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

Language Blogs Round-Up

Canadian science fiction reviewer James Nicoll said, “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

Among the many reasons I love writing is the way it allows me to explore the wonders of the English language. Here are some of the posts I’ve written on this blog that directly concern how language can enhance or destroy writing.

 

Commonly Confused Words

  • Mind Your A’s and The’s
    • Pay attention to what you mean to be saying when you use a or the to designate something. In general, a indicates one of many possibles while the is restrictive to one specific person, place, event, item, etc.
  • The Limits of Spellcheck
    • Spellcheck programs will not generally recognize incorrect word usage if those words are spelled correctly.  Eliminating word confusion is up to you.  This is a writing prompt to practice correct usage of some of the most commonly confused words.
  • Choosing the Pronoun for Your Purpose
    • Know the rules of grammar so you can use them or abuse them to suit your purposes!  Pronouns can be subject (I/ you/ he/ she/ it), object (me/ you/ him/ her/ it), or show possession (my/ your/ his/ her/ its).
  • I’m Not Alone Here
    • The right word vs. the almost right word is the difference between sounding articulate vs. sounding pretentious—and uneducated. Bottom line: only use words you know for sure.

 

Cutting the Flab from Writing

  • Practicing Similes
    • Similes add color and tone to your writing. Don’t overdo. And avoid the worn and weary ones–such as hard as a rock, soft as a cotton ball, etc.
  • Cut the Flab
    • Flabby writing is writing that includes unnecessary words or phrases. I’ll talk about four common types of flab: stating something for which there is no alternative, saying the same thing twice, naming characters or relationships already known, and stating an action that is inherent in another action.
  • Writing that Irritates Readers
    • Here are a few examples of the worst habits of flabby writing
      • Going off-key on tone: This is when something just doesn’t feel right, such period inappropriate slang.
      • Close but no cigar: Using the wrong word, such that for who or imply for infer
      • Redundant verbiage: Using extra words to modify ideas that need no modification
  • Let Your Punctuation Speak for You
    • This is a variation on two themes: show, don’t tell and trust your reader. The point is that the reader will get your meaning without both the punctuation and the accompanying explanation.
  • Bitch Blog
    • A USA Today best-selling author who shall remain nameless has written a series of books that are filled with egregious examples of the flabbiest of flabby writing.
  • Clichés—True But Tired!
    • This is an extensive but not exhaustive list of some of the worst, most over-used, most obnoxious cliches.

 

Close Attention to Detail

  • Getting Up Close With Nature
    • Be specific.   Perhaps the foremost is be specific. Don’t say “a tree,” say, “a willow oak.”
  • Be Specific
    • To avoid wimpy writing, attend to the details. I already talked about avoiding weasel words like some, few, or many in favor of specific numbers or quantities. The same applies to vague nouns: flower, tree, shrub, car. Tell the reader it’s a rose, an elm, an English boxwood, a Ford.
  • The Five Ws
    • You 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.
  • Observe More Closely
    • Nature writing can be add depth, precision, and detailed setting in any genre of writing.  This post provides examples of various genres in which nature writing has been used effectively and some tools to develop your own nature writing skills.

 

Careful Use of Modifiers

  • Choose Modifiers Carefully
    • The same advice on adverbs applies to other modifiers. Make sure they add something to the story. “Very” should be on your hit list, along with all sorts of weasel words and phrases, such as a little, a lot, big, small, somewhat, sort of. . . You get the idea.
  • Use Strong Verbs
    • How do you recognize a weak verb? Look for adverbs! When you find a sentence in which you give the reader a tag telling how an action was performed, chances are you have a lazy verb–one you didn’t really think about as you plugged it in.

 

Period Appropriate Writing for Genre or Setting

  • A Little Dialect Goes a Long Way
    • A touch of dialect helps establish voice, and may lend authenticity to the writing. But for the beginning writer, knowing how much is enough is often difficult. A story studded with apostrophes and phonetically spelled words draws attention to the writing, detracting from the story.
  • Kids Say the Darndest Things!
    • Children’s language development is a very interesting study for psychologists and linguists.  It is important that child characters behave and speak appropriately for their age to be believable.  However, every child is different; outliers on either end of the development scale can add interest but must have believable groundwork laid.
  • Use Slang and Clichés Effectively
    • In my opinion, the best use of slang is setting the time of the story.  Used effectively, it lends authenticity to dialogue. But if writing about any time other than the present, tread carefully. Inappropriate slang can ruin the tone and undermine the credibility of the entire story.
  • Horror Week is Here
    • The blog Now Novel provides excellent advice for techniques that are most effective in various genres, including horror.
  • Historical Fiction
    • Writing historical fiction requires extensive knowledge of the period in which the story takes place, including the slang and speech styles common at the time.  This blog provides several resources and suggestions for writing effectively about the chosen time period.

 

History of the English Language

  • Shades of Professor Henry Higgins!
    • The development of the English language into the distinct dialects used in various English-speaking nations around the world can be mined for examples of characterizations by word choice and syntax.  It is also a fascinating story on its own.
  • Loving Language
    • Our everyday language is full of phrases we use without thinking of how they came to mean what they mean. Delve into the origins of words and phrases. You will find amusement as well as information!
  • Is the Quality of Writing Declining? And if So, Why?
    • Research suggests that writing ability in American students has fallen, combined with (or caused by) a decline in concrete guidelines and principles for those teaching writing.  Reading for pleasure has also been declining over the last few decades.
  • Emojis: Yea or Nay?
    • I approached this blog with the opinion that relying on emoticons—i.e., emojis—is dulling out ability to express emotions with rich language and subtlety. Some have asserted that the emoji is the fastest-growing language in history—for good or ill.  How do you feel about emojis?

 

Editing or Proofreading Yourself

  • Talk to Yourself
    • Longer, more complex sentences are much smoother and more graceful on the page than in the mouth. If you want dialogue to sound real, listen to it–literally. Reading silently, your brain fills in and evens out. So, when you feel your work is in pretty good shape, read it aloud.
  • Curb Your Enthusiasm
    • Be selective–and restrained–in using exclamation points and italics. More than one of these every few pages probably means you are using these visual markers to shore up weak word choices.
  • When, While, Then
    • Search your work for these words and closely examine each usage. They often contribute to run-on sentences that would be stronger and clearer if they were revised into two or more shorter sentences.  Be especially wary if one sentence contains two or all three of these words.
  • Skip The First Word That Comes To Mind
    • When you are trying to get something on the page, moving quickly and just getting it done is the way to go. But know that isn’t the finished product. Go over your draft and mark commonplace words–particularly forms of the to-be verbs and vague adjectives. Consider at least three alternatives–and consider the value of the least expected.
  • Didn’t Get it Right the First Time?
    • Noah Lukeman is my favorite guru on self-editing. He’s highly readable, clear, and interesting. But if you need some quick-and-dirty guidelines right now, here are a baker’s dozen.
  • Attributing Words to Characters
    • We are often in need of indicating who is speaking and/or how. In doing so, beware of distracting—or irritating—your reader. Here are my personal guidelines for making attributions.
  • Treasure Trash
    • I’d bet nearly everyone who’s written a book has edited out not just words, but paragraphs, scenes, or entire chapters. Don’t delete chunks of text.  Save them in a separate file.
      • It makes it easier to cut the flab (anything that doesn’t fit this piece of work), sometimes known as killing your darlings.
      • Those chunks may come in handy in the future, either as additions to as sparks for something totally new.
  • Verbal Tics— Use and Abuse
    • Everyone has verbal habits, including tics. As a writer, be aware of your favorite words and use them sparingly! In the right context, they can convey education level, social class, and even age.
  • Across Years and Miles
    • This post includes a list of common errors in grammar and syntax, each humorously illustrated by use of the error it advises against.
  • When Less is More
    • “Very” is a word we all should do searches for in our documents—finding and replacing with something stronger. These are not exhaustive lists. The point is examine your writing to make sure every word is necessary, and then trust your words to mean what they mean!

 

Structural Tips for Writing

  • Beware Long Descriptions
    • Whether describing a person, a place, a thing, or a process, long detailed descriptions–unrelieved by action–are likely to be deadly. If very well done, readers will get so involved in the description, in visualizing exactly what the author had in mind, that they are taken out of the story itself. If not well done, those passages are likely to be skipped altogether.
  • Writing Tip for Avoiding Redundancy
    • Redundancy takes many forms and it makes for clunky, dull writing.  This post demonstrates some common examples of punctuation, description, and incorrect word use that often lead to redundancy and can be removed.
  • Matching Tone & Structure
    • Sentence length and structure should be used to echo the tone of the action: short, simple sentences for quick or abrupt action; longer, more complex sentences for slower scenes or poetic description.
  • The Distancing Effect of I
    • Whenever the narrative Point of View is first person, the story is, by definition, about the narrator. In this case, as in any writing, your goal is to draw the reader in. Therefore, if you choose to use “I” as the narrator, you need to present a quest that many readers would care about.
  • Use and Abuse of Passive Voice
    • If you want your words to seem impersonal, indirect, and noncommittal, passive is the choice.  Bryan A. Garner identifies six ways in which the passive voice is acceptable or even preferred.
  • Dialogue Dos and Don’ts
    • Dialogue is essential to every genre of fiction; however, sometimes it’s hard to get it just right. Bad dialogue can trip up a reader, and sometimes doing so will make them want to stop reading altogether. That being said, here are a few dialogue dos and don’ts that can help you with writing speech.
  • How Do You Read Now?
    • Research (and book sales) suggest that modern readers are more interested in story than in style. Many writers appear to focus more on technique and self-awareness, according to an article by Adam Kirsch.  Consider whether you think plot or style is more important.

 

Words and Dictionaries

  • Homonyms
    • This post provides a writing exercise to familiarize writers with the pitfalls and opportunities of words that sound the same but are spelled differently and mean different thing.
  • WHY CONSIDER THE F WORD?
    • Here is a discussion of when to use profanity directly and when to use a euphemism instead, with a brief description of the history and current usage of this particular bit of profanity.
  • Conglomeration
    • This is writing prompt derived from one of the author’s favorite words.  Conglomeration is another of those words I love because it sounds so much itself. Technically, it has to do with a spherical shape, and disparate things brought together in one. But its more common usage, of miscellaneous or even random things brought together (no particular shape) make it a very useful word.
  • Use Uncomfortable Words
    • Uncomfortable words are perfectly correct and not obscene. Nevertheless, they often surprise–or even shock–the reader. Sometimes they make the reader uncomfortable.
  • Beware Beautiful Words
    • Writers are readers, by and large, and also word collectors. We tend to fall in love with words. Some writers make a career of writing about words as well as with them. This is a quick list of some interesting words that can add flair and tone to your writing.
  • This Just In!
    • As many of you know, I collect dictionaries. This facsimile edition of the first American Dictionary of the English Language arrived yesterday and I’ve been enjoying it for hours.
  • What Would You Call a Bunch of Bluebirds?
    • Here are some of the most interesting collective nouns for species of birds, with illustrations from the author’s garden.
  • Color Your Writing
    • With so many specifically named colors in the English language, it is important to be specific about which one you mean.  There is a close tie between color and mental or psychological state, which can have a great influence on readers’ perception of a scene, a character, or a work as a whole.
  • Word Wealth
    • There are dictionaries available for nearly every specialty, dialect, and profession.  They can provide a wealth of detail and precision to any setting in any genre.

 

Examples of Other Authors’ Successful Habits

  • What Writers Can Learn From Diana Gabaldon
    • There are many things this author gets absolutely correct, but this post will focus on vivid language. We have all heard or read that we should use fresh, vivid language and strong verbs.  Here are some of my favorite examples of Diana Gabaldon’s sensory and emotional writing.
  • What Writers Can Learn from Political Campaigns
    • Careful word choice, audience appeal, actions or words open to (mis)interpretation, complementary characters, innuendo, denial, and characters revealed by reflected traits of associates are all extremely important in any political campaign.  The 2016 election was full of examples of all of these, which are also used in good writing.
  • Communicating Without Words: Campaign Lessons
    • You’re a writer—so for purposes of this blog, communicating without words means without dialogue. And there are many reasons you want to be able to do this. The 2016 presidential campaign offers several educational examples.
  • The Good and the Bad
    • The 2018 June 18th issue of The New Yorker includes an article titled “High Crimes” by Anthony Lane, a review of Bill Clinton and James Patterson’s book The President is Missing.  The article highlights some nuggets of really egregious writing, from mixed metaphors to clichés, offered here for your  amusement.
  • Writers on Writing
    • This post offers writing tips and advice from a few successful authors, including Stephen King and Virginia Woolf.
  • Bradley Harper: The Man Behind the Writer
    • An interview with Bradley Harper reveals some of his most effective writing habits and techniques.
  • Going Long
    • Thanks to Rosemary Shomaker, we have a chance to vicariously experience the struggle of a writer stretching into a new challenge.  She discusses her methods of creating a tight, closely-written short story.

 

WHY CONSIDER THE F WORD?

 
When Jesse Sheidlower wrote this book, he was the Editor at Large of the Oxford English Dictionary.  The book was published by Oxford University Press, one of the most prestigious academic presses in the world.  The 49 pages of front matter and the 269 pages in the body of the book deal exclusively with the F word.  Seeing this started me thinking.  Ultimately, I concluded that the F word is one of the most important words in the English language.  And therefore writers should consider its many uses.
One indicator of importance is the number of euphemisms coined to express the F word without tipping into the vulgar or obscene.  A woman born and reared in North Carolina once told me that when a Southern Lady wants to say the F word, she says “Fine!”

That one wasn’t familiar to me, but we’ve all heard many others.  These are what is sometimes called a “minced oath.”  Here are some examples:

  • Effing
  • F-bomb
  • F word
  • F*ck
  • F**k
  • F***
  • F-ck
  • F—k
  • Flaming
  • Fracking
  • Fricking
  • Freaking
  • Frigging
  • FUBAR
  • Fudge
  • WTF
  • Flipping
  • Fork/ Forking
  • Foxtrot Uniform
  • Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
  • Smurfing
  • Frelling
  • Bleep/ Bleeping
  • Fark (not to be confused with FARC, which might add unintended political themes to your work!)
  • fiddle-faddle
  • fiddlesticks
  • fug
  • cotton-pickin’
  • I could keep going, but the internet would eventually run out of pixels…

Although listeners know exactly what the euphemism stands for, many feel that the impact of the euphemism loses much of the cathartic value of the original and may come across as tepid, ineffectual, or just plain namby-pamby.

The original namby-pamby himself, poet Ambrose Philips

William Shakespeare was one of the most creative users of minced oaths and euphemisms to describe everything from copulation to defecation, writing some of the most vividly imaginative phrases to avoid the censorship of the age.  Juliet may have had the sheath to make Romeo’s dagger happy, but no children’s ears had to be covered.

Miniature, Jean de Meun, The Roman de la Rose, Couple in a bed, Chantilly, musee Conde, Miniature. (Photo by: Christophel Fine Art/UIG via Getty Images)

Of course, this still wasn’t clean enough for Dr. Thomas Bowdler and his sister Harriet.  In 1818, they announced the publication of a G-rated book of Shakespseare’s work, in which “those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.”  The Family Shakespeare didn’t sell particularly well (and was a pretty short book), but “bowdlerise” became a term for overdone, fussy, prissy censorship.

Note to writers: consciously decide whether to use a euphemism or the original.  There is a time for vulgarity and a time for bowdlerising.

The F word is so prominent in English that the basic entry for fuck in Slang and Euphemism runs a full half page, followed by 60 entries directly involving the word, and surrounded by acronyms that take the place of actually saying the word.  Though the origins are unclear, it dates back at least to 1475.

Basically, it refers to a sexual act, an act of copulation.  It’s universally characterized as obscene or at least vulgar.  However, over time, much of the resistance to the original word has been diluted by long and frequent use.
 And it is arguably the most versatile word around.  In modern usage, the F word and its derivatives (such as fucker and fucking) can be used as a noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, conjunction, interjection, or adverb.
 
Verb:
  1. A sexual act in its most straightforward form, as in “Let’s fuck.”
  2. Transitive: John fucked Mary.
  3. Intransitive: Mary was fucked by John.
  4. To cheat or mistreat someone, as in “She totally fucked me.”
No matter your use of the verb, taking inspiration from spiders is probably not a good idea.
Noun:
  1. Referring to the act itself, as in a specific event being “ A great fuck.”
  2. Referring to a partner, as in “A great fuck” referring to the other person involved.
  3. Referring to an incentive or strong feeling on any subject.

Note to writers: make sure the context clearly specifies ambiguous meanings.
 
Pronoun:
  1. Used in place of his/her, as in “Tell the fucker at the end of the bar that I buy my own drinks.”
“…and tell him I prefer not to drink fire.”

 

Adverb:
  1. A modifier to a verb as in
That was some fucking dancing out there!

or

He was fucking sleeping on the job!

2. A modifier to another adverb, as in “The Broncos played fucking well out there.”

3. A modifier to an adjective, as in “Fucking beautiful.”

Adjective:
  1. A modifier to a noun, as in “That was some fucking speech!” or “I had a fucking good time.”
Conjunction:
  1. Connecting two parts of a sentence, as in “I left, fuck the boss’s order.”

Exclamation or intensifier: fuck can express innumerable emotions.  Most often, as a single word, it expresses joy, despair, surprise, or anger.
 
 
 
But fuck can intensify virtually any emotion, depending on surrounding situation or text.
  • Ignorance: Fuck if I know.
  • Trouble: Mary returned and  I’m fucked now
  • Fraud: I got fucked in the real estate deal.
  • Aggression: Fuck you!
  • Displeasure: What the fuck do you think you’re doing?
  • Difficulty: I can’t understand these fucking data!
  • Incompetence: You fuck-off!
  • Stupidly or incompetence: You really fucked up that negotiation.
  • Rejection: Get the fuck out of here. Fuck off.
  • Suspicion: What the fuck are you doing?
  • Apathy: I don’t give a fuck.
  • Dismay: Oh, fuck, they left without us
  • Anxiety: I am totally fucked today.
  • Greeting: How the fuck are you?
The Bro-Hug, as explained by Higher Un-Learning
The F word has a long and varied history.  Though its origin remains somewhat obscure, it most likely derives from an early Germanic root, such as peuk (to prick), fokken (to thrust), or peig (hostile).  Though linguists can’t seem to agree on the etymology, most agree that “fuck” has been a vulgar or taboo word for most of its very long history, which contributes to the difficulty of tracking down its history as it was not officially used or written down often.
Is this frelling or fracking?

It has a Wikipedia entry that runs to 19 pages, which goes into the history and gives examples of modern usage in politics, marketing, and literature.  And as the Urban Dictionary says of it, “The only fucking word that can be put everyfuckingwhere and still fucking make fucking sense.

Bottom line for writers: The F word is useful, versatile, and becoming ever more acceptable.  But should you decide to use it, use it sparingly as the narrator, and limit it to one or a few characters.  It loses its impact with repetition (see The Wolf of Wall Street).

GAMES PEOPLE PLAY: N.B., Games, not Sports

 
RedEye LAN Party (from Obsolete Geek)

Nearly 70% of Americans play video games on at least one device, and nearly all play on smartphones.  Indeed, if you do an online search for games, best games, or similarly general queries, you will be inundated with info about video games in general as well as individual games.  If game playing is one of your character’s activities (and your story is set in the current time or near future) decide whether s/he is part of the majority or the minority here.  Consider what the game of choice says about the character of your character.  For example,does success depend more on speed or strategy?  Does a round end quickly or take a significant time commitment?  Can it be interrupted/paused?  How violent is it?  And is it mechanized violence or hand-to-hand?  Does s/he play alone, against the program, or with/against other gamers worldwide?

As I indicated in the opening sentence, most people in the U.S. currently play video games, but these are a relatively new phenomenon.  In the remainder of this blog, I shall focus on card games and board games—for three reasons:
  1. They are suitable for current settings as well as throughout history.  Just check out what games were around when the story is set.
  2. I believe that the majority of readers are more familiar with them.
  3. I am not a “gamer” and—truly—I always try not to say too much about any vast canyon of ignorance.
Modern playing cards may have originated in China, India, or Persia, but they were commonly used in Europe by the end of the fourteenth century.  The number and composition of cards in a deck varied throughout history and from country to country.  Some decks had mounted knights, noblemen, peasants, and Church figures.  Some countries used bells, hearts, leaves, acorns, swords, cups, or paving stones to differentiate suits.  Over the years, the royal figures have been labelled as Charlemagne, Julius Caesar, Solomon, Empress Judith, Sir Lancelot, Joan of Arc, Hector of Troy, and various mythological figures, to name a few.  As printing became widely available and playing cards were produced cheaply, the modern deck of cards gradually came into being and was eventually standardized to those we use today.  (For more details, check out the Snopes article on the topic.)[The history of playing cards is kind of interesting:

 

Advantages of card games:
  •  Equipment is inexpensive
  • They are extremely portable
  • Lots of choices from total luck games to highly skilled strategies
  • Can be played alone or with others
  • Can be totally competitive or in partnerships
  • Suitable for people of almost any age
  • Games with simple rules can transcend language barriers
“Dead Man’s Hand” in Poker

 

If you search for the most popular card game(s), poker is at or near the top of the list.  Poker is associated with gambling, whether in a casino, bar, country club, or private home.  As the name implies, penny ante poker means minimal stakes.  Other associations with poker include alcohol, smoking, and maybe the Wild West.  It is still a male-dominated game.
Writers: as always, consider the value of going with the flow or defying the images.  Many variations exist, and it can be played online.

 

Other popular card games in the US:
  • Spades: created nearly 100 years ago, hit its peak in the 90s
  • War: one of the easiest games, suitable for children, no skill involved; also good as a mindless activity
  • Gin: aka gin rummy, is related to rummy (see below); very popular right now, a fun gambling game; started in the U.S in the 1800s and has remained popular ever since; reached its peak in the 1930s and 1940s; faded in favor of canasta in the 1950s
  • Rummy: popular around the world, especially In India; involves matching and memorization; can be played online
  • Blackjack (aka twenty-one): largely a gambling game played in clubs and casinos; lots of luck involved; players play against the dealer rather than each other
    • If a player is able to calculate probabilities and keep track of cards in play, s/he may be able to “count cards” to win nearly every hand.  This technique is outlawed by many casinos, but it can be a good way to demonstrate a character’s extreme intelligence or pattern recognition skills.
  • Crazy Eights: originated in Venezuela; has lots of variations; requires two or more people
The most difficult card game is bridge.  Some call it the world’s greatest game.  It probably originated in Russia, and was popularized in the Middle East; today, it is played worldwide.  Bridge requires strategy, memory for who played what card, working with a partner, communicating during bidding (which can involve “conventions”—what the heck is a Jacoby transfer, anyway?).  Women take more bridge classes than men and more women than men play, but men dominate in serious competitive play.  For an extended discussion of the pros and cons of bridge, go to WHY PLAY BRIDGE? at bridgeworld.com.

 

Agatha Christie wrote an entire murder mystery, Cards on the Table, that hinges upon who was playing in what rotation at what time during an evening bridge party.  Hercule Poirot deduces alibis and personalities entirely by studying the notations people made while keeping score, enabling him to identify the murderer.

 

Card games and board games have been used as a method of teaching and developing military strategy skills throughout history, including by the American CIA An online essay The Appeal (and Manliness) of Card Games includes a subsection on 6 Card Games Every Man Should Know.  The essay notes that men’s games are often symbolic representations of more violent clashes and war.  In my opinion, what this says is that games are a non-violent way of competing to be the alpha male.  When only men are involved, there are often jokes and insults to demonstrate the art of clever talk.  According to this essay, the essential manly card games are:
  • Gin Rummy: game scholars think rummy is a card variation on the Chinese game of mah-jong, perhaps dating to the 1700s, much modified since then; generally played to a specified number, often 100
  • Hearts: a trick-taking game stemming from whist, except the goal is to avoid collecting tricks; the person with the fewest points wins; first appeared in he U.S. in the late 1800s; played online since the 1990s
  • Poker (specifically, Texas hold ‘em): perhaps originated in 1820s New Orleans on Mississippi River gambling boats; poker really took off in the 1980s when Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, legalizing casinos on Native American land
  • Solitaire: first developed in the mid-1700s; originally played with multiple people, it’s now a game played primarily alone—any of more than 1000 variations; surged in popularity with the advent of personal computers
  • Cribbage: beloved for centuries, technically involves a board for score keeping, it’s essentially a card game for 2 (possibly 3 or 4); came to the colonies by English settlers; especially popular in New England
  • Blackjack (aka 21): most widely played casino game; fast and easy to learn; dating to the mid- to late 1500s, became more popular int the U.S. in the late 1950s
Cribbage Hand and Score Board
The Most Popular & Fun Card Games as posted on ranker.com
  1. Uno
  2. Blackjack
  3. Solitaire
  4. Hearts
  5. Gin Rummy
  6. Cards Against Humanity
  7. Go Fish
  8. Bluff (also known as BullSh*t)
  9. Magic: The Gathering
  10. Euchre—a personal favorite with my family
  11. Poker
  12. Crazy Eights
  13. War
  14. Apples to Apples
  15. Rummy
  16. Pokemon trading card game
  17. Spoons
  18. Exploding Kittens
  19. Assh*le
  20. Old Maid—truly classic
  21. Phase 10
  22. Yu-Gi-Oh! Trading card game
  23. Monopoly Deal
  24. Munchkin
  25. Cribbage
Writers: consider the value of a character playing a card game against type, such as a woman playing poker or a man playing bridge.  Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon are more commonly played by children, but an adult could play with a child they are caring form.  How would a quintessentially honest person behave in a situation requiring bluffing, such as playing poker or Bluff?  What might a young person discover by learning to play Hearts as a means of bonding with an older relative?

 

5 Hardest Games to Master in the World: According to Casino.org, these are the most difficult to master, regardless of how long it takes to learn. 
Note: this lists includes 4 board games and only 1 card game

 

  • Go is an ancient Chinese game dating back over 5,500 years—making it the oldest board game still played today.  It’s also one of the most complex, involving abstract strategy aimed at occupying the most territory on the board. 


    • Go is referenced, played, or used to demonstrate a character’s attitude toward traditional values in lots of Japanese media, including manga and anime.  It is so widespread in Japanese culture that there is an entire anime about a schoolboy haunted by the spirit of an ancient Go master: Hikaru No Go.
  • Chess, arguably dating back to the 6th century in India, but perhaps it originated in China—as many games did.  It’s a game of strategical conquest played by two people.  The essence of success is forward planning.  Historically, chess has been used as a means of teaching battlefield tactics; that is why, in modern chess rules, the king is relatively constrained but holds such strategic importance.
Pakistani Army Chief Qamar Bajwa playing chess with a student from Islamabad
  • Bridge is the only card game included in this list of hardest games to master. See above.
  • Diplomacy was released in 1959; as games go, it is still in its infancy.  It is a strategic board game for two to seven players, played on a map of 1914 wartime Europe, Middle East, and North Africa, geared toward conquest. There are no dice, but lots of negotiation skills are required.
    • Diplomacy was one of the first games (other than chess) that could be played by mail, which made it available as a form of connection for people who were not able to play together in person.  Writers, consider the possibilities this provides for characters in a historical setting who lived far apart or were shut-ins or prohibited by social taboo from playing together, etc.

       

  • Hex, released in 1942, was inspired by Go and has since been tweaked.  The goal is to make a connected string of shoes from one side of the board to the other before the other player.
Card Games vs. Board Games
 
As noted above, card games have many positive qualities, especially portability and ease of set-up.  Board games require more complex “equipment,” lengthy set-ups, and can take a long time to complete.  Many board games are quite cerebral, chess being the ultimate example.  In board games, every player is likely aware of the possible moves of the other player(s).
The Top Ten Board Games of All Time
The website hobbylark.com provides a brief history of board games and ranks the top 10.  Many that have been around for literally thousands of years can now be played online. Details of all of these are, of course, available online.
  1. Chess
  2. Stratego
  3. Monopoly
  4. Risk
  5. The Settlers of Catan
  6. Scrabble
  7. Battleship
  8. Clue
  9. Dominion
  10. Ticket to Ride

There is no board game equivalent to solitaire.  By their nature, board games require other players, and thus involve social interactions.

Most people do not follow the correct rules for Monopoly, making games longer and more repetitive.
Game Considerations for Writers (whether cards or board games)
 
  1. If you include a game as a character note, consider the general character of players of that game and whether you want to go with the general image or have a character who goes against the grain.  Why does your character play that particular game?  Where, how, and with whom (if anyone)?  Under these circumstances, chances are you establish the preference and make only brief references to it thereafter—unless the character is addicted.
  2. If the game is an element to advance the plot, it will probably involve a more detailed description of the game itself, so that readers will better understand the important people interactions around the game.  Did playing the game establish or refute an alibi?  Reveal important info through the chat around and over play?  Is someone trying to establish dominance?  Losing more money than s/he can afford?
  3. In associating a character with a game, be aware of the possible correlations: when in history your story is set, age of the character, region of the country (or country in the world), social class, and possibly ethnic background all are considerations.

Bottom line: games can be good for your writing!

2017 Dota 2 Champions

WHAT PETS SAY ABOUT THEIR OWNERS

On April 13, 2018, I posted Pets: A Treasure Trove for Writers focusing on how people treat their pets and how pets might fit into plot points and scenes.  Now, I’m turning to the ways pets reflect their owners, and the things an informed character might deduce from simply knowing another character’s pet choice(s).  These are group data, of course, so as a writer you need to decide whether your character reflects the norm or is an outlier.
 

An entry on bakadesuyo.com titled 8 Things Your Pet Says About Your Personality is a good overview.  (Points have been regrouped and edited, so they no longer number eight.)

1) General conclusions about pet owners:

  • Fish owners are happiest.
  • Dog owners are the most fun to be with.
  • Cat owners are the most dependable and emotionally sensitive.
  • Reptile owners are the most independent.

2) Comparing dog people and cat people:
  • Dog people are 15% more extroverted, 13% more agreeable, and 11% more conscientious.
  • Cat people are 12% more neurotic and 11% more emotionally open.
  • Dog owners are healthier: handled stress better, were more relaxed, had higher self-esteem, and were less likely to be diagnosed with depression.

3) Richard Wiseman concluded that people often see their pets’ personality as a reflection of their own.  Maybe a character could ask, “So, what’s your X like?”

4) Younger people who are disagreeable tend to prefer aggressive dogs.

5) Dog owners tend to seek different qualities in their dogs depending on their political leanings:
  • Liberals want dogs that are gentle and relate to their owners as equals.
  • Conservatives want dogs that are loyal and obedient.
6) Likelihood of owners cleaning up after their dogs:
  •  35.3% of males; 58.2% of females.
  • 18.2% of those who are lower income; 68.7% of those with higher income.
  • 72.6% of those who kept their dogs on a leash.

The website medium.com has published at least two articles on this topic: “What Your Pet Says Abut Your Personality and Career” (Mitch Fodstad, 3/6/2017) and  “What Your Pet Says About You” (Dustin Bilyk, 1/10/18).  The Bilyk article was written for humor and is basically an opinion piece, but you might want to read it for inspiration about a character’s opinions.  In addition to personality and career, life stage is addressed.  All of the following points come from these two articles.  Not surprisingly, there is some overlap with the points above.  So, by pet, here are the generalities:

 

Snake people: Owners are unconventional and novelty-seeking, may be bad-ass or wannabe bad-ass, and may have a kinky side.  FYI, male snakes are so focused on reproducing that they don’t even eat during mating season and many of them die.  Snake owners tend to lead unusual lives and make impulsive decisions.  They’re eager for the next move, even when unsure what that move might be.
Common careers: engineer, social worker, marketing/public relations professional, editor/writer, or police officer.

 

Turtle people: They are hard-working and reliable.  Turtle owners harness exceptional commitment, which drives quality performance and bodes well for upward mobility to a higher social class.
Common careers: engineer, social worker, marketing/public relations professional, editor/writer, or police officer.
(VL: Note the  similarities with other reptile people as described above.)

 

Fish people: They are optimistic and not materialistic, unconcerned with possessions.  They prefer low-maintenance pets.  Fish owners are hopeful and confident about the future.
Common career choices: human resources, financial professional, hotel and leisure professional, farming/fishing/forestry professional, or transportation professional.

 

Bird people: These pet owners tend to be outgoing and friendly, expressive, and socially confident.  They communicate effectively and may include some of the most powerful visionaries.
Common careers: advertising professional, sales person, construction worker, or administrative professional.

 

Cat people: Cat owners tend to be adventurous, creative, and anxious.  They enjoy new experiences, often have vivid imaginations, and are likely to be less sociable than dog owners.
Common careers: physician, real estate agent, science/medical technicians, machine operator, or personal caretaker.

 

Dog people: These people tend to be extroverted, confident, and risk-averse.
Common careers: professor, nurse, information technology professional, military professional, or entertainer.

 

Frankly, I find the links between pet, personality, and careers more suggestive than factual.  Writers should still consider the narrative possibilities of such links. 

Scientific American MIND published on-line an overview of the research into what pets say about their owners (Karen Schrock Simring, 9/1/15).  There isn’t much data published in peer-reviewed academic studies, but lots of information is available from huge market surveys within the pet industry and survey responses from pet owners.  Because I don’t want to footnote specific statements, I am not combining info from this article with related statements above.

 

If a character has a dog, he or she is more likely to be in senior management and consider their pet part of the family; live with family members, not have a college degree (although other research suggests dog owners are likely to be a professor, nurse, information professional, military professional, or entertainer); be extroverted, agreeable, and conscientious; have gotten the dog from a shelter or rescue group; live in Arkansas, New Mexico, Kentucky, Missouri, or West Virginia.

 

If the character’s pet is a cat, they are more likely to be divorced, widowed, or separated; live in an apartment; be neurotic and open to new experiences; be college educated; be a physician, real estate agent, science or medical lab technician, machine operator, or personal caregiver; be less socially dominant; live in Vermont, Maine, Oregon, South Dakota, or Washington state.

 

If the character owns a bird, they are more likely to be unemployed, describe themselves as caring and polite, be outgoing and expressive (and socially dominant if female), and live in California, Oregon, Washington state, or Nevada.

 

Horse owners tend to be more assertive and introspective and less warm and nurturing; be aggressive and socially dominant if he is male but non-aggressive and easygoing if she is female; hold an advanced degree; be married and a homeowner; live in a rural area; reside in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, or Louisiana.  They are most likely to describe themselves as dependable and self-disciplined.

 

Cold-blooded exotic pet owners if female, are more open to new experiences than male owners or female owners of traditional pets; if male, they are much less agreeable than female owners or male owners of traditional pets.

If the pet is a snake, the character may describe themselves as neat and tidy, relaxed and unpredictable; be unconventional and novelty seeking; and consider their pet “part of the family.”

If the character’s pet is a turtle, that character is more likely to be hardworking, reliable, and upwardly mobile, and describe themselves as rational and goal-oriented.

Fish owners are most likely to describe themselves as calm and emotionally stable.

 

Rabbit owners describe themselves as sympathetic, warm, and open to new experiences.

Hamster owners were the most likely to have an advanced degree.

Guinea pig owners were least likely to describe themselves as extroverted.

 

Owners of unusual pets were more likely to have a menagerie. For instance, more than half of ferret owners said they had six or more pets. Dog owners, on the other hand, were the most likely to have only one pet.

More than half of cat owners are fond of both cats and dogs.  More than half of dog owners say they only like canines.

Beyond the most common pets, people make a pet of almost any animal: chickens, exotic insects, possums, pigs, etc.

 

Writers note: For people who have pets, those pets are often integral to how owners see themselves.  For example, some men who want to look tough may get a tough-looking dog.  Some people have rabbits or poodles because that’s the family tradition.  Some people who feel misunderstood may seek “misunderstood” pets such as spiders.  If you give your character a pet, choose it for a reason!

And in spite of it all, keep in mind that although 68% of U.S. households have pets, that leaves 32% pet-less.

Image via Playbuzz