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Creating Credible Characters–Culture Clash

Monday, June 18, 2007

And you didn’t think I could get any more alliterative than I already was!

Now we’ve come up with our characters and we’ve spent time getting to know who they are. What’s next?

Creating conflict, of course. No matter what kind of story you’re writing, your characters will have both internal and external conflict. It is how your character copes with these conflicts—how they adapt, overcome, react, or not—that will reveal the most about your character.

One of the driving sources of character revelation in literature is through culture clash. In Stein on Writing (are you shocked it’s taken four posts to quote from Stein?), Sol Stein cites two prime literary examples of characters in culture clash: Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw (the novel on which the musical/movie My Fair Lady was based) and Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire (later made into an Oscar-winning movie starring Vivian Leigh and Marlon Brando).

“Characters of different cultural classes caught in a crucible are, of course, ideal for fiction. The dramatic heat generated by cultural differences, inherited or nurtured, added to the differences of individual temperaments, can help writers create wonderful stories. These differences are a valuable resource for scenes as well as entire plots. It is the underlying basis of conflict in fiction.” (Stein, 75)

To simplify this example, where would our civilization be without the Cinderella fairy tale? It is nothing more than a story about the clash of culture and character—and the ultimate triumph of character over culture.

As humans, we are most comfortable around “our own kind.” This can be taken to extremes (the holocaust, slavery, ethnic cleansing), but it is something that is hard-wired into our psyches. When we are forced into situations (or choose to go into them) where we are the lone “one of our kind” amongst a vast array of “otherness,” this is when our true character comes to the forefront. It can be something as simple as starting a new job where everyone else is more experienced than I am, or as extreme as going to a foreign country where I do not speak the language and look physically different from everyone surrounding me. How I act/react in these situations are the truest test of my character.

“A culture consists of the behavior patterns, beliefs, traditions, institutions, taste, and other characteristics of a community passed from one generation to another.” (Stein, 75)

As much as we would all like to consider ourselves open-minded about other cultures, the truth of the matter is that each of us at a deep level will react in some way to someone else’s “otherness”—whether it is noticing the way they’re dressed, the difference in the shape of their eyes, an accent when they speak, or the way they hold their knife and fork when they eat. For the purpose of creating a plot, highlighting and having the characters react to these differences is more important than being politically correct and trying to gloss over cultural differences.

How do we identify these differences without splashing “WARNING: CULTURE CLASH AHEAD” signs in our writing? Stein calls them markers: “easily identified signals that to the majority of readers will reveal a character’s cultural and social background” (Stein, 77). What kind of clothes do your characters wear? Tailored business suits? Jeans with a collared shirt and jacket? Baggy denim shorts with a slogan-spashed T-shirt? What about shoes? Italian loafers or two-pairs-for-a-dollar rubber flip-flops from the bargain bin at Wal*Mart? Brand name apparel or clothes lovingly made at home? The latest style or something obviously from a decade or more before? There are, of course, exceptions to every rule (these types of markers can be used against type), but how you choose to show your character’s culture through physical aspects will give the reader subconscious clues about their cultural background. (For more on showing what characters look like, see Showing vs. Telling—Mirror, Mirror on the Wall and Showing vs. Telling—In the Eye of the Beholder.)

Here are a few markers I used for Anne in Happy Endings Inc.:

  • dark green Chrysler Sebring convertible
  • crossed her office to the gilt-framed mirror
  • Anne hated shoes that didn’t stay on her foot of their own accord, but they were fashionable.
  • her camel-colored leather planner
  • Just about the only remnants of her personal life she hadn’t given up were an hour of swimming laps in the large swimming pool in the backyard . . .
  • the article about her in Southern Bride back in January
  • filled the apartment with the dulcet tones of crooners like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Kay Starr, and her favorite of all, Dean Martin

Go through your first couple of chapters and see what markers you’ve used that show your character’s cultural background—whether their social status, ethnicity, fashion sense, or tastes—and choose some of your favorites to share.

  1. Tuesday, June 19, 2007 10:48 am

    I’ve got some culture clashes going on in my historical. Native American, European immigrant, European American, Military vs. civilian…I never really mapped it out, but you’re right, it does raise the ante on each character.

    Wonder how I can apply this in the next book….:)


  2. Wednesday, June 20, 2007 9:44 pm

    I’ve got one that instantly comes to mind for this. His name is Seth. His father is an Irish immigrant and his mother is Cheyenne, and he grew up on a cattle ranch in Colorado. He goes to Notre Dame on a football scholarship and everybody instantly knows that he’s not your average quarterback. The only time he doesn’t wear boots and jeans is when he’s running. Has a love for leather, knows how to shoot and after he’s had his football career, everybody knows he’s going to take in retired Thoroughbred racehorses and give them a safe home.



  1. Creating Credible Characters Refresher «
  2. Make POV Work for You: POV Begins with Character «
  3. Make POV Work for You: Show Don’t Tell (Part 1) «
  4. Make POV Work for You: More on Character Description «

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