Characters with other nationalities

Forums Fiction Characters Characters with other nationalities

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    Hope Ann

    This week’s question for the newsletter comes from Eowyn. 😉

    How can I write characters of different nationalities in ways that aren’t offensive to people of that nationality?

    , @kristianne-hassman, @the-inkspiller, @naiya-dyani

    Naiya Dyani


    Ooh, perfect! I’m doing some of this in my own story (which is fantasy, granted, but does have other races in it).

    I think the first thing to keep in mind is that you will almost never be able to avoid offending everyone. There’s always going to be someone who takes something the wrong way. So don’t freak out too much to start with, because there are some things that just can’t be helped.

    I’m not positive whether the question is mainly about describing appearance or just writing the character in general, but both can be addressed (at least partly) by looking at them through the lens of your other characters. In my story, one of my main characters’ appearance is based loosely on Japanese (ignoring the fact that he has green eyes, of course 😛 ). Though he comes from a violent tribe, he himself is kind and gentle. Since it is from another character’s viewpoint, however, I simply describe him the way she would see him. I would avoid any terms that would be derogatory in modern usage, of course, but just plain saying things the way a character perceives them is easy enough. Here’s what my main character thinks when she first sees him in my current draft (in the middle of a bandit attack, which he and two others intercept):

    This third boy directed vivid green eyes shaped almost like a cat’s at the leader. The man suddenly went pale.
    “Sirakani,” he murmured. Then he raised his voice as he vaulted himself over the other side of the wagon into the forest. “Run!”
    My heart froze in midbeat. Sirakani. One of two bands of tribes from Birkata in the north, past the mountains and the Teraviti River. The band whose incessant raids on Cresban villages drove the area to join Aimoni as a dependent region or die.
    The man the blond boy was fighting took one look at the slightly built boy on his comrade’s shoulders and took off. The last bandit finally managed to throw him and, after sighting his assailant, turned tail and followed his fellow bandits into the pine forest.
    The Sirakani boy dropped to the ground in front of me, crouched like a bobcat. As he pushed his black hair from his eyes and rose, walking towards me with the knife, I tensed. But he simply knelt in front of me, sliced through the rope around my wrists, and helped me up.


    Later on, she gets to know him personally and no longer gives much thought to Sirakani stereotypes. However, other characters that have had bad history with the Sirakani are not so quick to trust him. I think it can be important to make sure that you don’t cut things like racism from your story for fear of offending someone when it would make sense for it to be there. On the contrary, we need stories that point out the detrimental effects of these things.

    And of course, the biggest thing to remember is that your characters are people. Naturally, their nationality is going to affect them in some ways–in their cultural norms (a great element to tie in), in their relationships with others–but beyond that, you don’t want to worry about it so much that you lose sight of the character as a person. It’s easy to focus on the things you’re afraid of writing wrong, but probably the best thing you can do is not overthink it. Acknowledge the factor, but there’s no need to either downplay it or make a bigger deal of it than necessary. 😉

    Those are my thoughts. Hopefully they make sense (and hopefully nothing I wrote was offensive. . . see, I worry about it too 😛 ).

    I know your story has several nationalities in it, if you have any advice.

    Hearts are like matter--they can be beaten down, torn, and burned, but they cannot be destroyed.

    The Inkspiller

    @hope-ann, @urwen-starial

    This is a nuanced question, to say the least. It’s too easy to go to one extreme or the other – being obsessed with inoffensiveness to the point of stifling, or so crassly out of touch that one ends up as the poster child for “those views we don’t hold anymore” in three generations or so. But I’ll try my best anyway.

    Part 1: Perspective

    “There are neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free; in Christ, all are one.”

    While the context of that quote places it squarely on unity within the body of Christ, it should also inform our attitude towards all peoples, our own and others. The most important aspect of character therefore is their humanity – there are some things that are common to all of us, even as there are many things which make us drastically different – things which run far deeper than the color of our skin or the accent of our speech.

    If your priority is to create an authentic human being whether despicable or heroic, that will steer you well.


    Part 2: Do Your Research

    Whether modern, historical, or fantasy, do your research.

    Whatever culture or nationality you’re including, learn about them. Read about their culture and history, customs, modes of speech, accents, both their own as well as outsider perspectives. As true as Part 1 is, people are different.

    As a VERY GENERAL example, “Western Culture” – that is, common values of (western) Europe and the United States – generally expects children to earn their own way and do as much on their own as possible – pay for their first car, work through college, moving out with the first job, etc.. From the Western perspective, parents ought not expect their children to pay them back, so to speak – to place such a burden on one’s children would be morally irresponsible.

    “Asian Culture” – a mindset that is common not just to Pacific Asia but many other collectivist cultures – instead holds that children do owe a debt to their parents, as parents pour their sweat and blood into raising their children and preparing them for success – to the point of paying for the first car, paying for college, housing and supporting their children through their first jobs, and so on. From the Asiatic / Eastern perspective, it would be immoral if children did not reciprocate the favor as adults, taking care of their aging parents after they have finally ‘made it.’


    Do your research. Someone might still get offended, but all you can do is be truthful.


    Part 2a: Stereotypes

    Don’t depend on stereotypes and subjective feelings, except when you’re intentionally trying to depict a culture through the lens of outside stereotypes.

    For example, I had a historical fiction piece set in the 1910s with a Chinese secondary character; doing my research, I didn’t shy away from depicting him in a derogatory or even racist manner when he was seen through the perspective of other White American characters. Yet because we are dedicated to authenticity, not political point-making, those moments of racism often didn’t get vindicated, certainly not directly. Wrongs exist, and sometimes we just have to bear with them.

    More important than being inoffensive is being authentic and truthful. We can’t hide the evil in the world, nor should we; instead, we ought to expose that evil to the light, though never bluntly.

    Furthermore, we are not moral relativists; every culture has its virtues, its flaws, and its blatant atrocities, and we should not be two ways about it when it comes to defining what is good and evil. Being “ethnic” does not entitle me to special treatment; just because I’m Chinese doesn’t mean that I deserve coddling, or that the negative aspects of my culture need to be glossed over. We needn’t necessarily bluntly condemn evil in an anvilicious, preachy manner – let sin’s natural consequences, “karmic justice,” do the convicting.


    Part 2b: Be Careful With Accents

    Accents are typically the most pettily annoying part of ethnic depictions – even if they are “accurate,” accents for any nationality can be very difficult to read, and that’s before we get to overly sensitive readers whose sensibilities are offended – not to discount the genuineness of their offense. Try to be sparing with the method of Intentional Misspelling to convey an accent; lean more into slang (research!), body-language, and grammar if you really need to convey an accent. Also see the thread “Those Posh-Sounding Characters” (linked below) for some more detailed responses from other writers on accents and dialogue.


    There’s probably more I could say (and more concisely and sensibly) but I can’t think of it just yet.


    Hope this was helpful and not merely confusing. 😛

    Non nobis Domine, sed nomini, Tuo da gloriam.



    *cracks knuckles*

    For starters, don’t shy away from writing characters of other nationalities. That sounds kind of obvious, but that’s an important place to start.

    Imagine having a friend of that nationality read your story. Or if you can, ask someone of that nationality to read it. If you’re comfortable with that, even if you’re writing sensitive stuff, you’re probably good to go.

    Characters from two different countries might not get along. Or they might be best friends. There’s going to be some differences, in any case. Don’t back down from showing that. But don’t act like that’s the entire focus of their friendship. Yeah, my Russian buddy and I talk about Russia sometimes. But 98% of the time, we talk about painting and books and the complexity of life. And yeah, my American character can’t say his buddy’s long Japanese name. So he gives him a nickname, which they play argue over, just like they play argue over everything else in the world. It’s just natural to their friendship.

    If your character is prejudiced against your foreign character, then show it. But show it as dead wrong, because it is. If you’re gonna portray something like that, leave no room for anyone to think you agree. Make the reader feel like you stick up for your foreign character, even if none of your other characters do.

    One of the best tips I’ve read for portraying characters of different nationalities or races is to not describe anyone differently, if that makes sense. Don’t put an extra emphasis on what one character looks like just because he’s different. Just portray them like you’d portray someone from your own country. And do your research, like @the-inkspiller said.

    And yes, about the accents. In my stories, it’s natural for me to write my Texan boys with a hint of an accent—leaving g’s off words, that kinda thing. Just enough that you can hear how they talk. But writing a character from a different country, I don’t write the accent. I just say, “he rolled half the letters in ‘literally,’” or, “in his lilting accent.” Just say they have an accent. We’ll get the point. I end up skimming if dialogue’s written in an accent, and that’s the exact opposite of what you should be doing.

    And at the end of the day, the Golden Rule is still pretty relevant. 😉 If you wouldn’t want you or your friends portrayed a certain way, don’t do it to your characters.

    I ask where he got these crazy ideas anyway
    He just smiles and says, it’s the way that I was raised

    Linyang Zhang

    @hope-ann So I myself would first ask the question, why am I having a person of a different nationality? Is it because I want to, or just because I want diversity? Because I, as a minority, would rather not be represented in literature and media than be misrepresented. For my own characters, a great deal of them are Chinese or Asian because I myself am Chinese, and I feel comfortable having characters of those nationalities. For myself it feels natural as to having those characters, and not like, “Oh, hey, they’re from a different country.” I label them as “the ferryman”, “the weird guy who shouldn’t be trusted”, and other such things, not “the Chinese dude”. If, when thinking of your characters, there’s nothing else about them besides their race/nationality in their tagline, then there’s probably something wrong. Finally, when having a character from a country that I am not familiar with, I would probably try Google, or, even better, actually talking to someone of that nationality and making friends with them. Once again, however, I do not think of this character as “the Indian guy”, I think of him as “the Fallen Prophet”.

    And also, if your character is of a different nationality, I’d love it if you could tell me right upfront. I don’t want to find out halfway through the book that the person in question looks completely different than what i imagined. For example while Wendy Mass if a great author, I was kind of annoyed that we didn’t find out that Miles was Chinese until the second book in one of her series.

    One author that I really appreciate for his portrayal of different nationalities (in my case, a Chinese character) would be John Steinbeck. While some people say his books are racist, his books are the least racially offensive books I know. Sure, the characters in the book may be racist towards the particular character, but the character is portrayed as an intelligent human being who is no less than the others.

    So my final word of advice is: write characters that you’re comfortable with. I do not recommend adding characters for the sake of diversity. As a minority, I feel particularly annoyed and even a bit offended when I see an author purposely shoehorn a lot of different things into their story just for the sake of diversity.

    I think that’s about it. Sorry for the semi-rant. Good luck on whatever you’re writing!

    "I set a melody upon the scenery I saw outside my window;
    It's beginning in my spacy world."
    - TK



    Research is very important in writing about different nationalities. Don’t just stick with your stereotypical ideas of a nationality or with ideas you’ve gotten from movies. Do your research. Use reliable sources about that people group, and if you can, try to read a story or article from the point of view of a person from that nationality.

    Also, don’t use terms and descriptions that could be offensive to that nationality. Go with more generic and widely-accepted terms. And if possible, it would be really helpful if you could contact a person of that nationality that you know to get their opinion, point of view, and feedback on what you’ve written.

    Besides that, I can’t think of any other tips that the others haven’t already mentioned. I second the Inkspiller’s thoughts about accents. Accents are important if you want your characters to be believable.

    I hope that helps!

    Courage, dear heart.

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