Writing Characters as Paradoxical People


People are paradoxes. Choose any real person you know and try to describe them, and you’ll likely come up with a pattern like “very x and y, but surprisingly also z.”

When I’m having trouble developing characters, I sometimes go as far back to basic as possible. That means taking a list of dozens of character attributes and more or less playing roulette with them. If I want to start off simple, I go with three traits: two that complement each other, and one that seems to mismatch completely.

For example, let’s say I need a supporting character and all I know is I want someone snarky. What complements snarky? Lots of things: witty, fun, abusive, clever, crass, critical, pessimistic. I think I’ll make this character critical of others, which comes across in his snarky comments. Now, what trait would be totally unexpected in a critical, snarky person? I’ll take the exact opposite of one of my complementary terms: optimistic.

That seems like a difficult combination to pull off, right? May, you’re some kind of writing masochist.

But characters who fit too nicely into a personality mold aren’t interesting. More importantly, they aren’t real. I’d rather read about a critical, snarky optimist and find out why he’s like that, than read about a critical, snarky pessimist whose past is basically spelled out in his scowl.

Sure, May, but how exactly do you write someone like that?

*

I clung to the cliff face, heart pounding, though hell if I knew where all that blood was going since I couldn’t feel my fingers. Jork  dangled above me, staring down into the abyss as though wondering, of all things, where in that darkness his cigarette lighter had fallen.

“You could look a bit more worried,” I said. “Or angry, or you know, anything other than calm.”

He shrugged. “You want me to tell you how you effed up? How you somehow managed to get tricked by a little girl with a bag of dynamite who obviously wasn’t the coconut seller she claimed to be?”

“Well–“

“Cuz I’d be hanging here all night if I did that.”

“How is it,” I asked through clenched teeth, “that you can be so negatively analytical about everything else and then have no logical response to falling off a cliff?”

“Just because I don’t trust people doesn’t mean I don’t trust in the universe to get us out of here.”

I tapped my forehead against the rock. “In one direction or another.”

*

Written in roughly five minutes, but you get the point. :)

For some help coming up with personality traits, here’s a handy generator from a site with many other handy generators.

Got a paradoxical character? Feel free to share them in the comments!

Why I (try to) Write Diverse Characters


Let’s talk ethnicity. I am a couldn’t-be-much-whiter German-French-English-Irish-First Nation-American. The 3% of me that is First Nation (the Canadian term for Native American) is Cree, which is really interesting and probably the reason people occasionally ask me if I’m part Asian. But for all intents and purposes, I am white and I invariably check the little box that says “White Non-Hispanic.” I have lived the vast majority of my life in the U.S., experiencing white privilege even without being aware of it. I have never experienced, in this lifetime, what it’s like to be black, or Hispanic, or disabled, or a man, or anything other than white, female, and mostly poor.

The thing is, I have this character. She’s a lot like me, in that she’s bookish, dreams of traveling the world, and has fears that sometimes make it hard to live her life. She’s also rather different: an over-achiever, one hell of a flautist, and half black.

See how her skin color is so low on the list? See how I say it like it doesn’t matter, because skin color has so little bearing on who you are as a person?

“May,” someone will inexplicably say, “you’ve got it all wrong. It does matter. Many PoC’s belong to a culture completely different from yours; what right do you have to portray a culture that you’ve never been a part of?”

That someone would be right. As an outsider, it’s impossible for me to ever gain the same insight as someone who’s spent their life in that cultural environment.. On the other hand, not all PoC’s identify with all aspects of the cultures they come from. Some things are universal, like needing different methods and products to tame your hair. Other things, like dialect, religion, beliefs, come down to the individual.

As a white woman, can I write a black character speaking AAVE and not come across as racist/misappropriating? I don’t know, but it would be really hard. Does that automatically mean that I shouldn’t write a character with dark skin? I don’t think so.

Now my observant commenter says, “May, you can’t just sweep an entire lifestyle under the rug.”

Agreed. That’s where research and a little sensitivity come in handy.

“But you’re still not a PoC, so you can’t really portray what’s it’s like to be one realistically.”

It’s true, I will never really understand the day-to-day reality of having dark skin in modern America. I’ll never personally experience the fear of being a black male who’s just been stopped by the police and doesn’t know what’s about to go down. I’ll never know exactly how many looks I’d get as a Hispanic woman just trying to do the grocery shopping, or the sentiments behind them. I’ll never be that one Filipino kid in a class full of white kids who assume he’s Japanese (if they’re into anime) or Chinese (if they’re not).

I’ll tell you what I have been. I have been poor; dirt poor, in fact, like many PoC’s and disabled people are in a country that’s run by white, abled people. I have lived in the hood. I have, due to living in the hood and attending a public school, been the only white person in my class. I have been excluded because of the color of my skin and the way I speak. I have lived in Asia and traveled Asia and stood out and gotten looks ranging from curious to jealous to mistrustful. I have sat next to Japanese people on trains while they talked about my hair, my height, and my body while assuming I couldn’t understand a word — or not caring. I have been stopped on the street by Japanese police officers and asked if the bike I was riding was mine, and they didn’t believe me until they checked the registration number. I have nearly broken into tears because my South Korean high schoolers, who after all only learn these things from their parents, would venomously put down Japanese people and Southeast Asians and gay men but somehow never had anything to say about North Korea. I have been afraid to tell even my dearest friends that I am bi, because maybe they’ll say it goes against God or because maybe they’ll worry I’m attracted to them or because maybe they’ll try to convince me that I’m not.

I have felt like an outsider and a minority for most of my life. And yet I know that’s nothing compared to what PoC’s, disabled people, and many LGBTQ’s go through daily. And taking one look at the people who run my country, at the people who have the loudest voices here, I can see that there are too many who remain unaware of just how similar we all are.

That’s why I have a main character who’s smart, strong, and half black.

That’s why I have a main character who dedicated herself to cross country running after she moved to the U.S. as a nine-year-old with no English knowledge.

That’s why the latter’s boyfriend is a history nerd majoring in Museum Studies, and happens to be Asian.

And that’s why the main character of my newest project is a sweet, adventurous girl who happens to be deaf.

Because people are people, and that’s something that transcends the superficial.

Writing Foreign Characters and Non-Native Speakers


Finally taking a time-out from life to post. Yay!

I love writing culturally and linguistically diverse characters. As a linguist, I can’t help but consider how such characters would interact. For example, an English-speaker gets pulled into another world; what are the chances of people there also speaking English? Uh, zilch, unless they originally come from an English-speaking country in our world. So then I have to come up with a logical explanation for why my character can communicate with them, because my linguist brain kind of draws the line there for suspension of disbelief.

Seriously. Portals to another world? Sure, taken for granted. Language discontinuity? Stop right there.

One thing I see a lot with bilingual characters is a tendency to defect to their native language for words they don’t know. TV and literature alike are rampant with lines like “Look at that humongous gato!” This in and of itself is fine, but the way I most often see it handled makes me think the writer has never encountered an actual English Language Learner (ELL).

Take the above example. There are a few things that strike me as highly unlikely:

1. The speaker knows the word “humongous,” but not “cat.”

2. The word he/she defaulted on was a noun. Statistically speaking (from experience as an EFL teacher), nouns are easier to remember than most other word types. I’d say the hierarchy of difficulty actually looks something like conjugated verbs -> adverbs and adjectives -> nouns -> interjections.

3. Using gato is fine if the speaker knows the other person will understand, but if not, they would probably try to find another English word to explain. Think about it: If I don’t know the word in your language, why should you know it in mine?

So in a realistic scenario, the person is more likely to say “Look! Big gato!” or “Mira — the big cat!” or even “Look at the big — uh, there!” (with gestures).

If you don’t functionally speak your character’s native language, be sure to do your research. Check Youtube for actual clips of people with that native language trying to speak English. And don’t assume that all ELLs are going to make the same kinds of mistakes. My former Korean and Japanese ELL students, for example, always had the hardest time using “almost.” They would all give me sentences like:

“Almost Japanese people love karaoke.”

“Almost my coworkers go home after eight.”

Literally EVERY. SINGLE. STUDENT. It didn’t matter what their age, what level their English, or what kind of school they had gone to. Even my co-teachers in Korea, otherwise fluent, did this. They were told that “almost” was the same as “most” and it took hours of conditioning to make them drop the habit. My Saudi Arabian students, on the other hand, didn’t really have this problem.

They also have trouble choosing between “a” and “the” because Japanese and Korean don’t have articles. But you can bet Spanish and Italian speakers have got that down.

These few minor considerations can really give your characters an extra dimension of realism, even if your readers/viewers don’t consciously register why.

On the flipside, here’s an example of how badly things can go wrong if you take the easy way out.

Can you think of any instances, literary or otherwise, where a character had an awkward or unlikely line as a non-native speaker?

Morikami Oshougatsu 2015


Yesterday I went to the New Year’s festival at the Morikami Museum and Gardens. Having been back from Japan less than a month, I thought I’d write up my impressions, good and not so good. Times are approximate. Starting from the line to get in:

9:50 — “I know how to pronounce sah-kii because my friend works in a Japanese restaurant.” She meant sakè. (= ‘sah-keh)

10:00 — Got my first staff smile of the day while buying my ticket. She said she loved my yukata.

10:05 — Saw my first (but not last) woman in a Chinese bathrobe.

10:15 — Did some catching up with an old friend at the fortune paper booth.

11:30 — Two girls asked if they could take my photo for social media promotions. Yeah!

12:00 — Saw a group of girls in awesome loli costumes. Also wrote my wish on a board with a bunch of daruma faces and filled in its right eye. If my wish comes true I can go back next year and fill in the other eye. :)

1:30 — Went to the tea ceremony demonstration, which was packed. I felt really happy about all the interest in what’s usually a more under-the-radar art form. (Except, guys in the tree, seriously? You must not even have known what you were trying to look at, since that kind of behavior doesn’t fly in tea ceremony.)

2:15 — Got asked by another promo guy for a photo. He said I might feature on the New Year’s leaflet next year. Cool.

3:00 — (After James and I spent five minutes answering a little girl’s questions on kimono and how to study Japanese)
Random guy with a Japanese girlfriend who literally just fed him this information: “Hey, um, I dunno how you guys take criticism, but… your kimono should be right over left.”
James: “That’s for dead people.
Guy: (looks stupidly at his girlfriend)
Girlfriend: “Heh? I though it was the other way.”
(Followed by about 30 seconds of James and I correcting her in Japanese while her boyfriend looks lost. Ends with her saying “I’ll look into it” and running away.)

***Word of advice, guys. Don’t assume that other people are ignorant weaboos just because you’re Japanese or have a Japanese S.O. It will come back and bite you if you if you don’t know what you’re talking about, and especially if the opponent you choose is someone who does.

The verdict: I love the Morikami and I love that they try to get the general public interested in Japanese culture. There are many authentic things about the festival, like koto, traditional games, and tea ceremony. But as someone who lived in Japan for two years, I can see what’s been watered down or adjusted for an American audience. I don’t fault the Morikami for that; I’m in the minority for actually liking matcha and knowing the difference between kimono, yukata, and the all-too-prevalent Chinese bathrobes. And I also understand that being interested in a culture is not the same as understanding or even having respect for that culture. So, in the big scheme of things, the festival did serve its purpose of exposing people to Japanese culture while being entertaining. I do wish people could have acted with more care for others, or even done a little research beforehand, but it looked like most people had a good time and maybe even learned something new. And as someone who has singlehandedly taken it on myself to attempt the same goal (which is a post for next time), I think the Morikami is doing a pretty decent job.

Life without Words


I think anyone with a creative hobby can relate to this one.

When I finally made my years-long dream come true and moved to Japan, I was still living in the memory of what it had been like to study there. As a student, I’d had the perfect schedule: classes until early afternoon, with the rest of the day, weekends, and holidays free to go wherever I wanted. I had time to explore, time to practice yosakoi, and time to travel anywhere in the country. I’d heard that Japan was not such a great place to work as to be a student, but I thought I’d found a job with enough flexibility to get around that.

Let me first say that I loved my job. Many of my regular clients became my friends. I met all kinds of people and was able to grow a lot as both a teacher and a person. I could literally choose any schedule I wanted, submitting 200 lessons a month or zero lessons a month, closing any that didn’t book any time I wanted. On a day-to-day basis, it was perfect for me.

There was just one caveat: in order to meet the Japanese government’s requirements for visa renewal (as well as to earn enough money for food, rent, and student loan payments), I had to teach about 160 lessons a month. Not submit — teach. That meant that on slow days, I’d have to open extra lessons and hang around until the last minute to see if they’d book. Eventually this resulted in a schedule like this:

5:00-6:30 = wake up, catch the train, get to work
7:00-2:00 = teach (with a 45 minute break at 10, and sometimes I’d go home early)
3:00-5:00 = get home, eat lunner, do anything else that needed to be done that day, then head back to work
5:30-8:30 = teach again
9:00-9:30 = get home, pass out

I felt like I was always in work mode, even at home, because I couldn’t even take my suit off and be comfortable. So I was basically in a state of permanent (albeit low-level) stress. Which translated to “Novel writing? Okay, with effort… Blogging? Ugh, I’ll do it next week.” And social life? That’s funny.

I feel as though I came to understand quite intimately why so many of my working clients listed “hobbies” like listening to music, window shopping, and riding trains. I myself had to drop archery and karate, things I’d been wanting to try since high school, just months after picking them up. But nothing hurt more than losing my words.

One day I got home feeling exhausted and absolutely soulless, and realized I hadn’t written a word in weeks. Every project I’d been working on, every promise I’d made for this blog, had words just hanging in some void where, even if I could find them, I wouldn’t have the time or energy to write them down. I felt like a loser, and worse I felt lost. For me, setting the words in a physical form is only part of the process. Before I can even get to that point, I need the words in my head, and before the words are even formed, I need the images, the emotions, the raw experience that those words become an intermediary for. And I didn’t even have the time or peace of mind to indulge that.

Okay, I’m probably a bit too wordy at the moment, so here’s the point: it’s too easy to get caught up in Important Things and forget why you’re alive. Because yeah, money and rent and not starving are all necessities that should and (for most of us) probably do take priority over simple passions. But I could never see the point of a life consisting entirely of a “work eat sleep” pattern repeating into eternity.

We should work to live, not the other way around.

And it’s easy to say “I’ll do this” and never really act on it. However solemn your vow to yourself, it’s not good enough, and it never will be. That’s why today, I decided to skip over the “I will” and jump straight into the “I am.”

I am now wrapping up this horribly written blog post. :)

The Night that Made Me a Feminist


Disclaimer: This post, contrary to my promise of posting part two of my adventures in Japanese bureaucracy, is about sexism and feminism. I see the topic as being slightly more important than my original intended one. (Though I will get to that one eventually.) This post is long, and probably not interesting to anyone other than me. But I’m writing it, and sharing it, as the first step in my personal journey as a feminist.

Background:

I grew up in a really nasty neighborhood. My house was literally right next to an elementary school, and yet on a nightly basis you could find prostitutes (both male and female) on the corner. Sometimes they’d get their customers to park in our driveway while they worked. We’d also get drug dealers, people lurking around our yard to look for anything worth stealing, and at one point a high-profile criminal taking a shortcut through our property to lose the police. Said man, who had been arrested for shooting an eight-year-old, had escaped his handcuffs. He then went on to gun down three officers, steal a car, lead a chase to a highway convenience store, and then shoot himself in the head. He’d been our neighbor for several years.

Okay, so I grew up in a world of crazy. That can be easily agreed on, right?

And yet somehow I remained totally ignorant to a much more common issue. Just because somehow it had never happened to me before.

That’s not to say I didn’t consider myself a feminist. At least once a week I look at posts about everything from subconscious female anti-feminism to blatant male misogyny, in the form of blogs, articles, comics, forum conversations, and Upworthy videos. I knew about things like male entitlement issues, objectification, and women only being “off limits” if they “belonged” to someone else — but I didn’t see it in my own environment. I felt angry, I wanted justice for the women involved. But the experiences I was reading and watching about were all second-hand. Though I didn’t deny that these things happened, I incorrectly assumed that because they had never happened to me, and because none of my female friends had ever confided such experiences to me, that they weren’t nearly so rampant as social media implied.

The Incidents:

Let me reiterate: in my 26 years of life, living in Miami, Korea, and Japan, even visiting places like Cambodia and Thailand, I had never run into any kind of sexism-fueled problem that actually scared me. Sure, I’d gotten looks when wearing anything remotely form-fitting, I’d had guys come up to tell me I was pretty, or to ask me out for drinks. And, okay, I had something like a stalker for a while, who liked to pretend he didn’t get that I wasn’t interested — but though he made me feel uncomfortable to be around, I was never scared of him. Now I see it for what it was, but I guess because the situation developed so differently, it didn’t really feel like objectification back then. For such a persistent person, he had more respect for me than either of the guys I ran into the other night.

I now live in Osaka, if you’re reading this as a first-time visiter. And compared to Miami, I’d always felt that Japan was infinitely safer, and full of people who actually respect others. As for fashion, the girls here always keep their shoulders covered, but love exposing their legs. You see thighs everywhere here, at all hours of the day. Sitting in Starbucks right now, I’m seeing as much girl-thigh as you might see at Miami Beach.

I usually don’t wear short dresses, though. In Miami, tank tops and “booty shorts” are the norm and don’t really get second looks, but I’ve always considered myself a modest dresser, even by Osaka standards.

But, since the night in question was a rare night off from work as well as my friend T’s birthday, I donned something a little longer than the typical Osaka chic and went out. My friend was dressed similarly.

The first incident was really minor in comparison. A Japanese guy came up and tried to invite us out for drinks, among other things. I was smart enough to say that we couldn’t speak Japanese, and T used what I’ve since learned is the ultimate line of defense against such things: “We have to meet our boyfriends now.”

He immediately backed off — can’t mess with another man’s girl, right?

Incident two happened after we’d joined up with two guy friends (neither of whom was actually my boyfriend). T was walking right next to me in a crowded junction, the guys up ahead. A stranger brushed past me — and I felt his hand more or less grab me in a place it had no business being.

I was in shock. I’d always imagined such situations on crowded trains, and pictured myself turning and punching the guy and screaming “Pervert!” But in real life I couldn’t move. In fact I almost laughed in denial that it had happened at all. And even though I could point out exactly who had been the culprit, he was already halfway down the crowded street by the time I turned around. There was no police officer in sight, and even if there had been, I understood right away that there was nothing to do. I was a foreigner (that alone would likely get me waved off) and wearing a dress that, though in line with Japanese standards, was short enough to be considered “asking for it.” Suddenly I understood a lot more of the feminism posts I’d been reading online.

But that wasn’t the end of it.

The Incident that could have gone seriously wrong:

That same night, I was lucky enough to catch the very last train from Tennouji to my home station. I was feeling really relieved, because while I live in a nice community, the area just around Tennouji has some dangerous territory (by Japanese standards) and I did not feel like trying to navigate through it for the first time at one in the morning. But from my station to my apartment, I had never felt even a twinge of suspicion that something might happen. 

And yet that night, as I climbed the stairs to my room in a building that mostly housed retirees who conked out by 9pm, I knew someone was following me. Every time I paused to look down at the next level, he also paused — sometimes ducking out of sight, sometimes staring back up at me as though trying to convince me he wasn’t anyone suspicious.

When I stopped at my floor, a little out of sight, to catch him, he made his intentions clear by guiltily trying to hurry back downstairs.

In Japanese, I asked, “Do you live here?”

Now, I suppose I could give him points for honesty, because the closest translation of his reply would be, “No, it’s just that you caught my eye.”

But that comment made me angry before I could even understand why. And my friends all know, I don’t anger easily. Even my closest friends have seen me like that only once, and say they were terrified. So when I told this guy to go home, I could tell there was nothing else he’d rather do in that moment. He flashed me a nervous smile and a thumbs up, and then disappeared.

Now, he wasn’t a scrawny guy. If he’d wanted to, he could’ve easily overpowered me. But his personality, if I can judge from that short interaction, seemed to be gentle and even honest. Had we met on the street, I would have taken him for a regular, probably decent person.

So why did he think it was okay to follow me back to my room? Why did he see nothing wrong or even strange about it? What was he even hoping to achieve by doing so?

And his reason — because I caught his eye. Did my wearing a short dress actually make him think he had any right to carry out, or would benefit in any way from, his behavior?

Getting to the point:

When I told this story to a close male friend, the first thing he said was “Please don’t wear short dresses anymore.” He acknowledged that women shouldn’t have to take precautions against men, but also said that that wasn’t the point.

According to him, the point was that this is the kind of world we live in: a world in which men assume that women belong to men, that we dress up solely for the attention of men, and that wearing anything they find attractive is an invitation to do whatever they want, regardless of what we communicate through actual words or other actions.

So I should wear concealing clothes in the middle of summer to avoid looking attractive? I should dye my hair black so I don’t immediately stand out as a foreign woman (considered more “loose” than Asian women)? Should I just give up and start wearing a burka, or should I go so far as to get a sex change so I can stop being the assumed property of men?

I’ve now gone through a night in which a single instance of wearing a certain dress brought on three separate incidents of sexual harassment, which only worsened in scale. And in the aftermath I witnessed one of the most thoughtful and sensitive men I know cater to the idea that it’s a woman’s responsibility for making sure she doesn’t get sexually harassed.

But that’s exactly the line of thinking I used to follow: “If you don’t wear revealing clothes, you shouldn’t have any problems. I never did.” After all, by a similar token isn’t it your own fault if you get stabbed walking through a dangerous neighborhood at night? (Red alert: This is a sarcastic question!)

Now I understand that that way of thinking is archaic. In Victorian times, it was considered scandalous for a woman to show ankle. We’ve moved past that, but just because the idea of what’s sexy has changed doesn’t mean that all men’s attitudes towards women have. Maybe in the future we’ll be able to run around in panties and bras and not be “asking for it,” — but not necessarily because that kind of man will be any more respectful; it will be because of a new extreme for them to latch onto. “She was wearing a strapless bra and all the girls around her were wearing straps. She was asking to be felt up!”

It makes me all the more grateful to men (and women) who are feminists — and who were feminists long before I ever saw the need to be one myself.

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