OFFENDING GROUPS WHEN CREATING CHARACTERS
I just read an outstanding little story about ghosts in which the author uses several Yiddishisms. Knowing the author isn’t Jewish, I asked him if he vetted those terms with someone who’s Jewish to make sure he didn’t create a feaux paux. We had a discussion about such things and he suggested I do an article about it. Since this is my 198th article, uh yeah, I’ve probably touched on the subject a couple of times. However, it wouldn’t hurt to talk about it again, especially since many of you haven’t been here from the beginning, might no want to slog through my old posts, and I should attack it with a fresh perspective.
So… thanks Paul, it’s time to look at creating characters that are not of your background.
HOW DO YOU ASK THE QUESTIONS?
The plain fact is, if you want a Jewish character, for instance, and you aren’t Jewish, or say, you are and are sadly lacking in your cultural background, you just figure out how you want the character to act, what you want them to do and just ask someone who’s Jewish. Of course, you might want to be wary of who you ask, especially if you’re totally ignorant of cultural sensitivities. If you want to have the character do or say something that’s totally offensive, without ever knowing, that asking could get tricky. All I can say is, it’s a lot better to have someone pissed at you BEFORE it goes into print! You could also learn a lesson or two!
The thing is that as adults, or even young adults, we all should be at least somewhat aware of cultural sensitivities before we dive into a character. If the inspiration for a character is a racial stereotype and we aren’t even aware it is one, checking it out ahead of time is a great way to keep from causing a whole lot of grief and embarrassment. Therefore, I’d bet that whatever you have the character do, it’s not likely to be deliberately offensive, it’s accidental. The most likely things would be like phrases, the way they pronounce words, or maybe certain stereotypical habits. These are what you might consider minor things, or even if not, things you think “they typically” do but really don’t. Or, they might be terms or phrases you get wrong or in the wrong context. The knowledgeable person would be able to correct you or tell you to do it a different way to make it right.
How about a Hispanic character? I know a lot of people with Hispanic backgrounds that don’t know a thing about their culture. They want to use a Mexican character in their story say… and they want the character to talk like an illegal working as a gardener. They use terms they hear off TV or from the wrong people. However, that may not be how a real undocumented Mexican worker might actually talk. They think because they’re Hispanic they know, yet they haven’t actually vetted it with someone who does know. They need to ask the right people.
A direct question shouldn’t be offensive if asked with the right intentions. If it turns out the result of what you wanted that character to say would be offensive, find out what the character might actually say (according to the expert) and use that instead. Or, if it doesn’t fit with what you want to do, dump it and try something else. Simple.
I’m neither Jewish, Hispanic, Romani (Gypsy), African American, a giant, a little person or Polish, among others, yet I’ve used all of these characters in my various stories. Where I’ve needed to, I’ve asked people questions to make sure I got terms and actions correct to make sure I didn’t go off the deep end. What was most important to me was that I portrayed all of these characters as people, more the same than different. That’s the most important thing. They’re just like everyone else, you and I. We all break stereotypes and none of us fit a mold. While we all may conform a little to certain cultural norms, which is the main point of this article, nobody fits exactly into anything. That’s what makes us all unique.
Those cultural norm details are great to individualize and add life to characters, but what can get us in trouble if we don’t get them right. Make sure you do your research before you put them to print!