Tyranny of the Shoulds

I’m really late posting today.  I’ve been running around taking my car to the dealership, finding out I have a bent rim (thank you crappy Mississippi roads), having the nice and totally awesome guys at Nissan beat the thing back into shape so that I don’t have to shell out $286 just yet (though it will still have to be replaced), and frantically trying to work on lectures.  I got one finished before I left for the dealership, and though I took all my gear and computer and stuff to do another one there, I wound up getting drawn into a conversation about the psychology of Batman with another patron waiting.  I never know WHAT people will bring up when they find out I’m in psychology.  But anyway, none of that is what I wanted to talk about today.

Tyranny of the Shoulds: What is it?

Last week I finished a lecture on Karen Horney, brilliant female psychoanalyst with unfortunate married name (actually pronounced HORN-eye).  One of the things she talks about in her theory is the “tyranny of the shoulds”.   This is a concept that arises as a result of the divide between our actual selves (who we truly are) vs. our ideal selves.  We each have these sets of things we think we “should” do.  I should be a conscientious instructor and always provide feedback to students.  I should always drive the speed limit (yeah, right).  I should strive to have more patience with others.

I think I made a post sometime past about the Shoulds that we are ruled by as writers.  Okay, I went back and looked and it wasn’t what I thought, so I’ll share those thoughts too.

Tyranny of the Shoulds for Author Self-Promotion

As writers, we are bombarded by all these things we Should do.  We should develop a platform.  We should have a website.  We should throw ourselves into social networking on Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and the 800 Web 2.0 services out there.  We should join organizations.  We should go to conferences.  We should enter contests.  Not to mention all the shoulds related to knowledge of craft.  I was thinking about this this morning as I was zipping through my Bloglines and came across a couple of different posts.  The first was over at Romance University about How Unpublished Authors Can Build Name Recognition.

  1. Enter RWA chapter contests.
  2. Network with established members of the genre community.
  3. Attend conferences and introduce yourselves to our editors.
  4. Create a website and use it to showcase your voice, your bio, projects you’re working on, and your contact information.
  5. Get involved.

This is all good advice (and please see the post itself for more details description of each) but it still has me thinking about the Shoulds.  Particularly numbers 1 and 3–they both cost money in the form membership fees and entrance fees.  If you ARE an unpublished author, you don’t usually have the funds to do such things and many newbie or aspiring authors are breaking the bank to do them.  I know I sure can’t afford it.

As if reading my mind, Carrie Vaughn addresses exactly that in her Genreality post today.  Carrie talks about the shoulds of author promotion that she stressed and worried over and shares the best advice she ever got: “Write the next book.  Make it the best you can.”  There’s much more to the post and it’s well worth reading, so do take some time to visit.  I have to say I always appreciate when someone like Carrie or Lynn Viehl manage to counteract all the Shoulds out there.  Because when you are a struggling, aspiring author, 99.9% of the time you are working AT LEAST a day job, if not more.  You don’t have the time or money for all the promotional stuff that “everyone” says that you SHOULD do.  And each of them is proof that you don’t necessarily have to.  This is the thing that saves my sanity.

Tyranny of the Shoulds for Characters

Since I’ve been talking about various psychological concepts as pertains to writing and characters lately, I didn’t want to over look this one either.

It says a LOT about a character (or person for that matter) if you look at what their Shoulds are.  It’s an insignt into their personality and values. For example–give them the $100 bill test.  Say your character finds a $100 bill in the grocery store parking lot.  Does this character think that she should report it to the manager’s desk because someone obviously lost their grocery money?  Does she think she should count her blessings and use it to pay off part of her credit card?  Does she think she should donate it to charity?  Does she think she should blow it all because, hey, free cash?  Each of these is a different SHOULD response.  It’s also an interesting and illustrative question to look at their Should vs. what they actually Do.  Incidentally, this totally happened to me when I was about 10.  Mom and I reported it to the manager’s desk, but no one ever claimed it, so I got to keep it.  Don’t remember what I spent it on.

There are an endless variety of Shoulds that could give you insight into your character.   Does he think he should respect his parents as his elders?  Or does he think he should preserve personal boundaries at all costs?  All these shoulds influence your character’s behavior, and clearly you will get quite different shoulds for a hero and a villain (or perhaps they have something in common–how will you know if you don’t ask?).  The point is to think about what these shoulds are for your character and how far their actual self is from who they aspire to be.  It just might add another interesting layer you hadn’t thought of before.

2 thoughts on “Tyranny of the Shoulds

  1. This is a GREAT one to add to my standard pre-writing interrogation of main characters! I love going beyond the standard characteristics such as physical description, goals and motivation, fears and desires. The Shoulds speak directly to values. It would also be interesting to find out if the Shoulds have changed between childhood and adulthood.

    Another favourite of mine is one I learned from a life coach (Iyabo Asani). In childhood, what activity did they do that got them into trouble because it always made them late for school, or they’d do it after lights-out, or instead of chores? That is the key to their passion, so if they are denying themselves that passion – or being prevented from expressing it by circumstance – you can bet there is an interesting journey to explore.

    Thanks Kait, love this delving into the psychology of characters 🙂

    1. Oh what did they do that made them late for school… That whole series is a good question to ask. I was either sleeping or writing… Usually sleeping because I’d stayed up late writing… Guess what my passion is. 😀

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