Characters and Culture

Whether an experienced writer or novice, one thing often overlooked is the culture of the protagonist, those he associates with, and the setting they move within. For instance, while reviewing a list of “bad” habits, one item was “not looking at the person they are talking to.” That may be all well and good if the characters are from an European culture, but does not apply to cultures which object to someone staring or looking at them while conversing. A related item is pointing. Some cultures allow pointing with the hand or finger, some with an elbow or foot, while others look upon pointing as taboo.

For instance, in the United States, how people think, act, and talk (not the sound, but which words they use and how they use them) can be quite different depending on the region. Consider these differences between individuals living in New York City or Bangor, Maine, Oregon, or my native Wyoming. However, that focus is only on language. On a larger scale:


Behaviors set one group apart from another group, these behaviors being transmitted from one generation to the next through teaching and imitation. I honestly do not know of a more diverse country than the United States thanks to immigration, migration, assimilation, and adaptation.

Like an iceberg, some cultural things are readily apparent. Many are not.

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We all have been influenced by a culture—the one in which we grew up, the one(s) in which we lived, or now live. When a writer begins to create a character, in order to make them believable (whether liked or not is immaterial) it is important to consider the culture from which they matured and in which they move. All too often, such detail is lacking or missing altogether. Consider what happens if a character originates from a New England culture and is set down in Arizona? What about a character who was born and raised on the Navajo Reservation and finds them self in Manhattan’s Chelsea? There is bound to be conflict. Oh, sure, a character can be born, raised, circulate, and die in one area, but where’s the fun that can be had in that?

These are some examples using one side of my ancestry, Volga-Germans who immigrated to the United States between 1880 and 1913. At the invitation of Catherine the Great, a large block of mostly Germans migrated to the Volga River area to farm. (Apparently the native Russians were too inept.) While insulated for 250 years from the Motherland by distance and a couple million Russians, language variants changed, but the not some of culturally embedded mindset.

1. Work Ethic:
The author, Hermann Eich, wrote an interesting book, “Germans” (1980) described as “An Examination of the German National Character Before, During and After the Nazi Period.” He asserts that the German people have a mania for work with no idea how to enjoy life. That may apply to those in the Motherland, but not to Volga Germans. I spent much of my early youth on my uncles’ farms in Western Nebraska. We started work early and quit late, and bust our behinds betwixt times; however, they knew how to party. A German wedding ran upwards of three days, around the clock, with singing, dancing, talking, eating, and drinking. There seemed to be a wedding every month. If we didn’t have any “fun” during the week, chalk that up to being too tired.

2. Creative Energy:
culture 4A person with an inventive mind and/or has creative hands should take advantage of that gift whether for work or pleasure. In the Motherland, yes, but not so much with the Volga Germans. From the 1700’s into the 1900’s the number of German composers who shaped the musical world is impressive. The Volga Germans knew how to play music, but there is little creative work.

Every culture has some form of music—Dutch Hop, Polka, Blue Grass, Rock, Country, Classical, drums, flutes, what have you. By giving a character to display a liking to sing, or play an instrument, or listen to music allows the reader to see a different side of their personality. In “Master and Commander,” both the English and French captains played an instrument. That really changed how the audience viewed these two men.

3. Love of nature:
Much like music, a character’s regard for wildlife, plant life, domesticated animals, world health, shines a different light on their personality which can either endear or repulse the reader. In a World War II movie, a Japanese officer is very rigid and harsh toward his men, but very tender toward his horse.

4. Thoroughness:
The Germans have a saying that if something is worth doing at all, it is worth doing right. Never do something half-way. Germans give attention to detail to the point of being irritating perfectionists.

4. Thoroughness:
The Germans have a saying that if something is worth doing at all, it is worth doing right. Never do something half-way. Germans give attention to detail to the point of being irritating perfectionists.

5. Orderliness:
Another German saying emphasizes the need for order! Punctuality is expected and rules and rules to be followed. That can be a strength or a weakness that leads to downfall.

6. Sincerity:
Fulfilling a promise is a matter of honor. Again, that can be a strength or a weakness that leads to negative problems and downfall.

7. Loyalty:
Loyalty is to family, friends, organization, and country; however, loyalty is a two-way street. The Russian government never showed the Germans respect or fulfilled promises, thus creating a deep animosity. The US was different to the point that when WW-I and II erupted, the Volga-German immigrants and their sons bent their backs to the war effort or offered their lives to defend their new homeland against what was once their roots.

8. Attitude towards violence:
Some cultures hang on to violence tooth and nail, some tolerate it, while others abhor it. Both German cultures tolerated violence. A study of their histories explains why.

9. Racial / Class:
Like it or not, rationalize it, or inwardly fight to deny it, racism exists and continues to be perpetrated around the world. I honestly don’t know of a culture where classifying individuals does not exist. Certainly both German cultures did and to a degree still do, whether they openly admit it or not.

10. Politeness:
culture 3With some cultures, as in Japan, politeness is an absolute necessity when so many people are packed together. Politeness is expressed in language as well with formal and informal words, and construct. My ancestors were not careful about what they said, how they said it, or where they said it, and that caused problems then and still does. Potty mouth in private is well and thriving in both German cultures.

11. Posture:
This says a lot about where the character is from and/or his upbringing–rigid, casual, slouch, formal, irreverent.

12Oral Habits:
Chewing gum is American, brought to the United States in the 1860’s and first distributed in New York in 1871. While it apparently has some positive cognitive effects, you won’t see it used in many other You can tell an American cowboy by the round, worn spot on his rear jeans pocket from the chewing tobacco tin. In other parts of the country it is the perpetual toothpick protruding from the mouth. In Germany, it’s cigarettes.

13. Wedding Rings:
On which hand a wedding ring is worn denotes marriage or engagement. In Germany, if wed, the ring isworn on the right hand, ifengaged, it’s on the left hand. In the U.S. that’s reversed. Jews place the ring on the index finger. Of course, some cultures don’t wear one at all, while others have them hanging from unusual places.

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14. Eating:
How a person handles eating utensil is indicative of where they are from. (If they use them at all.) If they smoke, and a lot of the world still does, how they hold a cigarette can be a distinctive feature. Then there is what they eat and in what manner. The Volga German custom was for the menfolk to eat first served by the women. What was left (and there was always a lot), the women ate last while the menfolk took a nap. Which of the three daily meals is considered the most important depends on the group.

15. Religion
Some cultures are bound tightly by religion. Religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, and usually involves ritual observances. Most generally the religious beliefs contain a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. Even agnosticism and atheism could be classified as a religion. Throughout history, “religion” has caused more wars, pain, suffering, and death than you’d care to count. Germans tend to be Lutherans for the most part, Italians are Catholic, French are disaffected, and the English set up their own thing. In the US, religion is by region depending on who immigrated the most people, and like language, that sets up regional cultures.

Often, culture things do not cross a writer’s mind, but can have a great bearing on how a character thinks and acts, and certainly adds a depth of understanding for the reader. The world is bigger, more diverse, colorful, and wonderful than you can imagine. Something a writer would want to take advantage of in their work.

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