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.