I found when I mention writing protagonist(s) from diverse cultures, particularly the hero and heroine; readers view the issue from a predominantly geographic POV. He’s from Italy, she’s from India or he’s from Brazil and she’s from Japan. My writer friends are curious as to how the differences are handled.
Regional/geographic contrasts are only a few factors that come into play when writing the story. Some may not appear as obvious at first. For example: when the characters are from the same country but different times. In Knight Blindness, book three of my paranormal romance series, the hero, Stephen Palmer, is a medieval English knight who’s come forward in time to the modern world. The heroine, Esme Crippen, is a contemporary English woman. When they’re first introduced, she shakes his hand. He’s never had a (lady) greet him in this manner and is taken aback by it. He responds by bowing and kissing the back of her hand, as he did in his time. She’s never been greeted in this way and is charmed by the “old worldliness” of the gesture.
Early in their acquaintanceship the man she’s dating picks her up at the hero’s cottage. The man doesn’t come to the door for her but merely sits in his car and honks for her to come out. The hero is appalled and follows her out to the car where he proceeds to express his disapproval of such behavior. The confrontation turns ugly and the heroine must try to explain this commonplace behavior to a man from the Age of Chivalry.
In my Dangerous Waters romantic thriller series, my heroine, Charlotte Dashiell, is an American nautical archaeologist from Chicago. In book one, Golden Chariot, she’s part of the recovery team working a shipwreck off the coast of Turkey. Atakan Vadim, the hero, is on the same team and her dive partner. Atakan is Turkish and a trained archaeologist who is a government agent working for the Ministry of Culture. **Field reps from the Ministry are assigned to all legitimate archaeological sites in the country. They oversee the integrity and safety of the sites and relics.
Over the course of the story, Charlotte and Atakan’s professional relationship grows as does their personal attraction for each other. We Americans tend to speak our minds and we enjoy teasing one another. Turkey is a patriarchal society, where in the main; women are less likely to be as outspoken as they are here or in much of Europe.
When bringing this hero and heroine together, the first concern has to be for the reader. Who is your audience? For mine, I needed to write this culturally different man in a way that appealed to a, for lack of a better word, more liberated female reader. After visiting Turkey several times and interacting with men and women in various professions, plus often reading their online, English language paper, especially the Op-Ed page, I had a good idea how to craft Atakan’s attitudes towards the different situations.
He is well educated, sophisticated, and lives in a cosmopolitan city with a diverse population that he interacts with. But, he grew up in a quieter region of the country. Although his home province draws many tourists, his family lives in an area that doesn’t see as much tourist activity as the rest. His parents are very traditional, especially his mother. She’s a contemporary woman in some respects but in many others her attitude is rather old fashioned.
To be fair to the reader and to him, I blended those two elements that shape him: the worldly, well-educated, city man with the reserved, and to an extent, traditionally influenced man. I strived to do this in the sequel, Byzantine Gold, also.
The opportunity to bring this couple together with their mix of cultures was great fun at times. I enjoyed giving each moments to show how they differ. In Golden Chariot, we see Atakan rattled by Charlotte’s bold teasing about his sex life. In Byzantine Gold, the reader is privy to how his traditional mother’s views of their relationship affect Charlotte. Through the character arcs in both stories, the important result is the reader sees how much the two are alike in vital ways: there is love, trust, humor, and respect, in spite of their differences.
As I discussed in the beginning, cultural differences can come in many forms, not just the east meets west or north meets south type of situation. If you’ve ever planned a trip to the United Kingdom and are researching places to stay or visit, check out how many inns, hotels, and historic sites claim to be haunted. From the ghost of Anne Boleyn walking the grounds of the Tower of London, to Catherine Howard’s at Hampton Court, or the lady seen passing through walls at the Angel and Royal Hotel in Grantham, or pirate ghosts at the Mermaid Inn in Rye, and let’s not forget the ghosts hanging around the Witchery in Edinburgh. The people embrace their spooky, earthbound spirits.
Think of the long list of writers from England, Scotland, or Ireland who have entertained readers with tales of ghosts, or the paranormal and metaphysical. Shakespeare, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dickens, Henry James, Abraham “Bram” Stoker are but a few. Now try to think of a list of French writers of ghost stories. That’s a tough list to comprise. Guy de Maupassant is the only one who immediately comes to mind.
How does this apply to the topic at hand? Let’s use a vacation for example. After you plan your UK trip, plan your next trip to France. Check how many places offer a “ghostly” experience of some kind. By comparison there are far less listed: the Palace of Versailles, the Pere Lachaise Cemetery, and the Paris Catacombs are the ones most mentioned. Why is the paranormal experience so much more limited in France than the UK? Perhaps it’s because their authors are not so inclined to write on those subjects. I’m speculating, but perhaps as a result of the limited literature, the paranormal has never been of a great influence on the people as a whole.
Knowing the difference in attitudes, say your heroine is an English ghost hunter and your hero is a French scientist. Not only is he a man who probably didn’t read stories of the occult or paranormal growing up but as a man of science, he’s likely not given to belief in what cannot be factually, positively proven. Can you as an author turn this into a humorous, delightful source of conflict? Yes.
While writing the more obvious differences between your characters backgrounds, don’t forget the little things like language and slang. Your English heroine will call the elevator the lift and probably call the bathroom, the loo. My hero Atakan is fluent in English. That doesn’t mean he’s so familiar with American slang. I had fun letting him get some expressions close but not quite right.
In conclusion, I would again say, keep your audience in mind when creating a character from a different culture. But, be fair to the foreign character and his or her background and beliefs. Balance is the key.