Risk Taking for Fun and Profit

My mantra has long been that whether I end up in heaven or in hell, I want it to be for things I did rather than things I didn’t do. Until I started developing today’s blog, I didn’t actually consider whether I am a risk taker or not.

 

Yes, I’ve long recognized that I am willing to give all sorts of fun things a try: water skiing for the first time on a Florida river with alligators sunning on the banks, parasailing in the Bahamas, white-water rafting on the Colorado River, zip-lining in Costa Rica, downhill skiing for the first time at night on a lighted intermediate slope, handling an anaconda and fishing for piranha along the Amazon River, riding out a storm on the Chesapeake Bay in a small sailboat, and other fun things I’m not going into.

 

What about money? I’m invested in the stock market, which some consider to be risky for women. But I’ve never invested in some hot new option, gambled for more than quarters, or bought more than one lottery ticket.

 

Health risks? I stopped smoking more than twenty years ago. I drive fast. I drink alcohol. But I never drink and drive. I get all the recommended vaccines and health checks. I exercise 5-6 times a week. And I eat vegan almost exclusively.

 

Professionally? Within limits. Yes, I resigned a tenured full professorship to pursue association management, eventually returned to college administration, and in the process embarked on an eleven-year commuter marriage. But I never totally changed fields, or launched into entrepreneurship or any other career in which my Ph.D. was irrelevant.

 

So why all this self-disclosure? Because I’m a “real people” and the best characters feel to the reader like real people. Protagonists often take risks and they should take them realistically. By that I mean, someone’s risk-taking is often complicated.

 

I’m here to help, so HERE ARE THE HIGHLIGHTS OF WHAT RESEARCH HAS TO SAY ABOUT RISK-TAKING!

Apparently there is a risk gap between the risky behavior we engage in personally and what we recommend to others. For example, virtually no one would recommend texting while driving, impaired driving, not wearing a seatbelt, smoking, etc., and yet many people actually do those things. In the case of texting while driving, 80% of people say they do so at least occasionally. Does your character say one thing and do another?

 

When it comes to personal risk involving health and safety, we are greatly influenced by knowing that others are engaging in that same risky behavior. For example, this is particularly true of smoking, drug use, alcohol abuse, juvenile delinquency, premarital or extramarital sex, or similar behavior. This might explain dangerous health fads and copycat suicides. Knowing “everyone’s doing it” doesn’t much affect our advice to others. Often our protagonists resist such social influences, but what about other characters?
Recreational risk or financial risk is less likely to lead to a copycat effect. I’m surprised by this, actually. However we advise those we love, what we do has a stronger effect than what we say.
 
In risk taking, there are gender gaps. Men take more recreational and financial risks. Women take more social risks than men—more likely to change careers later in life or express unpopular opinions in meeting. There’s lots of advice out there to the effect that taking professional risks is a good thing, especially for women. The reasons risk taking is good include the following:

 

  • great, otherwise unforeseen opportunities emerge
  • shows confidence and helps you stand out
  • lessons learned may lead us on a new path
  • success must be pursued
  • you don’t achieve dreams by playing it safe
  • embracing risk-taking helps you overcome fear of failure
  • researched and prepared for risk-taking pays off
So, consider whether your character epitomizes or defies the gender expectations.

 

People take fewer risks as they age and as they settle into stable relationships. But even with age, a change in relationship status (death or divorce) can lead to a spike in risk-taking. What does your character do after a change in relationship status?
Domains of daring; as implied above, people are a complicated blend of risk-taking and risk-averse. This domain-specific likelihood of risk taking includes five domains:

 

  • financial
  • health/safety
  • recreational
  • ethical
  • social
In general, a person’s likelihood of risk-taking in each category is stable over time, but says little about his/her risk-taking in other categories.

Some psychologists claim that risk-taking is a result of a personality known as sensation seeking—pursuit of novel, intense, and complex sensations and experiences, and the willingness to take risks in pursuing novelty, change, and excitement. Subcategories of sensation seeking:

  • thrill- and adventure-seeking
  • disinhibition (deviant lifestyles, pursuit of change to stave off boredom)
  • a means of expressing aggressiveness and hostility
  • generalized need for activity itself
  • part of sociability, another personality trait
Overall, for both women and men, high risk-takers score high on three of the five basic personality traits: impulsive sensation seeking, aggression-hostility, and sociability. Heavy drinking is associated with all three of these personality traits.
Risk-taking is a product of both genes and experience. Studies of identical and fraternal twins, whether raised in the same families or apart, indicate that sensation-seeking is about 60% genetic, which is a high degree of heritability for a personality trait. Genes also influence aggression, agreeableness, and sociability/extroversion. So for your sensation-seeking character, what are the similarities/differences among family members?
BOTTOM LINE: Chances are your protagonist will take risks of some sorts, sometimes. Consider the why and extent of risk taking.

The Hair Has It

the hair has it
Hair has always been recognized as important: Sampson in the Bible, Cleopatra’s thick, black hair, the wigs worn by judges and others. It is one aspect of ourselves—our bodies—which we can control most, with relatively little effort, over decades. Much about hair is a choice. According to author and philosopher Alain de Botton, “We are using our hair to speak. We’re trying, through the syntax of colored protein filaments, to express key aspects of our soul—and to communicate some of the deepest truths about who we are.” So what do those choices say about a person—or character?

 

Of course, this is a topic that needs to be addressed separately for men and women, though there could be some overlap. Today, there is much more variety for women than for men.

 

What Women’s Hair Says

  • Side parting: compassionate, caring listener, big heart, empathetic and patient, no ulterior motives, realistic and reliable
  • Loose beach waves: embodiment of confidence, freedom lover, high energy, independent, comfortable around people but likes alone time

loose beach waves

  • Mid-length hair: practical, efficient, values common sense and committed to goals, work smart instead of hard
  • Blonde hair: approachable, friendly, good conversationalist, sexy
  • High ponytail: full of energy, sporty, problem solver, straightforward, good time manager, focused on things that truly matter, looks young
  • Polished high ponytail: goal-oriented, athletic, logical
  • Black hair: feminine, attractive, intelligent, confident, well-formed thoughts and convictions, classy, trustworthy

dark hair

  • Short bob: low maintenance, risk-taker, go-getter, professional looking, efficient and organized
  • Brunette: intelligent, self-sufficient, often consulted for advice, makes sound decisions
  • Red hair: fun, hate boredom, good sense of humor, ablaze with passion, temperamental and fiery, maybe fickle, or a drama queen
  • Bouncy curls: fun-loving, warm-hearted, celebrate uniqueness, courageous and outspoken, resists conformity; for black women, value roots, proud of who they are naturally

bouncy curls

  • Curly hair that is straightened: life is chaotic, seeks calm
  • Wavy hair: innovative and creative, high energy, strong willpower, emotional, easily gets hurt feelings, self-contained, monogamy might be a challenge
  • Thick hair: strong willpower, high energy, maybe stubborn, probably thick eyebrows, maybe lower sex drive
  • Thin hair: delicate, not into extreme sports, conserve energy
  • Straight hair that’s always curled: craves more fun and attention

curled hair

  • Medium-length hair, wash-and-go-style: good thinker, values logic, impatient, easily frustrated, values common sense, maybe competitive
  • Long hair, wash-and-go style: in touch with their feelings, romantic, creative, think hippies
  • Super short wash-and-go hairstyle: don’t want to fuss over things in life, less in touch with your feelings
  • High maintenance style: self-critical, anxious, worry about details, and/or drama queen who wants attention
  • Mumsy braid: put their own needs last

braided hair

  • Blunt cut: go-getter, to the point, values logic, driven and goal oriented
  • Layered cut: perfectionist
  • Unconventional hairstyle: fun, full of surprises, likes getting out of the box, carefree, creative, highly emotional, maybe an artist
  • Shaved head: super romantic, have a huge heart, sparkling personality
  • Hairline goes straight across: rebel, rule breaker or at least challenger, wants to make a positive change in the world
  • Irregular hairline: troubled adolescence, poor mothering
  • Rounded hairline: good girl, rule follower, well-mannered
  • Widow’s peak: sex appeal, mysterious charm, charismatic
crazy hair

What Men’s Hair Says

 
  • Man bun: practical, someone trying to pretend to be carefree, even though the look is contrived
  • Buzz cut: low maintenance
  • All bald: confident, he knows who he is, not afraid to embrace it; maybe thinks bald looks younger than gray

bald man

  • Same ol’ haircut forever: loves tradition, predictable, dependable, not going to change any time soon
  • The fade (whatever the top, a haircut where the hair on the sides and back taper gradually until there is no hair left on the skin): likely active duty or retired military, high and tight, disciplined; with a funky, spunky top, a with-the-times kind of guy, trendy

fade hair

  • The pompadour: worn by both women and men; for men, often combined with the fade, meaning a bit full of yourself, pay attention to detail, want to do things right the first time
  • Mr. Facial Hair: I’m a man’s man and I know it. Consider fancy mustache, tailored goatee, and full beard and the impression it makes
Note to writers: I found little on this topic relating actual hairstyles to personality tests. Virtually all of this is the impression these styles create. But for the writer, impressions are often what you are going for.

 

colored hair
[Source: MyWedding]

Consider Coffee

Consider Coffee
In the U.S. 83% of adults drink coffee, and 64% drink coffee daily. In a study published in the Canadian Psychiatric Association Journal, it was found that 17 percent of Americans drink more than five cups of coffee a day. So? Chances are most if not all of your characters drink coffee. But it turns out, drinking coffee isn’t always the same—e.g., you can order coffee 25,000 different ways at Dunkin’ Donuts. Here are the high points of what coffee choices say about your character’s personality, from a study by clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula.
 
coffee beans
Drink Personality Traits The Light Side The Dark Side
Black coffee
  •  Old school
  •  Purist
  • Keep things simple
  • Patient
  • Efficient
  • Can be quiet and moody
  • Abrupt and dismissive
  • Sort of set in their ways
  • Resistant to making changes
Latte drinkers (folks who add milk/cream and sugar)
  • Comfort seekers
  • People pleasers
  • Open book
  • Like to soften the bitterness of life (like they soften the bitterness of coffee)
  • Generous with time
  • Will go out of their way to help others
  • Can get over-extended
  • Don’t always take great care of themselves
Frozen/ blended coffee drinks
  • Try lots of new things
  • Socially bold
  • Trendsetters
  • Childlike
  • Spontaneous
  • Imaginative
  • Fall for quick fixes
  • Don’t always make healthy choices
  • Can be reckless
Decaf/soy milk/ Very specifically ordered coffee
  • Like being in control
  • May be labeled selfish
  • Obsessive
  • Perfectionist
  • Very aware of their health and bodies
  • Monitor their health
  • Tend to make healthy choices
  • Overfocus on rules, control, and order
  • Overly sensitive
  • Tend to be worriers
Instant coffee
  • Traditional in some ways
  • Laid back
  • Procrastinate
  • Take life as it comes
  • Don’t get too lost in details
  • Too laid back
  • Put things off and may neglect basic health issues
  • Poor planners
Bear in mind that these are group data and may not apply to every individual. But if you are trying to create an image, know when you are going with the majority and when you are working against it.

 

coffee
 
A study published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs in 2014 found that heavy coffee drinkers were more likely to exhibit traits of alexithymia — aka, difficulty identifying and describing their emotions. What’s more, those who drank a lot of coffee were also more likely to have anxiety and be more sensitive to the negative consequences of getting in trouble. It’s important to note that this study used self-reporting methods and only included 106 participants.

 

Consider Coffee
Other research indicates that the only negative personality trait associated with excessive coffee drinking came after 10 cups. People who drink more than 10 cups of coffee a day are more likely than the general population to have a personality disorder. On the upside, the Mayo Clinic and Harvard Health Publishing reported that there are myriad health benefits to drinking a moderately large amount of coffee (say three to four cups per day: longer life expectancy, protecting against Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes and liver disease, including liver cancer. Coffee also appears to improve cognitive function and decrease the risk of depression. For migraine sufferers, it can also help ward off a crippling migraine.
coffee beans

A Few Fun Facts that May or May Not Contribute to Your Story Line

Only two U.S. states produce coffee: Hawaii (Kona coffee), and more recently, California. Most of the world’s coffee comes from Brazil.

 

Coffee beans are technically seeds, the pits of the cherry-like berries found on the flowering shrubs. Coffee was originally chewed, and the cherries can be eaten as a food. The cherries can also be fermented to make a wine-type drink.

 

You can overdose on coffee. According to VOX, drinking about 30 cups of coffee in a very short time would be a lethal or near-lethal amount of caffeine. A video from AsapSCIENCE asserts that it would take 70 cups of coffee to kill a person weighing roughly 150 pounds.

 

Decaf doesn’t mean caffeine-free. Eight ounces of brewed decaf contains 2 to 12 milligrams of caffeine, compared to regular coffee which contains 95-200 milligrams. (A cup of cola has 23-35 milligrams of caffeine.)

 

instant coffee
Although coffee consumption has been around since about 800 A.D., there were periods when various movements to ban coffee were prominent, especially from 1500 through the 1700s, so be aware if you write historical fiction. Also, FYI, instant coffee has been around for nearly 250 years.
 
One cup of black coffee has only one calorie.

 

Coffee grounds can be used as an exfoliant, to make skin feel smoother and look brighter.

 

There’s a Starbucks at CIA.

 

We spend, on average, $1,110 per person per year on coffee.

 

Consider Coffee

Smokers Drink and Drinkers Smoke

smokers drink drinkers smoke
Indeed, people who drink the most, as a group, also consume the most tobacco. According to NIH research, between 80% and 95% of alcoholics smoke cigarettes, and approximately 70% of alcoholics smoke more than a pack of cigarettes per day (compared to 10% for the general population. Drinking influences smoking more than smoking influences drinking, but even so, smokers are 1.32 times as likely to consume alcohol as are nonsmokers. So, consider this linkage when bringing in alcohol and/or smoking in your writing. Why might your character indulge in one but not the other?
 
Recovering alcoholics have told me that it’s harder to kick alcoholism than addiction to other drugs. In the U.S., alcohol isn’t just legal, it’s ubiquitous. Even so, approximately 30% of American adults don’t drink alcohol at all. This number includes recovering alcoholics, but also people who don’t drink for health reasons, for religious reasons, from not wanting to feel out of control, etc. Why might your character choose not to drink at all?
 
wine celebration
Many situations are loaded with expectations of alcohol consumption. Think of New Year’s Eve, wedding receptions, anniversaries, sporting events, fraternity and sorority parties, etc., etc., etc. How would your various characters respond to those situations?

 

sick patient
The last thing I want to say about smoking and drinking is that using both multiplies the effects of using either alone. For example, compared to nonsmoking nondrinkers, the risk of developing mouth and throat cancer are 7 times greater for those who use tobacco, 6 times greater for those who use alcohol, and 38 times greater for those who use both tobacco and alcohol.

 

The strong link between smoking and drinking is the result of chemical changes each causes in the brain. If, by chance, that brain chemistry is relevant to your writing, you can find a number of ALCOHOL ALERT papers at www.niaaa.nih.gov which offer more details and references. Suffice it to say, there is evidence that stopping alcohol and cigarettes simultaneously is more likely to succeed than trying to stop one or the other.

 

Earlier this week, I wrote a blog, “Why Smoking is Good for Writers.” In July of 2015, I wrote a blog “Alcohol for Writers.” For your convenience, I’ll excerpt some of that blog here:
…although I don’t advise writers to drink, I do advise knowing about alcohol. It’s such an integral part of life in America—celebrations, business dinners, relaxation, sports events, picnics, parties, all sorts of gatherings from weddings to funerals—that one can hardly write realistically without scenes involving alcohol. So here are a few basic facts you should be aware of and ready to justify if you go against them.

Why Smoking is Good for Writers

smoking good writers
Not that I’m suggesting starting or continuing smoking. But consider how your writing could benefit. (In reporting statistics and research findings, I’m not going to include academic citations. They clutter up the writing, and if you want to pursue something in more depth, you can easily find it online.)

 

As a Character Note

Given the general disapprobation of smoking today, chances are your hero or heroine will be a non-smoker. However, other characters are surely fair game.

 

A ten-year longitudinal study has reported that higher levels of openness to experience and neuroticism were each significantly associated with increased risk of any lifetime cigarette use. Neuroticism also was associated with increased risk of progression from ever smoking to daily smoking and persistent daily smoking over a ten-year period. In contrast, conscientiousness was associated with decreased risk of any of these.

 

smoking
Neuroticism is not a good thing! It is one of the Big Five higher-order personality traits in the study of psychology. Individuals who score high on neuroticism are more likely than average to be moody and to experience such feelings as anxiety, worry, fear, anger, frustration, envy, jealousy, guilt, depressed mood, and loneliness.

 

Other, less comprehensive research nevertheless is consistent with the above study. In this study, smokers had higher scores on measures of depressive symptoms, novelty seeking, and histrionic, borderline, passive-aggressive, and antisocial personality symptoms and lower scores on a measure of avoidant personality.

 

Not surprisingly, quitting smoking improves personality. Among adults 35 and under, those who quit smoking scored lower impulsivity and neuroticism than when they smoked.
smoking good writers

Which Characters Are More Likely to Smoke? 

(Compared to an overall rate of 15.5%)

 
  • men, 17.5%
  • people aged 25-64, 17.5%-18%
  • non-Hispanic American Indians/Alaska Natives, 31.8%
  • non-Hispanic Blacks and Whites, 16.5%
  • Hispanics, 10.7%
  • non-Hispanic Asians, 9%
  • living in the Midwest, 18.5%
  • living in the South, 16.9%
  • being lesbian/gay/bisexual, 20.5%
  • those experiencing serious psychological distress, 35.8%
  • those with disability/limitation, 21.2%
construction workers

More Frequent Occupations of Smokers

Actually, the field is pretty wide open here. But consider the likelihood that your smoker would be “different” from his/her peer group.
 
  • mining
  • construction
  • manufacturing
  • transportation industries
  • business contract (promoters, salesmen, retail and wholesale dealers and buyers)
  • business executives of all ranks
  • editors
  • educational administrators
  • museum curators
  • entertainment and recreational services
There is a notably smaller proportion of smokers among farmers, engineers, surgeons, elementary and high school teachers, and clergymen.

 

What is smoked varies, too. Pipe smokers are more frequently found among research scientists, lawyers, college professors, and schoolteachers. Cigar smokers tend to be business executives, bankers, editors, attorneys, and those in technological fields.

 

In general, more education is associated with less smoking, with the rate dropping to 4.5% for those with a graduate degree. The only anomaly is that those with 12 or fewer years of education have a smoking rate of 24.1%, while those with a GED certificate have a rate of 40.6%

 

Smoking is higher among those living below the poverty level, 25.3%. Besides everything else, a poor character who smokes would have the added burden of the cost of cigarettes. It is an expensive habit. A pack of cigarettes can cost as much as $10.45 (in New York state). But even the least expensive state (Missouri) has a cost of $4.38. FYI, in Virginia it is $4.78, second lowest.
 

As a Source of Tension

The most recent data I could find (from the CDC, 2016) indicate that more than 15% of adults 18 and older currently smoked. That leaves approximately 85% non-smokers, so lots of opportunity for negative comments, nagging, scolding, and downright arguments about everything from the smell and messiness to health risks to the smoker and to those exposed to secondhand smoke.

 

smoking good writers
Perhaps the most obvious source of plot complications would be the known health effects. More widespread smoking as well as increased life expectancy during the 1920s made adverse health effects more noticeable. In 1929, Fritz Lickint of Dresden, Germany, published formal statistical evidence of a lung cancer–tobacco link, which subsequently led a strong anti-smoking movement in Nazi Germany. The harmful effects came to notice in Great Britain in 1954 with the British Doctors Study, and in the United States with the Surgeon General’s report, 1964. So, writers, choose your illness!
 
  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • cancer anywhere in the body: lung, bladder, blood, cervix, colo-rectal, kidney, liver, larynx, oropharynx, pancreas, stomach
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • cause or exacerbate Type 2 diabetes
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • exacerbates asthma
  • weakens bones
  • poor tooth and gum health
  • cataracts
  • increased inflammation
  • decreased immune function
baby
Smoking increases problems with fertility and pregnancy.  Smoking can make it harder for women to become pregnant. It increases the risk for early delivery, stillbirth, low birth weight, sudden infant death syndrome, ectopic pregnancy, and orofacial clefts in infants.

 

Men are not immune. Smoking can reduce a man’s fertility and increase the risks of birth defects and miscarriage.

 

If you write historical fiction, know about smoking in your time period. Although smoking can be traced back to 5000 BCE in the Americas in shamanistic rituals, it wasn’t until the 16th century that the consumption, cultivation, and trading of tobacco spread. Before that, smoking was primarily opium or cannabis in the far East.

 

durham tobacco
[Source: Open Durham]
The modernization of farming equipment and manufacturing increased the availability of cigarettes in the United States. Mass production quickly expanded consumption, which grew until the scientific controversies of the 1960s, and condemnation in the 1980s. In 1962, research indicated that 78% of civilian men had a history of tobacco use.

 

From the 1930s through the 1950s or so, smoking was often presented and perceived as being sophisticated, sexy, and daring. In a time when smoking was not established as a health risk—when smoking was much more prevalent—the relationship between personality and smoking was probably less pronounced. I.e., a higher proportion of non-neurotics smoked.
old cigarette ad
Bottom line: You don’t have to smoke to benefit from smoking!

Who’s Got the Power?

whos got power
 
A week ago today, I helped staff a Hanover Safe Place information table at an Ashland event. I was reminded that relationships are crucial to a person’s health and well-being—whether that person is real or fictional. Today I’m starting a series of blogs on relationships. I’ve written about relationships before from various angles, but they are worth revisiting.
whos got power
I’ll start with good two-person relationships. Although much of this is phrased for intimate partner relationships, it applies to other close relationships as well (e.g., family, best friends). 
 
As illustrated in the wheel above, good, healthy relationships are based on equality and nonviolence. They include

 

  • negotiation and fairness
  • non-threatening behavior
  • respect
  • trust and support
  • honesty and accountability
  • economic partnership (regardless of who has the money)
  • shared responsibility
  • responsible parenting

 

Note to writers: Too often fictional characters are presented in idealized (and clichéd) relationships based on physical characteristics and/or sexual appeal. Make your good relationships richer along the above dimensions.
 
whos got power
 
Various elements in the power and control wheel apply across types of domination, whether physical, sexual, or otherwise, and across settings (e.g., in the family, workplace, church, or community). These methods include

 

  • using intimidation
  • using emotional abuse
  • using isolation
  • minimizing, denying, and blaming
  • using coercion and threats
  • using economic abuse
  • using male privilege
  • using children

 

Note to writers: The examples presented in each of these categories are especially helpful in making your villains realistic—and varied!
 
As the historian and moralist Lord Acton said as long ago as 1887, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

 

And one more note: it is a maxim of social psychology that the person who cares the least has the most power. Think about it!

Off-Beat Character Building

I recently wrote about the advantages of giving your characters secrets and of considering the effects of birth order. But how else do you really know your characters and make them richer?
 
Finding books with titles like Building Better Characters is easy. Some such books include pages of questions to answer about your protagonist, everything from physical appearance to favorite foods to religion.

My advice is to go beyond the usual. Here are six off-beat approaches to knowing your characters better.
off beat character building best dear abby abigail van buren
1) Write a letter from your character to an advice columnist of your choice. Make the advice requested relevant to your story.

other peoples love letters
2) Write a love letter from your character to a real or ideal romantic interest.

off beat character building not proud smorgasbord shame
3) Imagine your character’s most shameful act or experience. If it’s out of character, create a believable context or circumstance.

4) Create a personals ad for your character. Strive for originality. Include a picture.

off beat character building six drown saving chicken
5) Find a News-of-the-Weird story and write your character into it.

six word memoirs
6) Write one or more six-word memoirs capturing the essentials of your character’s life.
Last but not least: Write one or more of these bits into your actual story.

Consider Sibs

sibling age tees
The importance of birth order is so widely recognized, there are even T-shirts about it! And every good novel that involves family relationships takes birth order into account, either directly or indirectly.

 

jane austen pride and prejudice
[Source: The Atlantic]
You probably know Jane Austen is one of my all-time favorite authors. Her books are rife with sibling relationships. Partly, that reflects the period in which her novels are set. In the 19th century, at least among the gentry, birth order determined everything from how one was addressed (Miss Bennett vs. Miss Elizabeth) to who inherited titles and estates.

 

But birth order goes much beyond the social niceties. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, birth order of the five Bennett daughters is a recurring theme, with much being made of Lydia’s position as the spoiled baby of the family. The dour Mr. Darcy’s personality reflects his position as the only son charged at a young age with the care of his estate, tenants, and a much younger sister. Colonel Fitzwilliam’s position as a second son determined everything from his career choice to his marital prospects. Charles Bingley is manipulated by his sisters.

 

More recently, you have four sisters who thrive as individuals (Little Women) but also a family falling apart (Sound and the Fury). In the latter, Quentin is hypersensitive, aware of sibling issues but unable to act, and considers suicide; Jason is jealous, tries to dominate, and wants to put Benjy in an institution; everyone tries to protect Caddie, who gets pregnant out of wedlock; and Benjy, the youngest, is feeble-minded and pure.

 

Perhaps my brain just isn’t functioning well this morning, but as best I can recall, among mystery writers, sibling relationships’ primary role relates to the victim and the suspects. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But what about the sleuth—whether professional or amateur?

 

Consciously giving your main characters siblings—or not—makes for a richer, more realistic portrayal. This is true whether they are present on the page or only in the thoughts or awareness of the character. This is especially true for series characters.
 
Reams of psychological research exists to determine the effects of birth order and explain how those effects come about. But here’s a quick-and-dirty crib sheet to get you started.
 
First borns are high achieving, conscientious, approval-seeking, risk-averse, anxious, emotionally intense, defensive, and prone to jealousy.

 

Latter borns are more competitive (especially second-born, same sex), rebellious, liberal, agreeable, flexible, sociable, able to compromise, build coalitions, negotiate, and adopt peacemaker roles.

 

Last born children are more likely to question rules, develop a revolutionary personality, and expect others to serve them; they’re also less likely to volunteer or take responsibility.

 

Only children share many characteristics with first-borns; they may feel like outsiders, are extremely mature, aloof, and expect special standing.

 

Things to keep in mind: 1) the generalizations are based on group data, so there are wide individual variations; 2) effects are moderated based on the sex of each child and the age gap between them; family patterns often transfer to the workplace or social relationships.

 

Bottom line: Consider your character’s siblings.

 

smart one sibling tees

Characterizing Characters

characterizing characters building believable characters
This is a great book—especially for the the obsessive and/or anxious writer. It has a 14-page questionnaire intended to help you to really understand your character, so thoroughly that you just know how s/he would behave in any given scene. Then there are chapters on everything from Face and Body to names from around the world.

 

So why not just stop with an endorsement? What more is there to say? Just a few things about making characters vivid and memorable.

 

Actually, I can’t quite imagine eyes like butterflies. Nevertheless, this book highlights two methods of ramping up characterizations: similes and metaphors. Essentially, saying a character is like something, it’s a simile. E.g., “Her smile was like sunshine.” Saying a character is/was something is a metaphor. “He was a rock when Mother died.” As in all writing, avoid the clichés. “She is a diamond in the rough” is a tired example.
 
So where does one look for fresh ideas? Consciously visualizing a character in non-human terms might help. 
 
What animal would X be? Consider the differing implications of spider, rat, rabbit, toy poodle, wren, cow, mule, pig, chicken, etc., etc., etc. Various animals are associated with specific personalities and actions, and labeling a character that way can convey a lot of meaning. Think lap dog.

 

What is X’s astrological sign? Whether one believes in astrology or not, various signs carry lots of implications. The title Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus works on many levels: Mars is the god of war, Venus is the goddess of love, and the planets are millions of miles apart. The Chinese sign one was born under has similar implications. I was born in the year of the Cock, and apart from the personality implications, this should be a very good year for me!
characterizing characters book stones
What stone would X be? Again, some stones carry a lot of weight already. For example, diamonds are hard, bright, glittery, and expensive. What characteristics do you associate with pearls, emeralds, jasper, agate? What about abalone? Quartz? Cubic zirconia? And what about metals? Is X gold, silver, platinum, aluminum, iron, brass, bronze—or maybe mixed metals?

 

What plant would X be? What are the associations with oak tree vs. lily? Rose vs. dandelion? Wheat vs. redwood? I won’t belabor the point. You get the idea.

 

Bottom line: Characterize characters in unexpected ways. You could come up with this sort of writing.

 

attributing words characters

More Writing Lessons from the Campaigns

In Wednesday night’s debate, Clinton said something to the effect that when things are going badly for Trump, he blames others—party leaders, the media, those rigging the election. If I remember correctly—and for the purposes of this blog, that doesn’t really matter—she said that he never takes responsibility for his problems. The point for writers is that she was purporting to identify a pattern of behavior—and patterns of behavior are crucial for your characters.

 

In this blog, I will focus on behaviors people use to protect themselves when things are going badly. These are what psychologists call defense mechanisms. Not to put too fine a point on it, defense mechanisms allow us to hide from ourselves. Most of us don’t realize when we’re using them.
person hiding defense mechanisms political campaign
If you look online, you can find the 7-9 most frequently used defense mechanisms, the 31 Freudian defense mechanisms, etc. I am going with the 15 defense mechanisms Dr. John M. Grohol classified according to how primitive they are.

 

Primitive Defense Mechanisms

Primitive Defense Mechanisms are often effective over the short term but less so over the long term: Denial, Regression, Acting Out, Dissociation, Compartmentalization, Projection, Reaction Formation.
 

Denial

Denial: refusing to accept reality or fact, acting as if a panful event, thought, or feeling doesn’t exist. E.g., “I’m not an alcoholic. See how well I’m functioning?”

 

Regression

Regression: going back to an earlier stage of development. E.g., becoming weepy, clinging, maybe reverting to nail-biting or bed-wetting.

 

Acting Out

child acting out defense mechanisms political campaign
Acting Out: behaving in an extreme way when unable to express thoughts or feelings otherwise. E.g., not able to express anger without throwing things, punching things, etc. Includes temper tantrums and self-injury.

 

Dissociation

Dissociation: the person disconnects from the real world for a time, to an interior world free of thoughts, feelings, or memories that are too painful to bear.

 

Compartmentalization

Compartmentalization: the person keeps different parts of the self in separate cognitive or emotional compartments to avoid feeling conflict. E.g., a person who beats and tortures prisoners as part of a job but remains a loving spouse and parent at home.

 

Projection

Projection: unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or impulses are “projected” onto someone else, often the object of those thoughts, feelings or impulses. E.g., someone who is uncomfortable around people of a different ethnic group may justify avoiding those people by deciding that they don’t welcome outsiders.

 

Reaction Formation

Reaction Formation: changing unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or impulses into their opposite behaviors. For example, a man who is really unhappy in his marriage might make a point of publicly “worshiping” the mother of his children, bringing her presents for no reason, etc.

 

More Mature Defense Mechanisms

More Mature Defense Mechanisms are common among adults, and may be all a person needs, even if not ideal: Repression, Displacement, Intellectualization, Rationalization, Undoing.

 

Repression

 
Repression is when one unconsciously drops unacceptable thoughts, feelings, impulses, or events from memory. It’s done unawares, unlike suppression, when one consciously puts such things aside and refuses to think about them.

 

Displacement

Displacement is when thoughts, feelings, or impulses triggered by an off-limits target are addressed toward another, more acceptable one. E.g., a child who cannot show anger toward a parent may take it out on a sibling, pet, or toy.

 

Intellectualization

intellectualization defense mechanisms political campaign
Intellectualization is dealing with issues by keeping emotions at a distance and focusing on the rational argument or information gathering. For example, someone who is diagnosed with cancer to keeps fear and anxiety at bay by learning every possible thing about treatments, prognosis, etc.

 

Rationalization

Rationalization is, essentially,espousing a reasonable explanation rather than the real explanation. For example, a man is dumped by a woman he really, really likes and decides he probably just wasn’t rich enough for her.

 

Undoing

Undoing is trying to make up for past behavior. For example, if you hurt someone’s feelings and then try to be extra nice, complimentary, generous, etc.

 

Mature Defense Mechanisms

Mature Defense Mechanisms are the most constructive and helpful, but more difficult to achieve: Sublimation, Compensation, Assertiveness.

 

Sublimation

 
Sublimation is redirecting unacceptable impulses, thoughts, or impulses into more acceptable channels. Examples would include releasing sexual impulses through non-sexual exercise, redirecting anger into humor or fantasy.

 

Compensation

Compensation is counterbalancing perceived weaknesses with strength in other areas. Done well, it can reinforce positive self-esteem.

 

Assertiveness

assertiveness defense mechanisms political campaign
Assertiveness is fulfilling your needs in a manner that is respectful, direct, firm—and appropriate. Assertive people strike a balance between speaking up for themselves and listening to other people.

 

What defense mechanisms seem to be exhibited by each of the political candidates?

 

white house defense mechanisms political campaign

Most people have more than one means of defense, but tend to rely on a few more often than others. In the extreme, for an addict, the drug of choice is the answer to every problem. As a writer, you need to understand how your characters cope. What are their patterns of behavior? And how effective are they?