Lillian Glass defines a “Toxic Man” as one who elicits negative emotions from you, behaves badly toward you or doesn’t treat you right, or makes you feel bad about yourself (thus affecting your behavior and lowering your self-esteem). Substitute “your character” for “you” and voila! You have the makings of a great deal of tension in scene after scene and a lot of sympathy for your character.
Glass’s book includes questionnaires to identify specific ways in which the Toxic Man elicits negative emotions.
Under the heading “How Does He Behave Toward You?” there are several subheadings: sadistic behavior, manipulative behavior, dishonest behavior, selfish behavior, non-communicative behavior, critical and judgmental behavior, angry behavior, embarrassing or shaming behavior, controlling behavior, and jealous behavior.
And under the heading “How Does He Make You Feel about Yourself?” the subcategories are: feeling emotional changes (feeling depressed, hopeless, frustrated, anxious or panicky, angry, empty, etc.); feeling afraid or fearful; feelings of self-doubt; physical changes (such as sickness, headache, weight gain or loss); feelings of guilt and shame; or just not feeling like your old self.
The Eleven Toxic Types of Men:
The jealous competitor
The sneaky passive-aggressive silent-but-deadly erupting volcano
The arrogant self-righteous know-it-all
The seductive manipulative cheating liar
The angry bullying control freak
The instigating backstabbing meddler
The self-destructive gloom-and-doom victim
The wishy-washy spineless wimp
The selfish me-myself-and-I narcissist
The emotional refrigerator
Glass’s book is accessible, gripping, and a great read. I recommend it to writers in any genre!
AND REMEMBER: role-reversal is always a great alternative! For every toxic man, there’s a toxic woman!
In recent blogs, I talked about toxic mother-daughter relationships, toxic relationships in general, and toxic people.Toxic anything is good for writers! But once you’ve introduced these negative relationships and people, you cannot—satisfactorily—leave your reader wondering why s/he puts up with that. After all, there are planes, trains, and automobiles—not to mention boots that are made for walking!
Even if your characters don’t recognize their motives, you—their almighty creator—should know what they are AND should let the reader know.
So, why does s/he put up with it? The short answer is, it’s the best perceived alternative! People are very rational creatures, and they always make that choice. The complexity here is in the word perceived. Not everyone sees a situation the same way.
For example, the objective reality might be that a battered woman would be better off out of that marriage. But if she doesn’t see that, it ain’t gonna happen. So consider what her point of view might be. Suppose she came from a family with spousal abuse and accepts it as part of the package. Perhaps she fears for her life, or the safety of her children, if she leaves and he finds her. What if he threatened to commit suicide if she leaves and she couldn’t stand the guilt? Maybe she thinks it’s her fault—and/or, her self-esteem is so low that she thinks she deserves it. Maybe she doesn’t see a way to keep a roof over her/their children’s heads and food on the table single. Perhaps she loves him and lets him beat her because for his own twisted reasons, he needs to do so. Perhaps leaving/divorce goes against her religious beliefs. Etc. All of these reflect beliefs or values not universally held—andbeliefs or values not universally held often apply to perceptions about leaving a toxic situation or relationship.
Additionally, consider the legal constraints on minors, military personnel, prisoners, employees, etc.
Perhaps your character is highly motivated to avoid conflict, criticism, gossip, embarrassment, rejection by family or peers—or even fears the unknown.
Janet Burroway once said, “In literature, only trouble is interesting.” Trouble is the source of tension, conflict, struggle, etc. And what better source of trouble than characters caught in toxic relationships.
The Psychology Today website published a blog by Peg Streep titled, “8 Types of Toxic Patterns in Mother-Daughter Relationships.” (Yes, I know that scholars consider Psych Today to be pretty light-weight. I’m a card-carrying psychologist myself. But I like Psych Today. It isn’t intended to be a scholarly journal. It is a magazine for the public, and often prints what’s trending. And if a writer creates great fiction on a faulty premise, who cares?) But back to the main point. Streep labeled eight types of unattuned and unloving mothers:
The labels are pretty indicative of the toxicity described. Read the actual blog. The good news for writers is that these toxic relationships needn’t be limited to toxic mothers and vulnerable daughters. (You may recognize here an echo of what I said about Deborah Tannen’s analysis of mother-daughter communication patterns: what one says isn’t necessarily what the other hears could apply to virtually any long-germ relationship.) In this instance, consider toxic relationships between husbands and wives. Consider boss and subordinate. Consider role reversal in that it’s the daughter who is toxic.
The Principle of Least Interest is one of those areas in which science has confirmed what common sense has long maintained: the person who cares the least has the most power. This principle works everywhere from the housing market to the marriage market. If the buyer is more eager to buy than the seller is to sell, the seller will determine the selling price. If he loves her more than she loves him, he could end up the proverbial hen-pecked husband of so many comedies; vice versa and she is a candidate for the downtrodden foot-wipe—perhaps abused—wife of so many tragedies. This principle is so well understood that sometimes people try to disguise their true levels of caring/interest (talk of other great offers forthcoming, flirting with or dating a rival). Inherent in disguise is the understanding that what counts is often the perception of least interest.
The first take-away for writers:
For your characters, know who has the power and who is perceived to have it. And if your work has more than two characters, you need to understand the power relationships for each pair.
Unlike a credit score, people can’t go on-line and check out their power ratings.The primary reason that power relationships are often unclear is that the bases of power are virtually limitless: expertise, physical attractiveness, intelligence, wealth, athletic ability, knowledge of secrets, ability to make the other’s life miserable, being popular, great sense of humor—anything and everything that is important to that pair. Knowing the facts doesn’t tell you/the reader who has the power. If she married him for the money and he married her for the Green Card, who cares more? What if we add in that she is beautiful and he’s a great problem-solver; she’s moody and he’s uncommunicative; he’s a natural athlete and she manages their money; they’re both extremely intelligent and care mightily for their two children. As the author, you can determine who has the power by giving weight to these factors based on the characters’ perceptions of what is important.
The second take-away:
Power is seldom one-dimensional, and if you don’t recognize the complexity, your characters will be flat and unrealistic.
In many relationships—for example, boss/employee, parent/child, older sibling/younger sibling, teacher/student—the general expectation would be that the total power package would favor the former. But my guess is that most readers don’t read to confirm the norm; they like to be surprised.
The third take-away:
You should at least consider writing against common power expectations.
And just to end on a high-brow note: according to Lord Acton, “Power corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Consider how less-than-absolute power might corrupt your character(s).
Know who has the power and who is perceived to have it
Power is seldom one-dimensional, and if you don’t recognize the complexity, your characters will be flat and unrealistic
You should at least consider writing against common power expectations