Writing Right with Dmitri: Are People the Same Everywhere?
I am about to let loose a firestorm of controversy. First, I'm going to take issue with Edwin Markham, former Poet Laureate of Oregon. In a poem he wrote entitled, 'The Right Kind of People', Markham has a wise man dispense advice to travelers arriving at an unnamed city. When each of them asks, 'What are the people here like?' the wise man responds by asking them about the people where they came from. To each answer, 'knaves and fools', or 'good, true, and wise', the man replies, 'You'll find the people here the same.'
Bosh and piffle.
Don't get me wrong: I'm a big fan of Edwin Markham. He was a good poet. But I disagree with the conclusion in that one. Oh, I take the point: wherever you go, there you are, and if you're a quarrelsome cuss, you're likely to quarrel with everyone, etc. Good enough. But, darn it, people are not all the same everywhere. And writers who think they are do a disservice to their readers – AND to the people they describe.
Everyone's circumstances are unique. So is their take on reality. Honour that with all your might. And don't groan to me about research. If you don't know about it, don't write about it. No matter what David Tennant's character got away with in The Decoy Bride. Don't rely entirely on googling.
Now, it is absolutely true that there are good and bad people everywhere. Probably in roughly equal proportions. It is completely untrue that any one nation, ethnic group, or locality has cornered the market on kindness, honesty, decency, or valour.
But everybody in the world does something differently, as I've recently been reminded. I've just moved about 600 miles within my own native shores, and boy, it's the usual adjustment. And not just because the encroaching thaw has revealed to me, after three weeks' residence, that there's a walk at the side of the house. (I wouldn't have been surprised at dinosaurs under that snow.) The fact that the insurance lady talked to us on the telephone for nearly an hour. I haven't had that kind of conversation with a non-relative in donkey's years.
Take a look as some of these examples of different local behaviour, and ask: how is the approach to life different from what you're used to? Can you guess why?
- In this scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the Greeks are nonplussed by the ubiquitous American Bundt cake ("It has a hole in it!"), while the cousins trick the future groom into announcing that he has three balls.
- Hape Kerkeling is an irrepressible German comic and jokester. Here, he shows us what it looks like when a queen goes visiting. Watch him impersonate Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Ask yourself: is the way the authorities reacted to this nonsense similar to or different from the way they'd react in, say, the UK or US?
- Watch a clip from the delightful steampunk cop show, Murdoch Mysteries. Is it possible for policemen to be any politer? Contrast with Lenny Briscoe of New York City.
- Are people always the way you imagined them? You might be surprised. Try Crocodile Dundee.
Do some more research on your own. What other strange regional behaviour can you find on Youtube, or in writings?
Now that you're an expert on international and regional differences, imagine what the characters in a story might do differently when confronted by an unusual challenge. How would each react to the uncanny, for example?
Would they get out the shovels and stakes, as in Strigoi? Or act nonchalant, as in Ghostbusters? Does this reflect the difference between life in Romania and New York City? (Both films are hilarious, by the way.)
So, do your homework. Not just on google. Ask. Examine. Talk to people when possible. Keep an open mind. You might learn something. People are different. Really. It's about experience.
And Edwin Markham, I apologise. I know your heart was in the right place.