I probably have a century worth of posts on What I’ve Learned About Writing Novels. I came to this business of writing young adult novels as a writer of non-fiction–articles, newsletters etc.–and most were in my field of Linguistics and Intercultural Communication. And I came to this business accidentally.
I’ve always loved to read stories, but writing hadn’t occurred to me, then one day there I was creating something out of nothing except an idea I had. Suddenly I realized I really didn’t know much about writing fiction, let alone doing it well.
Since that time I’ve read a lot about this craft. I’ve read in my category to see how it’s different from adult fiction and I’ve written a lot of bad stories. Yes. Really bad stuff. I’ll save that for a future Throes of Thursday.
So now my stuff isn’t as bad and that’s because of this thing called learning. Today I’m focused on characters and how you can show your characters’ social and cultural backgrounds.
So this is important, why?
Differences between classes, both social and cultural, create conflict.
Conflict creates tension.
Tension is what keeps readers turning those pages.
In other words, we need to be sure that our characters do not have an easy go of it while they’re in our stories. But how do we characterize them so that when they come together, they clash because of their differences? How do we establish their personalities so that they are believable when they say or do something?
Let’s start with the social class your characters come from. I know that sounds politically incorrect, but if your goal is political correctness, I’d forget about writing fiction. If you put people from the different social class together, there are tons of possible conflicts for the writer to capitalize on. Think Pygmalion or Street Car Named Desire.
Here are three areas that I use to create characters from different social classes. In these examples, I’ve tried to give the people something that suggests more complex personalities than just upper and lower class. Tell me if I succeeded. Fingers crossed, here I go.
1. Physical Description: I’d seen her just before we got on the bus. Short and thick at the middle, her beret, a black plop of fabric, that sat angled over her forehead. When she took the seat next to me the air became thick with something eu de in the name–a K Mart bargain. I glanced at her as she opened her bag and took out a pair of nail clippers. I turned to the window and pressed against the side of the bus, listening to the plink of nail grooming.
( I wanted to capture the stuffy observer and the woman next her who aspired to a classy look, the beret and the cologne, then proceeded with private grooming in a public place–not so classy.)
2. Word choice, language usage: “So Charlie gives me this la de da crap about he don’t do drugs no more. What’s with that creep?”
(Unschooled or his grammar teacher failed. In my mind he’s a street guy with friends who are also street guys. Now I have to let him meet a luscious, well-schooled, successful lawyer to fall for. Yum. I can see the sparks already.)
3. Actions: Mable perched at the edge of the chair, crossed her legs at the knees, then smoothed her skirt and folded both hands on her lap.
(The word prim is all I can think of when I see Mable perched like that. Maybe she can meet the guy above. Another conflict. Another story.)
Now how about some cultural clash material, using the same three ways to characterize?
1. Physical Description: Jamal rolled his T-shirt sleeves just above the tattoo of the coiled black snake, then splashed cold water on his face. He was sober enough to take on the Blancos.
(This turned out more like West Side Story than I wanted, but maybe with some twists and a different story line than Jamal meets Rebecca, I can turn this into something fresh.)
2. Word choice, language usage: Airi moved closer, his eyes intense. “I am very interesting.”
“In what you did. I’m interesting in what you did.” Didn’t this girl hear well?
(The confusion between “interested” and “interesting” is, well, very interesting when you put a non-native speaker of English together with a native speaker. Maybe Airi will learn the difference between the words or maybe the native speaker will humiliate Airi because of his English. There are all kinds of things I can do with these two characters.)
3. Actions: (Space is a silent language in culture. In some cultures, standing close in casual conversations is comfortable. In North American it’s not. Someone from South America and North American talking in a hallway, can travel the length of a hall while each tries to find that comfortable space for conversation. Read Edward T. Hall for more of these silent “mis-communication” opportunities.)
Here I’ve used action, but I also combined dialog to establish the non-native speaker of English. All of these elements of characterization can and should work together.
Carla stepped back two steps.
Jose stepped in to close the gap. “Why do you always go back from me like this?” he asked.
“Do I not smell good?”
“No. Of course, not. I mean. You smell great.”
(But I’ll bet she continues to adjust the space between them to be comfortable and he will too. Will they be able to understand each other enough to develop a closer relationship? Will she unintentionally insult him so that he goes after another girl–her best friend? Uh oh.)
Here’s something that Stina Lindenblatt posted last week about
The flawed character is the interesting character.
“We know character flaws are important for making our protagonist (and the other good guys) dimensional. If you’re stumped for ideas as to how to make your characters flawed, check out Leslie Rose’s list to get you creative blood flowing. “
Yes, Leslie. Make them bullies. Make them liars. Make the reader hate/love/admire/cringe when those characters strut/creep through our stories. And try doing it with physical description, word choice, and action.
Hope you’ll let me know if this has been helpful. Next Thursday I’ll try to give some specific idea about scenes. Hope you’ll join me.
Leslie Rose says
Thank you for the link, Lee. Love your character breakdowns. Authenticity comes in the details.
Thanks for sharing these pointers. Its very generous of you and very helpful to aspiring writers like me who havent quite taken the plunge yet. I'm gonna have to check back here often. Following you.
Joyce Lansky says
This was an outstanding post! Thanks for the tips.
C. Lee McKenzie says
It makes totally nervous when I write something and post it on my blog. Now why is that, do you suppose? I'm a writer ain't I?
Susan Kaye Quinn says
Love this post! So insightful! And I think a lot of writers (including me) shy away from cultural clashes – maybe I just don't feel qualified? Not quite sure. I love how effortlessly you portrayed these characterizations!
What a thoughtful and impressive post!
Great post Lee
Catherine Stine says
Yes, there are many ways to portray ethnicities and class without coming out and saying it in a direct way. You've illustrated some great methods.
Jessie Harrell says
Excellent post, Lee! I love the "I'm very interesting" example.
Great post! I've been looking forward to these, and you didn't disappoint.
Excellent set of examples, Lee! Thanks!
You seemed to have touched all the bases. Thoughtful and succinct.