EVERY SUPERHERO HAS AN ACHILLES HEEL

Just about everyone knows that an Achilles heel is a potentially fatal weakness, or vulnerability—even if the story behind the term is vague or missing.  The term stems from the Greek legend about the heroic warrior Achilles whose mother tried to make him immortal by holding the infant by his heel and dipping him into the River Styx. 

Achilles was killed by an arrow, shot by the Trojan prince Paris. In most versions of the story, the god Apollo is said to have guided the arrow into his only vulnerable spot, the heel that was not dipped in the river. 

I think of Achilles as the prototype of all modern day superheroes, with their varied and entertaining versions of Achilles heel. 

Note to writers: Don’t make your protagonist too perfect. How can one pull for a character who couldn’t possibly lose?

Editor’s Note: There are almost as many variations of the powers and vulnerabilities of most comic book characters as there are characters. The characterizations provided here refer to the most interesting timelines from among the Golden Age comics, the Silver Age comics, DC’s New 52, Marvel 616, Flashpoint, Universe of M, and the myriad other reboots and multiverses.

Everyone knows that Superman is crippled by Kryptonite and that’s that. But weakened as he is by green Kryptonite, pink Kryptonite may be even more devastating: it can fundamentally alter his personality in many ways, including hinting at being gay and attracted to Jimmy Olsen. At the time, this would have been seen as a major character flaw (possibly illegal) by the writers and the audience. A sillier effect came from silver Kryptonite, which made Superman act drunk and get the munchies.

For Martian Manhunter (also known as J’onn J’onzz), the weakness is fire. And it doesn’t need to be a raging inferno, or even a blowtorch, even a book of matches will do. In addition to scalding his exterior, flames scramble his masterful mind. Perhaps there’s a bit of lingering mental trauma from watching his entire planet destroyed by fire.

And he isn’t alone: Venom, the symbiote taking advantage of enemies of Spider-Man, could be done in by two seconds exposure to a cigarette lighter. Fire is just about the only way to force Venom to leave his host.

Captain Marvel, Jr. (later renamed Shazam) calls out his superhero name to activate his powers, but if he says his own name (Freddie Freeman) aloud during a battle, he immediately goes back to being a little boy. Thus, he adopts a number of aliases to hide his secret identity and his super identity.  This was not a very useful strategy.

When Daredevil went blind, he developed an echolocation skill that would be the envy of bats, along with a super sense of smell. At the same time, he is susceptible to unexpected loud noises, deafening or supersonic sounds, and noxious odors. He can be rendered unconscious and vulnerable to a follow-up attack.

The Flash is one of the few Superheroes—perhaps the only one—to be killed by his own powers. In battling to save the world, he ran so fast that he burst apart into atoms. Apparently he didn’t know that his excessive speed was also his weakness. (He didn’t stay dead long.) When triggering Flashpoint, the Flash was consumed in the Speed Force, where he became lost and stuck for more than twenty years. He can also be slowed down by extreme cold, but that’s not as funny.

The Riddler is more a supervillsain than a superhero, but even so, not truly deadly. He’s so narcissistic that he wants recognition for his cleverness more than he wants to avoid being caught. Dr. E. Nigma can never complete a crime without leaving clues. His paradoxes are always solvable.

Today the horrible effects of asbestos exposure are well known, but in the 1960’s when Asbestos Man was introduced, it seemed perfectly reasonable to outfit him with an asbestos suit, a fire-retardant shield, and a fisherman’s net to best his arch enemy, the Human Torch.

Impurities in the Green Lantern Corp’s rings make them useless against anything yellow. This weakness is easy to exploit and makes for some truly comic plots. His second debilitating weakness is wooden weapons, or even tree bark.

Power Girl was the antithesis of the Green Movement: she was done in by anything in natural in its unadulterated state. Think sticks, stones, cotton, silk, etc., ughh. According to comic book logic, it was because those materials didn’t exist in her home dimension. Power Girl was eventually revealed to be Super Girl, the cousin of Superman, though she did not share his weakness to Kryptonite.

In the early days of Thor, all it took to force him to return to his alter ego of Donald Blake was to get his hammer away from him for 60 seconds. Considering his primary method of attach was throwing the hammer at enemies, one might think he’d make certain nothing could stop its retrieval. Surprising how often that happened!

Mr. Mxyzptlk was generally safe, unless someone can convince or trick him into saying his name backwards. If that happens, he’s consigned to his native dimension for three months.

Wonder Woman, the prototypical female with superpowers, had skills to match or exceed those of male superheroes. I find it irritating that her weakness was being tied up by men, her super bracelets tied behind her back. Some of this can be traced back to her creator, William Moulton Marston and his recreational pursuits.

In later years, Wonder Woman joined an increasing number of super-powered heroes and villains with much more relatable weaknesses. In the 2017 film Wonder Woman, Princess Diana is nearly destroyed by despair at the violence in the world. 

Gladiator can freeze a planet with his breath melt it with his eyes, or shatter it with his bare hands. He runs at superhuman speed, flies like Superman, and is immune to Death Stars. And he’s incredibly good looking. All of this makes his weakness surprisingly humanizing: if he starts doubting himself, all his super powers desert him.

Tony Stark did not have any superhuman abilities, but his mechanical genius allowed him to become Iron Man. However, his alcoholism is still a major liability. By trying to fly and fight while drunk, Iron Man endangers his entire team and any civilians who happen to be nearby.

Cyborg must deal with constant internal conflict because of his apparent loss of humanity. After a severe accident, Victor Stone had robot parts melded with his remaining flesh. He cannot survive without the technology grafted to his body, but he battles self-loathing stemming from his belief that the medical procedures made without his consent have robbed him of his humanity.

Bottom line for writers: your protagonist’s Achilles heel doesn’t have to be fatal, or even logical, as long as you have the right backstory for it.

Everyone is defenseless against zombies, even superheroes and super-villains.

WRITING TIPS: OLDIES BUT GOODIES

Officially authentic Italian style

You are likely to recognize at least some of these tips.  They turn up in writing classes, critique groups, and books on writing well.  Still, a review never hurts.

Kill Your Favorites

How much pepperoni is too much pepperoni?

People have speech patterns, habitual gestures, familiar facial expressions, and characteristic ways of walking. Writers also have writing habits–favorite words or expressions that often seem apt. Maybe you like voices that rumble like thunder. Perhaps you are partial to jettison for flummoxed. Take care that you don’t over-use these darlings. Once in any short story is sufficient, unless their repetition is part of the story. Think twice before repeating them even in a book-length manuscript.

Is it possible to have too much cheese?

Other words aren’t necessarily favorites, just so common – so universal – that they slip in unnoticed. Probably your readers won’t notice, either. But they are so insipid that they deaden your writing. I’m talking about words like smile, frown, scowl, laugh, sigh. I’m talking about faces that flush, eyes that fill with tears.

Make a list of words that you use a lot – that you suspect that you use too often. Use the edit function of your word processing program to find each instance of each of these words. Consider which can be replaced with more precise and/or more vivid alternatives.

Beware Wrap-ups and Extensions

All that added cheese is doing no one any good.

To take an example familiar to most people reading this blog: if you have a child narrator/POV for telling the Biblical story of Noah’s ark, stop when the child is out of the story. Do not then add an authorial note about global warming, animal evolution, or anything else that is modern. If you have a mother narrating the loss of three children in a natural disaster, don’t add an authorial note after the mother’s death that tells how the one remaining daughter became a nun and devoted her life to working with children following natural disasters.

These examples are blatant, but beware of more subtle wrap-ups as well. If you have a wrap-up at all, as opposed to an ending, ask yourself whether it takes the reader out of the story itself, whether it adds anything relevant, whether you can do without it.

Make Use of Your Dreams

Keep a notebook/journal/folder – whatever suits your style – in which you record your especially vivid or disturbing subconscious ramblings. Record the dream as soon after the event as you reasonably can, and include as many details as you remember, however bizarre, disjointed, or impossible they may be. You can make use of these dream records in at least two ways.

The most obvious way to use these dream records is when you need your character to have a dream. You can either lift it in total or use it as a starting point. Much easier than creating a dream out of whole cloth.

Because dreams often contain odd juxtapositions, they also are useful when you are writing something that calls for a supernatural, mysterious, or merely unexpected series of events.

Once you are in the habit of collecting your dreams – and maybe the dreams told to you by family or friends – you may find yourself using them in surprising ways.

Use Uncomfortable Words

Potato chips? Lobster? Marshmallows?

Uncomfortable words are perfectly correct and not obscene. Nevertheless, they often surprise – or even shock – the reader. Sometimes they make the reader uncomfortable. These latter words can simply be highly personal. My high school English teacher was bothered by the word “bother.” She said it made her think of dirty old men. One of my personal preferences is to use “it isn’t” rather than “it’s not,” the latter sounding too much like “snot”–which is an uncomfortable word for a lot of people.

Kiwi?!

Consider succulent, flaccid, penal, ovoid, horehound, hump, abreast, coldcock, excretion, floppy, fondle, globule, goiter, lipid, niggardly, onus, rectify, and more.

Choose uncomfortable words for effect. Use them sparingly.

Listen

There’s something about listening to the pizza original that just seems to get lost in CD or digital files.

Pay attention to the sounds around you – speech and non. Think of how to describe that bird call – or the rainfall, or the traffic, or the crowd at the game – really sounds, and write it down. But also listen to what people are saying. Pick up on strong phrases such as “plucking my last nerve” or anecdotes containing disturbing images, such as a man on a bus with a dead rabbit in a paper bag. Jot these things into your writing journal for later inspiration.

Remember The Five Ws

You probably have a vague recollection that sometime in the past – perhaps in high school – someone told you that when writing a newspaper article, you need to cover all five Ws: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. That is good advice in general, including fiction–and even memoir.

Where is this pizza and how can I get some?
  • The Who covers both the character(s) and the Point of View. 
  • What is generally what the POV character is striving for – anything from making the team to becoming the richest person in the world.
  • When can be as specific as April 19, 1945 or a vague as once upon a time… 
  • Where is, of course, setting.
Why? Really, just… why?
  • And Why is motivation – what is driving the character. Much depends on Why, and within the context of your story it must be both believable and sufficient to justify the act. If your character kills someone to secure a spot on the team, the stakes for making/not making the team must be very high indeed, and fully developed in the story.

Writing Both Sides

Characters who are either too good or too evil are too flat! Settings – whether rooms, cars, or countrysides – that are unmitigated beauty are likely to be unbelievable. Pick and choose the good and the bad, especially for your protagonist. 

Bottom line for writers: Good tips for good writing will never grow old!

If you feel stuck, try approaching your writing from a different angle.

YOU SAY “SQUIRRELLY” LIKE IT’S A BAD THING!

Writers take note: a squirrelly character could be an excellent choice!

Squirrel Traits and Characteristics directly relevant to humans:

  • Active: Squirrels are always on the go, climbing, running, jumping, chasing other squirrels. Their bodies are made for action, so they are seldom seen sitting quietly.
  • Fast: They move quickly and have fast reaction times, responding immediately to alarm calls, for example.
  • Resourceful: Squirrels gather food year round and store enough for winter. They take advantage of varied sources of food and shelter.

Squirrel origins. The word “squirrel” appeared as early as 1327.  Archaeological evidence indicates that squirrels originated in this (Virginia/Carolina) region of North America some 35-40 million years ago. Modern squirrels are divided into some 289 species. I’m going to focus on Eastern Gray Squirrels for two reasons: (1) they are the most numerous group; and (2) those are the ones in my back yard!

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 polygynousi.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.

Typically one to four kits are born in each litter, hairless, blind, and deaf. They begin to leave the nest around 12 weeks. Only 25% of the kits survives to one year of age. More than half die the next year. After that, mortality is about 30% of the survivors per year.  An adult typically lives about 6 years in the wild, though it can be as many as 12.

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.

SEE SOMETHING, DO SOMETHING—MAYBE

Kitty Genovese

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.

 

Note the lack of assistance offered by the bystander

  • 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.

CPR? Thermal blankets? Take away the vodka?

  • 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.

 

No one will slip or fall. There is no room to land.

  • 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.

 

When punching a small child is perfectly acceptable

  • Cultural differences affect intervention—both broad/national culture and subculture.

 

Taking a photo is far more important than looking for survivors.

  • 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.

Plus, it makes you look like a total jerk!

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.

 

In 2011, Muslims and Christians in Tahrir Square took turns forming protective circles to allow the others a safe place to pray.

Bottom line for writers: make your readers understand why your character does or does not intervene!

 

Any kind of intervention was clearly doomed.

ALTRUISM? REALLY?

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.

 

First Lieutenant John Robert Fox

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.

 

Cleaner wrasse servicing a big-eye squirrelfish

4) People are more likely to cooperate on a task if they can communicate first.

 

Technology assisting Rohingya in getting aid

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.

 

Moving a beehive

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.

 

Peace Corps volunteers swearing in

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.

 

Very young and very old humans often require assistance and care

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.

 

At first glance, this monkey grooming a sleeping wild dog must be suicidal

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.
  1. Helping is more likely when the recipient is clearly in need.
  2. Helping is more likely when the giver feels personal responsibility for reducing the other person’s distress.
  3. A person with a high level of empathic concern is likely to help regardless of how many bystanders are around.

The Good Samaritan mosaic by Fr Marko Rupnik

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.

Philemon and Baucis offered complete hospitality to Zeus and Hermes in disguise, despite being paupers

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

  • Buddhism teaches kindness toward all beings

Bottom line for writers: helpful characters are a good option, but be clear in your own head who, why, and under what circumstances the person helps.

 

CHARACTERS’ ATTITUDES AND BEHAVIOR


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.

 

I don’t FEEL wet. I THINK I’m walking on water. I must have an uplifting ATTITUDE!

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.

I’m a good boy. I’m a good boy. I’m a… that treat is mine!

  • Other influences our behavior are minimal: situational constraints, health, weather, etc.

I’m supposed to stay in my cage, but that open window is right there…

  • 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.

You’re getting up early tomorrow to go running. Sure. I totally believe you.

  • 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.

Someday, I WILL be taller than you.

  • Attitudes that are developed through direct experience are more accessible to memory, more enduring, and have a stronger effect on behavior.

Once a diva, always a diva.

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.)

I adopted this pet hippo. You should adopt one too. All turtles should have a hippo companion.

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.

Every day, I come a little closer to my dream of being a balloon.

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.

I meant to do that; I really wanted a lettuce hat.

  • 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.)

This color looks spectacular on me, and blue is a perfectly normal color for a sheep.

  • 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.

I like grass because I have a lot of it.

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!

LIKING AND LOVING (PART 2)

 
In Friday’s blog, I outlined the factors that influence/promote liking:
  • Repeated exposure
  • Physical appearance
  • Similarity (the more similar two people are on a number of dimensions, the more their liking endures)
  • Reciprocal attraction
  • Relationships that offer more rewards than costs

Oshun, the Yoruba goddess of love

Surprise, surprise: these are the underpinnings of love as well!  And although liking and loving share roots, people seldom confuse the two.  The difference is largely a matter of degree: love is more intense than like.  It’s more personal and more important to one’s well-being.

 

Love comes in many guises. 
  • Love for dearest friends
  • Love for family, one’s children in particular
  • Romantic love

We use the word loosely and often.  We love chocolate, theater, gardening—whatever we feel strongly about.  But no one seriously confuses these feelings with love.

 

Sometimes chocolate is the foundation of love!

Although beloved friends and family are direct extensions of liking, romantic love is in a category largely by itself.

 

Eros, the embodiment of romantic love

A key ingredient of romantic love is arousal.  According to Psychologist Elaine Hatfield (1988, and not contradicted since), emotions have two ingredients: physical arousal plus cognitive appraisal.  Arousal from any source can enhance any emotion, depending on how we interpret the cause of the arousal.
Note for writers: at least part of the arousal from any source (fright, heavy duty workout, viewing erotica, listening to humorous or repulsive readings) will be attributed to a suitable object of affection.

 

Aztec goddess of love and beauty Xochiquetzal

Intense romantic love per se doesn’t last.  Romantic love reaches a fever pitch of obsession—infatuation, if you will—early on.  This is the period of constant calls, texts, letters (whatever fits the time period), exchanging love poems, giving personally meaningful gifts, etc..  For one thing, it gets exhausting!  But a case can be made that continued total focus on one’s partner/mate bodes ill for the well-being of any children they might have.

 

So, according to Professor Robert J Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love, there are seven types of love, defined by the underlying factors of intimacy, passion, and commitment.

Gender effects in liking and loving.
  • Men focus more on physical attractiveness.  Although interested in appearance, women generally value their potential mate’s status/ financial security over physical beauty.  These findings hold cross-culturally and even when someone is seeking a same-sex partner.
  • Age also matters: men value youth more than women do.
  • Men are much more willing to engage in casual sex than women are, and their standards for sex partners are lower.

 

Gender differences in mate preferences may be accounted for by social norms and expectations.  The different socio-economic status of women and the level of gender equality within a society is also a factor in what attributes are prioritized when seeking a mate.

Margaret Mead, center

I’ll start with the Mating Gradient.  As long ago as the mid-1950s, Margaret Mead wrote about the propensity for couples in which the men were older, taller, smarter, better educated, higher earning, and of higher socio-economic status than the women.  Decades later, I conducted an experiment in which I had men and women respond to a hypothetical love relationship with either the traditional pattern (as outlined) or the opposite.

As expected, people in the traditional hypothetical relationships were comfortable and positive.
  • When men responded to a loved one who was two years older, two inches taller, better educated, higher earning, more intelligent, and higher socio-economic status, they were surprisingly okay with it!  A typical response was, “If a babe like that loves me, I must be pretty hot stuff!”
  • When women responded to a loved one who was lesser on all these dimensions, they were generally negative.  A typical response was, “I couldn’t respect a man like that.  How could I love him?”

One interpretation of all this is that, traditionally, women are supposed to be taken care of by their mates and men are (perhaps) threatened when of an inferior status.  But the upshot of men marrying down and women marrying up is that, overall, the least marriageable men are at the bottom of the heap while the most capable, successful women remain unmarried at the top.

 

The Sumerians were all equally shorter than the king.

Consider the implications of the traditional relationship.  Feeling constantly inferior leads to depression and feelings of inadequacy.  Feeling constantly superior leads to lack of respect and perhaps a power grab.

 

True friendship is built on equality of hat ridiculousness at Ascot.

There is research evidence that enduring relationships are based on equality.  So how can these things be reconciled?  One way would be for the man to be “superior” on at least one dimension while the woman is “superior” in one or more of the other areas.

 


And speaking of the relationship of respect to liking and loving: Zick Rubin introduced the concept back in the 1970s, published as Measurement of Romantic Love in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  Rubin created scales to measure liking, loving, and lusting.  Each item was rated on a 5-point scale from “not at all true” to “very much true.”  Examples of these statements are below:
Liking scale items: I have great confidence in X’s judgment.  X is one of the most likable people I know.  I think that X and I are quite similar.  I think that X is unusually well-adjusted.

 

Mitra, an Indo-Iranian god of friendship

Loving Scale items: I would do almost anything for X.  If I could never be with X, I would feel miserable.  I feel responsible for X’s well-being.  When I am with X, I spend a good deal of time just looking at him/her.

 

Frigg, a Germanic goddess of marriage

Lust Scale items: I can’t stop thinking about having sex with X.  The best thing about X and my relationship is that we let our bodies do all the talking.  X’s attitudes and opinions don’t really matter in our relationship.  The best part of my relationship with X is the sexual chemistry.

 

Nanaya, a Mesopotamian goddess of sensual love

A fascinating finding (for me) in a study of engaged couples, was that women both liked and loved their partners.  Men loved their partners, but like—not so much.

 


We tend to like people more when we are in a good mood, and we like them less when we are in bad moods.  As partners stay together over time, cognition becomes relatively more important than passion.  Over time, close relationships are more likely to be based on companionate love than passionate love.
 
 
Bottom line for writersif you’re writing a love relationship, be clear on what kind of love it is!

 

by Chris Riggs in London

LIKING AND LOVING (PART 1)

 
Photo from Getty Images
Think about two people: a close friend and someone you are attracted to romantically.  How are these attractions alike and how are they different?

Both platonic and romantic love have been extensively studied by psychologists, including myself when I was earning my PhD in experimental social psychology.  Though there will likely always be more to explore, psychology has a huge breadth and depth of information available.  I’ll start with liking.  The information provided here is a summary drawn from Psychology (10th Ed.) by David G. Myers.
Caution: all of this research relies on group data; the behavior of individuals varies widely.

 

 

Proximity (geographic closeness) increases the likelihood of
  1. Meeting
  2. Interacting frequently
  3. The mere exposure effect: more frequent exposure to anything and virtually any person increases attraction: nonsense syllables, photographs, music, geometric figures, etc., etc., etc.

 

Kin-san and Gin-san, the oldest twins in the world (age 108)

Familiarity increases attraction 
  1. We prefer the mirror image of our faces to the one other people see.
  2. We prefer others who share some facial characteristics with us.
  3. We seem to be hard wired to bond with the familiar and be wary of those who are different.

 

An extraordinarily attractive Frigatebird from the Galapagos Islands

After familiarity, physical appearance is the  most important factor in attraction 
  1.  Physical appearance matters to both men and women, although women more likely to say it doesn’t.
  2. Physical appearance predicts how often people date and (no surprise here) how popular they feel.

 

xkcd knows how to make a good impression

Attractiveness affects how positive a first impression is
  1. Good looking people are perceived as healthier, happier, more sensitive, more successful, and more socially skilled
  2. Attractive, well-dressed people make a better impression in job interviews
  3. Attractive people tend to be more successful in their jobs: income analyses show a penalty for plainness and/or obesity
  4. In a study of the 100 top-grossing films since 1940, attractive characters were portrayed as morally superior to unattractive characters
  5. Based on gazing times, even babies prefer attractive faces to unattractive ones

 

 

Artwork by blogger Holytape

But there are limits to the attractiveness effect 
  1. Attractiveness does not affect how compassionate we think someone is.
  2. Physical attractiveness is statistically unrelated to self-esteem
  3. Attractiveness is unrelated to happiness
  4. People generally don’t view themselves as unattractive
  5. Attractive people are more suspicious of praise for work performance; less attractive people more likely to accept praise as sincere

 

Culture and beauty
  1. Beauty is culture bound: think piercings, tattoos, elongated necks, bound feet, dyed or painted skin and hair, ideal weight; body hair, breast size
  2. Cultural ideals change over time; for example, consider the feminine ideal in the U.S.: 1920s was super thin and flat chested; 1950s, the lush Marilyn Monroe look; currently, it’s lean but busty
  3. Those who don’t fit the ideal often try to buy beauty: Americans now spend more on beauty supplies than on education and social services combined, not to mention plastic surgery, teeth capping and whitening, Botox skin smoothing, or laser hair removal

 

Tibetan, Cambodian, and Bulgarian bridal costumes as drawn by Aakansh Pushp

Cross-cultural beauty 
  1. Men in many cultures judge women as more attractive if they have a youthful, fertile appearance (the latter suggested by a low waist to hip ratio).
  2. Women are attracted to healthy-looking men.  When ovulating, women are more attracted to men who seem mature, dominant, masculine, and affluent.
  3. People everywhere prefer physical features that are “normal”—i.e., not too big, too small.  Average is attractive.
  4. People prefer symmetrical faces—even though virtually no one actually has one.
  5. Across cultures, women are 2-18% more likely than men to say they “Constantly think about their looks.”
  6. Women have 91% of all cosmetic procedures.
  7. Women recall others’ appearance better than men do.

 

Benedict Cumberbatch and Sophie Hunter are not actually siblings

Similarity is greater among friends/partners compared to randomly matched pairs 
  1. Common attitudes
  2. Beliefs
  3. Values
  4. Interests
  5. Age
  6. Religion
  7. Race
  8. Education
  9. Intelligence
  10. Smoking behavior
  11. Economic status
  12. Opposites virtually never attract
  13. The more alike people are, the more their liking endures: similarity breeds content.

 

 

People like people who like them 
  1. True for initial attraction
  2. Self-fulfilling loop: A likes B, who responds positively, making A like B more, etc.
  3. Especially true for people with low self-esteem
  4. The effect is enhanced when someone moves from disliking to liking us

 

Atoms are also attracted to other atoms that reward their behavior

The reward theory of attraction: we like people whose behavior is rewarding to us, and we continue relationships that offer more rewards than costs.

 

 

BOTTOM LINE FOR WRITERS: if you want to write a realistic relationship, follow the principles above.  If you choose to go against the norm, take care to make it believable to the reader.

WRITING FICTION FROM LIFE

 
Writing from life isn’t a novel idea.  Indeed, there are whole books on the topic.  For many (if not most) people, writing from life conjures thoughts of memoir, autobiography, or biography.  But opportunities to mine your life to enrich your fiction are virtually limitless.  This blog explores ways to tap into your life experiences.   It’s a long but not exhaustive overview.  Here’s hoping you’re inspired!

 

PEOPLE

1) Maybe the most obvious: you lift a character whole cloth from an acquaintance, friend, family member, or neighbor.  Virtually the only thing you change is the name.  (You may want to get permission or change just enough so that you can still show your face at parties.)

 

Totally unrecognizable

2) Choose a habit, quirk, characteristic gesture, favorite word, etc. from someone you know (maybe yourself) and make it a character note.  This could be a private, unmentionable behavior (see my recent blog on the topic) or it could be quite public (think Rafael Nadal touching forehead nose, and both ears before every serve).  My story “Solid Line” (in “Chrysalis Reader”) drew on my husband’s habits of food shopping and breakfast cooking (alternating eggs and cereal six days a week, pancakes on Sunday).

 

A consistent lack of pants could be a very inspiring character trait

3) Choose one or more factually true things about a real person and graft them onto a fictional character/story.  For example, my story “Family Man”(published in Distillery) started with three true facts about my father: he had great eye-hand coordination, was stationed in Texas with the Army Air Corps in WWII, and he was a winning pitcher for the Old Timers Softball League in his later years.  In “Belle” (Compass Rose), I used my maternal grandmother’s true story of having thirteen children to craft a fictional piece in which the character leaves after naming the thirteenth and heads west.

 

 

PLACES

 
1) Draw on a familiar neighborhood for the setting of a story or scene.

 

2) Take details from a place you have worked, lived, or visited often.  I wrote “The Old Home Place” based on the hardscrabble farm where I visited my paternal grandmother for two weeks every summer.

 

Pictured above: not a farm

If your setting is as important as a character, you will need to return to it often and provide lots of detail.  Otherwise, don’t dwell on it, but use it to describe color, furnishings, feel, etc.

 

 

THINGS 

A sculpture by Anne Truitt and the house of a hoarder

  1) Give your character a familiar object to love or abhor.  Think skull, Tiffany vase, worn baseball glove, cast iron skillet, whatever.  Consider whether the character inherited it, received it as a gift, or chose it for him- or herself.  “Pictures Not Displayed” (Storgy Magazine) is fiction based on a box of photographs I found under my mother’s bed after she died.

 

Great Aunt Tillie is now a family heirloom

2) Give your character a collection of objects.  Here again, it could be anything—teacups, cloisonné napkin rings, antique farm implements, fake Christmas trees.  If you choose a collection you are familiar with, you might also want to incorporate some of the characteristics of the collector.

 

3) Consider objects around your home that could contribute to your plot: be damaging or even lethal (think beyond  knives and pokers), be used in defense or attack, or used in unconventional ways (think cast iron griddle used to hammer a nail).

 

 

EVENTS

1) Use repeated events to establish the rhythms of a character’s life.  For example, attending every home game, square dancing, hang gliding.  In addition, sometimes very different repeated events can be combined to form a new whole. Think holiday traditions, anniversaries, birthdays.

 

German Christmas customs

For example, I’m a devotee of massage.  In “Beautiful Bones” (Connecticut Review), I combined the behaviors of many massage therapists with a formerly abused widow getting a massage during a hurricane and becoming paranoid about the massage therapist killing her.

 

From the cover of “Paranoia” by Liza Anne

2) Sometimes an event sticks with you just because it’s quirky.  Once I was visiting family over Christmas and my granddaughter, who was enamored of special effects makeup at the time, had received a kit as a gift.  Simultaneously, she was looking up imaginary diseases for a writing project with friends.  The upshot was that she made up herself, her mother, and me to look like three generations suffering from hanahaki disease and I wrote “Lethal Love” (Good Works Review), in which suffering unrequited love resulted in growing flowers in your lungs and throat.

 

3) Perhaps more often, it will be one time only events that have made a huge impact on you.  For me, driving from upstate New York in winter in a whiteout led to “White Out” (Happy) involving a case of road rage that never happened.

 

When my husband had eye surgery, I used descriptions of his treatment, treatment, restrictions, and the aftereffects to write a magical realism story, “Her Husband’s Eyes” (Midway).  After the surgery, a superstitious wife thinks her husband’s eyes are haunting her.  My exposure to Chinese culture via a trip to Singapore and Taiwan resulted in “Good Works” (descant).

 

From Wish Girl by Nikki Lofton

4) Use a single event that isn’t quickly over to display coping skills.  For example, having breast cancer.  “Beast and the Beauty” (Clare) was a magical realism story spawned by radiation therapy following surgery, in which a woman suffering radiation poisoning turned to alternative healing methods.

 

 

ATTITUDES

1) Draw on how you were taught values, your moral compass.  For example, in “The Pig Sticker” (Chelsea) when Uncle Earl calls a dirty rag doll “Nig” Mommy tells him not to talk trash in front of her babies.  Of course, sometimes the lessons are much more explicit, as in being told throughout childhood that your word is your bond, or being exposed to church doctrine.  Consider how you came by your values and whether those lessons relate to how your character came to his/her values and morality.

 

Most people inherit a blend of attitudes

2) Sometimes attitudes transfer in elliptical ways.  In my family, “waste not, want not” was a maxim.  Several friends and I agreed to share our Lady Finger mold, fish poacher, turkey frier, and other seldom used cooking equipment.  That led me to write “The Darwinian Co-op Lending Library” (Clackamus Literary Review).  I created a post-modern library in which people could borrow everything from Valentine’s decorations to turkey basters to a husband and children for the holidays.

 

 

EMOTIONS

This is perhaps the richest minefield of all.  Remember emotional reactions in as vivid detail as possible, both your physical feelings and behaviors.  Remember when you felt joy, guilt, loss, bereavement, excitement, embarrassment, regret, inadequacy, love, sexual arousal, awe, helplessness, fear, being tipsy—any emotion at all.

 

A “street emotion” captured by Holly Clark

If your POV character is experiencing this emotion, describe how it felt.  If otherwise, staying in the POV character’s head, describe what the POV character can see, hear, etc. of emotional character”s behavior.

 

Photo from factretriever.com

The thing to keep in mind here is that you can transfer an emotion to a very different situation/even.  For example, if you’ve experienced the death of a loved one, those feelings can be written into your fiction as a character’s reaction to the death of a spouse, a sibling, a parent, a friend, even a beloved pet.

 

 

Bottom line for writers: your life is gold. Mine it!
 

Prometheus Caves in Kutaisi, Imereti, Georgia

LIES, LIES, AND MORE LIES

Are you sure I can believe you?

When someone says something that isn’t true, it’s a lie—except when it isn’t!  For writers, any untruth can be a tool for building character, plot, tone, etc.  I can think of three situations when an untruth isn’t a lie.

1) The person telling the untruth is incapable of discerning what the truth is.  Very young children will often lie because there is no real difference between fantasy and reality in their mind.  The cardboard box really did become a rocket ship.  A mermaid and a kracken really did come to play in the bathtub.

Depending on the age of the child, this may extend to what seems to adults to be attempts to get out of trouble or deflect blame.  Because a child’s sense of reality is not concrete, what an adult sees as a lie a child may simply see as very effective wishful thinking.

Grandmom said I can play with power tools!

Children may also respond with the first answer to come into their mind that they think an adult wants to hear.  This is true both for extremely young children who simply try to give an answer they think the adult wants to hear and for children who have trouble concentrating or remembering, such as those with ADD or ADHD.

Of course I took a bath!

Dr. Kang Lee, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, sees lying as an indicator of developmental status.  I’ll skip the research methodology and simply cite the findings.  When asked whether they had peeked behind a screen: of those who had peeked, 30% of two-year-olds, 50% of three-year olds, and about 80% of eight-year-olds lied about it.

I saw everything!

2) The person telling the untruth suffers some form of dementia.  For example, an obvious case would be a woman in a memory care facility who tells visiting relatives that she baked a chocolate cake and everyone at the party said how good it was, and Paul Newman came in through the window and danced with her.

 

Another version, often harder to detect, is the person who has temporal confusion.  For example, a man who says that his son came to see him yesterday and it was actually last week.  (Think false alibi!)
 white text

3) The speaker believes something is true that isn’t. In other words, the speaker is mistaken.  It could be a misunderstanding of something seen, read or heard—but it could also be that the speaker was intentionally deceived so that s/he would spread a lie.

Which brings us to real lies as opposed to untruths: to make an untrue statement with the intention to deceive.  But writers, go beyond the direct lie and use, half-truths, exaggerations, or pertinent omissions.

 

Not a rare behavior for people or characters.  Indeed, Kendra Cherry writing on verywellmind.com pointed out that actual research about lying is relatively recent, and data replications are hard to come by, but some surveys suggest that as many as 96% of people admit to lying at least sometimes.

In 1996, Bella DePaulo, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, published the results of a study in which 147 people between the ages of 18 and 71 kept a diary of all the falsehoods they told over the course of a week.  She found that most people lie at least once or twice every day!  Over the course of a week, people lied in approximately 20% of social interactions lasting 10 minutes or more.  They deceived about 30% of those they interacted with one-on-one.

 

Although she didn’t find gender differences in number of lies, there were relationship differences.  Parents and teens interactions are often deceitful: “College students lie to their mothers in one out of two conversations.”

Little white lies.  These lies are typically meant to do some good—or at least do no harm.  For example, complimenting a friend’s shirt when you really think it looks dreadful.  Coming late to a meeting and saying you were held up by an accident on the interstate when you really overslept.

 

Although pretty much everyone is told from a young age that it’s always best to tell the truth, the fact is that telling the truth (about oversleeping, for example) may be punished (for example, by a poor performance review).  Thus, society often encourages or even rewards lying.

Illustration by Boyd Wilcox

Some lies may serve as a social lubricant.  DePaulo (above) found that 25% of lies were “fake positives” intending to make the other person feel better about someone or something.  These were 10 to 20 times more common than lies in which people pretend to like someone or something less than they actually do (fake negatives).

 

But beware: according to Wanda Thibodeaux on Inc.com, telling lies to spare someone’s feelings is not good in the long run.  Yes, we do take the liar’s intention into account, but it also raises doubts about whether a person willing to lie to us actually has our best interests at heart.  These lies can cause doubt, uncertainty, suspicion, and trust  issues.

White lies made up to excuse being late, unprepared, unwilling to do something, etc. bring into question a character’s ultimate trustworthiness.

 

Also, telling little white lies can desensitize the liar, making it easier to tell bigger/more serious lies.

 

People lie for the same reason they do everything else: a lie is the best perceived alternative at the time.  Thus, lies are a means to an end, and those ends can be broadly grouped into four overlapping categories; to get what they want, to take the easy way out, to avoid criticism, to build a positive self-image.  The likelihood of lying increases when someone is “pushed into a corner” or needs to react quickly.

 

1) To get what they want.  This could be almost anything.  In relationships, it might be to attract a partner, to hide cheating, to get a partner to agree to sex, to avoid an argument—and these are just a few possibilities.

 

In the workplace, lying to get ahead, discredit the competition, get even with a colleague, take credit for someone else’s work, cover up procrastination, avoid being fired, etc.

Mr. Fluffers does not tolerate tardiness.

In any relationship, people lie for quick financial gain, to avoid taking responsibility or unwanted chores, to be liked/popular, or nearly any other objective that the liar sees as more important (at the moment) than the truth.

2) To take the easy way out.  This overlaps with the good Little White Lies above, not wanting to deal with hurt feelings, for example.  It also includes plagiarizing and making up data in a research project.

 

Fixed it!

3) To avoid criticism.  When people aren’t comfortable with some aspect of their behavior, character, or past they are prone to deceive in any of the ways mentioned above (lie, half-truths, exaggerations, intentional omissions).  Closely related to inflate one’s image, to cover up for a mistake, or to excuse doing something wrong.

 

4) To build a positive self-image.  Basically, this is lying to oneself.  The liar wants something to be true and pretends that it is until eventually s/he believes it.  Making excuses for behavior or thoughts or wishes that at some level are unacceptable to the self.

 

Other reasons people lie
  • One lie has led to another, especially good for writers. (Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.—Walter Scott)
  • To be malicious and hurt other people
  • To take control of a situation
  • To hide a disorder such as an eating disorder, compulsive gambling, alcoholism, etc., which goes beyond avoiding criticism
  • It is integral to certain occupations
Pathological lying.  A person who feels compelled to lie, and will do so with no apparent benefit to self or others is a pathological liar.  This is often part of a diagnosis of a mental health disorder:
  • Antisocial personality/sociopathy (no regard for right or wrong, no remorse, often become criminals)
  • Borderline personality (varying moods and behavior, often impulsive, conducive to unstable relationships)
  • Histrionic personality (exaggerated emotions, demanding attention seeking behavior)
  • Factitious disorders (acting as if s/he has a physical or mental illness but does not)
The severity and frequency of lying, and the reasons for lying are what point to a psychological problem.

 

How to tell when someone is lying.  (As summarized by Kendra Cherry, above.)
 
Folk wisdom is wrong.  It says that liars tend to fidget, squirm, avoid eye contact or have shifty eyes when lying.  Research indicates that these are virtually useless as indicators.  (Looking away, for example, is more likely to indicate the person is trying to access long term memory.)

 

Some of the most accurate (although still weak) indicators of lying:
  • Being vague, offering few details
  • Repeating questions before answering them
  • Speaking in sentence fragments
  • Failing to provide specific details when a story is challenged
  • Grooming behavior, such as playing with hair or pressing fingers to lips
More active ways to uncover lies
  1. Ask the person to tell the story in reverse.  Increasing the mental load makes lying more difficult—although telling a lie is more mentally taxing than telling the truth anyway.
  2. Trust your instincts.  We may have an unconscious, intuitive response to lying that gets drowned out if we spend too much time focusing on the non-verbals stereotypically associated with lying.
Consider an individual’s tells
Successful card players learn to hide when they are bluffing and to identify what the other players do when they have good or bad hands.  The same might be true for your characters.  Does she blush?  Does he stutter?  Does he rub  his chin?  Does she bounce her knee?  Does your character have a poker face?  And if so, is s/he on the side of good or evil (so to speak).

 

If your burger keeps walking away, that could be a sign that it is a liar. And not a burger.

Bonus info about lying
  • The closer the liar is to the deceived, the more likely the lies are to be an altruistic (fake positive) one
  • Women are especially likely to stretch the truth to spare someone’s feelings
  • Men are more prone to lying about themselves: conversations between two guys contain about eight times as many self-oriented lies as they do falsehoods about other people

Bottom line for writers:
  • Lying is rampant, so there ought to be at least a little of it in your story
  • Lying can abet virtually any goal
  • Lies can be of virtually any size or seriousness
  • Pay attention to age, relationship, and gender differences