Creating Cross-Cultural Characters

Guest posts may quickly become one of my favorite things to do. Honestly, this week ate my lunch. And our darling author, Rebekah DeVall, came to my rescue. The exchange went something like this.

“Bek, I’m dying.”

“I just finished a monstrous blog post on questions to ask when you’re creating cross-cultural characters. I’ll send it.”

“Bek, I love you.”

Followed by my promptly dying for two more days before finally being able to post said article. BUT. Without further ado, my dears, here it is.

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Who is Rebekah DeVall?

author-photoRebekah DeVall prides herself on being the girl who wrote 200,000 words in 21 days. She’s a Christian author with a penchant for killing characters and a love for writing real female protagonists described as “the example of a Christian hero that young readers need to see”.

Rebekah DeVall is one of the wonderful young ladies whom I’m proud to say is a part of my writing family. We met in 2016 when I was putting together a writing contest for my blog (at that time Romantic Typewriter Gardens–Where the Wild Things Grow). And, she happened to submit some things to my contest.

General feedback turned into lengthy conversations, turned into mentoring, turned into gouging each other’s eyes out when one of us isn’t getting our work done. And thus, here I am today–not getting work done and letting her cover for me. (This is not normal, I swear.)

That said, Rebekah is one of the finest young authors and down to earth people I’ve had the chance to know in quite a while. She has multiple books published that you can take a look at here. You can also stalk her on Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook.

Questions to Ask When Creating Cross-Cultural Characters

Ladies and jellyfish, I come before you to stand behind you to tell you something of which I know nothing about. It was a dark and stormy night, and the moon was shining brightly…

Oh the laughs.

Some of my fondest memories from childhood involve riding the precarious roads up and around the Andes Mountains, my dad in the front seat telling stories. The windows would be rolled down, a breeze blowing through. Not one of the eight kids crammed in the back of our Toyota Landcruiser wore a seat belt – how could the little kids sit on our big kids’ laps if we did that?

Sometimes, we’d stop smack-dab in the middle of a river “to wash the jeep”. Face it – we washed ourselves more than the car. River-water flowed between the tires, washing the kilometers’-worth of mud, dirt, and feces from between the treads. We kids would slip off our sandals, hike our skirts up far more than would be church-approved, and wade in the water. If we were lucky, we’d catch tadpoles or find some pretty rocks in the middle of the river {not that they could go home with us. But they were awesome while they lasted}.

After that? Off to church with us – a little cement-floored, solar-panel-powered church with members all from one physical family and a dog or two as guests. After all, they wanted Jesus too!

This was my childhood.

As a voracious reader all my growing-up years {Legend tells that at two years old, I asked my mother, “When are you going to teach me to read and write?}, I learned a lot about different cultures outside my own. Huckleberry Finn. Anne of Green Gables, with her Lake of Shining Wonders and the Valley of Wonder. Missionary stories, of the brave Amy Carmichael and all the girls she saved in India.

And then furlough hit. That dreaded one-year “vacation” that wrenched us away from everything we had ever known to go stand, spotless, in carpeted churches with grand pianos. Little old ladies pinched our cheeks and asked us questions like, “How does it feel to come home?”

I remember a distinct feeling of – Wait. This isn’t home. Bolivia is home.

So here we are. Over a decade later, I’m sitting in our “furlough house” in 2019, writing my own stories {being such a bookworm, how could I not advance to writing my own stories eventually?}. I’m finding that the more stories I write, the more cross-culturally my characters become.

Maeve straddled the cross-cultural barriers of disability.

Aveza crossed the semi-cross-cultural barriers between faith and disbelief, upper-class and outcasts.

Roza is the girl coming closest to my heart. From my most recent WIP {work-in-progress}, Vixere, she’s a young girl who’s taken from her peaceful, mountainous home and forced into slavery in the arid, fiercely-political culture of Aenor. Once in Aenor, she crosses paths with others who, like her, have crossed cultures – two brothers who conformed to the new culture, a master who wishes to adopt them both, and a father who hates everything that does not fit into his own little box of culture.

Each character views their culture differently – and each has been affected by it in different ways.

So here’s my list of questions, the format highly inspired by my own cross-cultural body, Melissa Gravitis of Quill Pen Writer, to aid you in building your own cross-cultural characters.

Backstory:

  • How many years has this character spent in each culture?
  • How old were they when they crossed cultures?
    • A person’s age at the time of crossing cultures affects how much of the different cultures they internalize.
      • I moved to Bolivia at four years old, which made me more likely to adopt/internalize different aspects of Bolivian culture.
      • The brothers Roza meets in her story became a part of Aenorian culture in their early teens. They adapted/conformed to this culture much more quickly than Roza does as an adult.
    • Have they crossed multiple cultures? This may also affect them.
  • Why are they cross-cultural? How does this affect their beliefs?
    • A “military brat” might now be a rigid, highly patriotic individual. Or perhaps they might swerve to the other side of the spectrum, refusing to have anything to do with the country or the military that sent them moving from one culture to the next all of their lives.
    • A missionary kid might feel a special relationship with God, or they might be bitter against Him because of the darker side of Christianity that they saw “abroad”.
    • The characters in Vixere were taken against their will and forced into captivity. This affects their inclination towards conformity between cultures.

Belonging:

  • Do they cross cultures regularly? {Someone who spends half a year in one culture and the other half of the year in the other would be more accustomed to changing habits}.
    • A “military brat” who moves every two years would be more accustomed to transitioning within cultures. It doesn’t make it any easier, but they would be more efficient at it.
    • A missionary kid may move less regularly, but at the same time might have put down more roots.
  • {For modern characters}: What kind of schooling system did they do?
    • Bolivia’s school schedule starts in January, while the U.S. starts in August {I think?}
    • A homeschooled cross-cultural kid might be more or less adapted to their culture, depending on how much time they spend out in it. I know homeschooled cross-cultural kids who retain most of their parents’ home culture because most of their time is spent at home doing school. Other homeschooled cross-cultural kids are much more immersed in the culture, due to the flexibility of their schooling schedule.
  • Do the months/seasons change when they cross cultures?
    • I will forever expect it to be warm and sunny in January.
  • Which culture do they consider their own/do they consider one culture their own? Where do they consider “home”?
    • This even varies between families! One sister and I have no problem moving back to the U.S. and assimilating the culture. Another of my sisters refuses to have any more to do with the U.S. than she must, including future study plans.
    • When asked which culture they consider their own, what is your character most likely to answer? I have known missionary kids who automatically reply “American!” while others answer “Bolivian!”.
    • How do they reply when asked “what’s home for you?”? It’s a question that requires 8-10 minutes for me to reply in full. I have been known to answer the question with a question: “Define home for me?”
      • It’s a hard question! When moving is a normal part of life, it’s difficult to put down roots or claim one place as “home” because that place may be ripped away at any moment.
      • {Other cross-culture kids – if you’re struggling with this, reach out to me! Send me a private message or an email. I’d love to talk through this rough spot with you and teach you what I’ve learned about home and belonging over these last months.}
  • What mentalities of their host culture have they internalized? What mannerisms? {Talk about my Latina showing, breastfeeding in public}.
    • Raised in Bolivia, there are some things I do that are different.
      • I will never say no to spicy foods.
      • I point with my lips {it’s a Latinx thing, no judgy}
      • Can I eat with my fingers? No? Too late.
      • Chicken feet, heads and heart are absolutely edible. So are cuchi-monte {wild pig}, armadillo and crocodile, fried bananas and half-boiled eggs. Maggots in the plate? We’ll scoop them out and keep eating.
      • Growing up, lunch was the main meal of the day. In the U.S., I’ve found supper to be the bigger meal.
    • My characters from Vixere adapt different things.
      • Roza hates Aenorian clothing. She’s used to braiding her hair back and wearing highly practical clothing. Aenorians are more focused on aesthetics and beauty.
      • The brothers have essentially completely conformed to the Aenorian culture, but still celebrate their religious holidays together.
      • Ulrich, the master who’s attempting to mesh the different cultures, has never immersed himself into another culture but is willing to allow their celebrations and even attempt to involve himself in them.

Beliefs:

  • What deity do they worship, if any? On which culture is this based, or is it a conglomeration of several?
    • I’d love some input from other cross-cultural kids here. As a missionary kid, I’ve stuck to the basic, Baptist, American God. “Military brats”, sign off?
    • If I believed in polytheism, it’s very likely that I’d adopt Tata Inti {Father Sun} and other deities of Bolivia.
    • Vixere’s characters are taken from a culture that worships the stars/has a vague idea of deities based on destiny to a culture that outright worships deities that are supposed to control the different cycles of weather.
  • What do they consider hardship or suffering? Based on which culture?
    • A cross-cultural kid is less likely to be annoyed that the Starbucks closest to them is temporarily closed or doesn’t open for another hour.
    • A cross-cultural kid who’s lived through harsh natural disasters may not even notice dangerous weather patterns or lack of color-coordinating pews in churches.
    • {I’m not trying to sound condescending, I swear! It just varies between cultures! My upbringing affects what I consider to be a priority}.
  • How has living in a second culture changed their viewpoint on problems/politics in their current culture?

Language:

  • Does their name/pronunciation of their name change between cultures? What about their nicknames?
    • My name’s Rebekah. Pronunciation in Spanish {rzah-beh-cah} versus English {Re-beh-kuh}. Spanish nicknames vary from Bekah to Rebe {ray-bay}, which would sound odd in English.
    • Consider spelling. When in Bolivia/working with Bolivians, I often signed my name as Rebeca, since that’s the more familiar spelling in that culture.
    • What about surnames?
      • Bolivians write their first names, followed by the parental name, followed by the maiden name. This would make me Rebekah DeVall Van Lester.
      • Do married women take on their husband’s surname? Bolivians do, but only after their maiden name. This makes my mother Stephanie Van Lester de DeVall.
  • Do they speak the language of their separate culture?
    • If so, what words from another language do they lapse into when emotional, angry or upset?
      • This is funny to consider. Personally, my Spanish and English interjections are interchangeable. One moment it’s “Niechi!” and the next it’s “Daaaaang.”
    • What language do they think in?
      • I get this question all the time. I’d daresay I think in English a good 80% of the time, but if I’m speaking Spanish I’ll often be thinking in it too.

Relationships:

  • What values have her parents taught her about the separate cultures? Is they considered better than, less than, or equal to her surrounding culture at any given moment?
    • Were they raised in a country with “white privilege”? That affects their consideration of the people and cultures around them versus if they were in a minority.
  • How do their relationships/friendships compare between cultures?
    • Fact is that different cultures affect people differently.
  • Are they in a relationship? How does their cross-cultural upbringing affect this relationship? Is their significant other also cross-cultural?
    • … I’ve never been in a relationship, so someone who has, sound off on this. xD

So there we are, a multitude of questions to ask when creating cross-cultural characters. This world is growing and cross-cultural people like me are becoming more and more prevalent – or at least more vocal about their upbringing.

Go forth and create cross-cultural characters! {And if you’re looking for more resources, check out fellow-MK Michele Phoenix’s website!}

Hasta luego, adios, sayonara, arrivederci,

Rebekah

 

 

Do you have questions about this article or suggestions of your own to add? Comment below and share with Rebekah and I. 🙂

 

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