Sunday, May 17, 2015

Culture in Your Characters

Thanks to modern technology I literally start and finish a typical 18-hour day by reading the news on an android tablet, and when driving from from one location to another, the car radio is usually tuned to National Public Radio (NPR). Knowing what's going on is important to a writer—for there may be information useful in a scenario. (It's also good to know if and when to duck for cover.)

For instance, when the verdict was released concerning the Boston bomber, NPR carried a comment from Eastern Europe that Americans did not understand Chechnya culture. That struck a chord. How much attention do we give to culture when creating our characters? It certainly would have a bearing on their responses and actions.

For instance, in the United States, how people from the southeast think, act, and talk (not the sound, but which and how words are used) is different than a person from New York City or in my native Wyoming. On a larger scale, culture is the the sum total of behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group, and transmitted from one generation to another. My paternal grandfather was German, so will share a few insights. Some of cultural things to consider are:

1. Work Ethic:
The writer, Hermann Eich, once said, "The Germans have a mania for work. They have no idea how to enjoy life." I spent much of my early youth on my uncles' farms in Western Nebraska. We started work early and quit late (hence, the 18-hour days), but we knew how to party. A German wedding ran three days around the clock with singing, dancing, talking, eating, and drinking.

2. Creative Energy:
How good is a person with their minds at inventiveness and/or with their hands to create? If lucky, your character likes Duck tape.

3. Thoroughness:The Germans have a saying: "Wenn schon, denn schon", which translate that if something is worth doing at all, it is worth doing right. That means never doing something half-way. This is accomplished by giving great attention to detail to the point of being fussy perfectionists.

4. Orderliness:
Another German saying: "Ordnung muß sein!". There must be order! Punctuality is paramount. Everything must go by the rules. (This drives my English wife nuts.)

5. Sincerity:
Fulfilling a promised is a matter of honor.

6. Loyalty:
How loyalty is the character to his organization, family, country, and comrades? (James Bond comes to mind. This was also the comment that came from the Chechnya community, the younger brother is loyal to the older brother, right or wrong.)

7. Song:
Every culture has its music. In my youth it was the Dutch Hop and Polka. Elsewhere in the United States it's Blue Grass, Rock, Country, what have you. Does your character like music? Do they sing/play. (In Master and Commander, both the English and French captains played an instrument.)

8. Attitude towards violence:
Some cultures hang on to violence tooth and nail, while others abhor it. Cultural attitudes change over time.

9. Love of nature:
Does your character have regard for wildlife, plant life, domesticated animals, world health?

10. Class consciousness:
Like it or not, rationalize it, inwardly fight to deny it, this exists and continues to be perpetrated around the world. I honestly don't know of a culture where classifying individuals does not exist.

11. Politeness:
With some cultures, as with Japan, politeness is an absolute necessity when so many people are crowded together. Politeness is expressed in language as well with formal and informal words and construct.

12. Posture:
This says a lot about where the character is from or his upbringing, upright or slouching.

13. Chewing Gum:
Chewing gum is American, brought to the United States in the 1860's and first distributed in New York in 1871. While it apparently has some positive cognitive effects, you won't see it used in many cultures.

14. Wedding Rings:
Did you know that on which hand a wedding ring is worn denotes marriage or engagement? At least in Germany, if wed, the ring is worn on the right hand, if engaged, it's on the left hand. And of course, some cultures don't wear one at all, while others have them hanging from unusual places.

 15. Eating:
How a person handles eating utensil is indicative of where they are from. (If they use them at all.)

16. Religion
Some cultures are bound tightly by religion—Jewish, Muslim, Shinto, Mormonism among many. Religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, usually involving ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. Even agnosticism and atheism could be classified as a religion. “Religion” has caused more wars, pain, suffering, and death than you'd care to count throughout history.

Often, such things do not cross a writer's mind, but can have a great bearing on how they think and act, and certainly add a depth the reader may like to see as a way to understand the character. The world is bigger, more diverse, and colorful than you think.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Clothes Can Make the Character

The Wardrobe is an online journal based out of the UK that focuses on a very specific subject: clothes. ( As they explain on their Internet page:

“Clothes are often overlooked in life and literature and considered frivolous, but they shape character, draw out concepts and connect you to your culture and landscape. As signals for who we are, where we are and what we are, clothes are invaluably transformative and revealing.”

Previous eFiles in this series have focused on characters, specifically their personalities and motives, and to some extent, physical attributes as they might pertain to those areas. This time around, let's talk about their what they look like above skin level.


There are a number of ways to describe a character. One method is the bare bones. The author gives very little in the way of physical descriptions, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks with whatever they imagine. Usually, this is the technique in short stories. It's a matter of space.

In another method, a frequently published author introduces a character and immediately sets out a physical description. To be honest, I don't like that approach because it disrupts the flow of the story. As example, the protagonist is following the antagonist when a woman steps in his path. She is a tall redhead . . . A paragraph later we find out why she got in the way and what happened to the bad guy.

Another method is to give a quick description and add more detail at a later time or sprinkled throughout the story as is pertinent. I tend to this method so that the plot flows uninterrupted. As example, this is one of the crewmen aboard the protagonist's ship:

"[The stowaways were] assigned a teacher. That it was the Irishman, Cochran, was a pleasing choice. He'd instruct them well." (p.23 early)
"Cochran's laugh was not mean, but the boys weren't sure how to take him. He had a light way about himself." (p.23 late)
"“The name's Mr. Cochran. Just Mr. Cochran. When we be socializin' ye can call me Dónall.”" (p.24)
"“They have good eyes, too, just like blue-eyed Cochran.”" [p.26] (reference to being a lookout)
". . . being pink-skinned like Cochran" [p.26]
". . . the inveterate storyteller." [p.31]

"Cochran was thirty-six, young-looking with a light-hearted, carefree demeanor people liked to be around. Unlike Pasquel whose dark skin tolerated the sun, Cochran was fair skinned with a splash of freckles across the nose and a perpetual reddish glow, so he always wore a shirt and hat when working in the sunlight. He was slender, never seeming to put on weight as hard as Mr. Lytle tried. A hard worker, he was one of the few who could give [the captain] a good match with the cutlass and keep up as the two swam alongside the Raven. Any attempt at growing a beard was a disaster. Apparently some ancestry kept him clean as if newly shaved. The only mark on his smooth skin was the ugly scar on the left shoulder from [the captain's] knife. It saved him from losing the arm when he'd been injured in battle six years before." [p.96]

Dónall Cochran is a re-occurring actor throughout the story, and obviously appeared in a previous novel. His physical appearance comes in bits and pieces as they become important without disrupting the flow of the story or as a boost to other actors or events.

When describing a character, physical details are important because they can say a great deal about them.

1.  Think of hair—straight, wavy, curled, kinky, thick, thin, bald fuzz, halo, long, short, color.

2.  Think of eyes—round, oval, almond, recessed, dark, bright, overhung by a thick brow, (which could be thin, thick, long like an old man).

3.  Think of noses, mouths, ears, facial hair. Each detail shapes the personality of your character and we haven't even gotten below the shoulders which are . . .

And what about those clothes? What a character wears, how, and why can be important. In a story under construct, the antagonist usually is seen with a chest-length, powered wig and all the rest of a 15th Century English peacock's attire. The protagonist (a ship captain) tends to be casual, hat, loose-fitting shirt, short trousers, seldom with shoes. The natives they encounter group themselves into classes which can be identified by what they wear—the length of the breach cloth, from short for low class to ankle length for the chief. Older and married women wear a short breach cloth while unmarried girls and children wear nothing. And not only what they wear, but how the clothes look—clean, pressed, wrinkled, soiled, torn, worn thin, dull to bright colors, the kinds of fabrics, how they are made.

Your sources can come from a person walking down the street or research. If writing historically-based novels the focus is on research since hardly anyone dresses like that—go online, books, museums, photo collections. Writing about clothing in futuristic stories could go from whimsical to best guess.

The external appearance of your actors can be as important as their physicals, internal thoughts, and behaviors to present a complete picture. Whatever you write, consider the importance of clothing along with all those other things that bring the character and story alive.