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I have a character in my story who openly identifies as part of the goth subculture. I've taken pains to make sure they have a three-dimensional personality and aspects to their character beyond just being "that goth". About the only stereotypical "goth" thing about them is that they're crabby and cynical, but their personality is understandable in-universe and part of that is character motifs of the individual having a thorny exterior appearance to match their personality.

However, I've been noticing a problem in that while the character openly says they're a goth, it never quite feels like I am depicting a goth. Their characterization just feels shallow and undeveloped compared to many of my other characters, specifically because I don't know how to handle their gothiness. There don't seem to be many resources as to how goth subculture works or advice on how to depict it in fiction. I get that goth subculture is defined by individual expression so its pretty hard to pin down, yet there are still some clear dos and don't to differentiate it from, say, emo.

Adding to this is the fact that the character is not white (specifically, they're Native American in a modern setting), so it's really hard to figure out how gothiness interacts with culture. For example, I know many goths favor ostentatious jewelry, but many native traditions frown on wearing too much jewelry outside of formal occasions. I know that Native American goths exist (I've seen writings from several on how they get fed up how Native characters are typically only brought up in a Wild West context), but I don't know any personally to ask how goth and native traditions intersect. I've tried reading about the actual traditions and beliefs of the nation they belong to, though said nation hasn't actually written about a lot of them.

Because goth subculture is a common character archetype that shows up in fiction, I thought it would be a worthwhile question to ask here. How do I go about depicting a goth character and actually make them feel like they are a goth, rather than a shallow depiction of goth subculture?

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  • One can be surprised by how varied the Goth subculture can be. Some are in it for the dark and look the part, others are bubbly and happy and love just the looks. Others are look absolutely nothing like goth and sleep in skull-shaped bed. In a sense, Goth is as varied as the Heavy Metal and the Punk subcultures are.
    – T. Sar
    Apr 13 at 12:53
  • @T.Sar I agree, and that's been part of the problem. When a subculture is defined based on individual expression, it's very hard to present a depiction of that subculture that feel like it "fits" the subculture because there is no one standard. Apr 15 at 18:57
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How much does it matter that they are a goth?

I am not going to say that you shouldn't write characters with traits that don't affect the story. Indeed that's a big part of making characters feel whole. However. If your story involves a character that is a goth, then you want them to act like a goth would in that situation, not show off that they are a goth. For most subcultures, and a lot of cultures, there is not an obvious way to have them act save as a normal person. Certainly, there are factors that affect whether someone is going to become a part of a subculture (a goth is unlikely to be overly concerned with tradition), and factors of being in a culture or subculture that affect you (you mentioned native Americans being against jewellery, and in terms of subcultures being very into Dungeons & Dragons can make you better at quick calculations); but the variance within a subculture will almost always be greater than the variance between a subculture and another.

If your character still doesn't feel like a goth to you, this might be because of something to do with having traits that contradict their goth status, such as being a conformist, or traits that being a goth might work against, such as distaste for black clothes. Alternatively, you may have got the character perfectly goth but made everyone else not react to it. For example, if a priest obsessed with a satanic conspiracy theory treats a goth the same way as a blue-jeans-and-plaid-shirt wearing country music fan, you might want to reconsider how the world reacts to characters.

Then again, it could be that you wrote it fine and just feel self-critical.

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It helps if you integrate "touches of goth" in their daily behaviour. This can be typically goth elements (make-up, music,...) but also more subtle things.

Typically goth:

  • What music do they listen to in their room, or on public transport?
  • What posters do they have in their room?
  • How are their clothes and backpacks decorated?
  • Do they have goth friends, and if so: what do they look like?

More suble things that might interest a goth person, but also anyone else :)

  • Reading dark poetry
  • Reading gothic romance novels (Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein, Carmilla,...)
  • Writing in a diary
  • Writing song lyrics (it doesn't matter if they're good or bad)

The goth characters that stood out to me have a mix of both. The things in the second category also allow the character to like something. If a cynical character has something they like doing, or are very interested in, they immediately become more relatable.

Examples:

Will Grayson in Will Grayson, Will Wrayson (David Levithan & John Green)

Nothing in Lost Souls (Poppy Z. Brite)

Isobel in Killing the Dead (Marcus Sedgwick)

Felix in Nowhere Boys (Australian TV series)

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Some random observations from my active days in the scene. They aren't writing suggestions exactly, but bits and pieces to use for flavor:

  • My friend jhimm used to joke the only things all goths have in common is boots. Yes, it was a joke, but he'd make it at ManRay or at a party and I'd look around and hear the truth in it.
  • We talked a lot about how doing something not goth would get our 'goth card' taken away. Similarly, if you did something big you pretended to hand it out for stamps. I maintain having spun goth/industrial/darkwave/etc on the radio in two different states I can wear pink the rest of my life and my goth card will remain valid.
  • Goths are often seen as the refuge of angsty white teenagers and twenty-somethings. The age diversity is much larger, ranging from teens to 50s/60s. Sure, it concentrates lower, but even when we were kinder goths/baby bats (the second term can be derisive) we had friends who were gerigoths (30s) and elder goths (late 30s+) friends.
  • I didn't see this much on the East Coast, but in a lot of places mouthing lyrics to songs while dancing is common. It can be a bit of a way to show off by knowing obscure lyrics.
  • Speaking of obscure lyrics, in the game "Oh My Goth" the highest point card is called "This Corrosion". You have to sing four lines from the song that are not "Hey, now, hey, now now; Sing this corrosion to me". If you can, it is four points. If you can't it is -4.
  • This has faded some, but goths are not Spooky Kids (Marilyn Manson fans) and do not like being confused. Nor are they vampire fans.
  • Goth is one of a variety of subcultures and hobbies I say have a tight Venn diagram. Others in it are S&M, fetish fashion, rpgs (but look at things other than D&D such as White Wolf/Onyx Path games), the SCA, LARPing, and cosplay. Boston netgoth mailing list had rpgs players wanted ads and regular setup group outings to the Boston Fetish Fleamarket both for fashion and S&M purposes.
  • House parties, lots of house parties in the scene, often themed. Several years after the fetish flea we had the PornBQ, for example.
  • Names: most people had a handle of some kind, but the less on the nose the better. Over time I acquired the name "Miss Gothic Manners" and first-timers were often shocked that Miss Manners from the mailing list had such a deep voice. Porn got his name from his work email of P0RN which was last initial, a sequence number, and division, but was the butt of jokes. When a couple when went by Bratling and Catling got married they became "the Atlings". My friend jhimm above lived in one of our popular party places, "The Shag House" named for the carpet.
  • Snark and other snide humor. A great example is the PornBQ had nakedness and no nakedness zones. Signs identified each and noted being naked in a no nakedness zone might result in your nakedness being taken away and not returned.
  • Sex has come up a bit and there is a sense of sexual openness and adventure, but it is often more posturing than follow-through. Both are fine with most people.

I know that's a bit random, but I'm hoping it gives you things to crib.

Finally, this Substack article left me feeling very called out about my active clubbing days: https://deadchannel.substack.com/p/goth-club-of-eternity. In particular, there is this paragraph:

This predictability is not boring. It's the whole point. Nobody winds up at a goth club because they feel at ease in the world. The eyeliner and the smoke machines, the boots and their dance steps, are all sending a single message: People understand you here, or anyway, they've seen someone like you before. The sneering critique sometimes lobbed at members of any subculture—“they're just trying to be different”—could actually not be less true. We already feel different. We are trying to be the same.

Get your man character to channel that and you'll be fine.

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The reason why it might feel like shallow character characterization is because you’ve stopped at just an idea. It would help to understand this character’s backstory. You know your character is goth and Native American, but what does that mean for them, personally?

When did they discover the gothic subculture? What made them want to take part in it? How much does their Native American culture influence them? What does their family think of their form of expression? Would any conflict arise between their culture and being goth, (like the jewelry aspect,) and how do they resolve that? Or does it not matter to them?

There are many places being goth would affect their life, but you can only find out where and how by gaining a deeper understanding of your character. Don’t be afraid to make decisions about them, and don’t be weighed down by whether something does or doesn’t fit a stereotype.

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    I do have more with the character that I didn't put in the question. In what I've written I've defined their relationship with their family as well as some of their hobbies, likes and dislikes, and arcs, but in general they kind of feel like a one-note character rather than a dynamic one, which is my goal. I think you are right in what "it means to them, personally" is a big deal, and I think the problem is I don't know what a goth would define as what it personally means to be a goth. Apr 17 at 23:25

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