As it turns out, no human being is truly original. We are all made up of a set of traits that makes us unique, but there is no real original situation. So how do you write a character who is completely unlike you in every way? For example, and this is a character we are going to workshop today, a Korean adoptee whose family is white who grew up in the northwest of the United States and has an interest in becoming a Broadway tap dancer. These are a series of ideas that are unique to a single human beings experience. So let’s break this character down into a workable, life-like person. I have chose a bunch of characteristics that I am not. I am not Korean American, nor an adoptee. I have not grown up in a white family, nor have I grown up in the Northwest. I have no interest in becoming a Broadway tap dancer. I have chosen these characteristics to demonstrate how to write a character that you are not. Let’s get started!
The best way to do this is by breaking this character down into different subgroups. Being Korean American is different from being a Korean American adoptee. In researching a Korean American person who was raised by a family that is Korean, I would suggest reading memoirs about being Korean American and dealing with diaspora, immigration issues, and struggling with living in America. In writing a Korean American Adoptee, I would suggest Google first.
- Figure out the time period of which your character was adopted. For example, being adopted in the 1960’s vs the 1980’s vs the 1990’s, and how a characters circumstance would differ in this regard.
- Read blogs of people in similar circumstances. Reading blogs vs. academia on a subject gives you an actual person’s perspective on their situation. A blog, especially one by a person of that origin, specifically gives you a sense of their life and ideology, as well as their thoughts on their adoption and adoption process.
- This can be tailored to most situations of ethnicity and race, but it is important to get a conglomeration of voices on this matter. Don’t just consult one source, consult many! Part of being a writer is research, and research can be a rabbit hole. Stay focused and persistent.
- On this note, cultures are not monoliths. If your character is from a specific city, a specific time period, look into that specific time period. Mine google scholar for papers on said topic. Copying and pasting the thoughts and opinions of Chinese culture onto a Korean person is a no-go. This falls into the realm of racism and it quite gross.
- Be aware of stereotypes and cliches. A good chunk of these can be found on tvtropes, but offensive stereotypes are common and are always in poor taste. I will talk about writing your way out of stereotypes at a later date.
Now lets focus on geography:
- When it comes to any region, CHECK THE WEATHER FIRST. If one of your main plot points is spending a large chunk of time at the beach, setting your story in rural South Dakota is probably not the best idea(unless of course, your characters plan to take a very long road trip). And dress your characters appropriately! As someone who has lived in Florida for my entire life, I had to research how a native properly dresses for the snow during a Minnesota winter.
- Research local events, such as parades, flea markets, festivals etc. in that area. Annual festivals from real life can become fun plot points to play with and add a bit of authenticity to your character. Again, make sure that you are not stepping on the toes of other cultures, and be respectful. Do not have your characters crash a Dia De Los Muertos celebration because it’s “cool” and “exotic.” If they are specifically invited by a cultural insider, yes, sure, go for it. But tread lightly.
- Remind your reader of setting in a way that is overbearing. There are a thousand ways to describe snow and winter without saying “it’s snowing again.” I would encourage you to read books set in those particular geographies if you haven’t experienced something yourself. I have minimal experience with snow, so I tend to mine young adult winter tales for their descriptions of ice on the ground where there should be grass(I am not a big fan of snow, as I’m sure you can tell).
And finally, Career choices/Goals
- Make logical guesses as to how age affects dreams and life goals. Your 80 year old character may want to be a Broadway tap dancer, but what are the chances of that happening? Additionally, is your characters career goal a driving point of the plot? If so, that is going to be a stronger point of research than many other things(not including your characters personal background including race, gender, age etc.)
- Look up what qualifications your character needs in order to be able to do the job/goal they want. Do they want to be a dancer, such as our sample character? Becoming a professional in that field requires hard work, dedication, time, and talent. Research the experience needed to attempt such a goal. A dancer generally starts their education as young as 4 and dance continuously for years, often giving up much of their childhood to be the best. Be prepared to suffer with your character through their educational journey toward their career/goal.
- Make a strong effort to look into how race and gender affect your characters career choice and write about those specific struggles in regard to their journey. The race of your character often plays a crucial role in how they are seen by the rest of the world, and understanding how race and gender create intersectional oppression will create true dimension for your character (and your world view).
- Nothing is impossible, but struggle is essential to growth. Keep this in mind and that will keep your writing interesting.
I hope this was helpful to someone and gives you some ideas on how to build a complex character. If you have any questions or feedback, leave those in the comments!