7

Let's say I'm French and I'd like to write a Korean character.

How can I build their personality traits, values, etc. in a realist way?

I'm afraid to end up with a character only superficially Korean : eating kimchi and listening to k-pop but without any depth or realism.

I'm especially interested on how to do research in this situation, and then how to organize and use the results. Researching a culture's cooking/music/clothing is easy but psychology/values/feelings are complicated.

I can't move to Korea or enroll in a Korean history class in my area.

Should I watch/read Korean things to form a first impression of how Korean directors/writers see the world? Should I write something and then find a Korean to proof-read it?

Is there a way to find good books/documentaries on a country's culture? (And be certain it's not a collection of stereotypes even if you don't know anything about it beforehand)

  • 3
    This is a great question --it's so easy to go wrong. As a black American, I've found it's shockingly rare to read a book by a white author with believable black characters. That speaks to how easy it is to not have insight into even a culture you interact with on a regular basis. Or, for an even more pointed example, think how many books by male authors have no three-dimensional female characters. – Chris Sunami Sep 10 '15 at 13:17
  • 1
    I think you have a very good idea of how to do your research. My starting point would indeed be the history of the country, then contemporary movies of a number of directors, books, etc. Make sure to also look into the things that you usually dislike. If you stay clear of comics, for example, look into Korean comics. But above all: Talk to people about their everyday life, about their beliefs and so on. You could also consider couch-surfing in (South) Korea. – Filip Sep 11 '15 at 10:33
  • 1
    It's a great justification for work-related travel! As long as the place/culture you're writing about (still) exists. If there are local communities, that works too. A combination of research and direct observation really helps, but it's still a trick to capture differing thought processes/world views. The only "others" I would personally venture to write about are those I've participated in with friends or groups so I actually know a little of the common attitudes and how social interactions actually play out. This is not meant to say that's what anybody else should do - just that it works. – Joe Sep 16 '15 at 2:03
3

I think the first question to ask yourself is: Do I need this character to be from a drastically different culture from my own? As the comments to your question have pointed out, there are a lot of risks attendant upon the task. "Write what you know" is a helpful cliché in this instance: if you know people intimately who are from the culture you're interested in, you can casually interview them at length. Your status as an outsider is a potentially valuable one for the reader, who may well be an outsider as well.

One specific approach is an observational one. David Foster Wallace's essays are a great example of not only observational technique, but also of the pitfalls accompanying any attempt "to know." For example, he pretty much admits to the reader his outsider status to a lot of his subjects, and this is part of what makes his essays compelling. As you read his essays, you can sense the ordering of thoughts as he goes along. You can also pinpoint where assumptions are being made, and they gain authority by experience. The number of footnotes he includes in his essays are also indicative of a thought process: they say, "here is something that requires either additional knowledge or further insight that I do not have."

There are two ways you can organize your work, then: personal observations (which are as devoid of prejudice and assumptions as possible, or acknowledging of them) and factual research (which is as devoid of prejudice and assumptions on the part of the original author as possible). As a writer, the most valuable of the two categories is your personal observations. These are what give you your voice and let readers into your brain (the essays/books by A. J. Jacobs are good examples of this). The factual research is your due diligence, and can often help to correct or add to your personal observations.

3

You seem to have the right idea of how to do research: Read/watch as widely as possible, concentrating on works created by people from Korea, and including material from outside your comfort zone. Even soap operas may be useful, if you want an exaggerated sample of everyday life.

Some other things to consider:

How familiar is the character with your own culture?

Suppose your home city is Paris. Writing a Korean who has lived in Paris for the last 20 years will be easier than one who lives in Seoul. A young, urban Korean will be easier than an elderly Korean who has always lived in the same remote village. And so on.

How prominent is the character in your story?

Does the Korean character only appear for a few scenes? Is she the major antagonist, love interest, or sidekick for the main character? Or is she a main character herself? Again, these scenarios are of increasing difficulty.

Writing from the point of view of a "foreign" character is particularly hard. Depicting her inner thoughts in a realistic way will be much more difficult than having her interact plausibly with a character from your own culture.

Nationality is not a personality type

If you wish to avoid stereotype, you should put as much work into developing the foreigner's distinct personality as you would for any other character. As you do so, you will have to keep the foreign character's background and experiences in mind at all times.

Suppose your character is an extremely devout Christian. In the USA, this makes him or her part of mainstream society; in the UK or France, a bit of an oddball; in Iran or China, part of a persecuted minority; in Syria, in fear for his life. His attitude towards his religion and other people will be shaped accordingly.

More generally (and without getting too deeply into psychology), any character's thoughts and actions will be determined by the interaction of experience with inherent personal traits.

You won't get everything right

You will find it very difficult to write from the POV of a character from another culture, unless you yourself have lived there for a very long time. I am a Canadian who has lived in the UK for the last 24 years, but I still occasionally run up against aspects of British culture I didn't know about. There is no magic solution; you just need to do your research, and if at all possible get help from a native of the country.

It's worth making an effort

If you don't do enough research, your character will be at best annoying, and at worst grossly offensive, to anyone familiar with the culture in question. This can kill the reader's interest in your story.

A good example appears in "The System of the World," an epic historical novel by Neal Stephenson. It includes a Scottish character made up entirely of national stereotypes. Everything this character says and does makes it clear he was made up by an American writer, who probably was trying to be funny and apparently has never met anyone from Scotland. I ended up putting the book down to find something more enjoyable to read.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.