My father and I were both on a motorcycle ride towards one of Bandung’s city forests. We planned to do a short hike that Sunday.
That was when we talked about one of John Naisbitt’s ideas on how we are slowly losing connection towards nationality, but felt more connected when we share race, religion, or even fandom. That little talk leads me to rethink about my method of character creation.
The two topics did not seem to be directly related at first, but it actually fundamental to the creation process. When I build my characters, I first decide 4 main attributes; physical identities, psychological traits, situational or personality uniqueness, and finally, relatable points for the audience. The topic I previously discussed with my father is useful to answer the fourth attribute.
At the end of the conversation, we concluded that race, religion, fandom, or any other shared beliefs are all derived from three aspects; Language, Food, and Location. These three cultural points are the crux in which we can instantly feel connected to a stranger if we share common ground over them. That is why, if we want to make our characters relatable, we have to ensure that they, to some extent, share one or more of these aspects with the targeted audience.
Language is not only about the sound or letter we used, but the context of it, the topics we talk about, and how we respond towards a certain culture. Simply speaking, a Japanese and an Indonesian who cannot speak English might gain a strong connection when they met inside a Marvel merchandise shop. Fandom is about language, so does religion, even race. Talking like an African American is not about speaking English, it is also about the dialects, slang and even timing of when to say what. Language is also more than what we talk about, but everything that we acquire and use that can communicate our identity. A quote in your T-shirt, an image in your hat, or stickers in your laptop, they are all language that can bring us to feel related, or unrelated to a person without even talking to them.
What we eat, how we eat it, and when we eat it. Food and all the rituals surrounding it is the essence of most culture. Italian with their pasta, Japanese with their sushi, Indian with curry, no matter where they were born and raised if their home-made dishes follow a certain culture, they will feel deeply related to them. It goes the same with religion. Muslims fast during Ramadan, Hindus do not eat beef, while Thanksgiving is celebrated by roasted turkey. On the surface, religion is what makes these people connected, but if you think about it, the ritual consists of specific eating behavior that can make anybody in this world feel connected should they share the common practice. Try to ask yourself, if you are an Indonesian Moslem living in Europe and met some Caucasians who fast during Ramadan, Would you automatically conclude they are Moslems like you? Generally yes, because in terms of social order, the eating behavior determines the religion, not the other way around.
Location defines you and your set of beliefs. We tend to talk about others who visited the same place about the weather and how it changes according to season. When we talk about a location we talk about national identity or political ideology, but also something broader than that. A Singaporean might feel the same with Hong Kong citizens when talking about urban living, as well as two suburban housewives from different parts of Europe might connect in a certain lifestyle. Many professions are also determined by the location. A family of fishermen in Indonesia can feel more related to other fishermen from Chile, compared to an Indonesian Banker. Maybe the language is different, but they might have a more similar routine due to their chosen profession and technological development. All because they live in a location with identical conditions.
These three things are the first I tend to determine because they are the fundamental reason people felt more related. Each aspect tends to affect one another and can be generalized into a popular set of beliefs. But to treat each derivation carefully is vital so we do not make a stereotypical character like “American Cowboy” or “Japanese Samurai”, but given more details to build relevance like “A Texan mountaineer getting divorced” or “Retiring sushi chef trying to teach his only son”. That way, people have the chance to share common ground with your character and make your stories delivered better.