A lot of the characters I work with tend to be international, partially because Americans like myself are kinda boring (unless they’re insane…like myself) and partially because I’m from a family of vagabonds with a taste for farflung places. Either way, writing about said characters can be a bit of a challenge since I have yet to even make it out of the States*grumbles*. And considering the tendency of most people to be highly offended when their particularly nationality is maligned, you jolly well better get it right when writing about one foreign to your own, eh? Here are the things I’ve learned from my time writing about certain Italians, Brits, and Spaniards.
1. Travel Guides
RICK STEVES!!!!!!!! Between this guy and all the Lonely Planet travelers (who are far inferior to Rick), I’ve been to a lot of places visually, if not actually. And not only are the shows great ways to learn both the sites and the history of various regions, they’re a good base introduction to the people and typically give some information on how the people act.
Actual travel guides are great, too, though books intended for transplants to your selected country work even better. There’s a series(whose name I forget) out for students studying abroad that details how to adapt to daily life in most European countries, and conveniently mentions a lot about daily life. There are also comprehensive guides for business people who do a lot of international work on how to deal with various peoples and avoid offending anyone too badly.
2. Your Friendly Neighborhood Vagabonds
Either you know one or someone you know knows one. In every circle of people, there’s going to be at least one person who feels the need to throw darts at the map and go wherever they land. I’m rather lucky in that respect; I’m surrounded by travelers. My parents did mission work in Central America for two and half years. My cousin backpacked through Europe by himself. One of my Youth Group friends spends a little over a week each summer floating down the Amazon on a riverboat and doing medical work in the villages. My uncle and his family make frequent trips to Canada and Romania. And another cousin currently lives in Belize. So, yeah. My family knows about about globe-trotting. And I’d wager someone in yours does, too.
While there’s really no substitute for going there yourself, talking to someone who has been there is a good alternative. They can tell you little details that the travel guides won’t, as well as gritty realities that they try to sweep under the rug. For instance, did you know that Belize is a major melting pot for essentially every country in the world? Me, neither, until the parents who lived there shared that.
3. I Read, Therefore My Characters Are
Read books by authors from the country you’ve selected. I presume you know the whole “you are what you write” shtick? Well, I happen to think it’s true, and you can usually tell a lot about the psychology of the writer(and thereby the people like him) by the books he writes. Take Agatha Christie, for example. You can tell a lot about 1900’s England by reading those. Also, on a side note about Agatha’s work, you’ll note that Americans are almost always rich, blustery, slightly nutty egomaniacs who talk through their noses. It’s utterly hilarious.
The James Herriot books are awesome for peeking into the British lifestyle, as well. You get the atmosphere, the environment, the slang, the attitudes–all in a nice, funny, little package. (I know, those are both for people writing about Brits and are singularly unhelpful for people writing about anyone else. I’m sorry! I write about Brits. These are just examples.)