Some of the most successful commercial fiction is the stuff that appeals to everyone; old and young, from every corner of the world. But one big barrier to creating work like this is the invisible restrictions placed upon you by your own culture. I don’t just mean the culture of your country, although this does play a big part, but also that of your age group, and of the people who share your interests and opinions. I’ll get down to the details in a moment but first, let me give you an example of how cultural differences can dull the impact of your work.
During a class several years ago, we were joined by a pair of 18 year old girls from America who were spending a couple of months at our English University. As usual, we had all written a short piece of prose for our workshop, and when we got around to theirs, it turned out to be a very odd piece about a girl who goes shopping at the “mall” with her mum’s credit card. The quality was fine for someone who had only just started lessons but, inevitably, the overwhelming response went along the lines of “what parent in their right mind lets their kid use their credit card?” And so it began, with every English person in the class talking about the horrible things their mum would do to them if they went within arm’s reach of their credit card. And even when we managed to get past that, we had to spend another ten minutes or so de-coding the US-English words and slang. This is the pitfall of writing in your own culture, but there are ways to avoid derailing your readers while still staying true to your characters and your culture.
Language and Idioms
The style of language, from the tone, right down to the word choice, will place your characters within a certain culture, and that’s a good thing – no story exists in a cultural vacuum and it would be no fun to read one that does. But making the wrong choices can still alienate your readers. In particular, obscure regional dialect or idioms should be used to add the occasional flare to your work, rather than in a long, untranslatable stream. And be sure not to use them when the reader’s understanding of that particular word is essential to their understanding of the wider plot. For example, in the middle of an intense fight scene, you wouldn’t want to drop in “Charlie darted through the lift doors to safety” or your American readers may have to scan back over that sentence a few times trying to figure out who is lifting what. Better to use a more widely recognised word such as “Charlie darted through the elevator doors to safety”. It may feel a little unnatural to you, but the scene will flow much more smoothly if the reader understands what’s happening on the first read.
My advice is to avoid using units of measurement as much as you reasonably can or there will always be someone left out of the loop. It’s actually fairly easy to avoid – you just need to use real-world comparisons to help your reader get an idea of the size of things. Instead of saying “Egbert spilled 10 litres of water”, say “Egbert spilled a bucket-full of water”. Instead of saying “the light extended 8 meters in front of him”, say “the light extended ten paces in front of him”. Even if you are using a unit of measurement that your reader understands, these sort of comparisons are usually easier to identify with too.
There’s a whole lot of other ways that culture can impact your writing, so look out for another article in future weeks. In the meantime, if you enjoyed this piece, please click like and follow and join me again next week when I will be talking about the three types of supporting character that have no place in your work.