The Challenge of Diversity, part 5 of 5

[ Part One: Race | Part Two: Sexual Orientation | Part Three: Women | Part Four: Religion ]

Other Countries

Your characters can be from more places than just the US, and each of them will bring their own cultural baggage with them.

  1. Do your research. This is rule number one (remember, we don’t know what we don’t know), which means there are more things to trip over than I can possibly imagine. The Internet is a fine place to start, but you may need to visit an old-fashioned library. University libraries are usually particularly good for this kind of thing. If you don’t know where to start, ask a librarian at the reference desk. All the librarians I know love questions.
  2. English is not English is not English. A river is not a creek is not a wash is not an arroyo. In the Midwest, you stand in line, in the Northeast you stand on line, and in the UK, you queue. In US English, underwear is worn next to the skin and pants are worn over it. In UK English, pants are worn next to the skin (but only if you’re male) and trousers are worn over them. And those are just some examples from the variants I’m most familiar with. Don’t let that stop you from writing characters from (or in) countries other than the US if you’re native to the US, but be aware that it’s not just accent that differs from the US to the UK, Canada to Australia, or Belize to Singapore. Do your research, and get somebody who’s familiar with the dialect to double check you.
  3. Look up names and naming conventions. Names, especially surnames, differ from country to country and from language to language. Traditionally, in native Hawaiian, you would never give anyone a name already given to someone else. In India, surnames may come with caste connotations. Arabic-speaking countries most often use patronymics rather than surnames in a English-derived sense, Russian surnames may vary by gender, and in some countries they don’t use surnames at all. Wikipedia is a great place to start.
  4. Characters who speak more than one language don’t just pepper their English with non-English words. There’s a very specific way in which the bilingual or polyglots switch between languages, and it boils down to whole constructions or phrases–and then, typically only with other people who understand all the languages involved. To be on the safe side, unless you know both languages your character is using, keep your sentences all in a single language. Loan words, from “rodeo” to “canoe,” don’t count.
  5. Go easy on the accents. US writers have had a tradition of writing accents phonetically since Mark Twain did it, or maybe before. In certain instances, this is useful and even expected (some of us use “doin'” and “gonna” fairly regularly in dialogue), but a lot of phonetic spellings in dialogue gets hard to read. Also, not everyone from a particular country “talks that way,” and writing characters who do perpetuates a stereotype of “foreigners who can’t speak properly.” Some of my friends from other countries speak English better than most native speakers I know.
  6. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are forums on the Internet which specifically exist for people to ask questions when they’re writing characters and cultures not their own. The Internet is a wonderfully diverse place, and if you really need to know how to say a particular sentence in Cantonese or have someone read over a manuscript draft to make sure that your foreign exchange student from Kenya really sounds like she’s from Kenya, there is someone out there who can answer that question. Subject-specific forums may be able to provide the best details, but if you don’t know where to start, I’ve listed a couple places on my personal webpage, E is for Edit.

    cross-posted at E is for Edit


About April L'Orange

April L'Orange is a hard-working editor and author of science fiction and fantasy. She began life as a terribly serious little old woman and has been growing younger ever since. When she's not writing, she can often be found painting bits of her house or beating back the yard with a machete. She and her husband currently live in upstate New York, where they are owned by three cats and the Squirrel Mafia. She's published short stories in anthologies available from Escape Collective Press and Pink Narcissus Press. For more information, please visit

Posted on December 19, 2011, in Readership, Research. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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