BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: MONEY

I have to work very hard not to spend all my money (and time) one books.

Money, money, money! It touches nearly every aspect of a person’s/character’s life—and deserves conscious decision making.

Does owning an entire city count as filthy rich?

How much money?  These are not scientific or economic terms, rather, the sorts of terms people use to describe themselves and/or others. The actual dollar amounts associated with the descriptors may vary. What would you/your character say? Point of information: people tend to make finer distinctions closest to where they peg themselves, lumping the extremes into bigger chunks.

Being penniless isn’t so bad when there are open barrels of food everywhere.
  • Penniless
  • Poverty stricken
  • Poor
  • Lower middle class
  • Middle class
  • Upper middle class
  • Well off
  • Rich
  • Filthy rich

*I’ve also seen income level defined by preferred fast food options. The scale ranges from Going to AA Meetings for Coffee, through Taco Bell and Chipotle, all the way up to Whatever the Private Chef Makes.

Social attitudes toward shopkeepers often depends on the quality of merchandise.

Source(s) of income: Note that respect for various sources of income varies widely. This often translates into treating people differently.

Musicians playing in a bar are often treated differently from musicians playing in a symphony hall, though their incomes are often almost identical.
  • Begging or panhandling
  • Gambling
  • Theft of various sorts, with or without another source
  • Illegal activities
  • SSI disability
  • Medicare/Medicaid 
  • Hourly wage
  • Entertainment, anything from a classical pianist to an exotic dancer
  • By the job/ piecework
  • Having multiple jobs
  • Salary
  • Salary plus bonuses
  • Stocks/bonds, dividends/interest
  • Trust funds
  • Family loans/gifts

Stability/predictability/security of income: Obviously, stability has implications for mental health and life stress. Money can’t buy happiness, but it certainly makes achieving stability somewhat easier.

Some people value experience and travel more than money, making a living on the road, feeling the wind in their fur… er… hair.
Assassins are generally exempt from income and property taxes, though sales tax may still apply.

Thoughts on taxes: This could be the modern IRS, but the same questions could just as easily be applied to citizens providing magic spells or Zygloxans giving helium globules to the Grand Tyrant on Planet YT-3H81.

  • Taking fewer payroll deductions than allowed in order to assure a tax refund vs. planning to owe and have the use of the money in the meantime
  • Being willing to pay taxes or looking for ways to avoid paying them
  • Finding quasi-legal or outright illegal methods to get out of paying taxes
  • Carefully accounting for every expenditure or estimating
  • Moral objections to the use of taxes (such as Thoreau)

Attitude toward money: Not necessarily related to amount of income.

Making everything at home is a way to save money and ensure quality.
  • Always more where that came from
  • Easy come, easy go
  • Best to save for a rainy day/unexpected expense
  • Sacrifice now for a secure retirement/college tuition/whatever
  • Always live below your means
  • Clips coupons and shops sales
  • Shop resale/garage sales/etc.
  • Buy quality, not quantity
  • Budget every penny and then figure out which bills will have to remain unpaid

Money by comparison: Source(s), level, etc., of income, especially compared to family and friends.

Relationships can get really complicated if your friends sell you off for scientific experiments.
  • Similar
  • Comparable
  • Much above
  • Much below
  • Changed over your/your character’s lifetime
  • Income disparity causing conflict

Where the money goes:

  • Religious tithes
  • Charitable contributions
  • Necessities only
  • Whatever strikes one’s fancy
  • Luxuries, with or without guilt
  • Whatever is most visible to elicit praise, admiration, or envy from others
  • Hobbies (what?)
  • Supporting family or friends who need a hand
  • Pets
  • Back into a business
  • Stocks/bonds
  • Sponsoring people on social media as indirect advertisement
Partying with demons is surprisingly expensive.

How money is handled:

If these characters offer a loan, running away is probably the best response.
  • Cash only
  • Charge everything possible
  • Pay by debit card whenever possible
  • Pay bills as soon as one arrives
  • Have bills paid by bank debit
  • Pay at the last minute, sometimes incurring late fees
  • Tip lavishly or stingily?
  • Bank account
  • Checking account
  • Savings account
  • Needing to take payday or title loans
  • If having to choose food, rent/mortgage, utilities, gas/transportation, which?

Bottom Line: What other ways is money a lynchpin in the life of you / your character?

No matter how carefully one budgets and saves, it can all be taken away at any time when a horde of dragons comes by.

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?

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!

MENTIONING THE UNMENTIONABLE

People—and by extension, characters—regularly do things that they don’t mention, or even admit to, even though they aren’t illegal, immoral or physically harmful.  Writers can make their characters more realistic when said characters engage in unmentionable behaviors.  What follows is an extensive but not exhaustive list of possibilities.

 

Photo by Nancy Rivera of Splash News

Nose Picking is a prime example of a virtually universal unmentionable behavior.  It has its own Wikipedia entry, complete with a technical definition (extracting nasal mucus with one’s finger) and formal label of rhinotillexis.  Psychiatrists at the Dean Foundation for Health, Research, and Education in Wisconsin conducted a study revealing that 91% of people said they were currently nose pickers (though only 75% believed everyone did it).

 

So, how and where does your character nose pick?  Always the same digit?  Always the same place?  Always the same time of day?

 

And then what? Is the residue flicked off? Wiped on a tissue?  Wiped on the underside of an article of clothing?  Wiped off on a rug?  On furniture?  Added to a booger wall?  Or maybe the residue is eaten.

 

Everybody Does It!

Mucophagy is the technical term for eating nose pickings.  Most societies condemn it, but some scientists claim there are health benefits.  Dr. Friedrich Bischinger, a leading Austrian lung specialist, says that eating one’s mucus gives “a natural boost to their immune system” because the mucus contains a “cocktail of antiseptic enzymes that kill or weaken bacteria that become entangled in it.”  Reintroducing weakened bacteria may allow the immune system to safely produce antibodies.

 

Time considerations for nose picking.  How often?  A few times a day—however unmentionable—isn’t odd.  But one-to-two hours daily?  When it becomes an obsessive-compulsive disorder, it’s called Rhinotillexomania.

 

Wiping your nose on anything available.

Enough said.

 Urination is another universal. How about peeing in the shower? Or the bathtub? The ocean—or the swimming pool? Is your female character comfortable urinating outside?

 

Recently, there have been a number of devices developed and put on the market to allow women the same ease of urination as men.  They come in very handy on long car trips or when getting to the bathroom requires a trek through an unheated house, up a snowy mountain, and behind a tree to squat over an unsettlingly drafty hole in the ground.

I once spent two weeks on a whitewater rafting drip on the Colorado River. People were required to pee in the river. (Recall that urine is sterile.) In camp men simply walked to the edge of the water. Women often waded out and pulled down their pants. On the water, men stood at the stern. Women pulled down their clothes, hung onto the cargo straps, and cantilevered out over the water.

In all of these circumstances, the other people politely looked the other way. But then how did it happen that the last night out I was voted the person most improved in peeing off the side of the raft? So if your character is urinating in unmentionable ways, consider both culture and circumstances.

 

Defecation is always fertile ground. It seems whole herds of people get completely naked to poop—every time.  Imagine trying to use a public toilet!

Consider a character who wipes his/her anus and looks at it.  Or smells his/her fingers afterward.  One justification for frequently smelling one’s anus or genitals (via finger swipes) is being familiar with one’s usual smell so that changes that might signal a change in health status would be recognizable.

Not washing hands after using the bathroom.  Or even turning on water so others in the public toilet will think you washed when you didn’t.  And it raises the question of why not wash?
 
Burping, a cousin to the more offensive Passing GasThese things happen.
I remember a joke from grade school. “What did the stomach say to the burp?” “Be quiet, and I’ll let you out the back door.”
But what about someone who burps and/or farts on purpose, on demand, or as loudly as possible?

 

What about someone who intentionally farts in elevators, subway cars, on trains or busses and casts a blaming glare at those nearby?

What about intentionally expelling loud farts and/or burps but only when alone?

Or sniffing farts to try to figure out which food made it smell that way.

For truly obnoxious characters (and spouses), there is the dreaded Dutch Oven: farting in bed and then pulling the blanket over your bed partner’s head, trapping them in the stench.

The other Dutch Oven, unfortunately

And consider whether your character has an extreme reaction to other people’s flatulence. I know of a woman who became furious if someone passed gas in her presence: smell is a molecular sense, so smelling a fart means taking in fecal molecules.
 

Eating is fraught with unmentionable behaviors. For example, eating food off the floor after 5 seconds have passed.

 

Eating from the cooking pot.  Eating/drinking directly from the container.  (In this case, whether your character lives alone is relevant. )

Eating your big sister’s foot is photographable but not mentionable

Eating food other than snacks or sandwiches (for example, tossed salad) with fingers.  Eating the unthinkable as a regular thing: chalk, insects, dirt, tissue paper, etc.

Modern Toilet Restaurant in Taiwan has very interesting serving dishes

Nakedness is sometimes necessary, of course.  But what if your naked character regularly sits on the sofa and reads?  Cooks dinner?  Sits on the deck or patio—and if so, at what time, and how private is the space?

 

Or gets naked and runs the Boston Marathon?

What about taking naked selfies for no particular reason?  Saying you deleted the naked pictures sent to you but you didn’t?

 

Sucking Blood From a Cut.

He would be happy to help …

Having sexual thoughts about an inappropriate target.  Think relative, someone else’s spouse or partner, subordinate—whoever is beyond the pale because of relationship or other taboo.

 


Self Absorption.is almost always unmentionable!  Narrating thoughts aloud—while driving, planning, etc.   Closely related to talking to oneself.

Consider cracking up at one’s own jokes, even when alone. Practicing pick-up lines in the mirror, ditto facial expressions. How about making weird faces at yourself? Or googling oneself?

 

 

Women Only Unmentionables. Shaving—where and how often.   Plucking or shaving facial hair from eyebrows to chin and jowls.  Obsessing about changes in body odor during menstruation.  Collecting “fuck me” shoes in colors to match every outfit.
Men Only Unmentionables: measuring his dick, jerking off to fantasies of his friend’s girlfriend, windmilling/ helicoptering his penis, frequently resettling his junk in his banana hammock.

 

Miscellaneous unmentionables could be almost anything.

  • Dancing like no one with the authority to commit you is watching
  • Running up the stairs on all fours
  • Eavesdropping or otherwise spying on people—including reading another person’s mail, email, or texts
  • Squeezing pimples or blackheads
  • Climbing on furniture
  • Bouncing on the bed
  • Making weird noises
  • Breath syncing to someone else, music, in the extreme known as sensorimotor obsession
  • Arithmomania, a strong need to have one’s life governed by odd, even, or certain numbers, brushing teeth to setting the thermostat, etc.
  • Blow-drying “down there”
Overview for writers: Make your character more human by giving her/him a characteristic unmentionable behavior or two.  Don’t go overboard unless your character is totally neurotic and/ or you are going for humor.  And remember that such behaviors are even more revealing if the characters do such things in the presence of others.  Have fun!