Mary. She and her husband lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, over the bar they owned and operated. Her mother was a strict Southern Baptist and disapproved so strongly that she refused to visit them.


But Mary was definitely a free spirit. Given that, you might not be surprised to hear that besides riding a motorcycle, she flew a small plane. She once went canoeing alone on the Ohio River when it was at flood stage.The unexpected thing about Aunt Mary is that she always said she was “too nervous” to drive a car! Interesting as she was anyway, this last adds another layer of richness.


And so it is with your fictional characters: if everything is consistent and predictable, why would anyone read to learn more?


Takeaway for writers

Always try to include something surprising or unexpected.


Writing 101: The Value of the Unexpected

Characters’ Inaction Speaks Louder Than Words

Writing 101: Character Inaction Speaks Louder Than Words


Some things seldom if ever appear on the page because they are just taken for granted. If your characters leave the house—unless you specifically say otherwise—the reader assumes they are wearing shoes and street clothes appropriate to the season, have combed their hair, had breakfast, brushed their teeth. . .  If you’ve established quirks for your characters—e.g., Sue Grafton’s detective Kinsey Millhone works out twice a day—even these individual habits or routines aren’t mentioned every time they happen. The reader assumes those actions as part of the background.


Consider the power of not doing the usual. Under what circumstances might a character wear the same clothes for a solid 48 hours? Does it make a difference if those clothes are pajamas? What are the implications of skipping showers, hair washing, and tooth brushing? Why might a character eat sardines and Great Northern beans straight from the can? All of these possibilities imply powerful motivation or situational constraints. Is your character held captive? Lost in Alaska? Deeply depressed?


Even if your characters aren’t doing what’s expected, they’re doing something. Maybe it’s computer solitaire, or a jigsaw puzzle; reading trashy novels and eating bonbons; getting knee-walking drunk; or maybe it’s only sleeping, or staring into space—but it’s something. What that something is—and the feelings that accompany it—say a great deal about your character. Is your character in survival mode? Overwhelmed? Feeling rebellious? Guilty?  Ashamed? Weak?



Sometimes what a character doesn’t do is as telling as what s/he does do. Use it!


man sleeping in truck

More on Characters

When Characters Are in Conflict with Themselves

Frangible Characters

Quirking Your Characters

Writers on Writing

What’s in a Character Name?

Books for Writers: Deborah Tannen