Writers differ on their approach to creating fictional characters. In crime fiction, the background and relationship of the characters fuels motivation, colors narrative, and propels the story forward. In order to make the novel realistic, the characters must think, act, believe and circulate in ways that are credible to the culture where the story is set. Before I start a novel, I write a brief history for each characters, including age, education, marital status, family background, employment history, and his/her emotional range: what makes him/her feel fear, hatred, passion, anger, etc. All of this proves useful when it comes time for writing the novel. I feel that I have a reasonable understanding of what the characters are capable of doing, believing, plotting or planning. My characters range across nationalities: Americans, English, Spanish, Italian Thais, Chinese, Burmese, and Khmer. On the surface they often share many superficial attributes; but underneath, where the cultural wiring is laid down, they are often surprisingly different in expectation, values, and customs.
Before you set crime fiction in another culture, there are issues that need to be addressed as you go about defining the personality and options available. One of the first questions to ask: When fiction is set in another culture what impact does the culture, language and history play inside a contemporary story?
It plays a hugely important role is the simple answer.
Philip Carl Salzman’s Culture and Conflict in the Middle East is a brilliant case study of how culture defines and shapes the concept of “friends” and “enemies.” Those two categories are at the heart of much crime fiction. Take for example, the Western point of view that when harm is done to another, the authorities immediately become engaged in bringing the individual who caused the harm to justice. But in the Middle East, there is a history of “self-help” and this means the right to act isn’t limited to agencies of government but that all people and all parties are equally responsible to act.
As a novelist, if you read one book this year, read this one.
In many crime fiction novels, the chase is on for the authorities to find and arrest a killer. Characters involved in the chase include the usual suspects: police officers, private eyes, judges, court officials, prosecutors, and lawyers. The infrastructure of justice is fairly predictable and uniform in this fashion in the West. A murder happens and we know the kind of people who will emerge to work on the crime scene. But these rules, concepts and perceptions come from and are about the Western point of view. Culture is the best guide to what is a crime, who is a victim, and how injury is redressed. The way these issues are viewed and resolved are far from universal.
Salzman’s shows that in the Middle East: “The most basic principle was to side with the genealogically closer against the genealogically more distant.” In other words, when Joe shoots Sam, the question is not whether Joe had cause (self-defense for example) or Sam provoked Joe (sleeping with his wife for example). The basic question is Joe’s clan and Sam’s clan, and which of those two clans you are closer. If they are members of the same clan, then loyalty is further refined to subgroups: e.g., a sub-clan, band, or to a family. Once the genealogy between the contestants is sorted out, then everyone is required to act as one collective to avenge the wrong against their member. Salzman also tells us that these collectivities, “from small to large, (are) defined by descent through the male line.”
The overriding moral principle in a clan-based society is “all for one and one for all.” Every member has a moral obligation, which defines his sense of honor, by taking vengeance on the party who caused the harm or injury to a member of his group. You might think that means one group takes revenge by hunting down the person who committed the wrong. That is possible. But it is also permissible to take revenge by going after any member of the wrong doers group, even though that person individually is innocent of any wrongdoing. It is a culture of one group against another group. Loyalty and honor take meaning from the support of one group against an opposition group. And members of the group aren’t held together by ideas of rule of law, justice, respect for courts and the like; they are held together by claims of lineage.
Such a system pretty much guarantees a state of perpetual warfare. And of course the loyalties are contingent and are liable to shift dramatically over time. As an outside threats an area, two groups at each other’s throats, come together (as their lineage is closer) to repel the invader, and after that is accomplished may well go back to slaughtering each other.
Salzman concludes, “The reason that modern Middle Eastern societies have been uniformly unproductive, oppressive, and full of conflict is due in large part to their particularist cultural orientation. The contrast in productivity and human rights with Euro-American and Asian societies with universalist orientations is very marked indeed.”
I would disagree with his last statement. It is overly broad and doesn’t match the historical record. For example, John Keegan’s A History of Warfare, writes how the clan system on Easter Island, where the founding chief’s descendants divided into two clans. The original settlement dated from 1000 AD and reached 7,000 people. By the time the Dutch landed on Easter Island in 1772 only 111 people were left, living in caves, exhausted from perpetual warfare, having lost their traditions and culture, lived a brutish, diseased ridden life. This descend into cultural hell was a result, at least in large part, from a political/legal system based on a clan structure.
Much of Salzman’s observations about importance of lineage as a means to define clan membership, the definitions of loyalty and honor, indeed would apply to many places in Asia. Lineage does matter greatly. It may be through the male line, or through being class mates at a university or academy, where group loyalty is carefully cultivated for the future benefit of the members of the group.
In writing crime fiction set in Asia, these difference are important in the way a story unfolds, the way the local characters view a crime, and to the ultimate resolution (and to those who do the resolving). When a novelist is parachuted into a region where he or she does not have a grasp of the underlying social infrastructure, mistakes are often made. If the novel is published in the West, and read by people in the West, then it is quite possible that such distortions are overlooked. But when people in the East read such a book, they immediately see the flaws and the credibility of the story and writer are destroyed. The story, from an Eastern point of view, becomes unbelievable as the characters, as portrayed are acting without honor and loyalty.
Fareed Zakaria, who is Editor of Newsweek International, has written an essay, The Future of American Power: How America Can Survive the Rise of the Rest, which was adapted from his book The Post-American World *appears in Foreign Affairs that is relevant to the discussion:
"Being on top for so long has its downsides. The U.S. market has been so large that Americans have assumed that the rest of the world would take the trouble to understand it and them. They have not had to reciprocate by learning foreign languages, cultures, or markets. Now, that could leave the United States at a competitive disadvantage. Take the spread of English worldwide as a metaphor. Americans have delighted in this process because it makes it so much easier for them to travel and do business abroad. But it also gives the locals an understanding of and access to two markets and cultures. They can speak English but also Mandarin or Hindi or Portuguese. They can penetrate the U.S. market but also the internal Chinese, Indian, or Brazilian one. Americans, by contrast, have never developed the ability to move into other people's worlds."
The question Fareed Zakaria raises is a challenge for writers. If you are writing about another culture, do you have an understanding of the culture and can you translate that understanding to a Western audience? No one expects Indiana Jones to bring any cultural understanding to the screen, but readers of serious crime fiction do have an expectation that the world they are being presented is ordered largely along the lines that track reality. Next time you pick up a novel set in Asia or the Middle East, ask yourself how faithful has the author been in creating a story that takes into account the culture of the characters and how that culture defines their attitude, dreams, and actions.