Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
Last week Occasional Soulmates received a delightful review from a reader in England, who was kind enough to give it four stars. Secretly I’ve been dreading my first British review, since two key characters are Brits. Had I passed the test? Would an English reader give me high marks?
It is particularly hard to write “foreign” characters convincingly — or convincingly in the eyes of people from those cultures, anyway. It’s scarily easy to drift into the cliché, the tidy, the totally made up. And when you strike the inevitable wrong note, a certain number of readers will become disengaged.
Sure enough, the reviewer nailed me! “Kevin Brennan writes utterly convincingly from a woman’s point of view. My only criticism is he’s that less convincing at portraying English characters: our romantic hero Dylan and his brother Steve are Londoners but their dialogue doesn’t always hit the mark.”
Frankly, I appreciate this immensely. I have another book coming down the pike whose narrator is a British expat in L.A., and now I know that I really need to work on his speech so that he’ll come off as believable. It’s true, I have some English friends and I’ve learned a lot from listening to them. This on top of my year spent in London when I was in college, along with the countless Hugh Grant movies I’ve exposed myself to. These are insufficient.
The door swings both ways, of course. English writers tend to draw Americans a certain way — brash and boorish a lot of the time (we probably deserve it) — again because their experience of Americans is often via film, TV, and tourism. Reality is difficult to pin down, since cultures are made up of millions of individuals, and though there is such a thing as national character, and different countries have different behavioral patterns, a writer is more like than not to miss the finer points.
A good approach to writing characters from another country is, naturally, to do your homework, but also to understand your intended, or probable, audience. If you write a book with British characters with the intention of marketing it in the U.K, you’d better make sure your dialogue is faultless so you don’t lose readers from the get-go. (Do they even say “from the get-go” in England?) On the other hand, if you’re aiming for an essentially American audience, or the rules of your genre give you some leeway, it seems all right to sketch these characters in a way that meets your readers’ expectations while maintaining a sense of authenticity. If the character looks like Jude Law, as my Dylan Cakebread does, then readers are going to think of Jude Law movies (straight out of Hollywood) and they’re not going to shit a brick that you’ve gotten some British slang wrong.
It’s important to keep your eye on the ball, asking yourself as you write whether the book is served well by your choices or compromised. My approach to Dylan and his brother, Steve, was to be sure that, in the context in which the reader finds them, they came across as real enough not to doubt. In other words, could the reader accept them as they appeared rather than pulling back and saying, “I don’t think an English person would do that.”
Actions speak louder than words too. Let’s face it: an expat from London who’s been living in the U.S. for a long time might have a different, hybrid set of expressions in his kit compared with a barman in Bethnal Green. It’s what he does that makes him authentic in the end; his behavior (or behaviour, if you prefer) is what will distinguish him in the reader’s mind long after she’s put the book down.
I admit that I took quite a few risks with Occasional Soulmates. I wrote the book from a woman’s point of view. I made her a doctor, which is always fraught if you’re not a doctor. And I populated the novel with not just English characters but several Indians too. I did enough research to describe a Bengali wedding, with help from YouTube. Then I mixed it all together like a literary smoothie and hoped for the best.
The long and short of it is, you need to take risks in fiction but you also need to be smart and practical. You might make some mistakes when you stretch your own boundaries, but if you’re like me you’d rather have a strawberry-kiwi-jalapeño smoothie than another bowl of oatmeal, right?
So. Thanks to Katrina Mountfort of Essex for an honest, thoughtful review that will truly help the author. And since Katrina is a fellow novelist, check her out at Twitter and tell her I sent you: @curlykats.