You and I are perfect, of course—but the people we live with? They drive us nuts all around the house, in ways too numerous to count! And some rooms are more irritating than others. Some say such minor annoyances are the signs of imploding domestic happiness. Others claim habits like these are simply what happens when people become comfortable with each other, possibly even a sign of healthy relationships. Consider the ways irritability might be bad for you. And think about ways these little things can add tension to writing scenes.
Leaving scraps in the sink, even the side that has the garbage disposal
Leaving empty or near-empty cups, mugs, and glasses all around the house instead of taking them to the kitchen
Leaving cuttings/crumbs on the counter
Using twice as many utensils as necessary
Not turning off the stove burners/oven
Starting a dish cooking, leaving the room, and letting the food burn
Never adding salt and pepper while cooking (or adding far too much)
Leaving herbs, spices, and other seasonings on the counter
Not wiping up spills
Not checking the vegetable drawer for partials before cutting a new pepper, onion, or cuke
Leaving partially eaten food out (pizza, sandwich, fruit)
Soaking the bathmat
Leaving dirty clothes on the floor
Sprinkling the counters with grooming products
Not replacing a spent toilet paper roll
Putting new TP roll on so new sheets come from the back, when everyone knows the new sheets should come over the top. (Or vice versa!)
Leaving hair in the washbasin
Using your washcloth or towel
Running out the hot water
Leaving the cap off toothpaste, mouthwash, shampoo, whatever
Restless sleeping or kicking
Using a C-Pap machine
Taking too much closet and dresser space
Leaving clothes around
Hogging the covers
Insisting on a night light—or total darkness
Needing a noise masking machine
Eating in bed
Reading in bed
Allowing pet on the bed
Living Room/Family Room
Toys/games sprinkled about
Putting feet on furniture
Cluttering end tables, coffee tables, ottomans…
Not using coasters
Spilling food and drink on upholstery, carpets, curtains, etc.
Chewing with mouth open
Wolfing food or eating absurdly slowly
Talking with mouth full
Not using a napkin
Reaching for things that should be passed
Making a mess around the plate/bowl
All Around the House
Squeezing tubes from the middle (toothpaste, anchovy paste, etc.)
Playing TV/radio/etc. too loudly
Controlling the TV remote/program
Flipping channels on TV or radio
Not picking up after her/himself
Singing, humming, whistling out of tune
Dominating the conversation
Not saying please or thank you
Leaving doors open/unlocked
Leaving lights and fans on when leaving a room
Not setting the alarm
Not watering houseplants
Leaving bird feeders empty
Paying bills late
Leaving the newspaper a mess
Bottom line: These are just a very few examples of domestic minor annoyances. There are always more, especially when you’re looking for them. Is the irritating behavior really worth the irritation? Or could you make use of it?
Money, money, money! It touches nearly every aspect of a person’s/character’s life—and deserves conscious decision making.
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.
Lower middle class
Upper middle class
*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.
Source(s) of income: Note that respect for various sources of income varies widely. This often translates into treating people differently.
Begging or panhandling
Theft of various sorts, with or without another source
Entertainment, anything from a classical pianist to an exotic dancer
By the job/ piecework
Having multiple jobs
Salary plus bonuses
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.
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.
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.
Changed over your/your character’s lifetime
Income disparity causing conflict
Where the money goes:
Whatever strikes one’s fancy
Luxuries, with or without guilt
Whatever is most visible to elicit praise, admiration, or envy from others
Supporting family or friends who need a hand
Back into a business
Sponsoring people on social media as indirect advertisement
How money is handled:
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?
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?
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:
Graduated weights, hand-held or strapped to wrists/ankles
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!
Workout to an exercise tape or a televised program, often choosing things like Sit-and-Be-Fit, Sittercize, or chair yoga
Using a phone or FitBit to count 10,000 steps a day—and seldom a step more
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
Put on underpants
Put on long pants
Put on shirt
Puts on jewelry
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 ReaderEmbracing 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!
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.
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.
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.
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 Gas. These 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.
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 thecontainer. (In this case, whether your character lives alone is relevant. )
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.
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?
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.
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!