Have you written a story where one of your characters comes from a country foreign to yours? You may have visited the location physically or have been an armchair tourist. Regardless of the way you traveled, you have now decided to created a character who originates from this place.
I’ve read various stories or excerpts written by American authors featuring British characters and/or locations. They prompted my interest because I’m now a Sistah in Scotland–that’s to say a black woman living in Scotland.
As such, my observations are going to be from the slant of an American observing the British, or to be more specific, the Scottish.
Scotsmen are very popular in romances. What images do you get when I say the word “Scottish?”
Kilts, haggis, bagpipes, tea, red double-decker buses?
Now, what do you see when I say “British?”
Bowler hats, pubs, crown jewels, tea, red double-decker buses?
If you said “yes” to either question you’re on the right track–to a point. I’ll explain more later.
What do you know about Scotland apart from stereotypes? I know some Americans belive Scotland is in Northern England and not a separate country at all. We need more geography lessons in our schools, but I digress. Are the Scots like the English, just with a thicker accent?
After living in Scotland for several years (and as a dual citizen), I’ve come to learn and appreciate the difference. Americans (if not the rest of the world) and even native Brits have been conditioned to associate the word “Brit” or “British” with ENGLAND. They fail to realise that “Britain” includes Wales and Scotland, and the “United Kingdom” also includes Northern Ireland–and all these countries have differences from England. Gee! Go figure! Some differences are subtle and some are substantive.
What does this have to do with character building? Quite a lot.
Say you are writing a story that takes place in Scotland. I’m going to give you a few tips to make your story sound a bit more authentic.
Here’s a subtle difference to consider. How many times have we read a bit of dialogue where a “British” character refers to a woman as “love?” In Scotland, a woman is probably more likely to be called “hen” or “doll.”
“How you doin’, hen?”
“There you go, doll.”
Scotsmen, down Glasgow-way at least, are more likely to call each other “pal” rather than “mate” like they do in England. “Mate” is English and Austrailian.
Here’s another thing. In the years that I’ve been here, I’ve seen maybe five Scottish Terriers in Scotland since my arrival. I don’t know where they are. I’m more likely to see West Highland Whites or even Yorkshire Terriers than I would a Scottie. I guess I should have gone to the Westminster Dog Show to see Sadie win Best in Show. Even more common than Westies are the various sheepdogs and collies and mix breeds.
OK–now your character is on their way to work and is going to catch one of the many double-decker buses. What color is it? Is it red? Well, you’re either in Edinburgh or England or on a Scottish hop-on-hop-off tour bus. You don’t see many red double-decker buses in Scotland…and I think they’re thin on the ground even in Edinburgh. The buses here are (for the most part) green, or white, or blue, depending on which bus company owns them.
Stereotypes – not all Scots wear kilts on a regular basis, but whenever there is a special or formal occaision, chances are good that you will observe men in kilts. If you ever want to see a high concentration of kilts in the city, I suggest you visit during “graduation season” in May and hang around the universities. The University of Glasgow was my haunt and I had ringside seats to getting a right eyefull of men in kilts. The main building where some of the ceremonies take place is on top of a hill…and it gets very breezy up there at times…
Seeing men worry about their hemlines is so cute!…And the women take advantage of it.
Spring and summer is also the season for weddings. “A Scotsman who doesn’t wear a kilt at his own wedding needs to check his family tree,” says my husband Jim who is Scottish. I agree! The kilt looks good on any man, large and small, young and old. It takes a real man to wear a kilt who does not question or feel embarassed about his “manhood” because he’s wearing a “skirt.” And speaking of “manhood,” that’s another reason why it takes a man…if you know what I mean.
I’m going to finish this article with a few books you may want to refer to with regard to creating Scottish characters and they are actually cookbooks. Yes, cookbooks. The first is Maw Broon’s Cookbook (translation: “Broon” as in “Brown”…no relation). “The Broons” in Scotland are the a comic strip equivalent to America’s “Blondie”–but with more kids. Since the 1930s, the Broons have provided comic glimpses of Scottish life. Inside Maw Broon’s Cookbook you’ll find many classic Scottish recipies along with reproductions of the early cartoon strips. You may need a translator to get the language down, but you’ll figure it out.
The second is Maw Broon’s follow-up cookbook, Maw Broon’s But An’ Ben Cookbook. A but an’ ben is like a small country retreat or cabin so these recipies are supposed to reflect this with recipies for picnics and barbeques and so on.
But generally speaking and regardless of the nationality of your character, find a good cookbook. Not only will you get an idea of what they eat, you’ll get insights to the culture as well. And then there’s something you can do when it comes to character research that the Internet makes so much easier but people don’t seem to talk about anymore.
Get a penpal!
“Y’alright there, mate!” – Getting Into (Foreign) Character by Zetta Brown is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
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