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While many aspects of a culture, etc, can be researched - there are intrinsic difficulties to writing from the PoV of a woman as a male author and vice versa, and I'd argue even harder for an adult to write from the PoV of a child.

Clearly authors throughout history have successfully managed this - but how? Are there any clear guidelines for building believable characters from a PoV that is quite different from one's own? I know the old adage of 'write what you know', but diverse characters populate and enrich stories, so remaining boxed entirely by my personal experience seems too limited and unimaginative.

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Whilst there are intrinsic issues with research, there's nothing stopping you talking with kids or women about the things you're writing about. I'd recommended you sit and listen to people converse in order to better learn dialog, ways of speaking etc. –  Tristan Warner-Smith Jun 5 at 21:52
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@TristanWarner-Smith Or if it's awkward or difficult to talk to people of the desired "group" -- if, say, you want to write about Hindus and you don't know any Hindus -- find things written by members of this group. And let me make clear, not "about" them, but "by" them. –  Jay Jun 6 at 14:51

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Make yourself intimately familiar with the kind of person you are writing about.

  • If you write about a child, spend time with children. Observe, how they behave, how they react, what interests them, what they don't understand, how they deal with emotions, etc. Children (and adults) change fundamentally over the course of their development. Become a psychologist.

    Note: Do not make the mistake of thinking adult personality is stable. An eighty year old is as different from a forty year old as a preschooler is from a teenager.

  • If you write about a foreign culture, visit that culture and live there. Immerse yourself in the customs, beliefs, and morals of that culture. Become an ethnologist.

  • If you write about a person of the opposite gender, do not believe popular myths. To understand the differences, become a sociologist. To understand the similarities, become a lover.

Enhance your experience with books, reflection and by interviewing the subjects of your studies.


Fake what you don't know.

Don't be fooled by how well some authors seem to portray the experience of a child, a psychopath or some other "alien". Often these characters appear well-realized to the reader only because the reader is unfamiliar with that kind of person, too!

If you write about cats, only a cat would know how well you understood it, so if you fake the cat's perspective well, humans will commend you on your understanding of cats.


Most fiction is not written about a certain type of person, but for a certain type of person: the intended audience. Unless you are writing literary or experimental fiction, or non-fiction, your characters must reflect your readers. They must feel believable and relevant to your readers from their perspective.

If you write a parenting guidebook, your portrayal of children must be accurate, because you want the parents to understand their children. But if you write a novel for adult readers featuring a child protagonist, that fictional character, while being believable as a child, must reflect adult concerns and wishes about childhood.

A good example to illustrate this is that what makes a happy childhood for a child is not how most adults imagine a happy childhood. Anti-authoritarian experiments, creating an adult ideal of nonrestrictive parenting, result in disorientation, social dysfunctions and unhappiness for most children. Children need frustration, boredom and boundaries. But if you want to write about a happy childhood for adults, you'd do well to give your child characters the total freedom to do whatever they like.

The same goes for books with female leads written for men (or vice versa). The male or female protagonist of a book written for readers of the opposide gender must fulfill an erotic fantasy, even if it pretends to explain "what men are really like". In fiction, men are "really" as women want them (or as they love to hate them). Which is, why in fiction men are rapists and saviors, while in reality most men are just girls.

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+1 on characters being written for the reader rather than for members of the character's "group". As a man, every now and then I see a romance movie and I very often think, Umm, yeah, this guy is a woman's idea of the ideal man, not any actual man. Like, he apparently makes a lot of money, but he never seems to have to leave her side to actually spend time at a job. He's strong and self-assured but always gives in to whatever she wants. Etc. :-) –  Jay Jun 6 at 14:07

1). Research. How? Other fiction that deals with the identity you wish to write from. One of the primary functions of fiction is to teach us what it is like to be others. Plus it may inspire you in other ways.

2). Listen. But not just as research, rather as a lifestyle. You can't just go out and intentionally overhear all of the insights you need. You must collect through your life. Better to start now than never, if you haven't. Carry a notebook.

3). Don't try too hard. Human beings can be different on deep levels, but they are the same on the deepest level. If you understand yourself, and you know enough context, you will imagine a realistic human being. Better to put yourself in another person's shoes, I think, then to pretend you "truly" understand them. Because let's be honest, you can't.

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My first thought is, Don't be afraid to use stereotypes, but don't overdo them. Most stereotypes came to be widely circulated because they have at least an element of truth. Like years ago I read somewhere, Nobody tells jokes whose punch line is that Jews drink too much, or that Irish people secretly rule the world.

So for example, it's a classic stereotype that women want a husband who is rich, while men want a wife who is beautiful. And I just saw a survey recently that found -- shock of all shocks -- that women are indeed far more likely to consider how much money a man makes before getting married than men care about a woman's income, indeed the men often said they would be cautious about marrying a woman who made more than he did. Likewise men cared more about looks.

The trick is to employ a stereotype without being simplistic or carrying it to an extreme.

If you have a character who only appears briefly in a story, of course we don't expect an in-depth, complex character study. If a character only says two sentences and then disappears, he can be a simplistic stereotype. But if the main character in your story has only one apparent motivation that explains everything he does, the story will be shallow and probably boring. Have you seen Star Wars Episode I? I recall when watching that thinking to myself, Every character in this movie can be completely described in one sentence or less. There's the wise old man, the brave but reckless youth, the good queen who is just trying to do what's best for her people, the villain who will torture and kill to stay in power, etc etc.

You also want to be careful not to make all the characters who are members of the "group" interchangeable. If you have, say, a female character whose overriding concern is to protect her children, sure, that's a stereotype, but it's a stereotype with truth to it and most readers would find such a character quite believable. (Assuming it was done well, of course.) But if the only apparent motivation of EVERY female character in the story is to protect her children, I'd take a step back and rethink the characters.

And just by the way, it's not only writing people of a different gender or age that can be difficult. Some of the lamest writing I've ever seen involved people trying to write a character of a different political persuasion or religion.

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I stand to be corrected on this, but I don't give too much credit to the idea that culture, gender or even age (over the age of 13, at least) play a greater role in a character's outlook than their own inherent character traits. The quiet, subdued, but kind parish pastor is probably far more different from his raucous, impulsive and violent parishioner than from the equally quiet and kind keeper of the new Hindu temple across the street, or from the equally subdued leader of the women's Bible study group at the church. In fact, the dynamic between the pastor and the parishioner may well be reflected in both of the other contexts.

In other words, the difference between people of different ages, genders and often cultures is not one of inherent character, but one of situation. Of course the Saudi Arabian woman's enforced seclusion by virtue of the culture she grew up in has affected her character, but it is the situation, not the culture that created it, that has affected her; an America girl would experience the same effects were she to be put in that situation. Likewise, growing up during the Cold War would affect an older character, but only in the same way it would affect me if it has continued into the 1990s and 2000s. All you need to do is understand the situations, challenges and encounters the character's context and attributes produce, and you can work out the rest in the same way you would work out any other character.

The one major exception to this is culture; different cultures often have different outlooks on many things. That said, these differences are often exaggerated; the only ones likely to come up in a story are social and relational differences, particularly how people interact with their elders, their father and their mother. Research is your only resort here, I'm afraid.


In terms of establishing character, vocabulary is essential. It will always come up in dialogue; if you're using a first-person narrator, it will permeate the narrative as well. You can even use it subtly with "tight" third-person narrative (I think the technical term is "limited third-person narrative").

How to write for different characters is about twenty different questions, depending on what sort of character you want to write. A few have been asked here before, and once you have an idea for a specific character, you can always ask a question about that character specifically.


Writing a "child" character can be split into two categories: Over-thirteen and under-thirteen characters.

"Children" can be surprisingly adult over or even at the age of 13. The main difference between teenagers and adults is their social context, how they interact with each other and with people of different age groups. Again, a little research, even if it's just talking with a group of teenagers, will go a long way in helping you to characterise them.

Teenagers are also, of course, known for rebellion against authority, and young characters are often naive, but there's no real difference between these traits and the rebelliousness and naivete that some adult characters might possess. And, of course, their vocabulary and use of language is likely to be different to any other social group, but again, it's a matter of research.

I'm afraid I can't in good faith tell you anything about writing characters under the age of 13 except that I suspect it would be incredibly difficult, especially as the viewpoint character. I'd imagine it's rather a large topic, so you might want to ask it as a question on its own, where hopefully someone can give a better answer than I.

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culture has enormous influence on one's character, mindset, value system, patterns of thinking. It shapes personality to degree a person not versed in varied cultures is unable to begin to imagine! Entering the mind of a person brought up in a different culture is very difficult unless you know such people in person, deeply. I assure you trying to write from perspective of a Gypsy, or a Hasid is nowhere similar to writing from perspective of a typical white person brought up in Western Culture. Different values, different moral system, different priorities, and outlook on others. –  SF. Jun 6 at 10:16
    
Culture, gender and age impact a person's personality. Even if it is only that the world they live in treats their gender or age differently, that's still an effect. There's a big difference between writing in what one assumes is the mind-set of another and actually learning their mind-set, but your assumptions assert that people are all basically the same. This would mean no difference would be needed, which is clearly not true. Regardless, the OP asked for clear guidelines on writing for other cultures. –  CLockeWork Jun 6 at 10:51
    
You're both right; in retrospect, my answer was pretty poor. For the record, though, my intent was never to say that people from different cultures will be identical (something that I can see now doesn't really come across in my answer); it was (meant to be) a Rousseau-ian idea of people being shaped not by "overall culture" but by individual encounters within that culture - what CLockeWork mentioned about being treated differently by the world they live in, for example. –  Watercleave Jun 6 at 20:32

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