Writing Outside Your Culture

I am essentially color blind, having grown up in northern Maine where 98% of people glow in the dark, then going to college with a class so varied there was no majority racial or ethnic group. There are advantages and disadvantages to this or any blindness. One advantage is a sharpening of other senses, which in the case of color blindness is an unobstructed view of a person on the inside. My idea of diversity is in thought and experience, and when I associate two people, the association is for similar values or competencies or intrinsic traits, things people can share as much or more with someone halfway across the world than with a look-alike next door. In writing, when I have to imagine the physical traits of my characters, they end up as varied in skin color and facial features as the people I know, which sometimes I forget to describe on the page, because their race doesn’t define their role in the story–no more than the mere facts of green eyes or brown hair.

The downside of color blindness is that, by definition, it is a lack of sensitivity–particularly to culture or social experiences that are cued by a person’s ethnicity. I became particularly aware of this missing sense when I realized that the main characters for my work-in-progress included a third-generation Japanese American man and a woman whose father’s ancestors were from Africa and whose maternal grandparents were Native American and Chinese. These characters’ families are irrelevant to the story; they just happen to be who they are. On the flip side, they are who they are: The cultures that influenced them, the deeply personal assumptions people have made based on their appearance, and their responses to those assumptions throughout their lives have shaped parts of them and some of their interactions with each other. So while the story isn’t about culture, much of the story would fall flat without these cultural differences.

To be true to all of my characters, I couldn’t be afraid of writing about something I didn’t know, or worry to paralysis about offending without meaning to. I just had to fill in my blind spots as best I could. We can never fully understand how it feels to live inside another person’s skin, but in fiction we imagine lots of things that are outside our own experience. If your characters need to spend time in a place you’ve never lived, you’d look up pictures on Google Earth and read articles about local traditions. If your character had an unfamiliar illness, you’d do a search for symptoms and watch YouTube videos by patients and doctors. So you can research societal experiences, too– beyond simple facts to personal accounts that will help you not just to showcase your characters’ diversity but to develop them on the inside. Simply type into any search engine “being <race/religion> in <country>”, and you’ll find pages of documentaries and diaries and blogs about feeling different in a society of sameness, no matter the difference or the society. There is an entire website devoted to BeingJewish.com. Type in “what is it like to grow up <culture/place/condition>”, and you will find people who are willing to share their experiences online. Of course, if all else fails, you could just talk to people (gasp!).

Following are some common admonishments that bear repeating on the subject of other-culture characters: 1) Do not rely on television shows or novels, because those are just someone else’s interpretations and research, or lack thereof. 2) Don’t assume that what “everyone” knows about a group of people or a nation is true of an individual. If you haven’t experienced it, do the research. 3) Avoid using other-culture characters as mere props. Characters whose every waking thought is consumed by the experience of their ethnicity are offensively unrealistic; most real people have a variety of thoughts and interests, which may or may not be influenced by culture, consciously or subconsciously.

Once you’ve done the research and written your story, an appropriate beta reader is important. If you’re a man and your main character is a woman, you would have a woman read your story to make sure the actions and thoughts ring true, and vice versa for women writing about men. Any significant differences between you and your main character deserve an authenticity check as well. The Internet is an amazing place to find people outside your circle. Put out a call on Twitter or Google+ and your request for a perspective can be forwarded to any corner of the world or your own town. However, be aware that even people from the same country or culture have different experiences, so don’t end up stereotyping your characters based on one or two points of view; just use those other perspectives to help you find the inadvertently offensive parts of your writing.

At some point, you will put your story out there, where it will be subject to every kind of sensitivity, but such is the case with anything you write. If you’ve done some research and tried to be true to the diversity of your characters, that is better by far than converting every character to someone just like you.

Author: Krista Tibbs

Krista Tibbs studied neuroscience at MIT. She once had a job that involved transplanting pig cells into live human brains. She had another job that gave her clearance to the White House. Her books, The Neurology of Angels and Reflections and Tails, are mostly not about those things. Learn more about Krista from her blog, and her Amazon author page.

16 thoughts on “Writing Outside Your Culture”

  1. I, too, enjoy diversity, even to the extent of seeing people as different while loving and respecting them anyway. Cultural differences in characters sharpen story interest, I think. Great post. And the kittens are adorable.

  2. Much of what you say makes good sense Krista. And, it is wonderful that you are ‘colour blind’. My kids are as well, something of which I am proud. (my son married a Guyanese East indian Hindu) Note – I do not say that I am colour blind. (likely the product of growing up in a homogeneous environment). While I do not let that affect how I treat people I can’t say I don’t ‘see’ it.

    Back to your post – I would like to insert a caution. My area of study was primarily gender issues with a solid dollop of cultural diversity issues. I have also had experience working in a multicultural centre. If I took one thing from all that it is this. Never assume you can speak for another. This is especially true of race and minority. For instance, no amount of research will ever make me competent to say I know what it is like to be a black woman in Africa – or America for that matter. And as soon as I do, and make it public, there will be those from that culture or sub-culture who will be offended by it. This is even more true if it is a white ‘European’ person speaking for a minority person. They will tell you that you are assuming and appropriating their voice. It’s a slippery path that must be handled with extreme sensitivity.

    1. Thanks Yvonne, and I absolutely agree. If my post in any way suggested that research could make us experts on someone else’s life, that was not the intent. I don’t believe that, and I don’t believe that two people of the same cultural group can speak for each other, either. Everyone has their own experiences and the only person I can really know on the inside is myself. That said, the job of a fiction writer is to get inside someone else’s head! So one of my concerns is that while we should rightly approach cultural issues with sensitivity, too much fiction goes to the extreme of excluding and silencing any voice that’s different from the author.

  3. Cool post’
    A LOT of my characters are Mexican. But I really don’t try to be very “authentic”. Many of them talk in US expressions, make puns that only make sense in English, etc. They are characters for US readers, essentially. I think that’s fairly common, actually. There’s not much hispanic about Zorro, especially the Disney TV one. Indian Jones’ foreigners wisecrack like Americans, not Tibetans or whatever.

    I really like your “don’t saturate it” thing. I recently dumped a book after the first chapter because the character couldn’t go a page without ranting about being Chicana.

    1. Half the intentional comedy of Indiana Jones is in how inauthentic the foreign characters are. Now, if the audience treated Indiana Jones like it was a documentary of ancient Egypt, that would be a problem…

  4. Honesty, objectivity and unbiased narrative should be a given for any serious author. I was approached by a young, aspiring writer at a writing group meeting I recently gave a talk to; she was concerned about one of her characters. The character in question was quite offensively, bigoted. She wondered if she should tone the character down. Without knowing the character or the story, the only advice I could give was, ‘Be honest to yourself, the story and the character, if you do that your readers will know and understand.’

    Nice post, Krista.

  5. I’ve got a number of characters from outside my own culture in my series. But all of them have grown up in mainstream American culture to some degree — so like Lin’s Mexicans, they use American idioms and so on. It’s worked so far, I think. But I’ve also been doing a *lot* of background reading and research to try to get the cultural nuances right (or at least, to get them right enough so nobody guffaws). That said, I keep putting apologies in my author’s notes. 😀

    Good post, Krista!

    1. Thanks, Lynne, I think that’s the real authenticity of a character. A person’s “culture” is not entirely about their ancestors; it’s also about where they were raised and their own experiences. People who grow up in mainstream America end up using American idioms just like people who grow up Quebec end up speaking a little French. And people who grown up in western Maine speak Fringlish. C’est la vie.

  6. I think it also depends on what it is about a character or culture you wish to portray. The issue of appropriation of voice was so hot when I was a student that it stayed with me as a red flag. The particulars in the examples above will likely not cause problems, but an intellectual work where a character deals with issues faced by a minority in a serious way could land you in hot water. Bottom line – it;s a judgement call that only the author can make. Just be aware.

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