What you see here is a bottle of barbecue sauce. With it I will give you some tips on writing compelling and honest characters.
Why barbecue sauce, and why specifically this one? Because it helps me illustrate some important points.
First, let’s talk about the sauce. It’s what’s known as Carolina mustard sauce, which, in the complex geography of South Carolina barbecue preference, is the style of choice from the state’s Midlands (Columbia and the surrounding counties) down to Charleston on the coast.
The Bessinger family has what might be called a barbecue empire in the Palmetto State. This bottle (smuggled up to me by my parents after a visit to my hometown of Camden for the Carolina Cup steeplechase) is produced by Thomas Bessinger. You probably haven’t heard of him, because he basically makes sauce, runs a restaurant or two and minds his own damn business. He is, however, challenged by the hurdles of being a businessman when he shares a last name with …
… Maurice Bessinger, who also makes sauce and runs a couple of barbecue restaurants, and is freakin’ famous – mainly for being a hyper-religious, Southern “heritage” zealot and fringe right-wing nutbar. Unlike his more business-minded relative, Maurice still plasters the Confederate flag on his bottles of sauce and plants right-wing leaflets at the tables of his restaurants. He begrudgingly lets non-Caucasians sit in his main dining room when it’s clear from the years he spent segregating his restaurants that he’d prefer they sit in the kitchen or at a picnic table out back.
Pretty much an asshole – so much so that I’ve declined to link to his restaurants here because most of the sites where he’s featured are along the lines of “Yay, Maurice! You’re an honest, racist American. You go, boy!”
And for lots of folks outside the South, they’d classify him along with other blatant Southern stereotypes – Boss Hogg, Big Daddy and that creepy banjo playing kid from Deliverance.
But not everyone in the South is a mini-Maurice. As is always they case, there’s hint of truth in all stereotypes. But what often gets overlooked is the nuance of the individuals who share similarities but defy the stereotype.
Take Maurice, for instance. In essence, he’s the Southern version of everyone’s Embarrassing Uncle.
Yes, the Embarrassing Uncle. He’s not just Southern – he can be anything. He’s basically the guy who fulfills a given ethnic, cultural or regional stereotype for your family to such a degree that you worry him blowing your image as a non-asshole, non-stereotypical member of your given group.
And don’t think that this is simply a “woe is us, the misrepresented Southerner” screed. This lesson goes to writing about any group with which you aren’t personally familiar and cuts across racial, ethnic, cultural and regional lines. I won’t list other stereotypes here – you know what they are for who you are – and me even acknowledging them would make me come off as kind of an asshole.
The problem with the Embarrassing Uncle is that he (or she – there’s plenty of traffic in Embarrassing Aunts, too) represents the absolute worst of a large, otherwise diverse group of people.
And even if they do share some of the Embarrassing Uncle’s unsavory traits, it’s less likely that they represent such an easily drawn image. Take the Embarrassing Uncle out of the mix and suddenly you have a nuanced, layered group of characters who, while having to deal with certain societal and personal issues specific to their region/ethnicity/culture, would still resonate with readers without looking like cartoon characters.
Striking this difference is difficult for many writers, because lots of people from outside the South think Southern characters are easy to write. Just throw in some neanderthal philosophies; some cute, deep-fried turns of phrase; wrap it up in some fake twang and serve it with a side of fried chicken and okra and everything will be OK, right?
I see this representation frequently on TV where Southern characters are thrown into decidedly non-Southern situations to represent regressive politics. Let’s say you have a (ahem … purely hypothetical) show about self-righteous, horny surgeons in Seattle or Santa Monica doctors who stand around discussing the ethics that none of them actually has when they’re not busy screwing each other. Need an anti-abortion or religious fanatic plot line? Well, hell … that’s easy. Throw in some folks with suspiciously Southern accents – regardless of the Pacific Northwest/Southern California geography – wind them up and go!
I make a point of calling bullshit on this whenever I see it because it speaks to writing that is lazy, lazy, lazy. You want people to fill that character? Great – but don’t assume that Neanderthal politics have to be represented by someone with a drawl. As with any stereotype, this sort of writing is an attempt to create characters out of literary Lego blocks – piece on some things that you think most folks believe about a particular group and then give that character a voice.
This brings us back to my barbecue example. If you were looking for a character to place in your story about a barbecue mogul, which one do you think would drive the narrative better? The Confederate flag-waving racist or his relative with the identical last name, who must deal daily with the challenges of being in the same business and trying to live down the stereotype here in the 21st century?
The obvious choice for many outside the South – where, unfortunately, most of our entertainment is created – would be Option A, because it would reinforce what most of the world actually believes about Southerners.
But the truth is Option B would make the much better primary character. He’s challenged by his relationship and deals with both inner and outer conflict.
Will the story still leave a tasty mustard-based tang in your reader’s mouth and suggest an atmosphere redolent of pit-roasted pig, hushpuppies and coleslaw? If you do it right, absolutely. But instead of nodding his head and muttering, “Yep, they’re all rednecks down there,” the reader will be challenged to consider that everyone everywhere has to deal with his or her own special kind of crap.
So whether you’re a Kansan who wants to write about South Philly mobsters, a New Yorker who wants to write about cowboys or an African-American who wants to write about the British servant class, you have to get a handle on a character’s humanity first, then layer on the things that speak to the world in which they live.