Awareness of Cultural Appropriation in Story

            Previously authors wrote in characters from other cultures with little thought other than adding diversity to their stories. Stories with men wearing turbans added an element of mystique, as did bringing in traveling gypsies who were thought to “steal” children and dabble with the occult.

            In today’s world we have to be aware that it may not be appropriate to borrow the ideas, symbols and artifacts of individuals outside of our own. Cultural appropriation can be contentious when a writer of a dominant culture includes characters who have been subjected to prejudice in terms of social, political, economic and military status. This is especially true when there has been a history of ethnic or racial conflict.

                What should a writer do? First of all, examine the reasons why you want to include a character from a culture other than her own. If the writer is looking to represent these cultures, perhaps that’s not a valid reason. Instead, decide if in the story, characters will be living in a society that reflects the realities of the world.

            Your task is to write a story that includes a character from outside your own culture. Decide what role this character will play from the perspective if it’s necessary for the story arc. You might want to do some research into how people of that culture eat, dress, speak. Do these factors affect story plot? If not, then rethink why you need this character to do.

            Be sensitive, but enjoy the experience.

            Have fun with this one.

Precious Gems and Metals

Olympic athletes are awarded gold, silver and bronze medals. Beaus often gift their intended with diamonds set in silver. Pearls, topaz, emeralds and many others are prized for their beauty. Platinum and aluminum are valued for beauty, yes, but also for their ability to be crafted into useful items. Coins have been molded out of metals since ancient times. Cars, bikes and motorcycles all rely on metals for construction and operation.

Walk through your home and take notice of everything that contains metals or gems. Take note of how each item is used and where it came from, whether as a gift or something you bought for yourself. How valuable is each now?

The value and usage of precious materials, throughout the ages, has depended upon the culture of the region. More advanced areas crafted weapons and embellishments out of metals and gems. Less developed areas used them for trade to get those things they needed to survive.

Your task is to think about a situation in which precious gems or metals play an important role in the story. Your protagonist wants something and perhaps she can procure whatever that is by using these materials. For example, she wants to impress a date, so she wears a diamond necklace. Maybe his father’s birthday is coming so he scours the stores to find pearl cuff studs.

Include details and dialogue that allow readers to see the thinking processes that go on, the purchase or trade, and the end result.

Have fun with this one.


Cultural Background

Often we identify with a specific culture. This impacts how we speak, think, eat and pray.

For example, if you are Hispanic, you might eat a lot of traditional foods, speak Spanish, think in Spanish and attend church services in Spanish.

Then there are people like me that don’t identify with a specific culture. For example, there are relatives in my distant past who came from Germany, Ireland and Prussia, but I don’t consider myself any of those. You could say that I am white European, and I suppose that it does impact a good part of what I do, but I cannot point to any specific activities that define me as European.

When you create a character, you should take cultural background into consideration. It does not have to be a defining characterization and need not be mentioned in the story, but it could be.

Your task is to think of some aspect of yourself that defines you in terms of cultural background. Write about a time when culture influenced an activity in your life.

Have fun with this one.

Making New from Old

You have to admit that the old stories are great. Think how many Disney has turned into marvelous cartoons that intrigue young and old.

Those classic fairy tales hold our interest as average people battle monsters, overcome obstacles, fall in love with beasts who turn out to be wealthy men, prick their fingers on thorns and try to climb the tower to get to the beautiful blonde.

The musical Into the Woods combined together as many fairy tales as possible into one rollicking story.

Imagine taking your favorite story of all time and retelling it. Change the characters names. Change the setting. Maybe add a twist to the story by making the male protagonist female and the evil witch a terrifying wizard.

Your task is to do just that.

Begin by making a list of five fairy tales that you know well enough to rewrite. If you can’t think of any, visit the local library and read a few.

Narrow your list down to the one that you think you could have the most fun with.

Remember to incorporate those issues that society still cares about: poverty, war, race, gender. Also update the story by giving it a contemporary setting with those things that are so important in our lives: technology, politics, and the ways that those two consume our attention.

Don’t forget the key elements of relationships, mood and theme.

Have fun with this one.

Faith Preference

Does your protagonist attend a church? Pray regularly? Bless the meal before eating?

These are questions that you need to answer before you begin writing. Faith doesn’t have to be mentioned in your story, but faith could influence how a person reacts in given situations.

For example, your character is approached by a beggar on his way into a store. What does your character do? Does he give the beggar a dollar? Wish him well? Or stare straight ahead and pretend that the beggar isn’t there?

One way to begin is to list the religions that you know something about. Once you’ve completed your list, then go online and spend time researching each. Try to find out how someone who practices that faith acts toward others and what the basic elements of that faith are.

After each description, write a few bullet points that show how someone would act is they practiced that faith.

Be sure to include agnosticism, as that is also a possible choice.

Once you’ve completed this exercise, then choose the faith preference of your character(s).

As you write, keep in mind how that faith influences the day-to-day decisions that your main characters make.

This does not have to be a long piece as this is primarily an exercise.

Have fun with this one.

Clothing Styles

It might not seem like a big deal, but how your characters dress truly is!

Imagine punk rockers dressed in all black with studded necklaces and high-laced black boots. Now picture characters in fancy dresses and suits.

What do you think of with each?

Having taught the punk rockers, I think of kids who often are on the fringes of high school society. They are good kids, but don’t meld with cheerleaders, jocks or the AP crowd. They might be in college prep classes, but often are the creative types who enjoy their own style of music. Of course all of this is a stereotype and there are exceptions.

The second group reminds me of the upwardly mobile or those who are already in the top 1%. They are more sedate, preferring parties and small gatherings over rock concerts. I see fancy cocktails being carried around by hired staff and delicate appetizers on trays. A sit-down dinner for a hundred. A fund raiser for a politician. Guests arriving in limos and chartered buses. Again, stereotypes.

Do you see how important clothing is? Not only does it set the tone, but it tells us a lot about our characters.

Your task is to make several lists. Divide each by clothing styles. Think of how age influences how a person dresses as well as socioeconomic status.

Choose one of your lists to work with. Write a story for that character in which clothing style is mentioned, but not all in one or two sentences. Scatter the descriptions about so that your character’s personality is slowly revealed.

This won’t be easy, but have fun with this one.

Socioeconomic Status

            How much money someone has affects the things that he does, thinks, and says. It impacts future dreams and the things that she hopes to accomplish.

For example, a person who grows up in a wealthy family has everything that she could ever possibly want. Nice clothes, a comfortable bed, good food and all the electronics that one could possibly want. He may attend a private school with other entitled children so never knows what it’s like to have class disrupted by unruly students or may have never witnessed a lunchtime brawl.

This character grows into an adult with distinct advantages in terms of status, education and outlook. He has experienced nothing but the best and desires to maintain that status.

Then consider the low income child who grows up in a tiny studio apartment with eight family members. Who is often hungry and wears ragged hand-me-down shoes and clothes. Who falls ill frequently or has to accompany non-English speaking relatives to appointments to act as translator and so misses great amounts of school.

Perhaps she moves around a lot, from one shelter to another, and so schools change weekly. Most shelters are in low income neighborhoods so she does not have access to modern technology in terms of computer labs, WiFi and calculators. School lunches are adequate, probably free, but not delicious. She knows of students who come to school high on drugs, who sell their bodies and who are bellicose.

Think about how these differing early lives affect how your character behaves in your story.

Your task is to decide into which socioeconomic group your character belongs. Then make a bullet-point list of the structures in this person’s life, beginning with the home environment. Consider size of the home, family living there, quality of food and clothes, and what possessions the character owns. Include on your list the things the character sees in his daily life, as he walks down the street, rides in a car or bus, goes into a store, eats at a soup kitchen or restaurant.

Once you have completed your list, write a short scene in which these elements come into play.

This is not an easy task.

Have fun with this one.

Differentiating Peoples

Victoria Aveyard’s novel, The Red Queen, follows seventeen-year-old Mare Barrow, a common girl who is drawn into the king’s palace through a chance meeting. Aveyard’s futuristic world is divided by blood—there are those with Red blood who are doomed to serve those with Silver blood. The assumption is that those who bleed red have no special talents and actually enjoy a life of servitude and drudgery. Those who bleed silver are gifted with superhuman abilities and so deserve to be held in high esteem.

The driving force behind the novel is the acknowledgement that not all people are the same. Some have natural-born talents to do amazing things, while many of us will go through life barely scraping by.

When you write a story, you people it with characters large and small, wealthy and not, intelligent or slow, able or disabled. Because our world consists of varied peoples, your world should also in order to mirror reality.

It is not an easy task to cover a spectrum of humanity without making it look fabricated or trite. Choose wisely, always thinking of those you meet as you go about your day.

For example, there is a wheelchair-bound man who sells snacks and cold drinks outside the metro station. A computer genius lives next door and you turn to him whenever something goes wrong. On the other side is a handyman who can fix almost anything. How about the autistic teen who loves to take apart electronic devices and make them work once again? The woman who climbs telephone poles to install fiber optic cables and drives race cars on the weekend.

Your task is to create a scene in which your character interacts with a variety of people. Choose one in particular to become an important supporting member of the cast. Let the others be chance encounters who enrich the character’s day.

After you’ve finished, reread to make sure that you have not stereotyped by race, gender, sexual preference or ethnicity.  Look to see if each moves, thinks, speaks in a unique way. Reach for a natural flow for the action/movement of the story.

Have fun with this one!

Good luck.