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I'm native German, but trying to write in English for various reasons. One of the big points in a story is to keep the characters very distinct from each other, and that requires some knowledge about the culture. As said, I'm native German, so it's easy for me to envision a character that comes from Cologne and how different that one would be from someone who comes from Bavaria, Hamburg or Berlin.

Are there resources for various countries? For example, If I wanted to know how an American from Arkansas is different from someone in Southern California, or if I have two Serbian characters that come from different backgrounds and no idea what realistic backgrounds for Serbian people are (Is Niko Bellic really a believable Serbian or is he just a summary of eastern european cliches that westerners have?)

I'm guessing there is no easy answer for this since culture has to be experienced first hand to truly understand and "feel" it, but I still wonder if there are known and trusted reference books or website that summarize some truths and false myths, that characterize people's accents and typical word/slang usage and just give an overview, preferably with some real existing people that fill these stereotypes and that can be studied.

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+1 Interesting question, though you may want to consider renaming the title to something more useful (e.g. Resources for character research). –  Zayne S Halsall Nov 21 '10 at 16:15
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+1 - Nice question! It's a perfect example of [a question that will encourage a longer answer].(blog.stackoverflow.com/2010/09/good-subjective-bad-subjective) (See point 2 in that link.) –  Neil Fein Nov 21 '10 at 18:36
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4 Answers

Archetypes may be a good place to start. They won't really help with details about dialect but as archetypes they (supposedly) transcend culture and are a foundation on which all personalities are based. They could certainly be useful in understanding the psychology of your characters if not their mannerisms.

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I don't know of a resource that breaks things down like that, but I'm sure I and other Americans here would be happy to answer questions about particular character concepts or areas.

I imagine that it would be supremely difficult to write such a guide...there are too many exceptions and communities-within-communities to cover it all.

For example, Texas is extremely Christian, dominated by "mega churches" where parishioners are encouraged not just to worship together, but to only socialize and school their children through the church, only read approved material, etc. Folks in Texas are generally very prejudiced, and a loud and active minority is quite violent, toward members of different religions or those who live in ways they disagree with (single parents, homosexuals, women who breastfeed their infants, etc.). However there are places in Texas like the city of Austin, where religious tolerance is the rule, and many gay people, non-Christians, etc. live openly, women can breastfeed without fear of reproach...you get the idea.

Similarly, Illinois is thought of as socially very liberal/socialist (huge welfare rolls, high taxes, a constant battle to limit 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 5th amendment rights, a constitution that gives the state unlimited power, etc.). However, while people in the population centers generally feel their state is behaving appropriately in these and other regards, the majority of the state (by area) and a sizable minority (by population) is much more conservative (firearm ownership is common, people take pride in being self-sufficient, ignoring the Bill of Rights is not considered acceptable for any reason).

As you can see, even in the most extreme areas in terms of fitting their own stereotypes, there are drastic exceptions. That makes it very hard to create a near-comprehensive reference.

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I don't know of any resource that deals with regional or national qualities, but Writer's Guide to Character Traits is a great resource for defining typical qualities of people across many different strata (like profession, sexual preference, mental/social disorders, birth order, etc).

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While it sounds like a good idea, I'm not sure the result will be what you expect. Some examples.

If you write about something that really exists, there will be people who know a lot, even more about it than you. To avoid alienating these people (or being ridiculed by them in a blog), your description must be really accurate. That means a lot of time must be spent on research. And chances are that you won't get it right.

Then be aware of the effect you want to achieve. If you want to make characters distinct, they must be distinct in your head. They don't have to be real.

To achieve what you want, is it really necessary that the guy comes from Austin, Texas, 1137th Red Street, 2nd story, firth room to the left of the elevator? How about "Southern US" instead? Gives you much more leeway and readers won't mind unless the story spends a lot of time in the flat of the guy.

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I whole-heartedly disagree with your last paragraph. Being specific is the best approach to form the character you want in the mind of your readers. –  John Smithers Nov 22 '10 at 9:47
    
I agree but what is the point of being specific in areas that you don't know enough about? So you must either spend more time on research or make your character non-specific on purpose. –  Aaron Digulla Nov 22 '10 at 11:33
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