If you are writing characters that are from a different culture than your own it is easy to fall into writing stereotypes. You may only have a stereotyped perception of that culture and have difficulty portraying it wihout stereotypes. Here’s how to avoid this in your writing.
1. Write people as three dimensional characters and focus on them as human beings.
People are certainly products of their culture but some aspects of character are universal. Focus on writing the character and their journey as an individual.
2. Be aware that what you see or read about a culture is not what it’s like to live in a culture.
For example, Britain is often shown on television with a focus on upper class Britishness and shows like Sherlock Holmes and Downton Abbey are often set in the past or filmed with a historical slant. Similarly most of the mainstream TV focus on Britain is on Southern England and the rest of us are underrepresented. People then often think that London, Oxford and Cambridge culture is the standard British culture when Britain has a mixture of many more cultures within it. Be careful not to slip into stereotypes or to focus on the most popular cities in a culture only. Try watching videos from people in that culture talking about their lives. Read blogs and listen to stories from people who actually live in the culture.
3. Avoid the cliches.
Consider portraying the character from a different angle than in other respresentations. Check common TV tropes to avoid things like the ‘token minority’, ‘bury your gays‘, ‘Canada, Eh?‘ etc. Sometimes there may be common tropes that are overused that you are not aware of because you aren’t a member of that culture.
4. Broaden your perspectives.
Watch and read information about other cultures to learn more about them. This way you will broaden your understanding of the wonderful varieties that different cultures have. Even watching food tasting videos where you see someone baffled at the notion of a food that is completely normal in your culture can make a person more aware of how insular our perspective of other cultures can be. We tend to see our own culture as the default ‘norm’ but it isn’t.
5. Be respectful.
This is important. You may find it funny to joke about another cultures oddities but the people within that culture may be offended and feel that you are ridiculing their culture. Be aware of historical sensitivities. Just imagine if someone from another culture poked fun at your culture how you might feel. Show that you respect other cultures and be sensitive in your portrayals.
Just for Fun:
Common Stereotypes about Britain that are wrong:
1. Everyone drinks tea.
Personally I never drink tea. I don’t like it. I like coffee better.
2. We are old-fashioned.
Some parts of our culture are old-fashioned but culturally the modern British tend to prefer to be progressive. We are science focussed as a nation and fairly liberal when it comes to equal rights in our laws though we can always do better.
3. Our food is awful and bland.
I take this personally as a lot of locally grown produce in Britain is maintained to high food standards and is very tasty (try Red Leicester cheese if you haven’t). Traditional English food is filling, tasty, stodgy and great for getting through the winter.
4. We love marmite.
Some people like it. A lot of people can’t stand the stuff. The phrase ‘you either love it or you hate it’ is common when talking about it and it’s also the advert slogan. I’m not sure why it’s so highlighted as British food when barely anyone that I know eats it.
5. We speak like the Queen.
The London accents and upper class Southern English accents are by far the most commonly portrayed on TV but we have an estimation of over 50 different accents. We all talk different. Plus what about Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish? British and English are not the same thing.
6. We have bad teeth.
I have a genetic disorder called Ameleogenesis Imperfecta so I have inherited a problem with mine but most people here are fine. They brush their teeth. They visit dentists regularly. Also poverty often plays a factor. Not all dental care is NHS available.
7. We are standoffish/cold and excessively polite.
Some people are, some people are not. The stereotypes vary from place to place. Northerners like me have a reputation for beng friendly while Southerners are said rarely talk to strangers but these are generalisations. It really depends on individual personality.
8. We are still an Empire or still want to be.
Modern British people weren’t alive during the height of the Empire and for them it is a distant past. Many feel no connection to the concept of empire and are more focussed on their day to day lives. Many are not even aware of the history as it’s not taught much in schools but we are aware that many cultures are still mad at us which is maybe why our default response to everything is usually ‘sorry…’.