Culture, Characters, and Writing the Other (a preliminary post)

I just gave a little talk at a conference about starting from a place of empathy when we write about people who don’t share our cultural perspective. More on that later, but here’s something that I promised I would post (thank you to those who pushed me to get on this!) that I think will be helpful to a lot of people.

It’s a graphic created by Janine Slaga that shows culture as an iceberg. It’s about the visible and invisible (or above and below the surface, if you will) aspects of culture. Isn’t it amazing?

Screen Shot 2019-02-07 at 10.48.28 AM.png

Most of us, when we write “outside our lanes,” rely on the stuff at the tip of the iceberg. Our characters eat the food, speak the language*, celebrate the holidays. Maybe we dip into some of the family roles or the manners. But for a truly nuanced, fully realized character—especially a main character—we should be familiar with so much more. We should have carefully considered all of that good stuff beneath the surface.

If we haven’t, then we need to do more work.

If you like this image, you might like the other stuff that Janine has created. Support Janine here.

*If you’re writing a Black character and thinking, “Yes, I will have that character speak “Black” to make them more authentic,” please think again. Black English Vernacular is a complex, complete language with its own specific rules about grammar, syntax, and subtext. Dropping a few g’s off of “ing” words, experimenting with “ain’t” and double negatives, shifting around the “be” verb, using slang…is not equivalent to BEV and will not make your Black character authentic.