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!

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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.

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.

Hello from Osaka!


Well, here’s a boring but obligatory update:

After my end-of-the-schoolyear adventures with Naju friends and coworkers, I went to Daegu for three weeks and took one last stab at studying Korean. It was a lot of fun, and after a whole year of aversion to the language I was able to rediscover my passion for it. 🙂

On Wednesday, I got on a plane (as well as a taxi, a bus, and a couple trains) and came to Osaka, where I’ll spend the next year teaching at an eikaiwa. For now I’m staying at a guesthouse, but will move to my new apartment on Friday. In the meantime, I go into town almost every weekday in order to register the address, find a cellphone, open a bank account, and various other errands I need to have done by next Tuesday in order to begin working.

I can hardly describe how it feels to be back in Japan for the long haul; in some strange, embarrassing-to-admit way, I feel like I’m coming home. And even though I know my job is going to be neither prestigious nor easy, I’m so glad I have it because that means I’m here where I want to be.

It’s hard to say when I’ll next be able to post about writing (or that new special feature I hinted at before) but I’ll try to have something before long.

Hiking in Jindo


I’d hoped for the next post I wrote to introduce a new, semi-regular feature to my blog. Unfortunately, I climbed a mountain on Saturday.

“May,” you’re thinking, deadpan, “It’s your blog. No one is making you write about the bloody mountain.”

Actually, they are. When I initially got the “request,” I thought my hiking companions were just being fun; that maybe they wanted to see our shared adventure on my blog, so they could practice their English/feel special because this really awesome American woman wrote about them. So I in turn didn’t think much of it, indulged the group photographer who insisted on taking travel magazine-style photos of me at every opportunity, and then went home and forgot all about it.

Until about two hours ago, when I got this text: “Miss May, how are you today? Did you write an essay about mt. climbing? They want to get essay by today.”

At which point I stared at the phone in a mix of confusion and disbelief, realized they actually wanted something publishable, texted back something along the lines of “WTF?!&$X*#” and immediately went into panicked writer mode.

And here is the result.

*****

Jindo is South Korea’s third largest island, known mainly for two things: a special breed of dog that is native to there, and an annual event in which, for about one hour each year, the tides ebb enough to reveal a narrow land bridge. The latter attracts innumerable tourists who want to walk across from Jindo to Modo.

Other than these things, however, Jindo seems to be a quiet, rural place with a wealth of natural beauty. From my experience hiking in Korea, it is difficult to find a mountain not already inundated with casual hikers, where one can simply feel secluded in nature. The Jindo mountain trail allows for this. Though my group was fairly large, we ran into few others during the four-hour trek up, down, and around the mountain. At times I would find myself a little separated from the others; in those moments I heard nothing but wind-rustled leaves, the crash of waves down on the shore, and the occasional birdcall.

Visual charm, too, was not found lacking. Our trail took us first through a vibrant green wood dotted with orange flowers on long, free-standing stems. From almost every vantage point, be it a sunny peak or just a break in the trees, a bright blue ocean reached out toward the horizon. Later, the path took us right down to the water’s edge, allowing us to traverse the tide-carved rock and stare up from the base of the mountain’s impressive cliffs. A natural cave here allowed us to hide from the hot sun while we lunched.

As we delved back into the woods for the final leg of our journey, we found the difficulty level increasing. The dry dirt and rock that had stabilized our footsteps on the other side of the mountain were now wet leaves, mud, and slippery wooden steps. Going upward, I hoisted myself with the guide rope to take some weight off my weary feet. On downward courses I often found my momentum building out of control, and so grabbed hold of every tree small enough to fit in my hands for the sake of balance. Once I slid several feet across the slick detritus, right to the edge of a sheer drop. Fortunately I remained on my feet and was able to stop on time; but this became the most memorable point of the hike for me.

In the city, we can meet with injury in a million different ways: car accidents, bicycle accidents, falling down the stairs, burning ourselves on the stove. Doing any one of countless little tasks. Really, a mountain presents no more danger than we already face every day. And yet the risk, I feel, is more worthwhile for the good that hiking does to your soul.

I would hike in Jindo again. Despite the danger, which really was mild compared to what I experienced climbing Mount Fuji; and despite the sunburn, which I suffer, ironically, only in those places where I swathed on sunblock. In fact, I think that overall my experience was such that this hike, out of all my hikes in Korea, was my favorite.

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