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!
I’m still working on re-entry. The thing about Nimrod is that there is always something to see. Here is a selection of things you might use as writing prompts:
The frog statue is supposed to be Elvis. You know the story of the princess kissing a frog and turning him into a prince. Who might have kissed The King to turn him into a frog?
Who might have curated these collections, and why are these particular items of interest?
Write your own rules. Or write about a place that would post the ones below. What happens if someone breaks the rules?
What if an uninvited guest drops by?
Notice the edge of a folding chair just visible in the big, hollow sycamore. Write about who might be using that chair, and why.
Or try your hand at writing flash fiction and include all the items from one–or more–of these groups.
And when all is said and done, if you aren’t writing at or about Nimrod, read!
And this really is all till next year!
Nimrod Hall, established in 1783, has been providing summer respite from everyday stress since 1906. It has been operating as an artist and writer colony for over 25 years. The Nimrod Hall Summer Arts Program is a non-competitive, inspirational environment for artists to create without the distractions of everyday life.
Is there anyone out there who doesn’t know that Hillary Clinton is the presumptive Democratic Party nominee for president? Or that she is the first woman to run for president on a major ticket? Her achievement reminds us all that women have long been making history. Some of you will remember that I mentioned Victoria Claflin Woodhull, the Equal Rights Party candidate in 1872. She was a fascinating woman—a stockbroker and publisher as well as a suffragist.
TO ALL THE READERS OUT THERE
Find out about other amazing first women. Lots of them are listed in references such as this.
Lady Astor (birth name Nancy Witcher Langborne), the first American-born woman to become a member of Parliament in Great Britain in 1919.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the first woman to appear as a congressional hearing witness in 1869. She was trying to keep the women of DC from being debarred from voting.
Sally Stearns, the first woman coxswain of a men’s collegiate varsity team, 1936.
Nan Jane Aspinwall, the first woman horseback rider to make a solo transcontinental trip from SanFrancisco to New York City, 1910.
Susanna Medora Salter, the first woman mayor, elected in Argonia, Kansas, 1887.
Belle Martell, the first woman licensed to be a prize fight referee, 1940.
Nellie Tayloe Ross, Director of the Mint, the first woman to have her name on the cornerstone of a US government building, 1936.
Sybilla Masters, the first woman to obtain a patent—for a machine for cutting and cleaning Indian corn, 1715.
And many others, in books such as this.
Alternatively, one could go to any field of interest—from playwright to astronaut—and find the first woman in those fields.
FOR THE WRITERS OUT THERE
Consider these pioneers as inspiration. What sort of character does it take to be a first? What might daily life be like for the first woman licensed as an electrical engineer? What price might such a woman pay in terms of family or love relationships? And ultimately, is it a story of triumph or tragedy?
Please share other first women in the comments or on social media. Please tag me on Facebook and Twitter to continue the celebration of first women.
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.
I mentioned that tomato juice is the official state drink of Ohio. While having a character mention that fact might bring a smile or a raised brow, a writer could milk that tidbit for a whole story—such as a Buckeye living in a famous tomato growing county in Virginia alienating everyone at the annual tomato festival by bad-mouthing the local product, and someone ends up dead.
If your genre includes historical fiction. . .
Then this is the book for you. It includes an alphabetical listing of firsts, covering everything from the first abdominal operation and the first importation of Aberdeen-Angus cattle to the first zoological laboratory to the first zoom lens—thousands of story ideas just waiting to be exploited. For example, the first coeducational medical school in the world was the Boston University School of Medicine, founded in 1873. Imagine that first co-ed class—and the classes they would have had, such as anatomy in the days of grave robbers.
If you are obsessed with money. . .
Then delve into Charles Reichblum’s collection.
Suppose your character is in a bar and another drinker says, “Okay, mate, here’s the deal. I’ve won the lottery, and I want to share the wealth. I’ll give you $1000 a day for a month, or one penny doubled each day for a month.” What would the character choose? Why? And then what happens?
If your genre is magical realism. . .
There’s no better place to look than science.
Genetic mosaics are not so rare, formed by fusing two gametes in utero or a placenta shared between fraternal twins or by the mother’s cells crossing the placental barrier and continuing in her child. Imagine that a woman had children with all of her genetics, so the cell lines were thoroughly mixed.
But it isn’t necessary to turn to hard-core science texts. Bits of science turn up everywhere.
Each newly conceived human has approximately 300 harmful genetic mutations. The life expectancy of professional cyclists is approximately 50. The closest living relative of tyrannosaurus rex is the chicken. And people are genetically one-third daffodil. Create a plot relating any two of these facts and voila, you’re launched.
Whatever your genre, books of little-known information are great sources of ideas.
All sorts of genre’s could generate stories based on which big cats can interbreed, in the wild and in captivity. (Lions with tigers and leopards. Leopards with lions, tigers, jaguars, and pumas. Jaguars with pumas. Servals with caracals.) It could revolve around an animal rights conflict, a new breed going out of control, zoo politics, or love in the workplace—or whatever your brain produces.
This volume includes topics from consumer products to sports. You can read about a boat race in which two-member crews inside bottomless boats grip the gunwales and run a foot race along a dry river bed—which certainly be fodder for humor. And if you want to tie in to current events, base a character on Victoria Woodhull, who endorsed short skirts, an end to capital punishment, legalized prostitution, birth control, free love, and vegetarianism. On April 2, 1870, she became a candidate for president, running on the National Radical Reformers ticket.
Readers like to learn something new, especially when it pertains to the plot.
Takeaway for writers
Whether you start with an idea and look for off-beat information to support it or welcome inspiration for novel ideas, off-beat information is the way to go.
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.
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.
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.
giving away a million dollars
cutting off a hand or foot
kissing someone of the same sex
kissing someone of the other sex
dancing naked in a public place
getting a large, readily visible tattoo
cooking an elaborate meal
killing an ill person
cutting up a bride’s wedding dress
digging up a daffodil bed
cheating at cards
adopting a foster child
running for president
burning down a church
adopting a cat or dog from a shelter
complimenting another’s performance
rewriting a will
keeping a dead body unburied for six months
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.
Spring is stereotyped as a time of renewal, high energy, and face-splitting smiles. But writers know it’s effective to go against expectations. And so I am happy to present you with cheerful images and dark possibilities to go with them.
Consider that these forsythia are thriving because of the dead body that is fertilizing them. Who? How? When? Why? Now what?
Every spring the parks and canal banks in Ottawa are awash in tulips. This year, a man goes berserk. Describe and explain his behavior.
One lovely day a woman looks at her mailbox and weeps. It was this time last spring when she received . . .
Walking in the woods, your character pauses to admire an early-blooming azalea and notices a hand protruding from the leaf mulch. Is it attached to a body? What does s/he think—and do?
A woman walks past a neighbor’s yard and sees grape hyacinths, bleeding heart, and primroses in bloom. She had all of those at her former house. What happened, what is she feeling and thinking?
A child finds a gun and buries is under the vinca, knowing this to be a perennial runs rampant. Where was the gun? Why did the child bury it? What will happen next?
Your character suffers from extreme arachnophobia. It is so severe that even seeing a spiderwort plant sets off the reaction. Where did the fear of spiders come from? What happens when the phobia is triggered?
The last tulip magnolia bloom is about to go. What does that mean to your character?
Your character stops to admire a dogwood and notices the crows gathered nearby. Looking down, s/he sees . . .
A barefoot toddler dashes into a patch of lamium. Within seconds, toes have been replaced by pink blooms. Soon. . .
These young poppy leaves are growing in the vegetable garden. How did they come to be there? What will happen to them? Suppose they are mixed into a salad of field greens. Then what?
Takeaway for writers: nothing is too pretty, cheerful, or innocent to hide a dark side.
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.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that I’ve been on a death kicklately. And given that this is tax season, it seemed a natural segue. As I—and many others—have often said, everything is fodder for writers.
Of course there is the obvious: the frustration of the forms, last minute scramble, missing documents, taxes due and no money to pay them, filing for extensions, and so forth. Being obvious doesn’t preclude rich story possibilities.
Then there are variations of the theme: your character finally wedged a CPA appointment into a jammed schedule only to discover that said CPA has moved, s/he can’t find the office, misses the appointment, etc.
But dig deeper. Virtually every item on the topic index is rife with writing possibilities. These may or may not be directly related to the taxes due, but dealing with them at tax time could well trigger the strong emotions that fuel great stories. Here is a select list:
alimony paid or received (or not)—and associated hostility
business use of home—and the strain it puts on family
casualty or theft loss—and the aftermath of being a victim of crime
child and dependent care expenses—meeting them, but also finding such services in the first place
contributions—a willing tithe to church, or possibly being pressured to support your alma mater
education expenses—and doubts about whether the degree is worth it
foreign assets, expenses, taxes, and income—and what to do about off-shore accounts and tax shelters
gambling winnings (or losses)—and whether to join Gamblers Anonymous
gifts—and why they were given
medical and dental expenses—and the trauma of diagnosis, surgery, recovery (or not)
miscellaneous income and adjustments (They really expect people to report illegal income??)
mortgage or education loan interest paid—and the continuing burden from years ago
moving expenses—whether the move was up or down, willing or forced
sale of home, stock, or other capital assets—and why the sale? Was the market down at the time or up?
unemployment compensation—whether it was enough, whether it ended too soon, whether filing for it was humiliating
TAKEAWAY FOR WRITERS
As you do your taxes this year, consider the good and the bad—and then think how you could make it even better or worse in fiction!
Or if not fun, at least rich material for writers.
My most recent blog, Embracing Death, touched on this topic tangentially, but really, given all they can do for a story, funerals need their own focus. So, how can writers use funerals?
Burial rituals reflect culture, socio-economic class, and time period—without having to specify such things in the narrative.
Within those broad parameters, many decisions need to be made. What if the relevant relatives disagree on things? Music, prayers, cost of the casket, who speaks at the service, what happens at the graveside. . . What if there is no grave? (The same could apply to memorial services.) Where will the body be buried or the ashes scattered? And so we have the possibilities of coalitions forming. Maybe these reflect already existing ties or loyalties.
What if the deceased person’s wishes to donate organs—or the whole body to a medical school—horrify the survivors? Who will have the final word? Will s/he just announce, or work for cooperation and consensus? And will that succeed?
Often a funeral will bring together people who haven’t seen and/or talked to each other in years. This makes possible happy reunions, but also the resurgence of past rivalries, jealousies, and grievances.
Heirs may start squabbling over their inheritances before the funeral even happens! And it doesn’t have to be millions at stake. In my novel Nettie’s Books (forthcoming), the hostilities erupt over quilts, stoneware pitchers, and a cake plate!
I often find the fun in funerals. My story “The Red Glove” features a drive-through funeral home in Maine. “Wanted” also features a father lying in state at Herschel Southern Drive-Thru Mortuary, resting peacefully behind plate glass.
What about you? If you’re a writer, have you looked on the light side of funerals, or do you write about their inherent tensions?
TAKEAWAY FOR WRITERS
As with other aspects of good writing, the stakes need to be high. What’s to be won or lost? And after you write the scene, ramp it up, push it to the extreme.