Last week I talked about culture and used some of Geert Hofstede’s work to explain how different cultures being different is something we can actually measure and prove rather than just giving lip service to the phenomena.
This week we’re going to have a look at how that affects how we write characters.
In order to do this I’m going to have a look at an example and see how culture and cultural difference affects the characters and the stories. In order to do this we’ll be looking at Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl.
Small disclaimer: When I announced I’d be looking at The Windup Girl, I’d forgotten that I’ve lent the book to someone and it’s not so easy writing about and analysing a book you read a few months ago without having it there for ready reference. So— apologies if I get any details wrong.
In my review of this book, I talked about the effect that the setting had on the story. The Windup Girl is set in Thailand and it couldn’t be set anywhere else. Thailand seeps through the scenery, the ever-present heat, the food and especially through the characters. But the interesting part is that not all of the characters are Thai.
In order to make this a bit easier for myself, I’ll only have a look at two of the characters: Jaidee Rojjanasukchai (A Thai member of the Environmental Ministry) and Hock-Seng (A Chinese refugee from Malaysia).
Jaidee is a hot-headed member of the Environmental Ministry which is an organisation in charge of keeping Thailand’s seed banks safe and keeping calorie companies out. He’s nicknamed ‘The Tiger’ by the adoring public and is generally disliked by those in power outside of his organisation because of his refusal to take bribes and his staunch opposition to the invasion of foreign companies into his beloved country.
So now let’s look at him through the lens of Hofstede’s dimensions. Jaidee shows deep respect for those in charge within the Environmental Ministry (PDI). If he gets pulled up by his superior, rather than becoming angry that they don’t understand what’s happening (as someone from a country with low power distance might) he blames himself for being too hot-headed and is ashamed for the loss of face he causes his patron. Jaidee knows his place in the world and accepts it. However, when he does choose to go against the advice of his superiors, he does so because he believes what is does is for the good of Thailand (IDV). Though he definitely enjoys the popularity his actions have gained him, he doesn’t perform his duties for himself but rather for the good of everyone and for the betterment of the Thai people’s quality of life (MAS). Another reason for his commitment to his cause is because he wishes to preserve Thailand’s future (LTO). He knows that what he’s doing won’t make him popular with some businesses but, in his mind, protecting Thailand’s future is paramount. However, part of the reason that he’s willing to take such risks is because he knows the Environmental Ministry has his back (UAI).
Do you see how Jaidee’s culture affects his actions and motivations? What would happen, say, if we changed only one of those dimensions. Let’s say that Jaidee’s Individualism scale is off the charts. Suddenly his actions become less about protecting Thailand and more about preserving himself and his way of life. This Jaidee would be more focussed on the personal glory he achieves as The Tiger than on the difference he’s making for his community. This Jaidee would be less likely to willingly take the hit when his fall from grace is nigh.
Small things with small alterations in motivation, but the Jaidee in the novel wouldn’t be the same without his Thai background and culture.
Hock Seng’s an interesting one. He’s technically Malaysian, but has Chinese ethnicity and identifies himself as Chinese so I’m calling that Chinese culture. Hock Seng is a refugee from Malaysia, the only surviving member of his family after racial massacres. He works for a Western-owned factory and plots to one day break open the safe and head for the hills while he lets the world burn around him.
Hock Seng’s an interesting case because he doesn’t quite conform to the cultural model that Hofstede’s laid out for him. He’s very self-involved, not caring about those around him or the desperate situation the world’s in (IDV). He wants what’s his and he wants it now. At first glance, this should put his individualism off the charts. This is almost the exact opposite of the typical Chinese culture which places much emphasis on the wellbeing of the group over the individual. Except, from Hock Seng’s perspective, he’s not part of a group. His family were all killed and he fled his home country and culture to Thailand where he’s treated as a second-class citizen. As far as Hock-Seng’s concerned, the people around him aren’t part of his group and everyone who was is now dead or so far removed from him that they might as well be. So looking after himself is the only option left. This feeds in to his tendency to want to achieve and be the best in order to put himself in the best position he can for survival (MAS). He’s prepared to take the risk of stealing and taking off with his bounty but he’s also willing to bide his time, waiting for the opportune moment (UAI, LTO). He won’t do anything stupid in order to speed up the process but neither is he likely to pass up an opportunity simply because it’s a bit risky. He’s the perfect schemer.
Now, here’s the part for my disclaimer. I mentioned in my review of The Windup Girl, that it’s set in a desperate world where everyone is a nasty piece of work and are completely unsympathetic. And that stands true here. Jaidee is not a ‘typical’ Thai and Hock Seng is certainly not a ‘typical’ Chinese. But their respective cultures certainly influence what they do, how they view things and what motivates them. But that’s not all, their personalities and their life experiences also affect how they view the world and their actions and morality. Jaidee, without his culture, would probably be an arrogant, self-righteous hero-type while Hock Seng would be your typical villainous type with a crazy-dark past. But their cultures give them added depth and reason behind why they do what they do.
So how can we apply this in our own writing?
Including people from different cultures leads to more diverse and interesting stories. Characters that all look the same, act the same, and think the same are either extremely boring or fodder for your much cooler character’s rampage to freedom. Diversity creates interesting stories and culture is a way to bring that in.
Giving your characters a distinctive background and culture can change the way they act and change the reasons behind why they do the things they do. It can make some characters huge risk-takers while others prefer to have everything planned out or it can make others more likely to think of themselves as free agents rather than as members of a group or of a community. These subtle differences in world views can create conflict between your characters (and within, if your character is forced to make a decision that goes against cultural norms) and produce new and interesting ways of looking at and overcoming obstacles.
It also leads to interesting group dynamics if everyone happens to come from a different cultural background on top of having distinct personality differences.
Ultimately, though, culture helps to give your characters more humanity and helps us, as people, to try to understand cultural differences through fiction. And having nuanced, more human characters that help us understand about both ourselves and other people is a sign of good fiction, isn’t it?