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



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?

Guest Post on Thrill Writing: The Company You Keep

Thrill Writers, The Company You Keep - Does Your Character Act "Out of Character" in a Group Dynamic?

I’m honored to be interviewed on Fiona Quinn’s Thrill Writing, a blog helping thriller writers write it right. 

We talk about why a character might act “out of character,” group mentality, behavior matching, why people might be more passive in groups or more likely to riot, and more.

Excerpt from “The Company You Keep – Does Your Character Act ‘Out of Character’ in a Group Dynamic?”

In this article, we’re talking about what happens to a character when they get into a group where a character might act “out of character”, which is a fun way to develop the plot.

Can you first give us a working definition for “group”

Vivian – We usually think three or more, but some “group” effects are present even with only two. Also, the “group” needn’t be physically present to exert influence.

Fiona – Can you explain that last sentence?

Vivian – Some group memberships are literal memberships–for example, a church congregation, sorority, bridge club, etc. such groups are often in our thoughts, and serve as a reference or standard for behavior even when the member is alone.

Fiona –  Does “group mentality” work both ways? For example, people in a riot become riotous, but people in a disaster, where they see all hands on deck, become heroes?

People in a religious forum feel more religious. . .sort of like a magnifier?

Vivian –  Absolutely. I just mentioned formal groups–which are the ones having the strongest influence at a distance– but crowds, mobs, any physical gathering of people, shapes our behavior to act or remain passive.

Fiona – Can you give us a short tutorial on what we need to know about group dynamics to help write our characters right?

Vivian – Well, there is a phenomenon known as behavior matching, a tendency to do what others around us are doing. This is reflected in everything from eating to body language. Even a person who has eaten his or her fill will eat more if someone else comes in and starts eating. If others are slouching, your character isn’t likely to remain formal.

Fiona – Yes, it’s hard to pass up a piece of chocolate cake when everyone else is moaning about how delicious it tastes.

Just sayin’

Vivian – A related phenomenon–I suppose it could be a subset of behavior matching– has the label diffusion of responsibility. This is the tendency for people to stand passively by when others are present. There was a classic case, decades ago, in which a NYC woman named Kitty Genovese was murdered in the courtyard of her apartment. The murder took approximately half an hour, and dozens of her neighbors watched from their windows. No one came to help or even called the police. The more people who could help, the less likely anyone will take responsibility for doing so.

And then there is group disinhibition. This is sort of the opposite. It is that people are more likely to take risks, break the law, be violent when others are doing so. Think looting, or harassing a homeless person. Disinhibition is even more powerful when alcohol is involved. I recently posted a blog on alcohol for writers that goes into that a bit.

But the bottom line is that we behave differently with others present than when alone.

Read more at Thrill Writing

Thank you, Fiona!

A Little Paranoia is Good For Writers

 abstract painting, dark, paranoia
Dictionary definitions of paranoia include: a serious mental illness that causes you to falsely believe that other people are trying to harm you; an unreasonable feeling that people are trying to harm you, do not like you, etc.; a psychosis characterized by systematized delusions of persecution or grandeur usually without hallucinations; a tendency on the part of an individual or group toward excessive or irrational suspiciousness and distrustfulness of others. in common parlance, a belief that people and objects in the environment are out to get you. Paranoia is a rich mine for writers.


For one thing, paranoiacs are not happy—how could they be?—and we all know that miserable characters can be extremely effective.


painting of a nude, blue, paranoia
But beyond that, writers should know several things. Paranoiacs are often above average in intelligence and function very well over-all within the family and work spheres. Note the phrase above about systematized delusions. They have well-integrated systems of belief that can often convince others that their beliefs are reasonable.


Also, the strict definition of paranoia includes several slippery modifiers: falsely believe, unreasonable feeling, excessive or irrational suspiciousness and distrustfulness. This gives writers a lot of latitude to develop tension.


Consider a poster that a classmate in graduate school had in his office:
Just Because You’re Paranoid Doesn’t Mean They Aren’t Out To Get You.
But perhaps the most value is in the fuzzy edges. For example, people losing their hearing but not yet recognizing the loss often tend toward paranoia: not hearing all that others say, s/he may suspect that people are mumbling or whispering in order to keep secrets.


And consider characters who have suspicious tendencies. What about a character who reads—or even writes—a book like one or more of the following.
  • Don’t Let Your Doctor Kill You by Dr. Erika Schwartz with M.J. Peltier
  • The Survivalist’s Handbook: How to Thrive When Things Fall Apart  by Rainer Stahlberg
  • Bug Out: The Complete Plan for Escaping a Catastrophic Disaster Before It’s Too Late by Scott B. Williams
  • Build The Perfect Bug Out Vehicle: The Disaster Survival Vehicle Guide by Creek Stewart
  • Someone’s Watching You by Forest Lee
  • Dangerous Instincts: Use an FBI Profiler’s Tactics to Avoid Unsafe Situations by M.E. O’Toole and A. Bowman
  • How To Be Safe: Protecting Yourself, Your Home, Your Family, and Your Business from Crime
  • Dangerous Personalities: An FBI Profiler Shows You How to Identify and Protect Yourself from Harmful People

painting, surreal head, paranoia

Takeaway for Writers

Include characters with suspicions, whether justified or not.

Plot Device 101: Death

CONSIDER SUICIDE. . .as a plot device. Any death is rich in potential for tension as well as for moving a story line forward. But suicide is the richest.

"Writing 101: Death as a plot device", wilted flowers
First know the popular myths about suicide. According to “Five myths about suicide,” a Washington Post Weekly article by Matthew Nock (May 2016), five of these are as follows:

We’re experiencing a suicide epidemic. 

Fact: Suicide is not gaining sudden prevalence. Fewer people are committing suicide today than a hundred years ago.

Suicides are most common during the winter holidays.

Fact: The rate is consistently highest in the spring.

Most suicides are impulsive acts.

Fact: Most people who attempt suicide have a plan, even if the act appears impulsive. Nearly half visit a doctor in the month before their suicide, and nearly two-thirds tell someone they’re thinking about it.

There is a suicide gene.

Fact: There is no such gene—although a family history of suicide does put people at elevated risk of suicide.

We know how to prevent suicide.

Fact: We are not yet able to spot or stop it.

Actual factors that put people at elevated risk for suicide, besides a family history, include depression and substance use.


So, with facts in hand, consider your myriad plot options—especially all the emotional turmoil that might swirl among those left behind: guilt for not stopping it; anger that s/he did it; grief at the loss; anxiety about financial strains; shame that a spouse/child was that unhappy; but maybe also fear about something that might be revealed, or that suicide is somehow “catching.”


Suicide can fit any genre. If you write mysteries, an apparent suicide might actually be murder—or the result of any number of nefarious acts by self or others. If you write magical realism, maybe someone is dead but not departed. If you write action/adventure, death is a staple; how might suicide twist that? The possibilities for literary fiction are so numerous, I won’t even go there.


The bottom line

As a plot device, suicide is too valuable to ignore.

Motivation is in the Eye of the Beholder

eye, green eye, point of view, motivation for writers, authors
People have long recognized the eye-of-the-beholder effect with regard to beauty, to the point that it’s a cliché. We’ve all heard jokes that leave us cold—but leave others doubled over with laughter—or vice versa. Writers are well aware that what’s publishable depends more on the evaluation of the editor/agent/publisher than the inherent qualities of the work.


So, apply that same awareness to motivation. We cannot know motivation directly. We can see what a person does, hear what a person says. These are two of the most common, most powerful sources of information.
ear, listening, writers, authors, understanding motivation
Sometimes we have other sensory information, meaning touch, taste, or smell. Sometimes the information accumulates over time, perhaps years, and we feel we truly know someone.
woman, author, writer, getting to know someone, motivation
But the bottom line is that we cannot know another from the inside. And that means room for interpretation. How we evaluate a specific behavior (physical or verbal) depends almost exclusively on why we think the person did it.

Writing Prompt: Characters’ Motivations

So writers, here’s your challenge. For each of the actions listed below, come up with three possible motives for the actor: one evil, one altruistic, and one self-interested. I know you can do it.

  1. giving away a million dollars
  2. shooting someone
  3. cutting off a hand or foot
  4. kissing someone of the same sex
  5. kissing someone of the other sex
  6. dancing naked in a public place
  7. getting a large, readily visible tattoo
  8. cooking an elaborate meal
  9. killing an ill person
  10. cutting up a bride’s wedding dress
  11. digging up a daffodil bed
  12. cheating at cards
  13. adopting a foster child
  14. running for president
  15. burning down a church
  16. adopting a cat or dog from a shelter
  17. complimenting another’s performance
  18. rewriting a will
  19. keeping a dead body unburied for six months
  20. hiking in the woods
The list could go on and on. In your writing, know your characters’ motives, as well as what other characters think the motives are. How will you reveal all that to your reader? Give sensory info!

I’d love to read your responses to today’s prompt. Did something surprising come out of the challenge? Tell me in the comments below, on Facebook, or Twitter.

Psychology for Writers

psychology for writers

Roundup of Psychology for Writers series

Do You Have a Beautiful Bod or What? couple in snow

The Cold Facts About Sex 

Characters’ Inaction Speaks Louder Than Words 

Animal Writes 

Considering Creativity 

When Characters Are in Conflict with Themselves: Psychology & Folk Wisdom 

Writing Relationships: Why Not Get the Hell Out of Dodge? Writing Relationships: Why Not Get the Hell Out of Dodge?

Frangible Characters

Toxic People Are Great

Writers Need Toxic Relationships 

Two Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Start Writing 

Psychology of Uncertainty 

The Principle of Least Interest"Stop procrastinating. Start writing." Writers and procrastination.

Why Writers Need Empathy

Why Women Have Sex: Character Motivation Matters 

Rational and Irrational Behavior in Your Characters 

Want to be published? Join Sisters in Crime at the Libbie Mill Library on Saturday, February 27, 2016, for “Paths to Getting Published–Mystery Authors Tell Their Tales.” A book signing and celebration of the publication of Virginia is for Mysteries II will follow.

Virginia is for Mysteries Volume II celebration on February 27th at Libbie Mill Library

Do You Have a Beautiful Bod or What?

Everyone has a body image. It’s how you feel about your body and all its parts as well as how you think other people view you. Body image isn’t something you’re born with, but you acquire one pretty early on—starting with what family and friends say and do, and then from how what you see in the mirror compares to what you see reflected in the media and what your culture values.
body image: Body Bizarre, Body Beautiful by Nan Menab
People who accept the way they look and feel good about their bodies (most of the time) have positive body images. Beyond looks, body image is related to how you feel physically and what your body can do. Some say that a positive body image must also reflect reality. Consider whether this is what you want for your character(s). 
body image: Anatomical Anomalies book
It might be effective to have a serious body defect and/or distortion of perception. Interesting (to me) is that research indicates that (1) women of all ethnic groups have more issues with body image than men do, (2) women think men are attracted to thinner ideals than men actually are, and (3) men think women are more attracted to more muscular body builds than women actually are. In the extreme, distorted body images are associated with anorexia, bulimia, and exercise disorders. As a writer, consider the value of misery!


Although body image tends to be established early and to solidify during adolescence, it isn’t static. Artist’s self-portraits often reveal a great deal about how they view themselves at a given time. Consider these two self-portraits by the same artist, two years apart. What seems to have happened to body image?


I recently wrote a memoir in which I mentioned illness turning me into a person I never meant to be. All sorts of trauma can have that effect. Think of the opportunities!

Of course, we seldom live au naturel.  Men have haircuts and facial hair, maybe lifts in their shoes, and other bits for more adventuresome tweaks—maybe hair transplants. Women, on the other hand, have haircuts and hair color, corsets or Spanx, shoe choices and jewelry, makeup, and all manner of accessories. In the extreme (my judgment), they go for tummy tucks, face lifts, breast augmentation (sometimes reduction) and so forth. What about your character? Recently, in the US, tattoos have been coming into their own. I was surprised recently to learn that Richmond, VA, is one of the most tattooed cities in the country.


body image: Tattoo book


Would your character get a tattoo? Why or why not? Where? What? Under what circumstances? Is the tattoo public or private?


Never say never!

The Cold Facts About Sex

couple in snow
Who knew winter is the season for sex!


When I was reading about snow for my blog of XXX, a number of non-snow tidbits caught my eye. Whether any of these make it into your writing or not is up to you!


In “Love and Lust Are Seasonal,” Jane J. Lee reported that men rated pictures of women’s breasts and bodies as more attractive in the winter months, although they rated pictures of women’s faces the same. Could it be that men don’t see women’s bodies as much during the winter, and so are more excited when they do?


“Have Your Hottest Sex Ever This Winter” (Men’s Health, 2014) claims that cold weather dulls sexual sensations, and cooler body temperatures decrease arousal for both men and women.


Winter cold increases a person’s appetite which can, in turn, lower libido. One more reason to diet: weight gain decreases libido and makes both men and women less sexually adventuresome.
books about sex
My book shelf
Men’s Health also reported that women are 30% more likely to have an orgasm if their feet are warm. This one may be a tough sell. At a dinner party discussion among young married couples about wearing socks to bed, the men were unanimous in declaring that no matter what else is (or isn’t) worn, socks are not sexy! (A social scientist would call this a sample of convenience.)


Google searches for porn, boobs, XXX, massage parlor, e-Harmony and all peak in early summer and around the winter holidays.


More than twice as many condoms are sold in the week before Christmas than the week after.


Even so, the most frequent birthday in the United States is September 16. You do the math. Conversely, August has the fewest conceptions. (Summer heat kills sperm? The diurnal cycle affects ovary function?)


Who knew winter is the season for sex!


A final word of warning: Compared to other times of the year, couples are more than twice as likely to think about splitting up between the year-end holidays and Valentine’s Day.
books about sex
More of my bookshelf

Animal Writes

Writing 101 Animal Writes

Should you want to add an animal to your story, here’s the First Rule of Thumb: the more important the fictional animal is to your story/plot/series, the more you need to know about the actual one. That being said, here are some snippets that floated through my brain while thinking about fictional animals

Second Rule of Thumb: if you want your readers to identify with the animal, consider a dog or cat. In most Western countries, the two most popular pets are dogs and cats. There are approximately 75.5 million pet dogs and 93.6 million pet cats in the United States—compared to 5.3 million house rabbits. On the other hand, more households own dogs than cats—45.6 million households vs. 38.2 million households, respectively. Among college students, 60% identified themselves as dog lovers compared to 11% cat lovers (everyone else being both or neither). (And just a fun fact: in 2013, pets outnumbered children four to one in the U.S.)

Sticking to dogs and cats for a bit: dog owners report seeking companionship, while cat owners sought affection.

If you do go with a dog or a cat, consider how the profile of the typical owner matches your character. Overall, dog lovers are more energetic and outgoing, and are more likely to follow rules closely. Cat lovers are more introverted, open-minded, sensitive, non-conformist, and intelligent. As most people know, dogs and cats of various species have identifiable personalities and behaviors, so consider how compatible or incompatible your character and pet need to be to support your storyline. Which is your dog?

Third Rule of Thumb: the more unusual the animal you choose, the more you might have to work for reader affection but the easier it might be to grab reader attention.  Consider the red-footed tortoise.

red footed tortoise in tank

Only 4.7 million U.S. households own reptiles, and many of those are lizards, snakes, etc. Chances are a red-footed tortoise would be pretty unfamiliar. Few readers would know that they can grow to more than 18 inches, and live more than 30 years. Some readers would be interested to learn that they are omnivorous, rest 50% of the time, and prefer temperatures around 86 F, not below 68 F or over 95 F. What sort of character would choose such an animal companion? What sort of household might own four dogs, six cats, one parrot, and a tortoise?


Think carefully before you throw one or more animals into your story. Consider the role of the animal(s), and the fit between your character and the fictional animal(s). And then have fun with it!

P.S. FYI, January 14th is Dress Up Your Pet Day. Work that tidbit into your story!

Considering Creativity

What do these five carved wooden Santas have in common? 

All were carved by James Haddon! I’ve had the trio for awhile. Last Christmas season, I noticed that all were by the same carver. So this year, I searched on-line and found the Santa on a rocking cow and the Santa riding a trout. I believe James Haddon is creative. Synonyms for creative include clever, ingenious, innovative, inventive, and original. Perhaps most importantly, he seems to me to be a divergent thinker.


Creativity and Divergent Thinking

Veering into psychology for a moment: a convergent thinker draws everything together to come up with the one perfect solution; a divergent thinker starts at point A and goes any number of places. There are approximately a gazillion definitions of creativity (forgive the high degree of technicality and precision) depending upon whether you are a visual artist, a mathematician, a musician, a chef, or an educator—or a researcher in any number of other fields.  But the requirement for divergent thinking comes up again and again.


Ancient cultures—including Greece, China, and India–had no concept of creativity. They saw art as a form of discovery or imitation, not creation. In Judaeo-Christian tradition, creation was the sole province of God, and anyone creating something was assumed to be acting as a conduit from God. The modern concept of creativity began in the Renaissance, when the idea that creation might originate from the individual, not God—so I read. Think Leonardo da Vinci. The idea gradually took hold, really digging in during the Enlightenment.


It wasn’t until 1927 that Alfred North Whitehead coined the term “creativity.”


Have you ever thought, “If only. . .”? If so, you are imagining alternatives to reality, and such counterfactual thinking is one example of everyday creativity.


In 1967, J.P. Guilford and his associates constructed several tests to measure creativity. How would you do?
  • Plot Titles: participants are give a story plot and instructed to write original titles
  • Quick Responses: a word-association test scored for uncommonness
  • Figure Concepts: participants get simple drawings of objects and individuals and are asked to find commonalities in two or more drawings
  • Remote Association: participants are asked to find a word between two given words (e.g., Hand           Call)
  • Remote Consequences: participants generate a list of consequences of unexpected events (e.g., loss of gravity)
  • Unusual Uses is finding unusual uses for common objects, such as bricks.
If you check out books on Amazon, you can find Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things, 101 Uses for a Dead Cat, and other books on uses for everything from baking soda, coconut oil, and vinegar to duct tape. Who knew we could reap the benefits of all that creative thinking!


101 Uses for a Dead Cat by Simon Bond
101 Uses for a Dead Cat by Simon Bond
Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things by Cy Tymony
Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things by Cy Tymony

Gregory Feist did a meta-analysis of data on creative people and found the strongest related traits were openness to new experience, conscientiousness, self-acceptance, hostility and impulsivity. Besides these traits, other research has identified additional traits associated with creativity: self-confident, ambitious, impulsive, driven, dominant, and hostile.


And what about mental health? Many people equate creativity with genius—and traditional wisdom says genius is akin to insanity. A Swedish study involving more than a million people reported a number of correlations between creative occupations and mental illnesses—do remember that correlations mean a relationship, not in any way causation. Writers had a higher risk of anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse, and were almost twice as likely as the general population to kill themselves. Dancers and photographers were also more likely to have bipolar disorder. However, as a group, people in creative professions were not more likely to suffer psychiatric disorders that the population at large, though they were more likely to have a close relative with a disorder, including anorexia and autism.


So, I started with jolly Santas and ended up with mental illness. Is this divergent thinking??