Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and go in.
- Napoleon

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Character Ethnicity

Okay, so I didn't get any new words in yesterday. In my defense, I did get the blurb for RTL rewritten (if anyone wants to see it, let me know) and I mowed the lawn. Doesn't sound like an overly taxing day, but since I hadn't mowed in two weeks and we got a lot of rain during those two weeks, it was like hacking my way through the Amazon. Not pretty. I also got a handful of splinters trying to move an old pallet out of my way. Lovely.

But enough needless whining... I still should've worked. I have the start of my next chapter in my head. I have my first dead body and I know where I'm going with it. (That didn't sound right.) I've done some in-depth research into my villain's background, and I know what has to be done.

Which brings me around to the subject of the day. Character ethnicity. My villain has to be from another country. It has to be a country wrought with civil unrest and senseless wholesale slaughter. But it also has to be a country where a brilliant mind could conceivably be raised, and from where that brilliant mind could escape to go to college in America. I finally settled on one of the many war-torn nations in Africa. (Yes, I could've gone eastern Europe, but you don't hear about the Bosnians or Serbians or whatever coming here to go to school.)

So, since I am not African, and I don't ever plan to travel to Africa, I have a lot of research to do. Hell, it took me almost an hour to figure out what the guy's name was. (Obviously Joe Smith wasn't going to work here.) Did you know they have different names for each little region, and then for the religious backgrounds of the people in those regions? Learning this lead to more research so I could pinpoint exactly where the guy was from and what his religious tendencies were just so I could find a first name for him. And surnames? Fuggetaboutit. I had to find actual people from that region and then borrow a last name that fit with the first name I'd picked (based on the meaning... I love name meanings... but I digress).

I know it's going to be a stretch for me. Write what you know isn't going to work here. If I stuck to what I knew, all my characters would be of German ancestry with a sprinkle of American Indian. Heinrich Dances-with-Sauerkraut doesn't quite do it. Although... the villain could be killing people with an overdose of fattening food... Ahem. Not. Besides, Die Hard nailed German villains, and plus it wouldn't really work for my purposes anyway. Germany hasn't had civil unrest since we kicked the crap out of that psycho back in the '40s and we got the damn wall torn down in the '80s.

Which means I'm stretching myself to write an African villain.

You know, sitting here thinking about it, I've never really cared what my characters ethnicity was. Oh sure, I have an hero of Irish ancestry in RTL, but that's more because I liked the name than because Ireland is in any way important to the piece. In my WIP, the heroine has Polish roots for the same reason. (Actually, for her, I borrowed the name from a customer I had back in Michigan. I don't think he'll mind. His name fits, and he's a cool guy.) I never really cared because usually it's not important. This time, I need him to be from where he's from.

So, I put it out to you. Does character ethnicity make a difference to a reader? As a writer, do you think about what the ancestry of your character is? Does it make any difference whatsoever?


1 comment:

Janimé said...

Character Ethnicity only matters to me if it's a logical part of the story or if it matters to the other characters in the story. And that does happen sometimes.

As an aside - interesting research. I worked for a while a very, very long time ago with a guy from Nigeria - he was getting his Pharmacy degree from FAMU. Was fluent in 5 languages: English, French (I think), his mother's tribal language, his father's tribal language, and Latin. Can't remember for the life of me now what his name was. It was more than 20 years ago after all.

All of which motivated me to look Nigeria up in wikipedia just to see if it had an official language (it does). And the name of the current vice president caught my eye: Goodluck Jonathon.

Oh the things you can learn whilest strolling the Internet during lunch.

(I also looked up what comes after tertiary - it's quaternary, quinary, senary, and so on)