Pursued By A Bear: “Can I write characters from a background/culture I don’t share?”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.

“Do you have any suggestions on how to write a character that you have nothing in common with and/or no experience of other than research: such as a historical character – different race/religion.”

I was once commissioned to write a play about the terrifying practice of ‘bride stealing’ which is reportedly common in Chechnya. If a man sees a woman or girl he likes the look of, he will kidnap her and contact her family demanding the girl’s hand in marriage. In some cases the girl is raped, but even if this doesn’t happen, the fact she’s spent just a few hours alone with a strange man is enough to coerce her family into agreeing to a marriage.

If the girl protests and refuses to be an obedient wife, she is often subjected to an ‘exorcism’, which is essentially a series of brutal beatings combined with psychological abuse aimed at breaking her resolve.

When I first met my wife, it took me three weeks to muster up the nerve to ask her out for a drink.

She said no.

I respected her decision.

So it was difficult for me to relate to bride stealing and those who practice it. I couldn’t imagine ever doing something like that to another human being, or having it happen to me.

How could I write about it? Did I even have the right to? I knew nothing about these people or their experiences other than what little I could gather from sporadic news stories and a short documentary.

I researched the play more thoroughly than anything else I’ve ever written. Aside from the issue of bride stealing itself I read as much as I could about the culture and history of Chechnya.

All the research helped me roughly piece together the plot and get an idea of the world the characters would inhabit, but I still didn’t know the people.

Why did these men kidnap young girls? Why did the girls’ families force them to marry their kidnappers? Why didn’t anyone stop this from happening?

At first I thought the key was in the culture of the society they live in. People are shaped by their environments to some extent; their environment is very different to mine, and so they act differently. Makes sense.

But saying “because that’s what they do there” isn’t really an adequate explanation if you want to create a character.

Looking for the differences between them and me would only lead to shallow, two-dimensional constructs who perform actions in service of the plot, rather than human beings.

I started to think about the similarities between these Chechen people and myself. All people are ultimately motivated by emotions. Facts and history are only stimuli for our feelings, which then spur us onto a particular course of action.

People are inspired to do things by feelings of love, hate, fear, jealousy and loyalty, among others.

For example, you might buy a new car because your neighbour bought a new car and that’s what petty people do in England. Those are the facts.

But why does the fact your neighbour bought a new car lead to you buying a new car?

  1. Because you feel envious of your neighbour’s shiny new car.
  2. Because your neighbour’s new car makes you feel inferior and you’re afraid the other neighbours will look down on you and your shitty old car.
  3. Because you’re really impressed by the safety features on your neighbour’s new car, and you’ve been living in fear for ages that your death trap of an old banger is going to get you killed one of these days.

These are emotions.

Because emotions are universal across all cultures, the best way to approach writing about people you’re unfamiliar with is to consider which emotions are motivating them to do what they’re doing. There’s no right or wrong here, you need to pick emotions which make sense in the context and are strong enough to lead to the action your character takes.

The bride stealer in my play was motivated by several emotions. He was angry that no one in the village respected him, he was afraid of being alone, and he was jealous of his brother’s wife. These emotions, directed through the context of societal and historical influence, drove him to kidnap a young girl and force her to marry him.

The bride’s parents took no action to rescue their daughter out of fear that they would be chastised by the rest of the village. They were ashamed that their daughter had spent time alone with a man, and the only way they could see to get out of the situation with their pride intact was to allow the marriage to go ahead.

The bride rebelled against the marriage, disobeying her husband and trying to escape. She did this out of fear, anger, hatred and desperation.

Remember, these emotions are motivations, they are pushing the characters to take action.

Societies, religions and families are all structures which we exist within to a certain degree. They influence our decisions and actions, but how we interact and react is determined by our emotional state. Different people can be affected by the same experience in completely different ways.

Another bride may have accepted her kidnapping as fate and submitted to her new life from the beginning. Another mother and father may have stopped at nothing to get their daughter back. Another man may have worked to make a better life for himself instead of kidnapping a teenage girl and ruining her life to improve his own.

In order to make a character feel real to your audience they need believable motivations which are fuelled by strong emotions. This is how we relate to other people, through shared emotions.

I’ve never been trapped in an ancient temple but I can relate to Indiana Jones because I’m also afraid of spiders. I know I would feel the same way as Indy if I had a massive tarantula crawling down my back. This is the necessary emotional connection.

Facts are also important. They are the bricks and mortar of the world your characters inhabit. The emotional connection alone isn’t enough unless it’s contextualised. We need to know why Indy’s in the temple, and what he’s looking for, in order to believe he wouldn’t just scream and run away upon seeing the spiders. So, Indy’s first emotion is fear because he’s afraid of spiders. His next emotion is determination because he needs to get past the spiders to reach his goal.

The facts set up the situation and inspire emotions in your characters, who then react.

Finally, I’ll try to briefly address whether we have the right to write about other cultures. In today’s world it seems there’s always someone ready to take offence at everything. I think, and this is only my opinion, that as long as we’re respectful and diligent in our work, we have the right to write about anything we like. However, writing a play will always be different than reporting the news, because no matter how thorough your research, you’ll always be adding that extra emotional dimension.

Inform yourself as well as you possibly can, spend time exploring your feelings around the people or culture you’re writing about, and try to be fair to all concerned. Don’t judge your characters, don’t manipulate your audience, and don’t treat the play like a soapbox.

No one wants to see two-dimensional villains or perfect heroes. Whoever you write about, make them real people with genuine emotions and motivations, acting in a well-informed context, and you’ll be fine.

On a practical note, consider the emotional state of each character and really drill down into what’s driving them. Make a point of noting down their motivations at each point in the story and keep those in mind as you write.

Although you may have nothing in common with them culturally, you have felt the same feelings at some point in your life. And that’s what you need to use.

If a character’s having a great time and life just couldn’t be any better, think of that time you found a long-forgotten tenner in your coat pocket and try to tap into that emotion. If they’re having the worst time ever and feel like the world’s against them, think about that time you had to change a tyre in the pouring rain, on your way to a job interview, after swerving to avoid some idiot’s kid and hitting the kerb.

Emotionally, you have something in common with everyone on earth. Use that.


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Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via CC license

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