A National Voice: Bringing Your Character Home

by Catherine Foster

For this week’s blog topic, we turn to some aspiring writers on Twitter. Many of you out there have questions about the writing process that aren’t ever answered directly in the manuals. No matter how thorough Strunk and White’s is or how detailed the chapter on commas in The Chicago Manual of Style, some individual questions arise that are unique and require specialized answers. Such a question came up recently thanks to Sophie O’Donnell @odonnellsl_. Sophie’s question was:

Trying to write an American character is a lot harder than I thought. How do I make them sound less British without creating a complete stereotype?!

This is a worthy question, and one I struggled with in reverse when I was beginning as a writer myself. I had a few stories that had been commissioned to be written for a British audience, and I was quickly confounded by the many “Briticisms” that I had never previously encountered or considered. Torches, lifts, digestives … and don’t even get me started on the difference in our pants and theirs. The point is, I understand Sophie’s point completely. While British English is the same language, technically, when I had to write a story for a British audience, it suddenly felt as though I needed to take a course or two on Duolingo, British style, and how to apply it to writing properly. It was easy to get overwhelmed in the little cultural differences that would point me out as a foreigner and an immediate fraud. What’s an author to do?

Well, there are two options here: one is to immerse yourself in the culture that you are trying to write about. It requires careful study and months-to-years of understanding their way of life. If you are going to be writing for that audience for an extended amount of time (like I did), then this is recommended. There will still be minute things that will always be off. You can’t know what you don’t know about the ways people talk and communicate, but you can and will pick up on general slang terms. It will be close enough that most people will understand, and all but the pickiest will be content.

The second option is this old writing chestnut: write what you know. It’s old but still around because it has value. Write your story; write it true to yourself, effortlessly and with all the characteristics of your own style. Write it how you would, with the details of your own daily life. It’s the best and most authentic way to write, and it will resonate with your readers. After you are done, go back for a round of edits and then change what you can. Some things that you might anticipate changing, you won’t necessarily need to change. You are British and you wrote that your character drinks tea? It’s true that Americans drink coffee, but we don’t eschew tea. That can be left in. It doesn’t have to be coffee to be “American.” The best thing is to be authentic. America is a melting pot, with many people and many traditions. There’s no one way of doing things here, and Americans understand and accept that as easily as anything.

Still worried that you said “bobby” when you meant “cops”? Fair enough. There are many writing groups that have beta readers who can help out with that. A lot of them offer the service for free. In my case, they called it “Brit-picking”: finding the terms that I used that rang a little false on the ears and offering alternatives.

If you are still uncomfortable and you want a perfect story, you can always rely on the services of a trusted editor: find one that has experience with foreign languages. Make sure you communicate whether you want a full edit or just a reading for the style elements that might stand out, such as the foreign-sounding terms. A proofing is much cheaper than a full edit, and can be done much quicker and for half the cost.

I hope this answers your question. Good luck and happy writing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *