1. TheFedoraPirate
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    TheFedoraPirate Contributing Member

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    Minority Characters

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by TheFedoraPirate, Sep 9, 2008.

    I'm on tvtropes.com and in the YKTTW a trope was recently proposed called "Minority in Appearance Only" in which a show has a minority character who "has no accent and their taste in music is no different from the rest of the (white) cast."

    This struck me as odd considering there are roughly 3 (or 5 according to traditional anthropology) "races" for the hundreds of hundreds of countries and cultures out there ... "accent" and "taste in music" is an obviously ridiculous way to show something like "race". It seems more related to culture.

    This view of race/culture would lead me to believe that African-American's would simply have American culture, which is probably true for the most part, but sub-cultures do exist, so my question is: Does an African-American sub-culture exist that I should be aware of? One that isn't best typified by accent/music? (Especially since my setting is a fictional U.S. city in an alternate history/reality version of the 1920s/30s in a plot revolving around organized crime with very little room for small talk ... the accent would be different anyway and music probably isn't going to some up at all).

    Basically, I'm trying to avoid the "WASPs painted ethnic" phenomenon without resorting to something that strikes me as both over simplified and at conflict with my setting.

    To be a bit more clear with what I'm looking for I know someone who wound up committing a faux pas when she was in Germany not over her accent or music tastes but over offering to help her host in the kitchen; a polite gesture in America ... an invasion of privacy in Germany. Thus in writing a German character I would keep such a differing view on proper social behaviour in mind. Anything like that I should know?

    Most of my other minorities come from actual foreign countries (like Germany) and were easier to research.
     
  2. tehuti88
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    tehuti88 Contributing Member

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    I haven't advice, I just wanted to say that this is the reason I avoid sites that list cliches, stereotypes, and anything they consider "overdone" (like a trope). Far too often such sites list just about EVERYTHING that EVERY writer puts in a story at some point, even if for the most part it's an accurate observation--just because "it's been done before." (If you were to revise your character to give them a more ethnic taste in music or an accent or whatever, that would be listed as a trope too!) I second your thought that to categorize a minority by their taste in music and such is ridiculous. While the trope does have its points, it can lead to unwarranted confusion for a writer just trying to write authentic characters.

    Instead of focusing on races I'd look more into cultures and cultural backgrounds (as you mentioned), including the countries of residence and origin for the minority character. You mention how something that's considered polite in America is considered rude in Germany; this is an example of a cultural difference that really has little to do with race, and much more to do with upbringing. I'm afraid I wouldn't know about black subcultures or anything of the sort, but rather than generalizing, seeking to learn about the cultural background of individual characters seems the better route to take. I guess the first step in doing that is in simply figuring out where your character came from and where they are now. If they're an American character, were they born in the US and raised in a typical "American" household? Have their ancestors been here for generations? Did some recent ancestors come here from another country, and if so, what values did that particular culture have, and have these been passed on? Etc. etc.

    A person raised in a typical German household, moving to the US, might consider it rude when somebody asks to help in the kitchen because that's a cultural difference in Germany; BUT...keep in mind the character is an INDIVIDUAL first and foremost, and just because something is encouraged by culture doesn't mean they'll follow it. Surely there are people in Germany, even raised under traditional circumstances, who see nothing wrong with helping in the kitchen. It's an individual choice.

    If culture is important to the character then it's best to look into it. But some people don't care about their culture, or they care about their individuality (or other things) more. Just yesterday I read an article about traditional Masai men going into hairdressing even though it's considered taboo, because they need to make the money.
     
  3. Scattercat
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    Scattercat Active Member

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    It's worth noting that, in certain places, at least, there very much was an African-American sub-culture in the 1920's. Harlem Renaissance much?

    Really, though, the culture would depend much more on the location than anything else; even in the US, accents vary considerably from region to region, as do cultural precepts. (My wife, who was born waaaaay up North, still can't understand the appeal of sweet iced tea, for example.) You're better off focusing on the circumstances in which a character was raised than their race, for cultural details.
     
  4. Foxee
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    Foxee Contributing Member Contributor

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    It depends who you talk to, I think. The fact is, minorities aside, America is a patchwork of subculture, ethic backgrounds, differing belief systems, vociferous opinions, and runaway quirks.

    Sure, some places you will find subcultures for ethnic groups and in other places (sometimes right in the same town) you'll find members of that same ethic group who care nothing for the subculture. Their job, tastes, and lifestyle are mainstream.

    On the theory of 'write what you know' I probably wouldn't try to write a character who was deep into a subculture unless I had really researched that subculture...and that means reading about it and talking with people who live it if possible.

    Generally, I stick with what I know, though, as subcultures can have so many nuances (like the kitchen thing you mentioned) that can trip a writer up.
     
  5. TheFedoraPirate
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    TheFedoraPirate Contributing Member

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    Well, that's what I'm doing (or attempting). The cultural background of this character would be "African-American", what I need to know is whether this is different from "American".

    Undeniably there are some people but it probably isn't common. I'm not making culture something all important (she already has a rather developed personality) but it is a factor and I can't decide how much it should factor if I know nothing about it (or in this case, whether it even exists).

    Those Masai going against their cultural taboo is exactly why understanding culture is important. They as individuals made the choice but the need for money drove them to go against a cultural taboo so they probably weren't comfortable with it. In America, where it isn't taboo for men to be hairdressers, there'd be no significance in a man choosing that career for any reason. Understanding that male hairdressers are taboo there would help someone write a their "Masai man hoping to become a hairdresser" more realistically than if they hadn't known that.
     
  6. TheFedoraPirate
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    TheFedoraPirate Contributing Member

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    That'd be my first instinct as well but you did mention a 1920's African-American subculture (i.e. a subculture identified by race). So it is something that happens though I'm not going discounting the character's personal background in the development of her personality/character ... And I'm very aware of exceptions, I was born waaaaaay down South (in Florida) and I can't stand sweet iced tea ... but I drink enough cups of hot tea a day to kill a horse.

    Yeah, I'm getting that impression. A sub-culture is a lot more difficult to research than a large regional culture (such as German, Chinese, Russian, Mexican, Puerto Rican etc.) As for writing what I know, I live in a city with a huge amount of diversity so the city reflects what I see day to day; and it's easy to talk about cultural differences "well, in China, we would do things this way ...". But I never noticed anyone I knew that was African-American being especially culturally different but after the comment on the other site I began to wonder if perhaps I was just unobservant and had missed something. Maybe I should stick to writing what I know (or what I observed) and if anyone objects, well, that's just the way I observed them.
     

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