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: ELECTION 2020

What would (or wouldn’t) your character(s) do? And just as important, why? This particular election has been unusual in several dimensions. When considering your character(s)’ behavior, also consider whether it might reflects a general or stable level of political activism/ involvement or is it specific to this election (or fictional elections with similar circumstances). If the latter, is that because of the pandemic, the candidates/issues of this particular election, or both.

Social Media Activity

  • Following candidates, pundits, campaigns
  • Passively lurking
    • Replying or reposting to boost signal
  • Researching candidates’ policies or campaign news
  • Sharing information with others within a social group
  • Contacting candidates or campaigns through social media
  • How carefully would a character ensure that information is factual and unbiased before believing it or sharing it?
    • If a character has verifiably true information, how much effort would they put into combating falsehoods?
    • Would a character knowingly spread disinformation?

Before Election Day

  • Register voters
    • Provide forms to register to vote at the DMV or other locations
    • Help voters obtain documents needed to register to vote
    • Check registration status for voters
    • Campaign to expand voting access or challenge flawed registrations
  • Manage a candidate’s campaign 
  • Vote early
    • Mail in
    • Absentee drop off
    • In person early
  • Campaign for a local, state, or national candidate
    • Phone calls
    • Postcards
    • Canvasing
    • Delivering flyers
    • Collecting signatures
    • Donating money to a campaign or political party
  • Sign petitions and share on Facebook, Twitter, etc.
  • Attend a rally
    • In person
    • Drive-by
  • Advertise his/her support
    • Yard sign
    • Bumper sticker
    • Clothing (hat, T-shirt, etc.)
  • Try to convince friends/family to vote
    • Encourage voting in general
    • Persuading to vote for particular candidates

Election Day

  • Vote
    • Only if the weather is good
    • If the lines aren’t very long
    • Regardless
  • Work for the elections board
    • As a poll worker directly interacting with the public
    • As a ballot counter for early or mail voters
    • Helping voters contact election clerks to resolve problems
  • Volunteer as an election monitor
    • Officially representing a campaign, being a silent presence in the background while ballots are counted
    • Challenging potential voter fraud outside of a polling place (unofficial)
  • Carry signs or flags supporting one candidate or party
  • Distribute campaign literature or sample ballots to those far enough away from the polling place
  • Provide assistance to those waiting in long lines
    • Drinks and snacks
    • Folding chairs
    • Umbrellas or parasols
    • Playing music, dancing, entertaining
    • Hand sanitizer and masks
    • Driving voters to the polls
  • Providing childcare so parents can go vote
  • Planning vote time around work requirements
    • Taking time off during the workday
    • Getting to the polling site at 4am to vote before work
    • Going after work and potentially staying in line until late at night
  • Follow the media
    • All-day hype
    • Early evening only
    • Late into the wee hours
    • Not at all

Post Election Day

  • Follow results
    • Popular vote
    • Electoral college tally
    • State or local races only
  • Check results
    • Every few minutes
    • Hourly
    • Daily
    • Only on the 6:00 news
  • When results are in
    • Accept
    • Deny
    • Protest the outcome
  • If unhappy with outcome
    • Grumble
    • Peacefully protest/rally
    • Protest with violence against property/people
  • If celebrating
    • Have a quiet glass of champagne
    • Party with family/friends
    • Dance in the streets
    • Binge on chocolate cake
  • Remove all visible signs of political support
    • Only if his/her candidate lost
    • Regardless
    • Yard signs but not bumper stickers
    • Not at all
  • Try to pretend it never happened

How the Character(s) Felt—Check All That Apply

  • Excited
  • Eager
  • Trepidatious
  • Suspicious
  • Fearful
  • Relieved
  • Depressed
  • Disbelieving
  • Angry
  • Exhausted
  • Cheated
  • Numb
  • Elated
  • Encouraged
  • Helpless
  • Betrayed
  • Disgusted
  • Joyful
  • Vengeful
  • Resigned
  • Proud
  • Gratified
  • Hopeful
  • Determined to run for office in the next election
    • To continue momentum from the current campaign
    • To correct future errors of the recently elected
  • Consider whether your character’s behavior would be consistent with his/her feelings. Why or why not?

Bottom line for writers: Though your plot may never involve an election at all, this exercise should shine light on your characters’ level of civic involvement and activism.

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?

WHO’S IN CHARGE HERE?

In Vrindavan, India, a group of widows break social taboos and celebrate Holi, the festival of colors

Invictus by William Ernest Henley: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” Compare that to “Life happens.” In essence, these are examples of internal locus of control and external locus of control, respectively. Most protagonists—for good or ill—have an internal locus of control.

Locus of control is a psychological concept regarding an individual’s belief system concerning the causes of experiences, successes, and failures. Psychologists have been studying locus of control for approximately 70 years, and a lot has been discovered. 

Note to writers: Be aware of what usually goes along with locus of control and how that might drive your characters.

Internal Locus of Control People

  • Are more likely to take responsibility for their actions
  • Tend to be less influenced by the opinions of others
  • Often do better when they are allowed to work on tasks at their own pace
  • Usually have a strong sense of self-efficacy
  • Feel confident in the face of challenges
  • Tend to work hard to achieve the things they want
  • Tend to be physically healthier
  • Report being happier and more independent
  • Often achieve greater work/professional success

Internals Say Things Like

  • “I know it’s up to me.”
  • “I have to learn how to become more successful at X.”
  • “I’m responsible for what happens in my life.”
  • “If I want better grades, I have to start working sooner.”

External Locus of Control People

  • Blame outside forces for their circumstances
  • Often credit luck or chance for any successes
  • Don’t believe they can change their situation through their own efforts
  • Frequently feel hopeless or powerless in the face of difficulties
  • Experiencing tasks as exceptionally difficult and consequently failing often can lead to developing an external locus of control as an ego defense mechanism

Externals Say Things Like

  • “It’s too hard to succeed these days.”
  • “The competition in my field is killing me.”
  • “Just when you think you’ll get ahead, fate kicks you in the ass.”
  • “The teacher had it out for me.”

Things to Keep in Mind When Determining Your Characters’ Behavior, Attitudes, and Feelings

  1. Locus of control is not an absolute, it’s a continuum.
  2. Men tend to have a more internal locus of control, women more external.
  3. When men fail, they tend to attribute the failure to luck or other external circumstances. When women fail, they are more likely to attribute the failure to their own abilities or efforts.
  4. When confronted with truly uncontrollable circumstances, externals are likely to suffer less psychological distress than internals.
  5. People who are externals are likely to experience anxiety because they believe they have no control over their lives, no predictability.

Roots of Locus of Control 

While there’s a tendency to assume a person was born that way, there’s lots of evidence that early life experiences have a strong effect.

  • Internals are more likely to have parents who encouraged independence.
    • Internals have parents who help them see the connections between their actions and the consequences.
    • Internals are likely to be healthier, less likely to be overweight, less likely to report poor health and high levels of stress.
  • Externals grew up seeing no relationship between what they did and what happened. 
    • Even worse, externals who were “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” suffer learned helplessness.

Bottom line for writers: Use locus of control and situational variables to up the stakes for your characters.

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: GUIDING PRINCIPLES

True story: the first minute I was alone with my future father-in-law, he said, “Tell me. What were the guiding principles by which you were reared?” He was a retired dean, and it felt for all the world like a job interview. I paused, never having thought about this issue in quite such a direct way, answered, and it must have been okay because after I became his daughter-in-law we got along very well.

Writers: What are the basic principles that shape your character(s) behavior? 

These are “truths” that might have been taught directly, or just pulled out of the air. In any event, consider the following possibilities.

One

If you do your best each and every day, good things are sure to come your way.
-Tiana, The Princess and The Frog
  • If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right
  • Finish what you start
  • If at first you don’t succeed, try again
  • The only thing worse than failure is not having given it your best effort
  • Honesty is the best policy
  • Your word is your bond
  • Treat others as you want to be treated

Two

Some of you may die, but that is a sacrifice that I am willing to make.
-Lord Farquaad, Shrek
  • Always look out for number one
  • Winning is everything
  • There’s a sucker born every minute
  • Play the angles
  • Always fight to win
  • You can’t trust anyone farther than you can throw ‘em
  • You either take or get taken
  • Keep your friends close and your enemies closer

Three

Pride is not the opposite of shame, but its source. True humility is the only antidote to shame.
-Uncle Iroh, Avatar: The Last Airbender
  • It’s better to give than to receive
  • The meek shall inherit the earth
  • Cleanliness is next to godliness
  • Take care of family first
  • Live well and you’ll be rewarded, if not in this life then in the hereafter
  • Pride goes before a fall
  • Turn the other cheek
  • The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world

Four

Now you see how dangerous individualism can be. It makes us vulnerable.
– General Mandible, Antz
  • Benefit to many outweighs benefit to one
  • Community is stronger than an individual
  • Trust in the Leader/ Group
  • Sink or swim together
  • The nail that stands out gets hammered down
  • Every cog is needed for the machine to function
  • United we stand; divided we fall
  • Work is its own reward

Writers: What are the principles your character has internalized that determine how s/he behaves, feels, and thinks?

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER(S)

Knowing things about one’s character(s)—even things that never make it onto the page—will keep those imaginary people in character, consistent, well-rounded, and flexible so that new plot twists and turns don’t leave the reader feeling like an entirely new person has been introduced.

They also help in making sure every character is not just a copy of the author, with the same political views, personal preferences, and general outlook on life. Indeed, there are profile pages that have questions about everything from birthdate/astrological sign, to medical conditions, to education, to family of origin, etc. . . 

Which Brings Us to COVID-19

A worldwide pandemic is definitely an unexpected turn (unless your character is a historical tracking epidemiologist)! And rich with complexities. For the sake of better knowing your character(s), consider what the current pandemic would reveal. Remember that traits revealed by current events can be applied by authors to characters dealing with any historical, fantastical, futuristic, or imaginary setting.

Masks

This isn’t as singular as it first seems.  What is your character’s attitude/ behavior regarding masks? And why? Here are several possible choices. The Why is up to you!

  • Refuses categorically
  • Complies reluctantly
  • Will wear only when visiting nursing homes or vulnerable family
  • Embraces masks a good thing
  • Sees masks as just another opportunity to accessorize

What do your character’s masks look like? What quality or grade? Would your character confront someone about wearing/not wearing a mask?

Social Distancing 

Easy or difficult for your character?

  • Ignores physical distance
  • Meticulously maintains a 6’ distance
  • Social distances in public places only
  • Feels safe being closer when outdoors
  • Hugs and kisses family
Hand Cleaning
  • Pays no particular attention, i.e., washes when hands feel/look dirty
  • Cleans hands when entering or leaving a building 
  • Sets up a hand washing/sanitizing schedule, e.g., every hour
  • Preference for soap and water or sanitizer?
Safer at Home
  • Does not leave residence at all; everything is distance communication and delivery
  • Goes out only for medical reasons and food
  • Travels locally in own vehicle 
  • Travels locally in someone else’s vehicle, just driver and character in back seat passenger side
  • Comfortable traveling by taxi, bus, train, or plane with appropriate precautions
  • Travel whenever and wherever, damn the consequences
Alone or Together
  • Does your character live alone? Is that a good thing or bad?
  • Does your character alone get lonely?
  • Does your character living with others experience increased tension and conflict? With partner and/or children.
  • What if your character’s friend/loved one dies?
  • How would your character handle home schooling?
    • (If s/he has no children, consider a distance learning tutor or a character educating him/herself via online resources.) 
Crowds
  • Avoids them like the plague (pun intended)
  • Braves them only for a “good cause” such as civil rights demonstration
  • Would go to a family reunion
  • Would address a crowded room for work reasons
  • Happy to party down
Work 
  • Would your character be able to work from home?
  • Is your character an essential worker?
  • Could/would your character be furloughed?
  • Is your character a business owner, responsible for others?
  • Would your character’s workplace be shut down?
  • Would money/loss of income be a problem for your character?

With But Not of COVID-19

Name Changing 

Would your character have a singular or varied response, depending on what’s being renamed? Consider the timing and speed of public opinion shift in the setting: immediately renaming provinces, shops, schools, and cities per government mandate during China’s Cultural Revolution versus the gradual shift of the capital of Kazakhstan from Astana to Nur-Sultan.

  • Rename schools, named for Confederate “heroes”
    • e.g., Stonewall Jackson Middle School, Washington and Lee University
  • Rename roadways, bridges, etc.
    • e.g., Lee-Davis Highway
  • Rename Washington Redskins team
  • Rename towns/cities
Public Memorials, Symbols 

Confederate flag, paintings, statues displayed on public property.

  • Leave them alone. It’s history.
  • Leave them, but provide context.
  • Remove them to Civil War battlefields or museums.
  • Remove and destroy.

Bottom line for writers: Remember that you are describing your character(s), not yourself. The “why” is important. Did you learn anything about your character(s)?

GREETINGS!

The first known pre-printed Christmas card was published in London in 1843, for Sir Henry Cole to send to family and friends.

We in the U.S. are highly aware of greeting cards at this time of year—both the receiving and the sending. Dunbar and Hill (2003) conducted a study on social networks by studying Christmas card lists. They found that each household receives about 150 Christmas Cards, and sends an average of about 68 cards. Clearly, people are receiving more than they give! (Don’t ask me to explain how those numbers work.) The study did not include cards for Hanukkah, Solstice, Yule, Kwanzaa, and New Years, but all of these together make for a very busy Postal Service throughout December.

Since holiday-specific greeting cards are so widespread in the US at the moment, it’s worth taking a moment to think of how they might feature in your writing. If you’re already sick of holiday cheer, just wait for St. Valentine’s Day to be shoved down your throat!

Motivation Behind Christmas Cards  

According to my reading, Sir Henry Cole (see above) resorted to creating Christmas Cards because he had too many friends to write individual notes. I venture to assert that the time crunch is still a major factor in sending a greeting card rather than a letter. But that leaves open the question of who gets on someone’s card list in the first place. I seem to recall that once upon a time, cards were for people seldom seen—and thus unavailable to greet personally. Today?

  • Family
  • Friends
  • Neighbors
  • Work colleagues
  • Clients
  • Church family
  • Teachers
  • Students
  • Doctors/ nurses
  • Residents of nursing homes or hospitals
  • Active military
  • Members of social groups
  • Those who sent cards last year
  • That one person you don’t really like but gets a card just so you can use up the last of the 12-pack of cards you bought

This increasingly vague list leaves plenty of room for confusion and accidentally hurt feelings. Consider someone who sends a card but doesn’t receive one in return. Consider a child arguing with a parent over whether online cards are a suitable replacement for paper cards. If you really want to jerk some tears, consider an elderly character sending out cards to peers and seeing the list shrink a little more every year.

What Type of Card?

There is a huge variety of cards available, and the type of card sent could reveal as much about a character as the people they send those cards to. Religious ones, humorous ones, nature scenes, musical ones, pop-up ones. The first personalized Christmas card was sent in 1891 by Annie Oakley. She was doing sharp-shooter exhibitions in Scotland and sent cards back to friends and family in the U.S. featuring her picture—wearing tartan!

Should a character send a generic card with vaguely wintry scenes and vague wishes for general well-being? What about a character sending explicitly religious cards to recipients of a different faith or no faith at all? Why would a character choose to make dozens of cards by hand rather than grabbing a box off the drugstore shelf? Some families include newsletters with the card, letting friends and families know what they’ve been doing since last year’s holiday card. Why would a character send newsletters or photo collage cards?

Meaning of Holiday Cards for the Recipient 

When I was growing up, my mother, aunts, etc., knew exactly how many cards they received and how many they sent—sort of like being able to cite how many trick-or-treaters came by on Halloween. Christmas cards were typically displayed on stair banisters, windowsills, archways, mantels, etc. 

Could receiving holiday cards be a bad or unpleasant experience? What about a character receiving a card from someone they dislike? How about siblings or friends who see messages of boasting and rivalry in personalized cards? What might a character think after sending out dozens of cards and receiving none in return? How would someone who hates the entire holiday season react to all those reminders in the mail?

According to anthropologists, the number of holiday cards you receive reflects how many people care about you. That’s the premise of a 2003 study of social network size carried out by evolutionary anthropologists Robin Hill of the University of Durham and Robin Dunbar of Oxford and published in the journal Human Nature.  “In Western societies…the exchange of Christmas cards represents the one time of year when individuals make an effort to contact all those individuals within their social network whose relationships they value.”

Maybe I’m just being defensive, but I refuse to measure my circle of caring family and friends by the handful of seasonal greetings I receive. Just saying.

Holiday Cards are Big Business

Getting a definite count is tricky, depending on the year and what cards are included in the count. For example, one study asserted that 6.5 billion greeting cards are bought each year, at a total cost of more than U.S. $7 billion.  On the other hand, sales of holiday cards in the U.S. dropped from 1.8 billion in 2009 to 1.5 billion in 2011. Christmas Cards account for 61% of seasonal greeting card sales, followed by St. Valentine’s Day at a distant second of 25%.

And that doesn’t even include the USPS revenue! Imagine what a postal worker, especially a letter carrier, thinks about all that extra volume moving around the country. Both of the holidays most frequently celebrated with extra paper and postage happen during some of the most unpleasant weather. Do the holiday bonuses outweigh the extra weight in the satchel?

2019 UNICEF cards

And FYI: only 15% of cards are bought by men. Millions of dollars are raised for charities by Christmas Cards each year. For example, UNICEF launched their charity Christmas card program in 1949. Schools, research institutions, hospitals, food banks, and lots of other community organizations raise funds by selling holiday cards.

Some organizations also send cards to donors to encourage continued support the following year. Does it really count as a holiday greeting if it’s a reminder to send a check?

Well, I seem to have been caught up in a seasonal issue.  But bottom line for writers: what are your character’s attitudes and behaviors regarding holiday greeting cards?  Any phenomenon as ubiquitous as this can contribute to your characters and/or plots.

It’s the 5th night of Hanukkah!

INSIDE A MIND WITH PTSD

Today’s blog is written by a fellow writer who wishes to remain anonymous for privacy reasons.

Among the many odd things I’ve done in my life, one that has had the most lasting impact is being a linguistic and cultural ambassador posted to a country that shall remain nameless here. Because of various regional disputes, a massive prison outbreak, less-than-polite national elections and regime changes, and a general culture of aggressiveness, I found myself living in conditions that were much more dangerous than I’d been led to expect.

When I eventually returned home, among the souvenirs and keepsakes I brought back with me, I found in my luggage a serious case of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). As Vivian’s blog is for writers and writing, I thought perhaps a guided tour inside the warped and broken mind of a person with PTSD might be of interest to you all.

Please keep hands and arms inside the cart at all times, and don’t feed the negativity gremlins as we go past.

Very Important Disclaimer: Neither Vivian Lawry nor this guest author are psychiatric professionals or are qualified to provide medical assistance. The information contained herein is not intended to be used for diagnostic or treatment purposes in any way, shape, or form.

This is basically what the inside of my mind looks like.
(It’s actually the Soul Cairn from the Dawnstar plug-in to Elder Scrolls IV: Skyrim by Bethesda.)

Before the ride begins in earnest, you can look to your left for some basic information about PTSD. The most common association people have with PTSD is of veterans of military combat, but it can result from many different experiences, including natural disasters, abusive relationships, assault (sexual or otherwise), prolonged insecurity, traffic collisions, and so on. People can even develop second-hand PTSD from witnessing these events in other people’s lives. A patient may develop PTSD immediately after an event, but sometimes symptoms don’t appear until well after the event itself.

Common symptoms of PTSD. As soon as I can cultivate a substance abuse problem, I’ll have BINGO! (That’s how it works, right?)

With all of these possibilities, there are loads of ways in which the inclusion of a character experiencing PTSD can enrich, complicate, drive, or drive, or even resolve your writing. There is a lot of information available about the causes and effects of PTSD, but remember that each case is different. Every person will have different triggers, coping mechanisms, involuntary reactions, etc.

You may notice the cart shaking violently as we enter the tunnel; this is simply the result of uneven neural pathways, nothing to be alarmed about.

As a writer and a reader, I’ve found myself thinking of ways in which my warped thoughts and behaviors could fit in with other common narrative techniques. I have also found some absolutely infuriating stories out there in which a character has a traumatic experience (usually rape or sexual assault) simply so the hero can come to the rescue or to establish a villain as a villain… and victimized character goes right back to skipping through the tulips. Don’t be that writer!

If you look out on either side of the cart, you may be able to make out (through the erratic strobe lights and general gloom) a few of the ways common behaviors of characters with PTSD could be very useful in your writing. Please remember that these are only glimpses from one mind and do not necessarily reflect every patient. Also, hold on to the lap bar as there are some sharp curves coming up.

Unreliable Narrator: What I see and hear is always filtered through the PTSD in my mind. If a story is told from the point of view of a character with PTSD, this is a good way to demonstrate the disconnect from reality. If another character is getting information from a character with PTSD, it could skew everyone’s opinions and affect the plot moving forward.

What it feels like to walk down the street.
  • Social interactions are a minefield of side-stepping physical attacks (handshakes, hugs, pats on the back).
  • Random strangers only ever approach me with violent intentions, such as petting my dog, asking me to reach something off a high shelf, or walking past me on a narrow sidewalk.
  • People waiting in parked cars are obviously armed, most likely on the lookout for potential victims.
  • Anyone who stands in a doorway must be trying to block the exit or prevent escape.
  • An approach from behind must be someone trying to sneak up on me, and anyone who surprises me from behind is an attacker and will be punched.
  • This isn’t helped by chronic sleep deprivation giving me the same symptoms as early-onset Alzheimer’s: How can I be trusted to provide accurate information when I lose time and forget everything?

Mistaken Motivations: Objectively, I know there is nothing wrong with mental illness, nor should there be any shame attached. Still, I try to hide it or play it off as no big deal. As a result, family, friends, and strangers all have reason to assume my coping behaviors are something very different. Having a character reveal midway through or near the end of a story that their actions were motivated by coping mechanisms could be a plot twist, a clue for investigators, a reset of other characters’ attitudes, or plenty of other ways of adding narrative interest.

  • Friends frequently ask if I’m cold because I can’t stop shaking.
  • Constantly scanning for threats and possible exits sometimes makes me look like I’m trying to find someone or looking for an excuse to leave a boring conversation.
  • Being hyper-vigilant in general makes me look twitchy, itchy, over-caffeinated, or paranoid, depending on who is providing their opinion.
  • My brother thought he’d done something to offend me when I repeatedly moved away from him or left the room when he entered.
  • After I repeatedly panicked and cancelled plans at the last minute, many friends thought I was just blowing them off.
  • Arriving late to social gatherings, hiding in the corner, and leaving early have all led acquaintances to assume I’m too stuck-up to mingle.
  • To make it through particularly important events that I cannot miss, I’ve sometimes taken extra doses of anti-anxiety medication. My slurred speech, unfocused gaze, less than ideal balance, and inability to follow conversation looks an awful lot like I’ve shown up to the baptism or wedding drunk as a skunk.
  • I escape to the bathroom a lot when things get overwhelming, sometimes for extended periods of time. Most of my family now thinks I have severe digestive issues.

Affects in My Life: In order to be diagnosed as a disorder (the D in PTSD) a patient must have symptoms severe enough to disrupt their ability to live a normal life. A character who develops PTSD midway through a narrative would almost certainly show changes in behaviors. These are some of mine.

This is perfectly normal.
  • Chronic insomnia and nightmares: Years later, I still sleep in a separate room from my spouse, with the lights on, with distracting or soothing music playing… and I still manage to wake the household at least once a month by screaming in my sleep.
  • My ability to concentrate and complete tasks on time severely impacted my job. Twice, I responded to a coworker trying to get my attention by panicking and attacking them. Going into the office grew increasingly difficult as it became harder to leave the house. I am now unemployed.
  • Weeks at a time go by when I cannot leave my house, even to go into the backyard. I feel threatened every time I open the door.
  • Side effects from different medications I’ve tried have included weight gain, headaches, heartburn, memory loss, drowsiness, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseam. These could also be examples of mistaken motivations!
  • I no longer participate in hobbies I once did, especially anything that involves leaving the house or interacting with other people.
  • Suicide and suicide attempts are very common among patients with PTSD.

Anxiety Attacks, Panic Attacks, and Flashbacks: These can be triggered by almost anything, depending on the person and the situation. Smelling cigarette smoke, walking on an icy sidewalk, being in a room of people speaking another language I only halfway understand… any of these can send me spiraling. Being under stress increases the chance that something will hit that switch.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we’d like to remind you at this time that motion sickness bags can be found under your seats and to hold on tightly.

It doesn’t look quite as cute when I do it.
  • Anxiety or Panic Attack: It’s really bizarre to be terrified and not know why. Why is my heart racing? Why can’t I breathe? Why can I not stop screaming? When I have an anxiety attack, I don’t think rationally but I can speak and respond to people around me. When I have a panic attack, it feels like I’m about to die. I can’t feel anything but the absolute terror that completely takes over my body. Usually, I am able to leave a situation when I feel one of these about to happen so that I can mentally implode in the peace and quiet of a public urinal.
  • Flashback: These are even more bizarre. Anxiety attacks often segue into flashbacks. I am completely unaware of my surroundings and respond to threats that are long gone. I’ll switch languages to talk to people who aren’t there; I’ll be able to smell the food or feel the cold from specific memories. Sometimes, I have flashbacks that aren’t tied to precise events, more an amalgamation of similar threats that get lumped together in my head. It’s very embarrassing to come out of it and realize that I’m hiding behind a clothes rack in Target, desperately fighting off the attack of a stiff coat sleeve.

Treatment Options: There are many different types of treatments for PTSD, with varying degrees of accessibility, cost, success, and side effects. I’ve tried just about everything: some worked, some did not, some worked at first and then stopped. I can’t stress enough that every person will respond differently to different treatments. The information here is simply what undergoing the treatments felt like for me.

He still can’t change the printer cartridges.
  • Therapy Animal: My dog trained himself to be a therapy dog because he was just that awesome. Before I was eventually laid off, my boss let me bring my dog into the office with me. He learned to impose himself between me and anyone getting too close to my personal space. When I had anxiety attacks, he’d put his head in my lap and nudge my hand until I pet him. Focusing on the feeling of his fur, his cold nose, his super stinky breath worked to calm me down and remind me that I was safe. He passed away in April, and it felt like going through all the trauma again.
  • TMS (Trans-Cranial Magnetic Stimulation): It felt a bit like sitting in the dentist’s chair while a woodpecker tapped on my head. I went every day for three months, and the only side effect was a minor headache when I first started.
  • EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing): My eyesight is so bad that I couldn’t do the actual eye movement part of it; I held a buzzer in each hand and felt the vibrations in alternating hands at different speeds. In each session, I relived particularly traumatic events over and over while the therapist guided me through sense memories and varied the speed of the buzzing. By the time the hour was up, I was usually an exhausted, damp, shaking mess running to the bathroom to vomit.
  • Medication: I think by now I’ve tried every different medication type on the market. I can’t even pronounce most of them and have to stutter and hope at the pharmacy. Most gave some relief for a little while and then stopped working.
    • There is now a way in which doctors can send a sample of your DNA to a lab, where people in white coats and shiny goggles can magically determine which medicines will or won’t work for you. I have no idea how they do it; I assume it involves cauldrons and eyes or tails of newts.
  • Ketamine: I was very hesitant to try this method because there have been so few long-term studies. When I started, I went in every day for a week and a half. After that, I went in every three to four weeks depending on how the doctor thinks I’m doing. Ketamine treatment is available through aerosol or intravenously. I sit in a comfy chair with a needle in my arm for about an hour while geometry loses all meaning and everything becomes either fascinating or hilarious. Everything in the universe swirls in front of my face, and the feeling of my hair is the most amazing sensation I can remember. According to the nurse, I tend to wax rhapsodic about how much I love every person who comes through the door. For some reason, they won’t let me drive afterwards!
  • Healing Crystals/ Salt Lamps/ Essential Oils: I had a lumpy pillow, a pink wall, and everything tasted like lavender.
  • PTSD is expensive!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour through the mess inside my head. Please wait for the ride to come to a complete stop before unbuckling safety harnesses. Be sure to gather all personal items and take them with you as you exit down the ramp to your right. Don’t forget to check the photo booth for a hilarious souvenir memento of your trip. You can also find resources for actual help; as I’m sure you remember, this has just been an example of some personal experiences for your writing toolbox.

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.

BURIED ALIVE

 
Fear of being buried alive is called taphephobia.  Also known as live burial, premature burial, and vivisepulture, it’s been around forever—and is with us still!  Those buried alive often die of asphyxiation, dehydration, starvation, or hypothermia.  If fresh air is available, the buried person can last days.

 

This guy seems pretty happy about the situation.

Fear of being buried alive reached a peak in 19th century England.  More than 120 books in at least five languages were written about it, as well as methods to distinguish life from death.  (See below.)

 

Harry Clarke’s illustration for Premature Burial by Edgar Allen Poe

A Fine Literary Tradition
 
Consider Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Premature Burial,” The Fall of the House of Usherand Berenice.  More recently, Stephen King’s 1987 novel Misery includes Paul Sheldon’s Misery’s Return, a book within a book.

Farinata and Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti in Level 6 of the Inferno, painted by Suloni Robertson

Dante’s Inferno references several classes of sinners punished with some form of eternal burial:

  • The Sullen in Level 5 are kept just below the waters of the River Styx, forever near drowning.
  • The Heretics in Level 6 are trapped in flaming tombs.
  • Murderers in Level 7 are covered by a river of boiling blood.
  • In Level 8 (where all types of fraud are punished)
    • Flatterers are encased in human excrement.
    • Simonists are buried head-first while flames burn their feet.
    • Fraudulent Counselors are encased in flames.
  • The Treacherous in Level 9 are buried in ice of varying levels depending on their sin.
Accidental or Unintentional Burial
 

It’s easier to handle if you bring a buddy along.

Reports of being buried alive date back to the fourteenth century.  In spite of hype and hysteria, as late as the 1890s patients have been documented as being declared dead and accidentally sent to a morgue or encased in a steel box, only to “come back to life” when the coffin is dropped, the grave is opened by grave robbers, or embalming  or dissection has begun.

 

“Life preserving coffin in doubtful cases of actual dead,” a safety-coffin model by Christian Eisenbrandt

During centuries when embalming wasn’t common practice, coffins were mostly for the rich, and rapid burial was the norm especially during major pestilences such as cholera, bubonic plague, and smallpox.  In these cases, rapid burial was an attempt to curb the spread of the disease.

 

The Great Plague by Rita Greer

Several medical conditions can contribute to the presumption of death: catalepsy, coma, and hypothermia.

 

How to Know When Someone Is Really Dead

 

Snoring is a pretty good sign. (This is actually the Fourpence Coffin flophouse, the first homeless shelter in London.)

Jan Bondeson, author of Buried Alive, identified methods of verifying death used by 18th and 19th century physicians.  (Personal reaction: shudder!)  The methods were any acts the physician thought would rouse the unconscious patient, virtually all imaginatively painful.
  • Soles of the feet sliced with razors
  • Needles jammed under toenails
  • Bugle fanfares and “hideous Shrieks and excessive Noises”
  • Red hot poke up the rectum
  • Application of nipple pincers
  • A bagpipe type invention to administer tobacco enemas
  • Boiling Spanish wax poured on patients’ foreheads and warm urine poured into the mouth
  • A crawling insect inserted into patient’s ear
  • A sharp pencil up the presumed cadaver’s nose
  • Tongue pulling (manual or mechanical) for at least three hours

 

The traditional Irish wake was (and is) an occasion for family and friends to celebrate the life of the deceased while watching the body for signs of movement.

Most agreed that the most reliable way to be sure someone was dead was to keep an eye on the body for a while.  To that end, waiting at least 72 hours from apparent death to burial was mandated.  In the mid-1800s, Munich had ten “waiting mortuaries” where bodies were stored awaiting putrefaction.  Each body was rigged to bells to summon an attendant should the corpse come back to life.

 

Waiting morgues, like this one in Paris, were often left open to the public for macabre entertainment

We presume that modern science has surpassed this sort of mistake, defining death as brain death.  Even so, earthquakes and other natural disasters often result in people being accidentally buried alive.

 

Victims of the 2018 tsunami in Nepal were not so fortunate.

But Wait: Sometimes People Are Buried Alive on Purpose!

From the Museum of Torture in Venice

Sometimes live burial is a method of execution.  Documented cases exist for China, German tribes, Persia, Rome, Denmark, Faroe Islands, Russia, Netherlands, Ukraine, and Brazil.

Confucian scholars were buried alive while their books were burned in 3rd century BCE

Interestingly, most of the laws demanding live burial as a form of execution were for crimes committed by women.  Men convicted of comparable crimes were more likely to be beheaded.

 

Vestal Virgins were sealed in caves for breaking their vow of chastity, as shown in this painting by Pietro Saja

When death was not enough, often a spike was driven through the body of the person executed by live burial, perhaps as a way to prevent the person from becoming an avenging, undead Wiedergänger.

 

In some parts of the world, live burial is still practiced as a means of execution.  Often, the victim is buried upright with only their head above ground.  In these cases, death is very slow and painful, often the result of dehydration or wounds caused by animal scavengers.

 

And sometimes live burials are another horrific act of war.

Codice Casanatense, a Portugese artist, recorded this scene of a Hindu widow being sent alive to her husband’s grave.

Very rarely people willingly arrange to be buried alive, for any number of reasons.  Sometimes it is to demonstrate their ability to survive it.  The Indian government has made voluntary live burials illegal because the people who try it so often die.  In 2010, a Russian man was buried to try to overcome his fear of death, but was crushed to death by the weight of the earth over him.

Four “lucky” contest winners

There are even performances in which people have an opportunity to be buried alive for fifteen or twenty minutes.  As a publicity stunt for the opening of the 2010 film Buried, a lottery was held for a few fans to have a very unique viewing experience.  Four winners were blindfolded, driven to the middle of nowhere, and buried alive in special coffins equips with screens on which they could watch the film.  (A 2003 episode of “Mythbusters” demonstrated that, even if a person buried alive was able to break out of a coffin, they would be crushed or asphyxiated by the resulting dirt fall.)

There is now a monument to Mick Meaney on Kilburne Street.

Irish barman Mick Meaney remained buried under Kilburne Street in London for 61 days in 1968, mostly to win a bet.  Tubes to the surface allowed air and food to reach him in his temporary, underground prison.

Parents are often unwillingly volunteered for vivisepulture on the beach.

Bottom line for writers: consider a character being buried alive—or being threatened with it—as a way to up the tension. 
 
Live burial isn’t the only attention-worthy aspect of dead bodies.  For more, check out books such as these.