Foreign Characters?

I've noticed that a lot of characters that crop up these days aren't American, despite the fact that Bully is set in the United States. I'm not anyone of any authority to say how anyone is supposed to write their characters, but I like to think I handle international characters better, seeing as I've been indulged with that background :> Lucky me.

Anyway! Point is, the reason I'm writing this article is because I've noticed some OCs who write their characters according to a certain stereotype. Not only does this apply to characters who are from other countries outside of the United States, but also different races that make up the American demographic; like the Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, Latins, Americans, Asians and Middle Eastern folks.

Write with care...

Remember this when you're writing something (fanfiction, poetry, original prose, etc.), especially when you put up your work online in a public domain: You do not know who your audience is. There's just no way of knowing. You need to exercise caution and care when writing characters of a different racial/ethnic background than yours, lest you want to be called a racist, even though you meant no harm.

Trust me, things happen. And the internet has no 'voice'; so unlike a stand-up comedian who makes fun of Asians or Latins and gets away with it through innotation alone, you've only got your words to rely on. And I think most everyone on the internet knows how words and their meanings can be misunderstood.

Do not write stereotypes...

When writing characters of different cultural backgrounds, remember that their nationality and where they were born make up a small, small part of who they are as a person.

Foreign characters are interesting because different countries are interesting, folks with different strokes learn things differently and understand things differently than a place like America. The United States and its culture is well known around the world because of how overexposed it is. That's why there are so many documentaries on places like Germany or Russia or France or Turkey, but not places like California or Idaho. Because people already have a good idea on Californians anyway.

Plus, a stereotypical character makes a boring, uninspired and flat character. For example; a British character would be stereotypically portrayed as preppy, snooty, blonde-hair blue-eyed, proper, tea-drinking, scone-eating, neat and otherwise a woobie.

If actually go to Britain, however, you'll hardly find anyone who fits the stereotype.

Germans aren't Nazis or anal-rententive about timing. Russians aren't Soviet saluting war monkeys. Italians aren't mobsters. French aren't always romantic or snooty. Scandinavians aren't all that weird. Romanians aren't vampires... or believe in them.

Sure, stereotypes have some truth to them, but they're usually overexaggerrated for laughs. It's true that a good ol' Brit enjoys a cup of tea and bangers and mash now and then, and maybe they do enjoy their beer warm. But not all of them do.

DO NOT write them as though they came straight out of a propaganda film or from an outdated movie.

Culture in cities around Europe are similar to ones we find in the United States. Because of how developed cities are becoming and the mass introduction of American culture anywhere else, very little of what makes a city unique in Europe remains.

I mention cities because while there are many rural areas in Europe, it'd make more sense for a family living in the city to afford moving to an entire country altogether, rather than a rural, small town.

So how do I not mess it up?

Ask yourself why are they foreign in the first place. Does it fit in with your story? Does it make sense?

A lot of OCs that are foreign are usually enrolled at Bullworth for one reason or another. The most plausible is that their parents had found work in the United States and had to move. The most unlikely reason is that the OC in question is SO BAD that even the government sanctions throwing them Bullworth's way.

Don't write them as stereotypes. A guy from Germany probably does respect timing and appointments more than the average American, and may grumble when a friend is late; but that's probably because it's what he's used to, not what his stereotype enforces. A dude from Italy would be used to eating large meals and spending LOTS of time with family, and would be uncomfortable being around a friend who wasn't very close to their own family.

Think about how long the characters have been in the country too, and how much they know about it. A character who's fresh off the boat might struggle with English and may be confused about certain social cues. A character who's been in the States a bit longer, say for a few months or years, may still have a heavy accent and still used to their own native cultures, but otherwise can get around Americaland just fine. A character who's been living in the States for most of their life would probably be indistinguishable from the average American, save for maybe an accent and some social cues.

But don't write them as comedy fodder.

Treat their background with respect.

But I don't know anyone from [x country]!

You don't necessarily have to.

Expat forums (and there's plenty of them too! Google is your friend!) and well-seasoned travel guides are your best bets. Online language sites also include bits of cultural know-how, such as how to politely decline food in Italy or how to apologize properly to a Japanese person.

The Useful Notes segment on TVTropes help a lot, and the page linked is a small, small segment of what they have to offer. Search 'Mexico' or 'Germany' in the search bar and they can easily debunk common myths and stereotypes about the country and people.

More research goes into making a foreign character, and it's glaringly obvious when the research hasn't been done.

How do I know if I did it well?

At least 20% of your character should reflect their country or ethnic background. The 80% should be their own personality.

A quick test to see if they're well written:

  • Write down 10 of their most obvious personality traits.
  • 2 of them should only marginally reflect their background
  • 8 should be their own

Let's do this for my character Emil! Italics are for 'German' charactertistics:

  1. He likes punk music.
  2. He likes fashion and always has an updated wardrobe
  3. He goes to the beat of his own drum
  4. He hates authority figures.
  5. Rules are only there to be broken, limits are put so they can be pushed/
  6. He is violent and inconsiderate.
  7. He is an unfortunate realist and doesn't believe in flights of fancy.
  8. His diet mostly consists of beer and meat.
  9. He often only cares about himself and doesn't really care for those he deems below him.
  10. It doesn't take much to set him off, as he'll use any excuse to beat someone up.

Now you try.

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