I’ve been pondering this one for a while, and decided to finally get my brain in gear and write it.

A number of years ago, before my first novel made it to print, a reader complained about the fact that my characters of a particular nationality weren’t the way characters of that nationality were portrayed in movies. I explained to her, politely, that the characters in the movies were stereotypes, and that I don’t use them.

Stereotypes are a sort of shorthand that is used to invent characters without giving much thought to it. Movies and television use them because they’ve got only so much time to tell a story, and they can’t afford to spend much of it developing their characters. Since movies and tv are such a pervasive part of our culture, their use of that particular shorthand is a trap that we can easily fall into. Got an Italian character? Throw in a love of pasta and a few ‘Mama Mia’s and you’ve got it, right?

Well, only if you’re writing a five minute children’s cartoon.

Writing characters according to stereotypes is somewhat undesirable because a) people are not all alike, inside or outside arbitrary national lines, and b) stereotypes often originated as uncomplimentary characterizations based on national prejudices.

Writing to stereotypes also suggests that the author didn’t do his/her homework.

If you have a character of a nationality other than your own, take some time to do some research into the history of the country your character comes from. If you can find books that tell you about the culture of that particular nation, it will help you to understand your character better, and you can write a more fleshed-out person rather than a one-size-fits-all, flat stereotype.

A word of caution, though—if you intend to use that nation’s slang and idioms in your character’s conversations, try to get someone from that nation to help you get it right.

Some time ago, I decided, for reasons I won’t go into, to learn Irish gaelic. I quite enjoyed the studying, learning new words and sentence structures, but discovered something that stayed with me a lot longer than the language did. Slang and idiomatic sayings are intimately tied into the culture and history of the people who made them up. If you have no understanding of the culture and history, and have no one to help you correct your mistakes, it’s better not to use them. There is nothing that screams ignorance louder than the improper use of them.

Don’t worry that not throwing in the stuff you hear in the movies is going to keep your readers from knowing who your characters are. I usually just have mine speaking good old plain English, and I can’t tell you the number of times people have told me, “Oh, such and such sounded so (fill in nationality).” Once your reader knows a character is a certain nationality, they’ll fill in the accent, among other things.

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