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?
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.
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.
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!
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?
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
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.)
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
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
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
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)?
They say there is an ideal job for every person, and in an ideal world every worker would find a job that absolutely suited their skills and interests. The world we live in is, alas, not an ideal world. The world you create through your writing can be as ideal as you choose, and the jobs held by characters can be a perfect fit. Or not.
A perfect job match for a character can demonstrate their talents and background. An imperfect job match can be a source of conflict, humor, or even plot development. The ways in which characters find a career path can be just as revealing as the job itself: some people join the family business whether they have the aptitude and interest or not; some people slowly work their way up the ladder to the job they actually want; some people have an innate talent, honed by practice. Some careers are dependent on the setting (such as a snowshoe maker or dinosaur wrangler), but most types of work have some equivalent in every genre.
Jobs for people who love working with their hands. Educational requirements, apprenticeships, licenses, etc., vary by job. Some have no requirements beyond on-the-job training. Both introverts and extroverts can find tactile jobs to suit their interests (in theory, at least).
Sign language interpreter
High-paying, low-stress jobs for introverts. These are jobs for characters who prefer independent tasks and interactions with smaller groups of people/coworkers. They typically require post secondary education. Apart from convenient plot devices, these jobs are unlikely to include terrifying catastrophes and world-ending deadlines. Usually.
Computer and information research scientist
High-paying jobs with good work/life balance. Education/training varies, but a common thread is that these jobs typically don’t require on-call or emergency response. (Actually, most writers earn very little from their writing, but the possibility is always there.)
Jobs that require good observational skills. Educational requirements vary, as do salaries. Despite high demands on the personal time and physical strength of people working in these fields, many have salaries significantly below the U.S. median.
Veterinary technologists and technicians
Police and sheriff’s patrol officers
Environmental scientists and specialists
Jobs that offer the possibility of frequent crises. Some people are perfectly suited for staying calm and doing their job in the middle of an adrenaline rush; some people simply love the adrenaline rush. Contrary to what television would have us believe, these professions are not a constant stream of accidents and terror. However, characters working in these jobs could be a very handy source of action to drive a plot.
Paramedic or EMT
Middle school teacher
Parent of a toddler
Jobs that do not require reading. Approximately 800 million adults worldwide are functionally illiterate; in the US, 36 million adults cannot read or write above a third grade level. The reasons for illiteracy are almost as varied as the people affected by illiteracy: inadequate or inappropriate education, poverty, social prejudice, learning disability, mental disability, physical disability, poverty, gender bias, etc. There are few jobs that require absolutely no reading, but there are several that don’t rely heavily on that skill.
Side Note: Functionally illiterate adults develop a variety of methods to get around in society; consider how you might write such a character.
Animal care and service workers
Fishing and hunting workers
Jobs that require little or no prior training. The eternal question “How can you get job experience if no one will hire you without experience?” applies in just about every career you can choose. Being born into a family of royals, subsistence farmer, or reincarnated dragon whisperers kind of limits career choices. For the rest of us, we have to start with anything we can find. That does not mean these jobs are any easier or less vital.
Waiter or tables busser
Retail customer service
Bottom Line for writers: if you are creating a new character, consider jobs that fit!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Squirrel habitat. Gray squirrels are tree-dweller. They build nests (called dreys) in the forks of tree branches. They use twigs and leaves, sometimes take over bird’s nests, or inhabit a permanent den hollowed out in the trunk or large branch of a tree. Wherever the nest, it is likely lined with moss, thistledown, dry grass, and feather insulation.
When access can be gained, they will take up residence in the walls or attics of houses—the scrabbling around driving the human inhabitants nuts, resulting in extreme (and often expensive) efforts to get rid of the invaders and block future access. But it’s worth it, because among other things, squirrels gnaw on electrical cords creating a fire hazard.
Consider the factors shaping your character’s habitat.
Squirrel diet. Squirrels are predominantly vegetarian, eating tree buds, berries, many types of seeds and acorns, nuts (walnuts, peanuts, hazelnuts, and others) and some types of woods fungi. They can damage trees by tearing the bark and eating the soft tissue underneath. They raid gardens for tomatoes, corn, strawberries, and other garden crops. They cannot digest cellulose.
What I find especially frustrating, they often don’t actually eat what they damage, merely taking a bite or two and leaving the rest. Sometimes they eat tomato seeds and leave the pulp. They’ve been known to nibble my decorative pumpkins, taking a few bites and returning over time to take a few more bites, each time nibbling in a fresh spot.
If driven to it by hunger or other conditions, they prey upon insects, frogs, small rodents (including other squirrels), small birds, birds’ eggs. They will gnaw on bones, antlers, and turtle shells, possibly as a source of minerals scarce in their normal diet.
When opportunity arises, they will raid bird feeders for millet, corn, sunflower seeds, etc. Hanging out around bird feeders means opportunistic squirrels are perfectly situated in the middle of a relatively high bird population, increasing their ability to raid nests, eggs, and nestlings.
What characterizes your character’s diet—and why? Omnivore, herbivore, carnivore. Exploratory, picky. Eat to live, live to eat. Gray squirrels are scatter-hoarders. They hoard food in numerous small caches for later recovery. Each squirrel is estimated to make several thousand caches each season! Recent research indicates that squirrels can remember and recover up to 90% of the food they bury. This is probably a combination of excellent spatial memory and sense of smell.
The amount of food they have to hide no doubt explains why squirrels are constantly digging in my patio pots and flower beds! Even as I type they are uprooting pansies and breaking off the green stalks that would otherwise become daffodils.
Is your character a hoarder? Of what? Where? How? Squirrels are smart and devious. In order to keep other animals from digging up their food caches, they sometimes pretend to bury it. They prepare the spot as usual, pretend to put the food in while actually concealing it in their mouths, and then covering the hole as if the food were there. They also hide behind vegetation while burying food or hide it high up in trees. These behaviors appeared to be learned.
How does your character treat coworkers? Family? Friends?
Reproduction. Grey squirrels can breed twice a year when fully mature (if food is abundant), once in the spring for younger females. These squirrels are polygynous—i.e., competing males form a hierarchy of dominance and the female mates with multiple males depending on the hierarchy. Five days before a female enters estrus, she may attract up to 34 males from up to 500 meters away.
Communication. Squirrels use both sounds and body language to communicate. They squeak, utter a low-pitched noise, a chatter, a raspy “mehr mehr mehr” as well as “kuk” or “quaa” (vocals warning of predators). Biologists describe an affectionate coo-purring sound used between a mother and her kits and by males when they court a female during mating season.
Squirrels also communicate by tail-flicking, facial expressions, and other gestures. The relative reliance on vocal versus physical signals depends on ambient noise and sight-lines.
Human communication: verbal (the words said), paralanguage (how it’s said), and body language (posture, gesture, facial expression)
And one very special talent. Gray squirrels are one of very few mammalian species that can descend a tree head-first. It does this by rotating its back feet 180 degrees so the backward-facing claws can grip the tree bark. The benefit of this ability isn’t limited to trees. Squirrels are incredibly athletic, jumping among tree limbs or from trees to other object, and gasping with both front and back paws allows them to climb slim poles and hang both upside-down and right-side-up. In my back yard, and I presume other places, a tree branch bouncing and swinging in the morning sun is the signal that a squirrel is about to jump from the tree to the bird feeder—where it grasps whatever comes first to hand.
The beauty of gray squirrels. Gray squirrels have silky fur and bushy tails. They have predominantly gray fur with a white underside, but (like the gray wolf) can exhibit colors variations: brownish, black, and white. Squirrels that are almost entirely black predominant in certain geographic areas, specifically in the north, where it appears that their dark color is a survival adaptation to cold temperatures.
Albinos are present throughout nature, including among gray squirrels. Albinos squirrels have pure white fur with red eyes. White squirrels, on the other hand, are a genetic variation of the eastern gray squirrel, white but usually with a small patch of gray head patch and dorsal stripe. AND it has dark eyes.
In general, white squirrels are at a disadvantage, rejected by other squirrels and easily sighted by predators. However, in certain geographic areas, humans have taken a hand and allow white squirrels to thrive: Brevard, North Carolina; Marionville, Missouri, Olney, Illinois; Kenton, Tennessee; and Exeter, Ontario. The premier location seems to be Brevard, where one in three squirrels is white, the highest percentage white of any known squirrel colony. In 1986, Brevard passed an ordinance making the city a sanctuary for white squirrels, and now they celebrate a White Squirrel Festival.
I was fortunate enough to see a white squirrel in my back yard.—which makes me part of a (somewhat) elite club. Even though a white squirrel is still basically a talented tree rat, it has symbolism on its side. In folklore all-white animals have long been seen as portents of good luck, symbols of purity, and even visitors from the realms of gods and spirits.
This would naturally segue smoothly into a discussion of squirrel symbolism, but that turns out to be way too expansive for this blog. There are numerous online discussions of squirrels as totems, spirit animals, and animals of power. There is even an essay on the meaning of a squirrel appearing in dreams, depending on how and what it’s doing.
Writers: consider reading up a bit on squirrel symbolism because all of these articles describe the behaviors/characteristics of people with a squirrel connection.
A friend recently told me that the horror villains we fear are subconscious stand-ins for things we’re afraid of in real life. Vampires stand for a fear of change; zombies for a fear of crowds or strangers. Fear of clowns is a sign you’re a normal, well-adjusted, perfectly rational person.
Inquiring minds want to know! I started with vampires—and I never got past vampires!
When I went online to learn what it means if we fear vampires, what popped up was an article by Ralph Blumenthal, “A Fear of Vampires Can Mask a Fear of Something Much Worse.” He was writing in 2002 about villagers in Malawi believing that the government was colluding with vampires to collect human blood in exchange for food.
At the time, Malawi was in the grip of starvation, a severe AIDS epidemic, and political upheaval. He cited Nina Auerbach, author of Our Vampires, Ourselves, to the effect that stories of the undead embody power ”and our fears of power.”
In nearly every culture in the world, there is a legend of some variation of vampire-like creatures—the dead who reanimate and come back to feed on the living. And there is general agreement that the roots of vampire legends are in the misunderstanding of how bodies decompose and of how certain diseases spread.
In an October 26, 2016 article in National Geographic titled The Bloody Truth About Vampires, Becky Little wrote, “As a corpse’s skin shrinks, its teeth and fingernails can appear to have grown longer. And as internal organs break down, a dark ‘purge fluid’ can leak out of the nose and mouth. People unfamiliar with this process would interpret this fluid to be blood and suspect that the corpse had been drinking it from the living.”
Modern images of vampires are pretty stereotyped: fangs that bite the necks of victims; drinking human blood; can’t see themselves in mirrors; can be warded off with garlic, killed with a stake (or silver nail) through the heart; are aristocrats who live in castles and may be sexy. This image was popularized by Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Count Dracula in the 1931 film adaptation of the Broadway show of the same name. Unlike Bram Stoker’s description of the monster in the 1897 novel Dracula as a repulsive old man with huge eyebrows and bat-like ears, Lugosi showed audiences a mysteriously elegant gentleman in evening dress.
In European folklore, vampires typically wore shrouds, and were often described as bloated, with a ruddy or dark countenance. Specific descriptions varied among regions: sometimes male, sometimes female, might have long fingernails, a stubby beard, the mouth and left eye open, a permanently hateful stare, red eyes, no eyes, etc. Fangs were not always a prominent feature, and blood was generally sucked from bites on the chest near the heart rather than the throat.
But perhaps the most important theme of Barber’s book is that, lacking a scientific background in physiology, pathology, or immunization, the common response of ancient societies was to blame death and disease on the dead. To that end, the interpretations they came up with—while wrong from today’s perspective—nevertheless were usually coherent, covered all the data, and provided the rationale for some common practices that seemed to be otherwise inexplicable.
Should you ever be pursued by a vampire, fling a handful of rice, millet, or other small grain in its path. The vampire will be compelled to stop to count every grain, giving you time to escape. I found no information on how vampires came to be associated with arithmomania, but it endures: remember The Count von Count on Sesame Street?
At this point, I realize that getting into methods of identifying vampires, protecting against vampires, ways to destroy vampires, and cross-cultural variations on vampirism is way beyond the scope of this blog. Instead, I refer you to books such as this:
Seeing a vampire in your dream symbolizes an aspect of your personality that is parasitic or selfishly feeds off others.
Alternatively, a vampire may reflect feelings about people you believe want to pull you down to their level or convert you to thinking negatively in a way similar to theirs.
To dream of being a vampire represents a selfish need to feed off others.
To dream of being bitten by a vampire represents feelings about other people using you or feeding off you and being unable to stop it.
Vampires may be a sign of dependence, problems with addiction, social pressure, or ambivalence.
A dream vampire might be telling you that you need to start being more independent and relying less on others resources or accomplishments.
To dream of killing vampires represents overcoming dependence on others.
Repeated dreams of vampires hovering over your shoulder and correcting your spelling or suggesting topics for research and expansion is almost certainly a sign that you are writing a blog entry about vampires.
Bottom line for writers:consider whether a vampire is a fit metaphor for your character.
The March 13, 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese led to an entirely new field of research in psychology. Genovese was attacked while walking home from work at 3:20 a.m. in Queens, New York. She was stabbed, sexually assaulted, and murdered over a period of 30 minutes. Subsequent reports said 38 witnesses watched the attack from nearby apartments but neither intervened nor even called the police until the attacker fled. Kitty Genovese died on the way to a hospital.
Two psychologists, Bibb Latané and John Darley, conducted extensive research to examine and try to explain such apparently callous indifference to the suffering of another human being. Over time, these and other researchers teased out several factors that will affect the likelihood of bystander intervention.
Diffusion of responsibility is one of the earliest and most powerful variables identified: the more people who are bystanding, the less likely it is that anyone will intervene. Responsibility is diffused among all.
Contrarily, Philpot et al. just this year published the results examining real-life video recordings from three countries and found that someone intervened in over 90% of cases. Even if the likelihood of any one person responding was infrequent, someone in the crowd intervened.
Emergency vs. non-emergency situations. The following conditions are relevant.
Notice that something is going on.
interpret the situation as an emergency. Others not reacting provides social influence against acting,
Feel responsible: does the victim deserve help, is the bystander competent, what is the bystander’s relationship to victim.
The form of assistance needed (e.g., medical emergency, harassment protection, etc.).
Implement the action choice.
Ambiguity and consequences: ambiguous situations take up to five times as long to respond to, and even then bystanders will often not intervene until after assessing their own safety.
Cohesiveness and group membership: the more cohesive a group, the more likely it is that the norm of social responsibility will lead to helping. Bigger cohesive groups are quickest to react.
Cultural differences affect intervention—both broad/national culture and subculture.
Digital interference is a relatively new phenomenon. With the spread of cell phones and social media, bystanders at a scene are becoming more likely to try to film the incident (whether as “armchair activism” or simply to attract online attention) than they are to intervene or call for help. This has the doubled impact of overloading nearby cell towers so that actual phone calls to emergency services are not connected.
Bystander apathy can be counteracted by raising awareness of bystander effects ad consciously taking steps to overcome it and help; and victims can overcome the diffusion of responsibility in groups by singling out a single member and asking for help from that one person.
Bottom line for writers: make your readers understand why your character does or does not intervene!
Altruism: an individual performing an action that is at a cost to him/herself (e.g., time, effort, pleasure, quality of life, probability of survival or reproduction) that benefits – either directly or indirectly – another individual or group, without the expectation of reciprocity or compensation for that action.
Helping behavior may or may not be altruistic. There are many factors affecting the urge to help, including the following.
1) Kin selection: both animals and humans are more helpful toward close kin that to distant kin or non-kin. Perception of kinship is affected by whether the other looks like the giver, shares a family name (especially if it’s an unusual name), has a familiar scent (in animal groups), etc. Think of kin as the in-group.
2) Vested interests: helping friends, allies, and similar social in-groups (besides avoiding vicarious suffering to the individual) may eventually benefit the altruist. Extreme self-sacrifice may be adaptive if a hostile outgroup threatens to kill the entire group. During the Allied campaign in Italy in the World War II, First Lieutenant John Robert Fox ordered an artillery strike on his position in Sommocolinia, sacrificing his own life to take out invading German forces and allow US troops to retreat safely. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
3) Reciprocal altruism: helping others is more likely if there is a chance that they can and will reciprocate. Therefore, people are more helpful it is likely that they will interact again in the future. If a person sees others being non-cooperative, they are less likely to be helpful. If someone helps first, the recipient of the help is more likely to help in return. Think charities that give small gifts of stickers, notepads, or holiday cards when asking for a contribution.
4) People are more likely to cooperate on a task if they can communicate first.
5) Groups of people cooperate more if they perceive a threat from another group. In the insect world, this frequently happens when a colony or hive finds safety in numbers while moving larvae, a queen, or the entire group. Ants, bees, termites, etc., form large masses and structures to complete the move.
6) People will help more when they know that their helping will be communicated to people they will interact with later, is publicly announced, is discussed, or is simply observed by someone else.
7) Selective investment theory proposes that close social bonds, and associated emotional, cognitive, and neurohormonal mechanisms evolved in order to facilitate long-term, high-cost altruism benefiting those depending on another for group survival and reproductive success. Humans, like many other animals, care for members of the species who cannot care for themselves, ultimately benefiting the species as a whole.
8) Microbiologists are studying whether some strains of microbes might influence the hosts to perform altruistic behaviors that are not immediately obvious as beneficial to the host. There is a possibility, currently being researched, that the bacteria in a person’s gut could affect their behavior and that changes in the bacterial makeup (such as from taking antibiotics) might result in a change in personality.
Psychology has defined psychological altruism as “a motivational state with the goal of increasing another’s welfare. Some definitions specify a lack of external rewards for altruistic behaviors. Even when not immediately obvious, altruism is often rewarded in various ways (see above). When there is no tangible reward, feeling good about oneself can be rewarding. Regardless of whether an act is “true” altruism, there are many psychological studies that document the conditions under which people are more likely to help.
Helping is more likely when the recipient is clearly in need.
Helping is more likely when the giver feels personal responsibility for reducing the other person’s distress.
A person with a high level of empathic concern is likely to help regardless of how many bystanders are around.
The up-side of helping: volunteerism is strongly related to current and future health and well-being.
Older adults who volunteered were higher in life satisfaction and will to live, and lower on measures of depression, anxiety, somatization.
A 30-year study of the physical health of mothers found that 52% of those who did not volunteer experienced a major illness, compared to 36% of those who did.
A 4-year study of people 55 and older found that those who volunteered for two or more organizations had a 63% lower likelihood of dying. Controlling for prior health status indicated that volunteerism accounted for a 44%reduction in mortality.
Research supports the idea that altruistic acts bring out happiness but it also works in the opposite direction: happier people are also kinder.
When too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing:
Although positive effects of helping were still significant, one study of volunteers found that feeling overwhelmed by others’ demands had an even stronger negative effect on mental health.
While generous acts make people feel good about themselves, it is also important for recipients of assistance to appreciate—and show that their appreciation—for kindness and help.
Research indicates that a conscious focus on gratitude led to reductions in negative affect and increases in optimistic appraisals, positive affect, offering emotional support, sleep quality, and well-being for the grateful person.
Volunteer burn-out is especially common in high-stress positions, such as volunteer firefighters and medical providers at refugee camps.
Altruism is an important moral value for virtually all of the world’s religions:
Jews practice tzedakah, righteous behavior, providing support to make the world a more just place
Daya (compassion) and Daan (chairty) are two of the fundamental teachings of Hinduism
As part of aparigraha (non-attachment), Jains give away possessions and harm no living creature
Many Christian churches still practice tithing, donating 10% of all earnings
One of the five primary tenets of Islam is zakat, giving to charity
Sikhs practice seva, which is unselfish and unbiased aid to all
Prejudice is generally defined in one of two ways:
1) A preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience. This is the broadest definition and allows for being biased in a positive direction (such as assuming that harpists are poised and elegant). Wikipedia goes a step further, saying an affective feeling towards a person based on that person’s perceived group membership.
2) An unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reasons; unreasonable feelings, opinions, or attitudes, especially of a hostile nature (like thinking all wrestlers are vulgar and uncouth), regarding an ethnic, racial, social, or religious group.
Prejudice is one of the root causes of human conflict. Conflict, in turn, can result in crime, war, systemic repression, and mass murder. Writers note: anything that creates conflict between characters or between a character and society can be used in your writing.
Where prejudice comes from:
1) We tend to take on the attitudes—including prejudices—of the social groups to which we belong. Social groups include gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, social class, religion, sexual orientation, profession, etc., etc., etc. Adopting the attitudes of one’s social groups, including family, is often a means of fitting in and being liked. Thus, prejudice may serve a social adjustive function.
2) Sometimes assuming a host of characteristics based on knowing one is cognitively efficient. We don’t have to spend time gathering information or even stopping to think.
3) And sometimes, prejudice serves an ego-defensive function. If simply by being who we are we can feel superior to whole groups of people—e.g., all women, all blacks, all immigrants, all yellow ducklings—it helps counterbalance negative information about oneself (such as being chronically unemployed, ugly, or unpopular).
Like other attitudes, prejudice has cognitive, affective, and behavioral components.
Cognitive: overgeneralized beliefs or stereotypes. E.g., Yankees fans are arrogant and obnoxious.
Affective: prejudice, feelings about people that could be positive but are more often negative. For example, I hate Yankee fans. They make me angry.
Behavioral: the treatment of others. When negative, it is discrimination, and may lead to excluding, avoiding, or biased treatment of group members. Example: I would never hire or become friends with a person if I knew he or she were a Yankees fan.
Although people can hold positive stereotypes, prejudices, and discriminatory actions based on group membership—for example, giving preferential treatment to people who are like themselves—it behooves us to focus on the negative because that is what is most problematic.
First impressions: When meeting new people, we automatically note race, gender, and age because these social categories provide a wealth of information about the individual—albeit, based on stereotypes.
Categories of bias: Racism, sexism, ageism, sexual orientation, nationalism, class-ism, religious discrimination, linguistic discrimination, and more.
Self-fulfilling Prophecy: An expectation held by a person about how another person will behave, which leads to treating the person according to our expectations. The treatment can influence the person to act according to our stereotypic expectations, thus confirming the original stereotypic beliefs. (Think teacher expectations, employer expectations, etc.)
Confirmation Bias: Paying more attention to information that is consistent with our stereotypic expectations than to information that is inconsistent with our expectations..
In-groups and Out-groups: An in-group is a group we see ourselves as belonging to, involving a strong sense of belonging and emotional connection that leads to in-group bias and preferences. Out-groups are seen as different in fundamental ways, less likable, often resulting in discrimination. When an in-group’s goals are delayed or thwarted, an out-group is often blamed. This is scape-goating.
Bottom line for writers: stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination can define characters and situations. Think thoughts, affects, and actions and how each can work with POV and plot.
Attitude is a favorable or unfavorable reaction toward something or someone (often rooted in one’s beliefs and exhibited in one’s feelings and intended behavior). It is tempting to assume that there is a direct line between these favorable or unfavorable reactions and behavior. Good news for writers: people’s expressed attitudes seldom predict their actual behavior. This is because an attitude includes both feeling and thinking, and both affect behavior.
Attitudes predict behavior when these conditions are present:
Social influences on what we say are minimal (little social pressure, fear of criticism). For attitudes formed early in life (e.g., attitudes toward authority and fairness) explicit and implicit attitudes often diverge, with implicit being a stronger predictor.
Other influences our behavior are minimal: situational constraints, health, weather, etc.
Attitudes specific to the behavior are examined: e.g., expressed attitudes toward poetry don’t predict enjoying a particular poem, but attitudes toward the costs and benefits of jogging predict jogging behavior.
Attitudes are potent: stating an attitude and an intention to do something makes the attitude more potent and the behavior is more likely (recycling); asking people to think about their attitudes toward an issue also increases potency.
Attitudes that are developed through direct experience are more accessible to memory, more enduring, and have a stronger effect on behavior.
Behavior affects attitudes when these conditions are present:
Actions prescribed by social roles mold the attitudes of the role players. (Think prisoners and guards.)
What we say or write can strongly affect subsequent attitudes. (Think being assigned a side in a debate.)
Doing a small act increases the likelihood of doing a larger one later. (Think foot-in-the-door technique.)
Actions affect our moral attitudes. We tend to justify whatever we do, even if it is evil.
We not only stand up for what we believe in, we believe in what we have stood up for. (Think adopting a rescue animal or donating to a food drive.)
The question of whether government should legislate behaviors to change attitudes on a massive scale is compounded by the question of whether it is even possible.
Why does our behavior affect our attitudes?
Self-Presentation Theory says people (especially those who self-monitor their behavior hoping to make a good impression) will adapt their attitude reports to appear consistent with their actions. Some genuine attitude change usually accompanies efforts to make a good impression.
Dissonance Theory explains attitude change by assuming we feel tension after acting contrary to our attitude or after making difficult decisions. To reduce that arousal, we internally justify our behavior. The less external justification we have for undesirable actions, the more we feel responsible for them, thus creating more dissonance and more attitude change. (Think threat or reward.)
Self-Perception Theory assumes that when our attitudes are weak, we simply observe our behavior and its circumstances and infer our attitudes (correctly or incorrectly) rather than the other way around. “How do I know what I think till I hear what I say?” And conversely, rewarding people for doing something they like anyway can turn their pleasure into drudgery—the reward leading them to attribute their behavior to the reward rather than the enjoyment of the behavior itself.
Bottom line for writers: to present a character’s attitudes to the reader, write what they are doing, thinking, and/or feeling. And note that each of these affects the other two and is affected in turn. Dissonance among the these creates lots of opportunity for tension, conflict, and misunderstanding!