True Difference

One of the things that annoys me about a particular type of book is how uniformly the characters think. They may have the desired external differences, but they don’t think differently – which means they also don’t react differently.

People aren’t like that.

Heck, siblings aren’t like that – I ought to know, since I’ve got four of them. Things that one sib will lash out at won’t even register to another. Even though we all got more or less the same upbringing, the combination of the preferences we got from being born (I was apparently a whiny baby, at least one of my sibs was a happy one, another was just fine until something passed the limits, then all heck broke loose… ) and the differences that came from different experiences as we grew up meant that the five of grew into very different people.

What I really don’t get is how some folk seem to think that a person born to and raised in a completely different culture is going to have the same ideals as someone born and raised here – when two siblings quite often end up with completely different beliefs.

Most of the modern Western cultures place a high value on individual achievement and value individual worth enough that in a group versus individual conflict there is a possibility that the rights and well-being of the individual will be given precedence over the group’s rights and well-being. This tendency is strongest in the USA, reasonably strong in the English-speaking countries, and gets weaker the more communitarian the culture is.

By comparison, there are modern cultures that place exactly zero worth on an individual – Saudi Arabia, with its laws that penalize the victims of certain crimes because to be in a position to have those crimes committed against them they must have been doing something detrimental to social “worth”, is an immediate example. Right alongside some of the Asian cultures. In those, the Odds like us fit in or get out. They don’t get to do what we can do here and be awkward.

There are, of course, many variations, and that’s just the big picture. Take it down to the character level and you’re going to have people who react to insults with violence, others who respond with sarcasm, and others who simply ignore them. You’ll have people who will take any abuse directed their way with a kind of grim stoicism, but crumble at the first kind gesture. People who react to attempted abuse with violence. And every other variation imaginable.

I’ve thought for a long time that people are born with their preferences and inclinations. Some will be conflict-averse. Others will fling themselves into every possible confrontation with a kind of glee. And so on. What differs is that the combination of the culture they grow up with and their own experience shapes the way they express those preferences and inclinations.

The Odd girl in a culture like Saudi Arabia – particularly one that doesn’t have modern technology – is going to hide her nature if she wants to survive. She has to. She’ll find quiet tells to locate other girls like her, possibly form a small circle of friends who are Odd like her if she has the opportunity. If she excels in anything, it will be in a field where it’s accepted for a woman to be excel, because the constraints of her culture mean she doesn’t have many choices.

If that same girl was raised here, even with the same family, she would have many more options and get very different messages about what she should or could do. She’d be a completely different person. And that’s without the differences in language – American English is possibly the single most direct, egalitarian dialect in the world. There are no rank distinctions beyond the optional use of titles. No distinctions between intimate, general, or formal address. The language treats everyone as equal, which in turn tends to make it easier to think of everyone as having equal worth as a person.

All of which is a horribly rambly way to say that if you’re going to write people who are different from your normal experience in some way, please consider the way they think as well as the way they look. It really helps to make the other cultures and the like seem more real.

46 thoughts on “True Difference

  1. I am continually amused by those that have espoused solutions for the world, when they have never before even left the boundaries of the US.

    1. There is a more subtle form of this. Person leaves the US, meets people in Country X who are of the same (or higher) economic/social status, who speak English and are often Western-educated. They discover they share many opinions. Returns to US firmly convinced that folks in Country X are ‘just like me’. Misses the fact that they have only interacted with a narrow slice of the opinions in Country X. Is shocked when Country X does something unexpected. The US State Dept / US media is always falling into this trap. Witness the ‘Arab Spring’, or all the media gushing over the Assad family before the Syrian civil war. They mouth pieties about ‘diversity’, but stubbornly refuse to understand that countries and cultures are actually different.

      1. Or the common fallacy that tells Westerners, ESPECIALLY some “nation building” Americans, that every culture is capable of democratic self-rule.

        1. The corollary to that is “import people to the US who have no history of/affinity for/interest in Western values, and yet expect them to fit in and not change the existing US culture”. Do Somalis in Minnesota really share the values of their neighbors of Scandinavian ancestry ? Are there no differences worth discussing ? Or are both cultures equally wonderful, but in different ways ? Even mentioning this topic is doubleplusungood badthink.

          1. “Or are both cultures equally wonderful, but in different ways ?”

            I have actually had this discussion with a young college grad. She argued that we should accept some values because “that’s just how they were raised. It’s their religion.” The topic was female genital mutilation. This feminist defended it.

            1. College grad, hell, the Brazillian Anthropology organization got down right pissy about the country wanting to suggest that laws against murder apply even if your tribe has a tradition of slaughtering twins, fatherless children, crazy pre-teens and the disabled, and it’s evil to tell them that conditions can be fixed.


              Even when the “pressure” is the kind where parents killed themselves, rather than be forced to kill their daughter.
              She had hyperthyroidism. So the most obvious symptoms would be shaking, sudden weight loss and possibly what looked like a tumor on her neck.

                  1. Dehumanization requires as an initial condition that the entities in question were considered humans instead of objects. This others more traditional narrow definitions of human, and is discriminatory.

              1. Hm…transplant them to a fantasy realm, tone it down a bit for beilevability, and that sounds like something an Evil Overlord would put in place to keep various children of prophecy from displacing him.

                1. I’m guessing you were interested because people are complicated and kind of fascinating, and really hard to measure?

                  While the other fork seems to skip the “people” aspect….

                  1. Other people’s customs can be absolutely fascinating. Like Chinese burial traditions, for example. I especially enjoy looking at the practical reasons certain customs arose when and where they did. The vast majority of civilizations weren’t as wealthy as the 21st century United States and I think being poorer often means being more pragmatic.

                    1. Makes sense to me!

                      Then again, since I apply folk-anthropology and noticed that the Irish, who tend to get into depressive spirals, have a silly, laughing party when folks die– while Italians have a much more dignified tradition, and the two colliding can actually cause major friction.
                      (My family is on the non-dignified side– dignified is for the Church funeral, laugh so you don’t cry is for the burial and party.)

                    2. We had a hybrid when my dad died. The wake was somber, as was the funeral service. (Cremation, and nobody wanted to see that…)

                      Afterward, we had an open house for close friends and family; Heinz 57 culture mix; Anglo, Polish, Russian-Jewish, Scandinavian, and so on. It was fairly merry; we needed the break. (Dad’s death was unexpected, so there was a lot to process.)

                      Similar when Mom’s mother died after a long round of Alzheimer’s. We had a wake in Michigan where she was living and another in Chicago where we grew up. My Michigan relatives are irrepressible, and when it was just family, we got pretty jolly. Much more somber for the wake in Chicago, but a big party after the burial.

              2. the Brazillian Anthropology organization got down right pissy about the country wanting to suggest that laws against murder apply even if your tribe has a tradition of slaughtering twins, fatherless children, crazy pre-teens and the disabled, and it’s evil to tell them that conditions can be fixed.

                What the actual fuck? Did these fools forget that what they were studying were actual people, and got upset only because it would mean they’d have to ‘change’ what they knew about those people?

                Reading that horrifies me and makes me angry.

                1. Bujold had it in “The Mountains of Mourning.” (paraphrase) “How hard is it to understand that you don’t have to kill your children anymore?”

            2. I was raised heavily by books of military history. Would she offer me the same leeway? If not, she is racist. 🙂

            3. *shakes head, somberly*
              That kind of ‘but it’s their culture’ crap perpetuated by the current crop of so-called feminists is why I don’t think of myself as a feminist any more.

          2. Welllll. We do have this one lady immigrate here from Portugal and she’s even more American than half the people born here. I’d love to see more like her and less of these, “We’re bringing our culture here to take over America” types.

        2. ALL people ARE capable of democratic self-rule. It’s just that:
          1. America is a constitutional republic, not a democracy. True democracy is 50%+ 1, not 50%+1, except when it violates other laws.
          2. Most people, as pointed out tend to be more communal outside of the English-speaking world. So they tend to support different responses to problems. If it’s decided there are economic problems caused by a minority, that minority is crushed for the good of society.
          3. As also pointed out, who you deal with is important. Let’s use a historical example. At the time certain misogynistic Mediterranean Basin bisexuals were writing paeans to gay love, any know homosexual who tried to be seated in the assembly was to be put to death. But because certain all male religious communities in the medieval period made sure to copy various praises of gay sex, many people thought the Greeks had a higher percentage of the population gay than probably was.
          4. Foreigners are either at your feet, or at your throat. Xenophobic, but effective.

            1. Several of the Greek philosophers, as part of the mentoring process for young aristocrats, supported well,pederasty. (This was one thing traditionalist Romans used to argue against Greek cultural influence.) Many didn’t support sex with teenagers, but some did. At the same time, the general cultural attitude was pretty homophobic. Athens had a law that said any homosexuals in the Assembly were to be killed. Iirc, they would tolerate gays outside of the assembly, but not one in it, for moral reasons.
              Fast forward several centuries. Because of the influence of the classical world on Christianity, you need to read Greek. This resulted in copying the best texts for educational purposes. And like I said, the all male religious communities (monks) seemed to make sure at least some of the pro-pederasty writings survived.

    2. Oh, they’ve left the country. But whenever they do, they don’t step foot outside of their Beaches Resort except to buy a souvenir from the nearest tourist trap shop.

      1. The sort of people who think they’re well-traveled, when all they’ve done is gone to the same five-star hotel in different countries.

      2. They’ve also not been in the country long enough to really learn what things are like. Everything is so nice, and everyone is so friendly at the Potemkin Resort! Obviously this culture is happier than our evil materialistic USA!

        Stay long enough, get out of the Resort, and you find out that things are really quite different.

        1. I had the interesting experience of driving across Europe – from Brindisi in Italy across to Zaragoza in Spain, and then again, to spending two summers in Spain doing the circuit of campgrounds … and encountering very few Americans along the way. Staying in high-end hotels and resorts is … the easy way, the smooth way. Finding your way across Europe at the local level is … interesting. And enlightening.

  2. Sadly, a lot of people can’t grasp that anybody does really think differently than they do; for a simple example, look at the reasoning you’ll find in comboxes for why someone believes a thing– and it’ll call on stuff that the person accused of being motivated by (whatever) has never even considered to be a thing, much less worth building a life around.

    1. Even those who do grasp it may have a hard time writing it. There’s a reason that the self-insert is so popular in fiction, and it isn’t just because of Mary Sue-style fantasy wish fulfillment. The easiest thing to write is, “What would I do if I were in this situation?” It’s much harder to write, “What would this character who is nothing like me, wasn’t raised with the same values, and doesn’t think the same way do in this situation?”

      I’ve run into several pieces of traditionally published fiction where all the characters think and react the same, which I suspect is the way the author thinks and reacts. Not because I don’t think the author knows that other people think differently but just because he can’t manage to put himself into their shoes and write from their perspective.

    2. Several years ago when the ACA was being debated an author who shall remain nameless was talking about how great it was going to be. When I piped up that forcing people to do something that they don’t want/need to do was bad most everyone on his wall jumped on me and insisted I explain exactly why that was a bad thing. I was like, ‘Really? I know you guys lost a war over this slavery thing, but haven’t you figured it out in the last 150 years?’

      1. Yes. I concluded a long time ago that all individual benefit programs should be voluntary with regard to participation. I had not given the matter much thought until I moved in among conservative Mennonites. (No, they are not Amish. Yes, they are “modern”.)They are exempt from Obamacare, Medicare, Social Security, and Unemployment Insurance. They pay nothing in and they draw no “benefits” out. Guess what. They’re fine. They pool their resources and look after each other. And they build and staff their own schools. They might be surprised to hear it, but they are the closest thing we have to real libertarians, exemplars of individual responsibility and voluntary collective endeavors.

    3. This makes me think of Guess culture vs. Ask culture. You can see amusing examples in any given advice column, where a member of Guess culture assumes that someone else thinks exactly like them. They’re outraged when a member of Ask culture does something the Guess person thinks is “malicious” such as asking directly to visit for the weekend. Guess culture people do not like the word “no,” either hearing it or saying it, and they seem to interpret scenarios where they have to hear it/say it as hostile and stressful.

      Guess culture works in very homogeneous groups, where everyone knows all the unspoken rules — unspoken is key — but it’s extremely troublesome when members of that culture are insular, and have poor imaginations to boot. You could build a marvelous tale of first contact just based on Ask vs. Guess differences alone. A Guesser’s attempts to evade asking or answering direct questions looks manipulative to Ask people, conversely an Asker could inadvertently raise the Guesser’s ire by being direct vs. oblique in their questions. Add in rayguns, and stir.

      I used to think it was good advice to tell would-be fantasy/sci-fi writers to study a bit of anthropology, so they could pick up cultural fodder. But after Napoleon Chagnon’s troubles, and this latest insanity with Brazil, I’m going to guess anthropology is not as useful as it once would have been.

      1. I minored in anthro, but it is a broad field, and I studied evolutionary anthro, not cultural. A lot less wiggle room for outlandish PC theories when you’re lookin’ at bones (or the microscopic scratches made on the first flint scythes that’ll tell you what was being harvested) and not misogynist hierarchies.

  3. I see something similar in book reviews, where someone will excoriate an author because his characters didn’t have the proper feelz. Just trying to do the right thing or buckling down to accomplish something isn’t enough; there must be introspection, wailing, gnashing of teeth, and gallons of FUD, apparently.

    1. Examination of a single perspective can reveal, through experimentation, that choices can change how much energy is wasted on emotional noise. We seem to have people who have optimized for sound and fury, which seems to minimize productivity. Optimizing for productivity can minimize the amount of feelz per unit action. Ergo, it is discriminatory to insist that the former population is the only population.

  4. I appreciate the advice to pay attention to this idea in writing.

    I also remember my father. He said that if you want to meet and become intimately acquainted with lots of people whose ideas and thoughts are utterly alien to your own, and to each others, in many different ways — have nine children

  5. As someone who tries very, very hard to give characters distinct voices, I suspect that part of the reason why the ‘sameness’ happens is because it’s actually really difficult to write those distinct voices and trains of thought. You become pretty darned schizophrenic while writing, and while it is portrayed as ‘easy’ it isn’t easy to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, even a fictional imaginary character, and ‘be’ them for a little bit. A good example would be the really immersive enforced method acting actors, who get into the role before they’re even on set, and have trouble coming out of the role for a period of time after the scene. (Which is why I really admire the actors who play villains, like the guy who played Joffrey Lannister. That shit is NOT easy to do.)

    There is some ideological resistance to this, as the common meme is that ‘everyone is the same’, especially for the tribal group ideologies and mindsets. The necessary form of thinking and empathy required to ‘become the other character, not the author’ risks breaking the ideological thought-line of cookie-cutter people, and anyone not fitting the mold = evil strawmen and cardboard cutouts.

    It risks ‘hm, maybe the other side has a point,’ and ideological heresy follows…

    1. There’s also the flavor of author that, like the method actor, has issues if they pick the wrong character or mileau to be immersed in. Asprin wrote about side effects of the mindset used to write Cold Cash War in the afterword to another book. Drake has mentioned some of these choices as being pretty important.

    2. The closest I’ve gotten to a villain on stage was playing Rachel Lynde from Anne of Green Gables. Somehow I managed to nail the delivery of the line “Well, they didn’t pick you for your looks, that’s sure and certain,” on opening night, and I could feel everybody in the room just hate me, and boy, that was fun.

  6. I write small, 3×5″ bios for my main characters and it includes things like accent and verbal tics and attitudes. In the process of writing this, you get a better sense of your character’s and how they react to things.

    (That, and I seem to use actors and actresses as scaffolds for my characters. If I can find an actress that has the same snarky tone as James Spader, I’d be a happy man…)

    And, you learn why people react the way they do. People do things for reasons that they find valid inside their head, and it’s never “just because”. There’s a reason. It probably only makes sense to the octopus in their skull, but it does make sense to them.

    1. I had an antagonist character be simply your typical narcissist, and that actually worked quite well. You see all of the events from their POV and the way they act makes perfect sense. (Also meant some very helpful blind spots, since the lack of concern about others meant there weren’t certain inconvenient questions.)

  7. I recall reading a novel where the characters were individuals, each with a wealth of characteristics and subtle interconnections with the other characters. I was very impressed until I stumbled across a UK tv show in its third season set in the same time period and roughly geographical location and realized the author had lifted the characters (with different names, subtle differences) directly from the show.

    I could even match up the characters in the book to the ones on the tv show and their physical descriptions described the actors. So now when I read a book especially by a new author that I find impressive with its character development, I always wonder when I am going to stumble across their “inspiration”.

    1. While I think that fanfic and file for an entire show is not a great idea, taking your view of this character from that show, and making them fit into your work, is a very good idea.

      Vathara has mentioned that’s how she gets a lot of characters, and for half of them even when she says “this is so and so” I wouldn’t have guessed. One or two, I still don’t see it. 😀

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